Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Archive for January, 2016

Dignity in the Face of Jerks

catenary_bikeI swear, I do not ask for these things to happen to me. They just do. I am simply reporting the facts as they occurred…

It seemed to be a perfectly nice visit to a school with a good reputation who has enough money to purchase national academy members in order to increase their prestige. I was happy to have been invited to give a talk to this school. I was looking forward to impressing the scientists there with my cool science and my fast wit.

For those of you who don’t know, when you go to give a seminar, they put you through your paces. Not only are you there to perform for the people of the university who might happen to have the time to come to your seminar, but you also have 30 – 45 minute, back-to-back meetings all day with various faculty members. You typically eat lunch with students or faculty and then also have a dinner with faculty members. At each meeting you typically discuss the science of the person with whom you are visiting. It is possible to be talking about all matter of science within the span of 20 minutes, so you have to bring your A-game. I was ready for my long, exhausting day of fast-paced science. I wore a smart outfit and had updated my talk with some new data and cute animations and movies. I had great meetings all morning. The seminar is over lunch, but they gave me my food early, so I could eat (this sometimes doesn’t happen, so you should always bring snacks in your bag just in case). By the way, this is the same way an interview goes except for 2+ days.

So, I was having a good day. I got up to give my talk and just before it started an older gentleman came and sat in the second row. It was clear that he was a big deal. A national academy member (NAM). This group had three, and I know two of them pretty well. Of course, the two guys I know were out of town that day. I had never met this guy before, but the other two were pretty nice to me and liked my science. I began my talk with my usual quiz. See, I do a lot of active learning in my talks because (1) people remember it, and (2) people don’t fall asleep, and (3) people like it. Seriously, it is much more entertaining when you break the 4th wall (see post). 99% of people who hear one of my talks, love this style. At about the 3rd slide, NAM leans over the his neighbor and whispers something. Not too loud, but obvious to me what he is doing. I explain to the audience that I am using active participation of the audience to engage and to keep you from sleeping during my talk. That gets a few laughs.

The next time I have an activity for the audience, NAM does it again – he whispers. It is clear that he isn’t digging my talk style. But, I dig in. This is my talk, and I am not going to let him passively bully me… I didn’t have to wait long for him to stop being so passive about his bullying. About 20 minutes into the talk, I ask something of the audience like, “What do you think this means?” And NAM says very loudly, “Why don’t you just tell us instead of making us answer?” I get embarrassed. My face heats up (apparently red to match the temperature). My heart is pounding. I want to burst into tears.

I make a comment about how this style is the best way to learn. NAM responds by saying, “Yeah, yeah. I know the literature, and that’s fine for a class where you want the students to remember what you say 5 weeks later for an exam, but this is a seminar.”  WTF? Like, I don’t want people to remember my talk 5 weeks later? I want them to remember my work a year later. And, of course he knows the literature. The effing National Academy literally wrote the book on best practices in the classroom.

I respond with something like, “Well, this is how I made my talk, so I guess we’ll just have to continue on.” The very next slide has another quiz. I say, half apologetically, “Well, there’s another one. I guess we need to do it.” The students still give answers and respond. The next quiz I look at NAM and say, “Oh no, I know you don’t like this, but here we go again!” I make it into a joke that he doesn’t like what I am doing and I keep doing it. Making light of the situation does make me feel better, but I feel like total shit. This creep just fucked up my awesome talk.

Prior to this talk, only one person had ever criticized my “active learning” talk style. I gave a talk at a Gordon Conference and used candy as props to talk about a subject everyone in the room already knew and understood. Afterwards, one woman came up to me and say, “I thought that using active learning was really bad for a seminar or conference talk. Don’t get me wrong, I teach at a liberal arts school, and I use active learning in the classroom, but I just think it doesn’t have a place in conferences.” I was surprised that someone who is clearly an up-to-date educator would say that, and my face must have betrayed it, because she continued to say, “But you know what? Your talk is the only one of the morning session that I remember. So, I think I was wrong. I think active learning is useful at conferences, and I am glad you did it.” So, although she gave me crap for active learning at a conference, I actually changed her mind!

Of course, my day wasn’t over. In fact, I had a whole slate of meetings for the entire afternoon. The meeting just after my talk was with my host. He apologized for his NAM colleague. He told me some terrible stories about how he is like that to everyone, in the hopes that I wouldn’t feel like it was personal. But, it was personal. Just because he is a personal jack-ass to everyone, doesn’t mean it isn’t personal.

My next meeting was with the NAM. The first thing he does, is exactly what I expect. He fake apologizes for his behavior. He knows he was unacceptably an asshole. His apology is something like, “I’m sorry I spoke up and was rude, but that style is not good.” I said, back, “You are the only person I have ever met who thinks that.” He said, “Well, I’m not wrong.” I can’t help it anymore. I try to hold back, but the tears come. They fill my eyes. He avoids eye contact. I find an old tissue in my bag and try to dab away the tears of anger and unsaid words when he isn’t looking. But, part of me wants him to see. Part of me wants him to know that his words are hurtful. That I am a human. I sit there and I am crying at you. I do not run. I am not weak for crying. I am strong. Are you strong enough to see me cry? No, you are not.

He spent 3/4 of an hour mansplaining my research back to me. I didn’t get to talk at all. He gave me reprints in a little folder. Homework for me to read and educate myself on his brilliance in my field. He’s not actually in my field, but he has dabbled. My tears dry up within about 15 minutes, so 30 minutes are spent with me listening and trying to tell him what the latest in what he is saying is. Or explain why what he is saying isn’t right with what we know now.

The rest of the visit is good. Only 3 students show up to my student time (all men). I have lots of advice, but only three have time to hear. I worry that it is because I was publicly shamed about my talk. I wish his critique had been about science, so I could fight back. It was about style. How do you fight back against that? It’s like standing up in someone’s talk and saying you don’t like their voice or haircut.  The students who showed up apologized for NAM. They said he is a dick and he does that to everyone. They said that they liked my talking style. We talk about two-body problems and how to get jobs after grad school. Typical stuff young people are concerned about.

Other faculty apologize for NAM. I get a couple emails upon my return apologizing for NAM. I certainly don’t blame any of these other people. But, none of them calls NAM out. I put up the most fight against him of anyone. It definitely altered my visit. I message some WoS friends. I post about it on FaceBook. People are flabbergast that someone would say something like that. I don’t out NAM at first, but people can figure out where you are talking, and they can figure out who’s the asshole at that place.

So, here is a question. How do you handle this situation? And how do you handle the standing up for yourself. I did go to social media, but I kept it low and of course, my FB page is closed to friends only. I do not believe that any one asshole’s comments of this nature should get them grilled in the arena of public opinion (outright sexist or racist comments are very different). I do want to let people know who is an asshole, so they can prepare to defend themselves. I do want to learn from this event – what would you do? How can you fight back? Was it sexist? I don’t know. I’m sure he was more likely to be an asshole to me, but I would have thought he would attack my competence as a scientist – not as a presenter. Plus, who attacks someone’s strength? Maybe that means I showed no other weakness? That’s a nice way to read this.

I hope to hear back from you. Comments, suggestions, ideas are all welcome. Post or comment here. If you want to get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Hiring – Better Advice

HelpWantedI have tried to write about this before (post), but I think I was asking more questions and had fewer answers. After almost a decade of doing this, I think I have now learned some things – or at least made enough mistakes – that I can speak relatively intelligently about how best to hire. As always, there are multiple types of people you can hire for a research group. Undergraduates, technicians, graduate students, postdoctoral students, research scientists, administrative assistants, etc… Of course, as a faculty member, you will also have the opportunity to have a say about other faculty and staff hires in the department. Those are typically done by committee, and I have opinions about that process, too (more to come in future posts). This post is about some recent new practices that have been successful to hire people for your research group.

  1. Undergrads. OK, I don’t have much of a bar for undergrads. I do have a small hurdle. They have to fill out an application to be in the lab. The application is available on my website, or I send it to them when they request information about how to join the lab. When they turn in the application, they have to make an appointment to see me.  At that meeting, I describe the lab, some of the science, and how we run things. If they are still interested, they have to fill out an undergraduate contract. The contract has more specific expectations for hours and work. On the front, we decide together on how we will compensate the student: money via work study, credit via independent study, or volunteering. I am specific about the weekly hours, compensation, and I email the undergraduate program director or the personnel person in charge of getting the students paid at that meeting. We flip the contract, and outline the science that the student will do during their semester. I photocopy the contract – front and back – and keep the original, signed by both myself and the student, and they keep the copy. I have outlined this in previous posts, but it was a bit buried (post). Basically, if you are interested enough to fill out an application and make a meeting with me, you can be an undergrad in the lab.
  2. Grad students. I am apart of two different graduate programs because what I do is interdisciplinary. One program has formal rotations. The students actually work in your lab for a semester, and get to know how you work and vice versa. After two rotations, they pick an advisor, and that is where they stay until they graduate (or leave the program). The other program I am in does not do rotations. In fact, there is no formal, helpful mechanism for students to find their advisors. They basically have to try a couple, have some false starts, and then decide. It is like the most awkward dating game ever (previously described here).  They usually decide based on science, which I do not advocate (see post). For the students from the second program, I basically make them do a rotation over the summer for three months that I pay for out of pocket. At the beginning, I explain that it is a trial period, I even put it in writing. I pay them for their summer work, but that is the only commitment I make until the end of the trial. After the trail period, we have a meeting to discuss if they would like to continue to work in the lab.
  3. Postdocs. I recently hired a few postdocs. I had trouble getting good applicants for one, but had several reasonable applicants for the other. For both positions, I put out ads online. I think that was good because figuring out who has openings can be hard for recent grads who are applying (see post). In order to post an ad, I have to go through a formal process through my university equal opportunity office. Honestly, it totally sucked. They made it really long and difficult to get my ad out and to complete the hiring process. It basically took 6 months to fill one of the positions. This is terrible if you have to have results within a year for a grant. Once the ads were official and posted online, I started getting applications, and I definitely think I got applications from candidates who would not have applied if I had gone through the grapevine only. I made a spreadsheet for the applicants and set up a series of requirements including minimal requirements (which eliminated some applicants, but not many), and then preferred requirements. All the applicants who made it past that point were contacted to have a Skype interview, and I contacted all their references. In the Skype interview, I asked them about their work and described the lab. I basically tried to tell if they had some sort of red flag, but it is difficult to determine. The most important thing was to contact the references and ask them very direct questions about the applicant. I had a two-page set of questions (it really only took 30 minutes) where I asked about their research abilities, communications skills, work ethics, goals, and their personality and ability to get along with others. The last two questions I ask are: 1. Would you hire this person in your lab as a postdoc? and 2. Are there any red flags? You would be surprised at the number of people who say “no” to the first question. For the second question, this is important to make it clear that I cannot tolerate having a bad personality in a small lab, and I need to know if the person has issues. Honestly, every time I have called the references, and asked these questions over the phone, I made good hires. When I didn’t, I made bad hires. So, the most important thing in my mind is to CALL THE REFERENCES! After the references were good, and when possible, I had the applicant interview in person in the lab. I set up a whole day where they talked to other professors, gave a one hour talk on their research, and had lunch with the lab members at the faculty club without me. This last step was the most crucial because it was a litmus test of personality for the lab. I did not hire people based on this test if the people felt the interviewee was a jerk. In a small lab, the personality is crucial, but difficult for me to judge. The lab is a better judge, and I have to remember to always listen to them, no matter how good an applicant looks on paper.
  4. Technicians. I have hired a couple technicians/lab managers that didn’t work out so well. I now use the same process as for postdocs, and I think that will work better. Currently, I have a new technician who “grew up” in my lab starting as an undergrad and then a master’s student. This is a really great way to get a technician, but it is not exactly easy or common to find an excellent undergrad who wants to go this route.
  5. All. Lunch with current lab members. The lunch with the lab is the most important part of any interview, I think. I can’t tell you the number of interviewees who say stupid shit to the students when covering up their crazy for me. Plus, the personality meshing is so important, especially for a small lab. There could be a concern about racism or sexism, but educating students about their cultural biases, they can work to overcome them, as we all could and should.

So, what do you think? Any good advice on how best to hire people for your research group? Comment or post here. o get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

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