Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Archive for July, 2016

New Broader Impacts Statement

catenary_bikeThis week, I just got my fourth of four submitted proposals rejected. I am not unhappy because I am already revamping the first two, which were reviewed quite well, and I think they will be written even better and get even better reviews (and perhaps some money?) in the next round. I also got a really nice WomanOfScience friend to help me jazz them up. They were good science, but quite dull-sounding. She just batted 1000 on her last 7 proposals, so she knows her sh!t. For the most part, I agreed with the criticisms of the reviewers. They were valid, and there are ways to make my proposals better. As I have always said, “Criticism: Take It.” I will take it and gladly ask for more.

But, I have a bone to pick. Let me quote one of my reviews (I know people don’t usually do this, but it is important you see what was written to understand).

The PIs have an outstanding record of mentoring students from underrepresented backgrounds.
The broader impact work is already ongoing, and new efforts are not described.

Notice this weakness. It is a weakness that I am already strong in broader impacts. THAT is a WEAKNESS! How? What should I do? Invent yet another class to take up more of my time so I publish fewer papers every year? Or should I mentor more than 6-10 undergraduates in independent research projects per year? Should fewer of these students be from under-represented groups? Because those students take longer to mentor because they are worried their parents will be evicted or deported while they are away at school, and that takes up too much of my time? Or perhaps I should do yet a 5th outreach activity to encourage women and girls of color to join STEM – maybe invent my own because the ones I am doing with established groups, such as Girls Inc, are blasé. I mean, everyone does it, right? WRONG! No! I will not take this criticism. This is NOT a weakness. I am not weak in broader impacts because I am doing so fucking much already, and to say this is a weakness is asinine and ridiculous.

But, I take criticism… Maybe there is another problem that I can solve? Maybe they don’t realize how much I do. I mean they have my name and record (and they can easily find me online), but I can only list FIVE synergistic activities in my 2-page long biosketch. My full CV is a whopping 25 pages long. The parts describing my teaching and service take up 10 pages of real estate and include 6 separate funded grants just for teaching and mentoring activities – that are in a separate section from my research funding. But, I can’t include all that in my biosketch. I can only include 5 synergistic activities. FIVE! That doesn’t even cover the funded teaching/mentoring work I do – let alone the unfunded work.

I could list all this in my proposal, but there isn’t really space. And if I did, I would be using up space I should be using for the more serious endeavor of science. I could put a link to my website in the proposal, but that is actually not allowed (despite having seen it in so many other proposals). I am afraid to not follow the rules and have my grant rejected for such a stupid reason. So, I don’t put in a URL to my lab website that lists all this work.

So how do I let them know, succinctly, yet firmly, that: No, I will not be doing any NEW Broader Impacts to satisfy their twisted idea that every new NSF grant must have yet another mentoring, outreach, or teaching activity to accompany it?

I am thinking of writing a statement such as this (let me know what you think)…

Broader Impacts:

In this section, I describe my commitment to teaching and mentoring women and under-represented minority students to train them to become the next generation of scientists, engineers, educators, and creators. The criticism that these efforts are “ongoing” and that “no new efforts are being established” is true, and I will likely get that critique as I usually do. But, I would like to point out that I participate in 15 other broader impact activities that cannot be fit into the 5 allowed in the biosketch nor in this document. I do not see the need nor the reason to create another mentoring or educational activity for myself in order to obtain this grant to perform research when I am already, as a woman in a male-dominated field, so over committed to teaching and outreach. Indeed, in a recent survey of my male colleagues in my department, I participate in 10x as many outreach activities as they do. So, there is no need for me to create anything new to make sure I am disseminating my science, educating the youth, or have a high quantity of mentoring and teaching activities. I am already doing what you want me to do.

Further, the criticism that I am not creating anything new or unique is not correct. I train 6-10 students per year. That is approximately 2-10x as many undergraduates as my colleagues (actually, some take zero undergraduates, but one should not divide by zero), creating research opportunities that are unique for each student. My students present at national conferences and many have published their work. To each of these students, their work, commitment, and time in the lab is unique and new for them. Together, we are creating new science and new experiences. Many of them have never solved a problem without a known answer prior to this work. So, I reject the critique that my broader impacts are not “new.”

Additionally, the fact that my laboratory is a diverse environment in terms of gender, religion, race, and ethnicity is also novel. Each new student adds to that novelty, that flavor, and that uniqueness. So, I believe that it is incorrect to say that my broader impacts are not “new.” Perhaps the idea of undergraduates performing research in a culturally diverse setting is not new to you, but it is certainly new to them (and it is unique within my institution).

Finally, if the reviewers need me to do something new for every NSF proposal, I will inevitably have to do one less thing that I am already committed to and maintaining through shear force of will. The activities I do are not complete in 3-year increments. I do not complete them with the completion of the grant. My goal is to sustain these activities. Thus, I cannot start something new every three years with the start of each new funded proposal unless I stop doing something else. If I did drop something, that would mean one less committee would have a smart, strong, female required for diversity. One more program will be lacking a woman to represent my entire field and gender to local middle school students. One more student will not be given the opportunity to try her hand at research despite her mother, her society, and yes, even herself, telling her that she should not. The things that I describe, that I am already committed to, are not mere whims to me. They are not things I do to pad my CV or to make you happy to fund me. They are part of the service I do to the community and to society to educate the young people of this country. I am sorry if what I do is not enough for you; if my students are not enough for you, but this is about all I can do.

So, what do you think? Perhaps I won’t write this after all, but maybe just put a link in my proposal to this post. (wink) Let me know what you think. Post or comment here. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

All the Kinds of PUIs

Wellesley_College_Green_HallIf you are reading this blog, you are probably already inside the academic system in some way. As this blog is meant as advice to help you navigate the academic world, and ultimately succeed at being an academic scientist, if you so choose, I thought it would be good to make sure we are all oriented about that environment. Even if you have been in academia for many years, as a professor, you might be surprised at the variety of different types of schools that exist. The reasons why you should know and understand this landscape are:

  • As a mentor of students who aspire to be professors, you should know the different types of schools, and what those types mean so that you can inform and properly guide your mentees into schools that are appropriate for their strengths and success.
  • As a person who might be seeking to stay in academia, you should know the landscape for when you apply to schools at which you might want to teach and do research in the future.

I am currently at a conference for teacher-scholars from both Doctoral Research universities with high activity (often termed, “R1” universities) and Primarily Undergraduate Institutions (PUIs) that have high research activity. Schools are periodically evaluated based on the amount of research they do and number of graduate students they have by the  Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, which was just updated in 2015. They do not use the terms R1 and PUI, but most academics use these terms as a sort of shorthand. I encourage you to take a little time to browse the types of schools, and the definitions – especially if you are considering going on the job market this year.

In this article, I want to give an overview of the different types of primarily undergraduate serving institutions of higher learning where you can still have an active science research program with undergraduate students. Any differences of opinion are welcome. Please comment and I will try to amend the article to include these views. Also, the landscape is ever shifting – even the terms change rapidly and schools get reclassified regularly, so it is important, if you are a job seeker and mentor, to keep talking to people broadly about the functioning of academia.

The types of schools that are represented here include:

  1. Private PUIs in the “small liberal arts” category. These types of schools are highly ranked and have a national “brand” that characterizes them and their student body. These schools require research for tenure, and most faculty will continue some type of research, although you will definitely have research-inactive faculty members, too.
  2. Large, public PUIs with some master’s degree students, but not Ph.D. programs. Many times the departments offering master’s degrees or other professional degrees are not in STEM (business schools or law schools), so these schools are still primarily undergraduate in STEM and with regards to NSF funding. These schools have a variable number of research active faculty. Some require extensive research prior to tenure, and some do not.

When you are considering applying to a PUI, especially one that does research with undergraduates, you should understand what that means and what you will be capable of doing. There are a number of private PUIs that are super active in research and expect all their faculty to be engaged in research with undergraduates and publish papers with undergraduates. It is a requirement for tenure, and a rate of 1 paper per year puts you in a the top performers bracket. The national average is a paper every two years. Some of my colleagues are doing research at schools where they are the only one doing research.

In talking to my colleagues here, they say the following:

  • When reading candidate applications, the first thing they do is flip to the research statement. If they read something that sounds like you have no idea what it would mean to do research with undergraduates, they don’t even consider you further. You need to impress that you understand what undergraduates can handle, you understand the time commitment most undergraduates can afford, you understand the time commitment you can afford both during the semester and during the summer, and you understand what facilities you need and can get access to on campus, and perhaps off campus through collaborations.
  • They do look at pedigree. They want you to have a postdoc experience with good, solid publications.  This is important training in research, particularly framing and executing a problem. The hard part might be making sure it is of a scope that can be achieved with you and undergraduate researchers who cannot work full time during the semester.

Hopefully someone who is actually at one of these places can write a blog post about applying to these jobs and reviewing candidates for these types of jobs in the coming months. I will ask around. Hope you found this discussion helpful, especially as the fall application season draws nearer. Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post. Comments that critique or amend this discussion are encouraged!


The Importance of Standards

Woman_standing_next_to_a_wide_range_of_tire_sizes_required_by_military_aircraft._-_NARA_-_196199In my department, it is hard to go up for promotion early. This is for both tenure/promotion to associate and promotion to full. Like many departments, there is an idea that you have to do “more” is you go up early. Personally, I think this is bunk. If you are ready, and you have satisfied the requirements for the promotion, you should get to go up and be evaluated by the same standards as everyone else. There shouldn’t be a requirement for “more.” Recently, our college personnel committee made the same decision, and released it in their annual memorandum. They said that they do not require anyone to achieve a higher bar to go up for promotion at any level.

Because of this memo and several other good things happening, I thought I would send out feelers for going for for full early. In initial conversations my chair seemed positive about me going up early, but said he would talk to others. I also met with the departmental personnel committee chair. That was less positive. He was defensive. He asked me why I should go up early before everyone else. I gave him my reasons for why I thought I was ready, but couldn’t speak for others. He said, “why shouldn’t I have gone up early?” (speaking about himself). Now, I don’t know how long ago that was, I can’t judge how old people are or know when they started their jobs, but it seems to me that this is pretty irrelevant. It really isn’t in my purview to know why he did or didn’t make his career choices. So, I asked him, “I don’t know why you didn’t go up early. Why didn’t you?” He said he had changed projects and didn’t have any papers out. Well, that seems fine, but it really has no baring on me or my record or situation. He asked if others who were associate were also ready to go. Again, I didn’t really see the relevance. He said, “well if you go up, why won’t they all ask, too.” I said, “I don’t know. That isn’t really in my control. I can only say that I think that I am ready.”

The weirdest thing was that he couldn’t tell me what standards I needed to pass to attain full. It was really like there were no standards – just wait for long enough and it will come.

Here is the thing. We need standards. There should be standards if we want to claim academia is a meritocracy. When you don’t have standards, people can’t judge for themselves when they are ready. It disproportionately disadvantages women and minorities who cannot be sure when they are ready. Further, not having clear standards allows unconscious biases to rear their ugly heads and take over. Again, this negatively affects women and minorities worse than others.

I have a friend who didn’t go up on time because there were no standards and no one told him he was ready. He agreed that we should have standards, because then he could have decided for himself if he was ready instead of waiting for someone to let him know. Luckily someone was watching out for him the following year and told him to put in his packet. In my university, this definitely affects women more than men. On average, women take 6 years longer to achieve full compared to men. There are other examples, too, like this self-study at the University of Maine and this article on inequality from Harvard Gazette.

Here are a few other things that piss me off about the recent exchanges I have been having – besides not having standards (which is absolutely the worst, I agree).

  1. When someone asks to go up for full, don’t tell the person asking you about checking on other people at the same level to see if they are ready. Perhaps you should do it. Yes, probably you should be talking to people every year about their career development and advancement – no matter the level. But, that doesn’t mean you should tell them about each other. That is bad leadership. That just makes them feel like crap unnecessarily.
  2. Don’t compare that person to yourself and where you were. Why is that relevant at all? It is in the past. You cannot change the past. Are you so insecure that you cannot have anyone else advance to your level? I really just don’t get this at all. I want my colleagues to be excellent and ultimately, to be better than I was. I also don’t understand the idea of holding someone back based on my personal history.
  3. Don’t compare that person to others at all. It is unnecessary. It is rude. It isn’t about anyone else but that person. It feels sexist/racist.
  4. Perhaps you should get people’s opinions about the person’s readiness for advancement, but you don’t need to share that with the person. You can just use it in an advisory capacity.
  5. When that person is chatting with you, don’t tell them that the dean thinks it would be fine for her to go up early – that she should just try. And even if it doesn’t go through, she can try again in 2 years.
  6. You may be worried about the political appearances within the department if one person goes up early before others – or even ahead of others. But, again, this is your concern and the concern of those people. It doesn’t have anything to do with the case of the person interested in going up early. If the person is ready, it doesn’t matter if others are or are not ready. The only time there is a confusion or difficulty with this is if you *don’t* have standards. In my case, I keep being told that others will want to go up early, too. “How will we distinguish?” My response is that, if you have standards, you will know and you don’t have to worry about it. If 5 people are all ready, they should just all be able to go up, and you shouldn’t need to worry about it because you can justify promoting people because they are ready because they are above the bar.

So, what do you think? What are the standards for full in your department? Comment or post here. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

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