Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Archive for December, 2015

Choosing an Advisor: Choosing Wisely

indiana-jones-last-crusade-grailRemember that scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when he makes it through all the trials to the room full of “Holy Grail” cups? When the old knight who kept watch on everything tells them to choose a cup and cautions them to “choose wisely,” and the Nazi totally screws up and picks the prettiest cup, and he basically melts into a puddle of Nazi-scum. Then the knight says, obviously, “He chose poorly.” Then Indie comes along and chooses an ugly, small, little cup, and he drinks and is fine, and Capt. Obvious lauds Indie for choosing wisely? Why am I bringing this up? Because, you need to choose wisely when choosing an advisor. There are many time points when you will choose an advisor including undergraduate, graduate, and postdoc. Interactions with your advisor can make your job a joy or a living hell. So, choosing wisely is very important.

I was asked to write this post months ago, and I went out to a number of students and postdocs to get their opinions. Unfortunately for you, dear readers, none of them responded. So, you will have to hear my personal opinions. Maybe by writing things, some of which they may or may not agree with, they will be prodded into the act of writing? Maybe not.

OK, so here are my *pearls of wisdom* for you.

  1. Work-Life Balance. If you want to have work-life balance, make sure that the advisor you pick has work-life balance.  If they do not, they will not allow you to have it. Warning – just being a woman or having kids does not mean the person has work-life balance. My first time out, I picked an advisor who was a woman with a kid, and she had no concept of work-life balance. She was also very unsympathetic toward people without children trying to have work-life balance (see this recent post). She felt like people without kids should just work all the time.
  2. Type of criticism. Science is critical. See this post about taking criticism (post). Different advisors deliver critique in different ways. You need to find one that you can tolerate. Advisors are like coaches. You should see them that way. Like a coach or piano teacher, they will always find something wrong, even when you do it great. There is always room for improvement in science – especially when you are still learning. But, if someone delivers the criticism in a way you cannot tolerate, you will have a very hard time taking it.
  3. Time to degree/completion & post-job placement. How long is it going to take for you to get your Ph.D? How fast did previous students graduate? Do they have one paper? Several papers? What do they do when they leave the lab? Do they get good jobs? Do postdocs get jobs as faculty, if that is what they want? Do they go to industry? Where? Do grad students get good postdocs? Do undergrads go to good grad schools?
  4. Funding. Some people put this as the most important thing. I agree that if you have to TA the entire time as a grad student, it will limit how fast you can get your thesis done. And, if a person doesn’t have money for a postdoc, they obviously can’t hire you for one. The advisor needs to be successful at getting funding. Will they train you at getting funding yourself (fellowships or scholarships)?
  5. Resources. Funding is one type of resource, but are there other resources available? Is there time on the equipment? Or too few instruments to get on to do your experiments? Is there money to go to conferences? What about other knowledge or skills? What happens when the advisor wants to do learn something new? Do they let you flounder? Or send you to learn it from another lab?
  6. Other students. To me, this is the most important thing to do when visiting a lab. You must talk to the current students about the lab. They will likely be very frank with you about what they like and dislike. How happy are they? Do they have work-life balance? What do they not like about the advisor? When trying to decide about an advisor, I would definitely try to have lunch with the people already in the lab to see how they like the advisor. Ask about how the advisor gives criticism? How well other previous students have done with finding jobs after? How well is the lab managed for resources? Is there enough equipment? The right equipment? If you have to do something new, does the advisor let people flounder? How are new skills brought into the lab? How are the lab meetings run? Do people cry or get upset often? How does the advisor handle conflict in the lab? Avoidance? Do they micromanage? Does the advisor listen to complaints and criticism themselves? How does the lab operate? How do they give instruction? How do they set expectations? What is the make-up of the lab? How many undergrads, grad students, postdocs? I recommend having a list of questions for the lab members and making sure they answer all your questions.
  7. Advisors are not perfect. They make mistakes. If you found someone who is genuinely interested in your development as a scientist, they will probably still have a lot of other aspects you don’t like. As they say in the Muppet Movie, “peoples is peoples.” To me, that means that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. You are not entitled to a perfect advisor. Nobody is perfect. You are entitled to a certain level of respect and civility from your advisor. You are also entitled to expectations being set. You are entitled to progressive discipline if you make a mistake. The advisor is also entitled to respect because they have achieved a lot to make it to the professoriate. They are able to fire you if you are insubordinate – not even a union can protect you, if you do not do what is asked of you.
  8. How to work with a difficult advisor. I should write a whole post about this – hell, I should write a whole book about this – and I probably will someday. Let’s be honest, even good advisors can say and do stupid shit that pisses you off and is disrespectful. I apologize for anything I have ever done like this, and I know I have done it. If the advisor is mostly good, you can forgive these transgressions.  If you are having a hard time with your advisor, I suggest speaking to them in private about what is bothering you. But, you don’t want to come off as entitled or complaining. I suggest trying to come up with a solution and bring that to the meeting, as well as your complaint. Believe me, I have tried other things, and this works best. It can be hard to do, because they have power over you, in the form of your letter for future jobs. It can also be hard because many advisors have egos and some are really big egos. A bad advisor will not care what you think or have a problem with regarding the lab or his/her management style. A good advisor will consider your words, and see if it is anything that can be done (sometimes there is nothing that can be changed). But, letting something that is bothering you go and fester can make everything worse. Also, remember that your advisor is not thinking about you all the time. Remember, professors have all-consuming jobs, so they really cannot and should not be thinking about you all the time. So, return the favor, and don’t worry about what they think about you all the time. This will help your relationship.

Notice what isn’t on my list? Science. Because, basically, I think the type of science you do is irrelevant. Yet, when I talk to grad students, they often say the most important thing is the science that is being done in the research group. I think this is very wrong headed. Why? Because there is usually more than one person in each field doing interesting science in that field. Chances are that some of the people in the field will be BigShots with lots of money, students, and postdocs. Some of these BigShots are amazing advisors. (Yes, they do exist! I can think of several in my field.) If you get one of those, you have hit the jackpot! Sadly, many BigShots are crappy advisors. They suck in, chew up, and spit out students like it is their job (when actually, it is part of their job to advise and help the next generation of scientists succeed).  There are also lots of little guys out there, doing good science, plugging away, and often in desperate need of smart, dedicated, and hard working students. They also often care deeply about mentoring and advising. As long as they have the resources for you to succeed, you can do great things at these smaller groups. Finally, I think there are so many great, interesting science questions out there, and you can make advances on anything. Grad school is about learning how to do a long project, so you need to go to a lab that will teach you those skills. But, I’m not sure you need a paper in Science or Nature to learn those skills.

In my time, I have picked several advisors, and I have chosen poorly and chosen wisely. The thing I was most surprised about was that many professors have big egos. Now, I am a faculty member, and students make decisions about me. I’m not exactly sure how to convince them that I am worth the risk. I have been successful with students graduating in a timely manner (five years) with several papers with mostly full funding. But, alas, they often do not care about such mundane, practical matters, despite the fact that it will affect them every single day of their lives in grad school.

I am sure there are lots of things I have forgotten to add, but these are the things I thought of first. Hopefully some other people will help by writing, too. If you have a blog post, feel free to send it to me to post. I hope to hear from you! If you want to get an email each time I post, push the +Follow button.

Sabbatical Preparations – Panic Time

Sabbatical-1Some updates from the sabbatical planning. OK, “planning” is basically in the past. We are actively doing now.

Last week, I packed up two boxes that contained some basic toys and clothes that were appropriate for our new location (which has different weather from where we live and work). I checked that I could send some stuff ahead of time. My landlord there said he would keep it for me. If he hadn’t, I would have gotten a PO box at the post office, so I could send stuff to myself and have them hold it. I plan to send 6 boxes total, basically 1.5 for each member of the family.

I also arranged for someone to come by the house regularly while we are away, and found some online resources from “FancyPants” magazines about how to close up your summer house for the winter. Here is one I found useful (link). I will probably do some of these things, but not all right away. It turns out I have to come back for some stuff in the first month of being away, so the house won’t be abandoned for long.

This week was a big one. I actually went to our sabbatical spot. I was able to hook it onto a conference that was within a driving distance. I swung up for less than 2 days. I stopped by the house and said hi to the landlord. I walked to the elementary from the house to trace the route we will likely take every day. I turned in my pre-filled paperwork to register my oldest for school. Next, I went to the daycare my youngest will be attending to get a tour and sign him up. It was pretty sweet, and I can’t wait to hear what he thinks about the school, kids, and toys I saw there.

This trip got me really excited. It also made me think about new things including health care for my kids. My oldest is almost never sick, but the younger one is accident prone and has allergies. This made us check up on our insurance. It turns out they are affiliated with a network of providers in our sabbatical location. If they hadn’t been, I had two possibilities. Pay out of pocket and send receipts for 80% reimbursement from our insurance for using a provider out of network. Another option would have been to sign-up for supplemental insurance using “ObamaCare” so that we have in network coverage. I would have had to weigh the costs of each. It is much easier to use a provider in our extended network for our short time there, so that is what we will do.

The thing that was forgotten – the cars. Actually, it wasn’t forgotten, just more difficult than we thought. Our plan was to sell one car (our airport car that we don’t really use much) and to leave the main car and have it driven periodically. We were planning to rent a car in SabbaticalTown. But, now, I think we are going to ship the main car and leave the back-up car for periodic driving by our house checker. I think part of my visit back in January will be to orchestrate the car pick-up for cross-country transport. I feel bad that I didn’t get this together, but frankly, there is only so much I can do while actually still maintaining my job, too.

So, we are going. This is really happening. I am trying to be calm, but sometimes that anxious feeling of butterflies in my stomach still crop up. Is there anything else I am forgetting? Do I really want to know? I have time to course correct because I will be going back, so please comment or post if I am missing anything! To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Work Life Balance – Not Just Kids

ScorpionMamaAt a recent women in science luncheon, we were talking about panels and sessions at women-centric meetings. One of the women complained that all the talk about work-life balance revolved around when to have kids, but she wasn’t ready to think about kids. That makes sense, because she was an undergraduate student. Most grad students aren’t even ready to think about kids or know if they even want them. They complained that the sessions and panels about babies were missing the point for her and were annoying and a waste of time. This is a very good point, and I want to address a different kind of work-life balance in this post – one that is specifically pointed to younger people.

Before that, I do want to defend the baby-mongering of many women’s issue forums. Why are we so obsessed with babies as the only form of work-life balance that needs to be discussed? Here are my personal thoughts (and I welcome all others to comment).

  1. Preparing you. Having a baby is a lot of work and much of that work specifically falls to women. Having a baby is a medical condition that NO MAN will ever face or understand. It starts very early with morning sickness and fatigue for many women. You continue to have crazy medical issues that are routinely checked with medical appointments. The event of having the baby concurs with a hospital stay and a surgery for many women. And then there is a long recovery afterwards. I felt like I was hit by a truck after delivering my first kid. Couple that with postpartum sleeplessness, learning curve, and perhaps even depression, and this is basically a year-long, or more, medical condition. WomenOfScience who have gone through it want to prepare others for this condition. So, they want to help you with these sessions. I am sure after that description, you will never want to have a baby!
  2. Letting you know that you can do it. Having a family is often cited by women as a main driver for their leaving STEM fields. Since many women “know” they want to have kids – just not the specifics of when, where, and with whom – the thought that a life in STEM is at odds with having them is enough to drive many women away. So, the point of these panels is to convince you that you can have children and still be a WomanOfScience. Wouldn’t it be weird if we had sessions for men about being a dad and staying in science. For a funny twitter account along those lines, I recommend: @manwhohasitall. Funny stuff.

So, what kind of work-life balance do young people need? Many older people with kids might say, “You should work all the time! It’s not like you have kids to take up your time.” A lot of my friends without kids hate it when people with kids say that kind of thing, and it is no less annoying to young people. So, if I had to do it all over again, here is what I would do (BTW – as I was writing this, I realized that I already did most of these things and had fairly good work-life balance even as an undergraduate).

  1. Basics. You need to get your basics covered for your health. There are four things you need to do to be healthy and balanced as a young person:
    • Sleep. I know this is hard to do. You have 4-5 classes and each demands a lot of time to devote. STEM classes are notoriously bad about this. Sometimes it seems like professors think that their class is the only one in the world. If there is a perfect storm of lab reports, term papers, and midterms, it can be hard to get a good amount of sleep. But, you really need to try. It is so important to help you to remember and make new connections. This is what you need to actually learn something. You are in college, doing a science major to learn, right? How can you learn, if you never give your brain time to process and cool down? When I was your age, I slept ~8 hours per night. I only pulled one all-nighter in all of undergraduate – for studying. (I pulled other all-nighters for fun – see below). I would have all sorts of dreams about science and math. I once dreamed my legs were test tubes when I was taking organic chemistry. These crazy dreams were my brain’s way of processing the science I was learning.
    • Eat. Along with sleeping, eating regularly and healthily is essential to your learning. Why? The brain uses up a large amount of your calories each day. You know when you have low blood sugar, and you can’t process and you might even get “hangry” (hungry + angry)? That is because you actually do not have enough calories for your brain to function properly. Your higher-order functions that control your impulses and emotions go bye-bye, and you snap at people. Your brain uses a ton of fuel, and is the number one user of calories. So, you need to feed it often with good food. A large number of undergraduates don’t go to lunch, or eat breakfast. They substitute caffeine for food. This is not good for you, and it really won’t work. You need to eat. Schedule your lunch and dinner times. Breakfast is a lifestyle choice, but you will be low of fuel in the morning. When I was in college, I did a good job of eating lunch and dinner every day. I did schedule it. I also often ate a late snack and went without a significant breakfast. That was a choice I made, and you have to do what is right for you. I could do that, because I was more of a morning person. I needed less uppers in the morning than in the evening to get work done. Food is an upper.  BTW – your brain can survive on both protein and carbohydrates. If you need to fast for some reason, it will take 4 days for your brain to switch from incoming fuel to using your own stored fat to function. You will be very stupid for 4-5 days, so do not do anything drastic or important!
    • Exercise. I am super impressed by the number of undergraduates I see regularly going to the gym. I totally didn’t do this when I was an undergraduate, so me telling you to do this is a bit hypocritical.  Anyway, it would have been good, if I had done this.
    • Bathe. OK, I know it sounds weird to have to tell adults to shower, but the number of scientists and engineers who are too stinky to stand next to is alarming. So, for the love of yourself and everyone else around you, please take showers (and wash your clothes) regularly.
  2. Explore, try, have fun.
    • Try new stuff. When you are an undergrad you should make time to try new things. This is one of the times in your life where people expect you to try new stuff. Do you like sushi? How do you know if you never tried? If you don’t give yourself the opportunities to try new stuff, you will never know what you like and do not like. How can you decide to go to grad school and devote yourself to a life of science if you haven’t ever done anything else? I used to DJ on the college radio station and go to see shows with my friends. I also programmed events for campus. It was fun, and I met a lot of people outside of science I never would have known who were super awesome. After trying those things, I decided I didn’t want a job in the music industry, and wanted to stick with science, but at least I knew there were other things out there. College is also where I tried Thai food for the first time (it wasn’t as common back then) and learned to dance like a mod.
    • Take a day off every week. In college, I tried (and mostly succeeded) to take one day off each week. It was usually a Saturday or Sunday. I wouldn’t work on problem sets or read for Japanese literature class. I would just hang out, go into town, catch a movie with friends. The other day of the weekend, I had my nose in a book working on problem sets for my science and math classes, so I would have them mostly done before our week-night study sessions. But I always took one day to relax and try new stuff. When classes and midterms got to be too much, I would work on that day of rest, and I would always turn into a raving bitch for the next week because I never relaxed and destressed. I actually still try to do this even now. It is very important for my psyche to have a day to lounge around and goof off with my family.  Starting these habits early help to cement them in later.
    • Who are you? Most importantly about all this is being open to exploring who you are and what you want. If you think you might be someone who wants a significant other in their life, the first step is knowing who you are and what you want in life. In order to know yourself, you have to try things and figure it out. Once you know yourself and what you want to do and what you want out of life, then you are ready to get to know someone else to share your life. Typically, the best relationships are between people with the same values and want the same things out of life. If you are the jealous type, you probably should: 1. know that about yourself, and 2. not date someone who is into open-relationships.  If you never want kids, you should probably: 1. know that about yourself, and 2. make sure your significant figure agrees with that.

I hope this was helpful. And to the young women out there: yes, there is way more to work-life balance than having kids. Half of work-life balance is having a life. So, go out, explore and determine who you are and what you want out of life.

What do you think? Did I miss anything? Comment or post here! To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

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