Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Archive for May, 2015

How to Write About How Awesome You Are

1160px-Eleanor_Roosevelt_receiving_the_Mary_McLeod_Bethune_Human_Rights_Award_from_Dorothy_Height,_president_of_the_National..._-_NARA_-_196283I have said previously (a long time ago now, actually) that awards are important and publicity in general is essential (awardspublicitypublicity). When I wrote those original posts, I have recently gone through the tenure process. I was thinking about how you needed to publicize yourself to ensure that your letter writers can speak well about you. But, as you go along and get older, publicity is still important. Remember, being a PI is like being a pop star (PI Pop Star), you need to stay relevant and go on world tour to make sure your science is being heard. In that vein, getting awards is still important. Unfortunately, as I have said previously, once you get tenure, mentoring seems to more or less end (end of mentoring). That means that you probably have to try even harder to get nominated for awards. Further, since you no longer need mentoring or support, many people won’t even bother to write you their own letters. You will likely have someone request that you draft the nomination letter or letter of support for the award. This is for two reasons: (1) People are busy and we are getting busier every year, so providing the letter is essential. (2) You actually know all the great stuff about yourself way way better than anyone else. When people ask you to write your own letter, they often are thinking it will be better for you – especially if they are someone you do not know all that well. I recently did this to someone. I felt bad, but the letter this awesome WomanOfScience provided was way way better than anything i could have written.

So, the question remains: How do you write a letter about yourself? How do you nominate yourself for an award? What is you have to write letters from multiple people and make sure they are different enough? Obviously, you expect people to edit the letters, but in case they don’t?? Below, I give my advise:

Drink alcohol and get a bit tipsy before you start. This will help to lower your inhibitions about things, especially about talking about yourself. OK, I get that not everyone drinks, but what I am really saying is try to get to a less inhibited state. Our self-inhibitions make it really difficult to talk about ourselves in the awesome light you deserve. WARNING: Do not get drunk. You will get sleepy and actually do nothing. Just get tipsy.

Open your most recent and updated CV.  Do not use a biosketch! A biosketch is just that – a sketch – you should have a long CV. If you do not know what should be in your long CV, click here: Your CV. OK, now that you have your CV open (an updated) do the following:

Make a list of all your awesomeness in all categories: research, teaching, mentoring, service to field.  Now, what of these things would this person for whom you are writing the letter, know about? How would they know? What example can you provide that verifies the awesome attribute you are trying to write about? For instance, if you are trying to say you are creative, give an example of a particular time when someone could have observed your creativity. If you are trying to say that your work is paradigm-shifting, cite a particular paper or topic that is paradigm-shifting. What have you done for education or mentoring that goes above and beyond?

Stick to important things. I would not discuss how hardworking you are. You are not trying to get into grad school or a postdoc. You are trying to get an award. Awards are given for being smart – a genius even. I KNOW! This is so hard! Because (1) society tells us that women cannot be geniuses, (2) what does it even mean to be a genius?, and (3) even geniuses probably don’t think they are geniuses. Presumably as soon as you think you are a genius, you probably stop pushing yourself. That is why winning the Nobel Prize of Field’s Medal too early in your career is the kiss of death for your career. Think about someone in your field who you think is awesome. What would you write about them? Can you say anything similar about the same attributes about yourself?

Multiple letters. If you have to write multiple letters from multiple people:

(1) Pick a few things you think every single letter must highlight. Make sure that goes into all letters.
(2) Pick 1-2 important things that it would be reasonable for each of the people to know about you. For instance, if someone is from your home dept, they might know more about your teaching and mentoring activities. They could comment more on that. If another person is a big mucky-muck in your field, they should stress your research and your service to the field. More than one person can talk about these extras, but make sure it is reasonable. For instance, a big muckety-muck in your field won’t know about your mentoring per se. But, they might know you taught at a cool summer school or something that is higher profile teaching.

Have someone who is good at promoting others read it after you. Hopefully the person you are giving the letter to can do this. But, just in case, see if someone else can read it and help out.

Submission. When you send the letter to the person who is supposed to have written it, also send your complete CV. If they want to pick and choose a few extras, they can. They will have to submit the letter themselves, or the nominator will, so make sure they have all the information they need about how and when to submit it. You don’t want to lose out because they didn’t push the button in time!

Try again and again. Will you win every award? No. You do not get every grant awarded, and you will not win every award. But, your chances of winning are zero if you do not get nominated. There is NO DOWNSIDE to being nominated! People see your CV. They see people care enough about you and your work to nominate you. People will get to know your name. Even being nominated is actually great. Plus, awards committees often complain that very few qualified and excellent women are nominated. This is code for ZERO women who are qualified for the award are nominated. Yes, we have an uphill battle to win awards – especially awards where we are competing with men. Study after study show that women are always seen as less competent. Yet, we have to keep pushing and trying. We have to put ourselves out there. If enough of us are nominated (more than one woman), they will have a very hard time justifying only giving awards to men. When only one woman is nominated, it is easy to write her off. But, if 20, 30, 50% of the nominees are women, they will have to give it to a woman more often!

What do you think? Are there any more helpful hints about how to do this? If so, post or comment here. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Girls with Toys

LabRatIn case you haven’t seen it, there is a hashtag going around Twitter and Facebook called #GirlsWithToys showing awesome WomenOfScience and their experiments. I posted a few myself on each platform. I can see that the broader public probably doesn’t see women as “toy-oriented.” But, what I want to discuss is how, within the social construct of science, there are different stereotypes of what are masculine and feminine. Further, what is seen as appropriate for men and women to do/work on/study within science appears to depend on the field of science you are in.

Women in “Soft” Subfields. I have noticed that some subfields of certain fields of science have more women than others. In many cases, those subfields are seen as “soft,” but to set the record straight – they are anything but. For instance, in Physics, Astronomy and Biophysics seem to have more women. In Astronomy, this is historical. There are many examples of excellent women who have made big, huge discoveries. AAS has a blog and Berkeley Astronomy has a nice site. More can be seen here and here.

Biophysics has had its share of women who are not well-celebrated (think Rosalind Franklin). What about Margaret Oakley-Dayhoff? Biological physicists within physics departments are more likely to be women. Why? In my opinion: I think it is because biophysics was seen as relatively new, and the field wasn’t already a “sausage fest.” Most women I know compete with themselves, but shy away from direct competition with aggressive men. A field that has few people in it also have fewer men and even fewer aggressive men that want to push everyone else out.  The issue with there being more women in such subfields is that they are often seen as “less serious” or “less difficult.” This is soft sexism at work.

Women Theorists vs. Experimentalists. Physics and Chemistry both have a division between theory (like Sheldon in “Big Bang Theory”) and experiment (like Leonard in “Big Bang Theory”). Again, I think there is a bias that such theoretical fields are “harder” than experimental fields. That is certainly how Sheldon acts. As Leonard always points out, this is NOT TRUE. I feel there is an implicit bias against women entering those fields because they are somehow viewed as more masculine and are thought to require more mathematics than the experimental sides. Interestingly, I find that when women are theorists they are somehow more capable of being feminine. It is easier for them to wear skirts because they don’t have to climb around their equipment fixing things. Ironically, once women choose the experimental side of a field, they somehow become more masculine. I have had a number of conversations with WomenOfScience friends about how best to dress as an experimentalist – not too femme in case anyone doubts your science/experimentalist cred. So, even though only incompetent, non-mathematically inclined girls do experiment, you better look like a dude while you do it. That is how masculine physics is. Of course, I stress that these are my personal feelings. Others may feel differently, and I encourage you to comment.

By the way, while I dare to mention Big Bang Theory, I want to point out that Leslie Winkle was the BEST character. Why did they take her away? Bring her back! She was clearly way smarter than Sheldon, as pointed out in several episodes. She was also an experimentalist. Maybe she went away because she got a job as an Assistant Professor at a top university while Sheldon and Leonard seem to still be some kinds of weird postdoc or soft money scientist. She should have tenure by now. I vote that they bring her back to give a seminar at CalTech to rub her lifetime appointment at BigEliteUniversity in Sheldon’s face.

Another weird thing about all this: How is it even noticeable or detectable at all? How could I sense or feel that I shouldn’t be a theorist? It isn’t like there are so many women in any given field. Even in the subfields with “more” women, it is only about 20% or so.  Once you get to about 20% women in the room, things feel even – despite the fact that they are not. Maybe the feeling that there are more women in the room (20% instead of 5%) clues you into where science-society tells you to be?

Finally, I want to point out that this is all a construction of our society. How do I know? Ask a woman in science in Iran. They will tell you Physics is a “woman’s field” because it is creative and more akin to art. Women in many developing countries have more opportunity to do science and are supported to do so. Each has its own little sexist take on it. For instance, saying that “Physics is OK for women, because it is like art,” implies that other fields, such as Engineering, are not open to women (which is the case). Also, some cultures that allow women to do science also don’t give them the opportunities to do it at a high level. They are OK to teach, but not to pursue research.

So, what do you think? Which areas of your field of science are more “manly”? Which are more “femme”? Is it weird that science has gender at all? I think so. Comment or post here. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Criticism – Take it

Julio_Ruelas_-_Criticism_-_Google_Art_ProjectI was chatting a few months ago to a AllyManOfScience who complimented me by saying he uses a lot of the laboratory organizational ideas I present here to organize his lab. (Lab organizational stuff can be found here, here, here, here.) I asked if he had anything to add or modify from what I said, and he added something very interesting. He said that he prefers to hire students who have had some background as an athlete or musician at a high level. He said that people who have done sports or music at a high level are very comfortable with criticism. They have an inherent understanding that even a good performance can still be made better and that critiques are not personal. Critiques are made to make their performance better. I started thinking about it, and I realized that a lot of scientists I know did do sports or music. I was a gymnast who competed at a fairly high level and worked out 24 hours per week to hone my skills. I wasn’t Olympic level, but high enough to be getting a lot of criticism after each routine on a regular basis. HusbandOfScience was a band nerd who taught himself guitar. He spent hours practicing guitar in high school. If you have a good musical ear, you can self-correct, and do not need others to tell you you did it wrong. Other WomenOfScience friends were cheerleaders, synchronized swimmers, and even champion dog show groomers/runners. All of these sports take skills and practice and involve getting criticism.

Science is full of criticism. You have to take it and say thank you. Then ask for more if you want to make it. You do an experiment – you get criticism. You make a figure – you get criticism. You give a talk – you get criticism. You make a poster – you get criticism. You write a paper – you get criticism. You apply for a grant – you get criticism. Over and over and over. It doesn’t stop. It won’t stop. The most famous people in science still get criticism when they submit a paper or a grant – even if they get the paper accepted or grant money a lot easier than you.

If you have a hard time taking criticism, I say practice and get better at it, or leave. You can get better at getting criticism. The first time I got a paper review as a graduate student, I cried. We made the changes and the paper got in. The second time I got a paper review as a graduate student, I cried… OK, so I didn’t learn how to take criticism over night. By the time I was a postdoc, I didn’t cry. I was learning how to take criticism. As a professor, my first couple grant rejections got to me, but after writing 10 proposals and finally getting one funded, I didn’t get so bummed when I didn’t get funded.

Reviews can be too harsh. Sometimes reviews are too harsh, too emotional, or just plain mean. And this sucks. But, your job as a logical scientist is to try to see through the crazy and find the truth in the words. Of course, you are entitled to be pissed off at a mean review or overly harsh or unhelpful critique. But, after you have cooled down, try to figure out what is actually wrong with what you did. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps they misread something that was perfectly clear…but perhaps you could make it clearer. Even bat sh*t crazy reviewer number 3 probably has some point.

There are bad reviews. I don’t want to say that all reviews are equal. I am on the editorial board for a journal, and I serve to find the reviewers and make the editorial decisions. Some reviews are, frankly, emotional. As an editor, I don’t want to see, nor do I care about, your emotions as a reviewer. I also don’t care about your personal opinions about science. I care about facts. Your reviews should be full of science facts. If you think that cats can fly, and that is your scientific opinion, you need to back that up with some references. I am OK with your opinions about the style of the writing as long as you make helpful suggestions to make it a better paper. If your review is emotional and not helpful, I’m not going to take it seriously. You are reviewing a scientific paper – not TROLLING your favorite blog.

So, what do you think? Add your two cents here in a comment, or send me a post. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

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