Helping the Minoritized Achieve in Academic Science

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Sabbatical Lies

national-lampoons-vacationSo, for those of you who know me, you know I am pretty honest. Some might say blunt. One comment on my 360 said that I do not “suffer fools.” I accept this about myself. I think it is a defining characteristic of scientists to seek truth and report it. Part of the drive behind this blog is to expose truths. So, that’s why I have to tell you this truthfully: going away on a sabbatical is hard and kinda sucks. And the worst part was that no one told me! All my friends who went on sabbatical in Japan, France, UK, San Francisco, they left out a lot of the hardships. It reminds me of people who have kids and they try to get others to have kids, too. They don’t tell the truth of the horror stories. It’s like a weird cult that they want others to join and buy-into. So, since I am so blunt, I will tell it to you straight. Going away on sabbatical is hard and parts of it are not fun. Of course, I am going to detail all the ways that sabbatical is tough. Some, you can probably guess, but others might not be so obvious.

Sharing your Office: When you go on sabbatical, you aren’t the big shot. You are a visitor. You will likely get a desk somewhere, but you will have to share an office. It has been 9 years since I shared an office, and I have forgotten the etiquette for office-matery. My first roomie was also a professor like me. We both realized pretty quickly that we were going to be annoying to each other as we held 2-5 Skype meetings every day. I brought headphones to try to be less annoying, but he did not. We also both traveled a lot, so that helped us to be less annoying to each other.

My first roomie left after a few months. He was a visitor, too. My next officemate is a new postdoc in some lab in the department. He is nice and quiet. I am annoying and loud on my Skype meetings. We never discussed how we would do the locks, but we figured it out through trial and error. We have now been joined by a new grad student in the same lab. The postdoc and student are from the same country and speak the same native language. They have a lot to talk about, but they don’t talk when I am there. If they were talking, they stop talking when I come in. I feel bad about this, but I haven’t exactly oppressed them. They just have a training to be respectful because I am a professor.

The worst part about sharing your office, especially if you aren’t used to it, is that you can’t really fart in your office anymore. I know you do it. We all do it. It’s OK because most of the time you are alone. If you have a single officemate, you can’t fart because it will be obvious it was you. Now that I have two officemates, I might be able to get away with it when they are both there. But, then I suppose they could talk to each other in a language I can’t understand to confer that it was me…

Leaving your House: I’ve had a previous sabbatical report from another WomanOfScience who described some sabbatical woes about renting out her house. That sounded bad, but the distress I am feeling is not so much worry about my house (since we are not renting it and had to have work done on it while away), but more a desire for normal size of our house. We are renting a small, two-bedroom apartment with a single bathroom for the 6 months of our sabbatical. No matter how nice, a rental is never going to have all the comforts of home. This place is really small – there isn’t even enough room for all of us to sit on couches or chairs in the living room at the same time! So, we are basically all crowded in this one small room. If I ever thought our house was too large, I definitely don’t think so anymore. It will be nice to get back to our small, but not too small, house in a few months.

The other thing is the completeness of our house. We are renting a furnished apartment with a lot of utensils and items you need, but it is always missing something. Here is an incomplete list of things that we have standard in the house, and I know exactly where they are: batteries, tape, decent scissors, knives that can actually cut, trash bags, a decent sized trash can, Band-Aids, extension cords, bags for groceries, sand toys, picnic basket, a drying rack, plastic cups, sippy cup lid closers, a bottle brush, and cable TV with basic network access. We have made due, but it is clear that “all the junk” in our house is actually stuff that we use – if not all the time – frequently enough to make it worth having and having a place for it.

Getting into the Lab: I have said before that it was hard to get into the lab because of the coordination with the PI, but really, it is also because the PI doesn’t go into the lab! I realized about a month in, that if I wanted to get into the lab, I had to make friends with the grad students and postdocs and shadow them on their work. Until I got a key to the lab, I also had to coordinate with one of them just to get into the lab. Then, there is the actual training of how to do things in the lab. I remember being a new postdoc and going into a new environment and needing to try and fail with a few things before feeling comfortable enough to get work done. This is even worse because I am sort of an intruder in these labs where the grad students and postdocs have their stuff working perfectly. This is also why befriending and working with the students is super-important!

New Schools: You might be worried that your kids would have a hard time adjusting to a new school with new kids and a new system. I think we should give kids more credit than that. Meeting new kids and having new experiences is exciting to them. On the other hand, figuring out a new system is difficult and burdensome for parents. My oldest kid’s new school apparently wants us to be helicopter parents and communicate directly with the teacher all the time and be all over our kid. Simultaneously, my kid’s teacher is disorganized and uneven. The school has a ton of projects and weekly reports on top of regular work that feels less important and more like busy work. My kid is very excited about all this, but HusbandOfScience and myself are less enthusiastic. It isn’t clear that our kid is learning the basics with these projects. Plus, they aren’t fun or easy for us, since we don’t have access to our normal slate of materials, supplies, and reagents (see Leaving your House, above). Unfortunately, our griping is starting to affect our kid, too. Kid is not excited about the busy work anymore (although the kid still likes the projects). My younger kid is the same here as back home – hates school when not there and loves it when there. Younger kid has also been complaining about wanting to go back home. I think most of these gripes are based more on the fact that we are squished in a tiny apartment and getting on each other’s nerves.

Summary: The worst part about having difficulties on sabbatical is that no one wants to hear you complain. When people ask, “How’s sabbatical?” and I say, “It’s ok, kinda hard.” The response I get is equivalent to a sarcastic, “Yeah right, I feel soooo bad for you.” But, the thing is, it is hard. And you know it is. I know you know because most of you, my colleagues, don’t even try to go away. You do “stay-batticals” where they stay and work in your own labs. This is much easier. You are in their own house, in your own labs, not teaching, not doing service. You might get sucked into things in the department and on campus, but I do too! The difference is that I get sucked in and I’m 3000 miles away and off by 3 hours! So, don’t believe the hype. Doing a sabbatical away is cool and good for you, but it isn’t easy. It takes a lot of planning, prepping, and shipping before you get here. But, being there isn’t a picnic in the park either. Much like having kids, it is worth it, but it is still tough. Don’t be fooled!

So, what do you think? Don’t hold back. What other woes have occurred on your sabbaticals? The time to be honest is now! To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

How to Get (the most) Out of Service

Nagasakibomb-colorThe recent linked post about being a “good girl” in STEM focused a lot on following the rules and how that can actually be bad for you. I was particually happy with the list of practical things that you can do to resist, but they were all geared toward “after tenure.” BTW – there is a male-equivalent to being a “good girl.” I call it being a “boy scout.” Many of the men in my department are boy scouts, which makes being a good girl not so out of the ordinary or weird.

In the original post, there was an undertone that you should be a “good girl” before tenure, because you don’t jeopardize your tenure case. Seeing how a large number of my male colleagues get away with doing little or crappy service – even before tenure – I think it is worth exploring things you can do to avoid or get out of service before tenure. This is especially important if your department doesn’t have a protection policy for untenured assistant professors. It is even more important if you were protected pre-tenure, are now tenured, and are staring down the barrel of a sh*t-ton of service.  Here are a couple solutions of some ways to get out of service, or at least spend time on service you value so it isn’t a “chore.”

  1. Mildly suck at your service. A senior faculty in an adjacent department gave HusbandOfScience and me some advice when we first got our jobs – don’t do a good job at your service assignments. This means not going the extra mile for service. You should prioritize it last, do it at the last possible minute, and perhaps miss assignments and deadlines sometimes. Spending only a quarter of the time on it you “think” you should. I definitely did this on some committees like graduate admissions and personnel committee stuff. It’s not that I did a bad job, per se. I am still basically a boy scout/good girl at heart, but I definitely didn’t spend a long time on these things. Why is this OK? A. Service is not going to get you tenure. B. On campus service never got anyone tenure. C. No one is going to not give you tenure because you sucked at your service. D. They might not ask you to come back.
  2. Play one service role off another. This basically means to use any other service you have as leverage to say no to the thing you are being asked. When I was asked to serve on admissions for GradProgramX, I was able to say no because I was already serving on admissions for GradProgramY. I ended up serving on both in consecutive years for about 4 years total – flipping between GradProgram X  and Y. This was great, because I learned a lot about how each program did things and could communicate successes and failures between the programs. Once you are committed to a big service role like admissions, personnel committee, or quals committee, you can use that commitment to say no to a lot of other department and college service.
  3. Make Up Your Own Service. When I got to UState DepartmentOfX, there was no women’s group, despite the department having a very small fraction of women and minority students. So, I started a women and minority group. We met for tea, and there was a lot of bitching because there was a lot to bitch about. The students told me they didn’t have a venue to give 1-hour talks, so I started a student seminar series where they could talk to each other and practice job talks and just exchange ideas. We discussed professional development and work-life balance. I told the department chair that I was doing this, and that it should be a service assignment (and not just assigned to women and minorities). And he made it one, and I got to do a service role that I really cared about. Along the way, I have invented or help invent with others other service assignments including Publicity committee (to fix and update the website more regularly) and a Departmental Teaching Luncheon working group. These were all things I cared about and were providing a service for the department. In addition, because I was doing these roles, I was also able to say no to other requests on my time (see #2 above).
  4. Question Yourself. One question you can ask yourself when considering a request of your time is: “If I had only a limited time to live, would I spend my time doing this?” If the answer is “Yes, this is important. It will help me leave a mark and affect a positive change,” then say yes. If the answer is, “No, this is a waste of my precious time,” then say no. I had a minor breast cancer scare a couple months ago (don’t worry it was a cyst!), and I went through all my commitments and thought, “If I do have breast cancer, do I want to work on this?” and for most of the things I was doing (my made-up service) the answer was yes. I feel like the service I am doing and have been doing is really good to affect positive change in the lives of students and my department colleagues, and it is worth doing.
  5. Armageddon: Blow Up Your Service. OK, I am NOT recommending this, and certainly don’t do this before you get tenure, but… another way to get out of service is to be so miserable and heinous to work with that no one wants to work with you. Call everyone assholes to their face. Accuse them all of being racists. Act racist yourself. Start flame email wars and never, ever let anyone else get the last word. Be super negative and disgruntled about everything. This behavior is what we call, “un-collegial,” and it will get you out of service. But, there is a price. Just as the price of being a good girl/boy scout is that you get dumped on. The price of being a truly heinous colleague is that you never get to do service. You are not trusted with the responsibility. You certainly will not be trusted to lead or have any important service. In fact, you might get stuck with the worst service, having no impact, but high work load, if you act this way. If you are fine with that, go for it. But, if you think you are important and you should be heard, don’t act like this.

So, what do you think? Are there other ways to get out of bad service? Not all service is bad, and you can get out of anything, actually. You can even back out of service you already said yes to. People won’t hold it against you, especially if you are over committed and won’t get the work done. Also, if you get better service and don’t have time for something that isn’t good or interesting to you, you should back out. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Importance of Minority-Only Awards

CHRIS ROCK

THE OSCARS(r) – THEATRE – The 88th Oscars, held on Sunday, February 28, at the Dolby Theatre(r) at Hollywood & Highland Center(r) in Hollywood, are televised live by the ABC Television Network at 7 p.m. EST/4 p.m. PST. (ABC/Image Group LA) CHRIS ROCK

Did you see Chris Rock’s monologue at the Oscars? At the end, he mentioned that there should be black-only award categories. He said there are already arbitrary men/women categories that didn’t need to be there, so why not arbitrary white/black categories? In science, we do have awards that are specifically for women or minorities. I have heard both men and women say that they are dumb to have for various reasons, but I would like to cast some light onto why they are crucially important with a some examples.

Example 1: When I applied and was admitted to graduate school, two different programs offered me little fellowships. One was not specifically for women and was a few bucks to help with cost of living or moving. The other was specifically for women and minority students. The point of offering me these minor pittances was to recruit me to the school that offered the fellowship over other schools. I am not sure if they realized it, but it had a secondary effect. I felt more welcomed at the school.Whether it was real or all in my head, I felt a little special that they had actively recruited me to the school. It helped mollify the imposter syndrome that plagues us all and the stereotype threat that only plagues minorities.

A few years later, I was in a lab and being productive. I was riding to an event with a new male graduate student who was trying out the lab and my female advisor. The male graduate student was complaining that he didn’t get a fellowship or enticement to go to graduate school, and he should have. It “wasn’t fair” that women and minorities get these things when he, a white male, did not. I probed a little further and realized that this guy wasn’t a stellar student. He had As and Bs, but I had a 4.0 GPA. I also asked him if he expected to get into graduate school, and he of course did. I explained that, this was a big difference between the two of us. Despite my 4.0 GPA and my extensive self-driven research experiences as an undergraduate, I did NOT expect to get into graduate school anywhere. When the first school accepted me, it was all I could do to not accept back right away. I had to actively be patient to wait for the others. I got into 6/8 school, but not the two most prestigious/highest ranked schools. My subject GRE was low – average for a woman from a liberal arts school – and many schools look at that exclusively (for a nice article on why that is a terrible idea if you want women and minorities in your programs, click here). I explained to the other graduate student that the purpose of the very tiny award was not to actually reward me, but was to say, “we want you, you’re ok,” when all other cultural signals were pointing to this being the wrong way to take my career. The purpose was to help my self-esteem and make it clear that I belonged in science.

Example 2: Recently, one of my awesome postdocs, who happens to be a black woman in science (sorry to my postdoc, I know you are probably reading this) was informed that she is being selected for a postdoctoral fellowship. This fellowship is specifically for minorities and had other stipulations. First, my postdoc would not read the email. I grabbed her phone from her hand and read it. I handed it back with a casual, “You got it. Why wouldn’t you read it earlier?” I told her to read the email that validated her excellence. And she began to tear up. And I totally got it. I knew why she wouldn’t read it. She was worried about not getting it, and what the blow would do to her self-esteem, which is already (unreasonably, considering how amazing she is) low. She started crying because she did not consider herself good enough or worthy enough for this prize. This award is only for minorities in life science. There aren’t that many. Further restrictions mean that there are very few applicants. That sounds like I am trying to diminish her award, but I am not. What I am trying to say is that, in my mind, there was no way should wouldn’t get this award. But, in her mind, there was no way she would. This award is doing for my postdoc what the tiny graduate award did for me. It is pointing toward the signs that “You belong here.”

And that is why we still, to this day, need minority only and women only awards. Because, despite all the grit and all the challenges, it is still not obvious to the excellent that they belong here. They constantly feel like they are doing the wrong thing because of their gender, their skin color, their weight, their country of origin, their health, etc…

Example 3: Finally, while I was at a meeting recently, my roommate and I were talking about the Society’s fellowships. My roomie successfully nominated some women in her field, and she was aiming to nominate more this year. A couple women protested saying, “I’m not old enough, I haven’t done enough, etc, etc…” These all basically translated into “I’m not good enough,” which is complete BS. If these women were not good enough, no one would think to nominate them. My roomie correctly pointed out that these women needed to win in order to “get out of the way.” What that means is that no other women who is younger will ever be able to win the award or fellowship unless these more senior, more established women get it. When put that way, many of the protesting women caved and agreed to be nominated. Interestingly, these women felt so self-negative that, despite their excellence and despite the call from others to be nominated for that excellence, they didn’t think they were good enough. It was only when the argument was framed as helping others (getting out of the way, so others can have a chance) that they agreed to be honored. Again, women/under-represented groups do not feel they are good enough or will ever be good enough. Society tells us we are not good enough because this is not what women do. I have advocated again and again in this blog to self-nominate and to try to win awards (here, here, here). It is hard to put yourself forward when society’s bar and your own bar are so damn high.

Example 4: I wrote most of this a week ago, but another thing happened just yesterday that also reminded me of this issue in the opposite way. As you know, I am on sabbatical. I have a desk in an office suite for three on a hallway of similar offices. These offices are filled with graduate students, postdocs, and some undergrads. It is close quarters, and I can often overhear the students’ conversations (including one where they were discussing golf and the penalty reward for scoring a hole-in-one, which was to have breakfast at a strip club {I can’t believe that is something anyone would want}). Anyway, yesterday a postdoc in some lab was discussing with a relatively new grad student about his job search. He was so, so confident that he was going to have an offer. He had about 6 interviews, and had heard back early from AnIvyLeague that he was not the top choice. He was confident that he would be hearing from the others soon. They all said the decision would come in 4-6 weeks, and this was week 6. Any second, he would get that call from PrivateSchool or BigMidWestU saying that he was the one. I was pretty blown away by his confidence. Despite having as many interviews and 3 solid offers from pretty good schools, I was never confident that I would get an offer from any of them. I was happy to have been given an interview. I think I performed pretty damned well at most of the interviews, but I never thought they would call me up for sure.

Further, if I am being honest, I didn’t even apply to the top schools. I had the excuse that I had a two-body issue, and I was pretty confident that the spousal accommodation policies were non-existent at these schools. But, mostly, I didn’t apply because I didn’t think I had a snowball’s chance in hell at getting an interview or offer. I may have been wrong about that. In fact, the one IvyLeagueU where I did apply, I got the interview and the offer. I’m not sure if other women held themselves back as I did, but looking back, I wish I hadn’t. I know now that the rejection is minor and hiring has many whims and issues (there are words like “fit” thrown around that are subjective), so I wouldn’t and don’t take the rejection so personally now. I do feel like I have more confidence now, but I don’t think I will personally ever have the level of ballsy self-confidence that I overheard from my office. I’m not sure many other women/minorities would either. How about you?

So, what do you think? Are minority-only awards good? Do we still need them? I don’t personally think we are post-sexism or post-racism yet in science. As Chris Rock says, “Is Hollywood racist? Yes. Hollywood is sorority racist. They’re like, We like you Rhonda, but you’re not Kappa material.” Replace Hollywood with Science, and I think the same sentiment is true. Scientists are nice, liberal people, but they want to hire, work with people who look like themselves. “We want opportunities!” (-Chris Rock). Since the bar is so high for us, winning awards (even ones where no one else is qualified) is important to helping us overcome the self-doubt and the unnaturally high bar of being an under-represented person in academic science.

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.

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.

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.

Sabbatical Preparations – Part 2

Sabbatical-1In the spirit of travel blogging, here is part two of my N-part series on planning and being on sabbatical. Sabbatical seems glamorous and exciting, but I just  spent 2 hours last night on paperwork. Ah, paperwork. Essential parts of bureaucracy and essential for you to go where you want. The paperwork I filled out last night included:

  1. Paperwork to have a complimentary appointment at the university I will be visiting. This wasn’t so bad, just a page or so.
  2. Paperwork to enroll my eldest in public school. This was a lot of paperwork. Plus, they wanted a birth certificate, immunization records, and three people to contact who were not me or my husband in case of emergency. These people must be local, and I am lucky that I know three people there already.
  3. Paperwork to enroll my youngest in pre-school. This wasn’t a big deal yet. It was just name and our names and what days of the week we want. I will have more paperwork to fill out later.

This paperwork is all important and needs to be filled out so I can work and my kids can go to school. It is about a month and a half before we arrive there, and the paperwork had to be done. But, I also had to get the paperwork. In order to get the paperwork, I called the schools about 2 weeks ago to inform them of our impending move. This timing seemed good, so I would say that you should call the public school about 8 weeks ahead of time to inform them about registering your kid for public school. You must have your rental set up before this. They won’t register your kid unless you have proof that you will actually be living within the district. In fact, we had to send a copy of the contract for our rental as proof of address. As for the private preschool, I called them 6 months before because I wasn’t sure about availability. Sometimes daycares – especially if you are trying to get into university schools, are difficult to get into. Infant care might be close to impossible because many places need to be on the waiting list several years in advance to get a spot – and by that time, you aren’t an infant anymore. Preschools often have more availability because the student to teacher ratio is larger.  Our new preschool costs significantly more than the one we are leaving – adding a big expense to our sabbatical costs (on top of double housing costs!).

Once we contacted the schools, they sent the paperwork either by email or in the mail. I got it all, and decided to spend a couple hours filling out the paperwork. After filling it out, I scanned each document in and saved it as a pdf. I scanned everything I filled out, so I could save it for my own records in case it got lost in the mail.

The next step is to actually go to visit and register my kids for their schools. I will do this in about a month. I could probably do this via email completely, but I am going to be somewhat close for a conference, so I am going to swing by and visit in person.

Another thing I am doing now is getting our tickets for our actual trip to our sabbatical location. It is far enough that we will need to fly, and we will not be taking our car. I am starting to figure out how we will get our stuff to the new place. Also, the new place’s climate is very unlike the climate we are leaving behind.  I think I am going to request to ship some of our stuff to our new place before we leave so we have the right kinds of clothes there.

What am I forgetting? I am sure there is something. I have a dinner planned with a family who went on sabbatical a few years ago, and I am planning to grill them to figure out how best to “close-up shop” in my house. I have never, nor has my family, ever owned a second house that needed to be opened and closed for specific seasons. I certainly haven’t gone away from my home for such a long time before. I am trying to figure out how to ensure my electrical doesn’t blow up my house and my plumbing doesn’t freeze and crack pipes while we are away. One thing that makes me feel a little better is that our house manager will continue to be around and manage. So, the house will (hopefully) not truly blow up, nor be abandoned.

Tips, comments, suggestions – comment or post here! To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button!

Labels – good and bad

Tibbs-Edited-01I recently went on an enjoyable double-header seminar trip hosted by two fabulous WomenOfScience. Because I was giving two different talks, and thus staying a little extra, I was asked to chat with their women in science group over one of the lunch times. The group was a nice mix of undergraduates, grad students, and professors (I didn’t see any postdocs, but may have missed them). It also had men and women, which is very heartening. We had some good and interesting discussions. Many thoughts for this blog were generated, and I have two good ideas that I am excited to write about. This post was spurred by a brave undergrad who, toward the end of the lunch, asked a very important question: “When am I a scientist?” As she was already a science major, all the faculty and senior students piped up to tell her that she was already a scientist. She didn’t really seem to believe us, but I really think it is true. Any student studying science, learning to think like a scientist, being challenged and excited by science, is a scientist.

That night, three different friends who happen to be faculty of color sent me an interesting article about cultural taxation whereby faculty from under-represented groups are overly burdened with advising and mentoring students from under-represented groups who come to them with higher frequency. It was a fascinating article, but one thing about it really irked me: the article referred to every single professor as “Ms.” or “Mr.” but never “Dr.” or even “Prof.” I mentioned it to my friends and even left a comment, and multiple people agreed with me. Apparently, that is a journalistic style to only refer to medical doctors as “Dr.” and all others by Mr. or Ms., but what about Prof? Ironically, by following some silly, antiquated journalism rule, they undermined the point of their own article which was partially that minority professors don’t get the respect they deserve. It was so frustrating.

The next day, I was chatting with a lovely person who is compassionate and interested in diversity issues. I mentioned that the undergrad student from the day before had asked when she was a scientist. He thought it was interesting that she asked that. I told him that I typically address my students as scientists in emails to get the point across to students that they are scientists. Like a nice person, he said that when he leads, he likes to keep the hierarchy very flat.  In order to achieve this, he often leaves off people’s titles. I agree that level playing fields with little hierarchy is a really great way to lead, but to me it mentally hurt to remove people’s earned titles. When I got my Ph.D. it made me feel special and proud. That title of “Dr.” was important to my psyche to help empower me to start a postdoc and know I had significant knowledge and training to back up my ideas. It actually helped stave off imposter syndrome for about a year. The same thing happened when I got my job as an Assistant Professor and when I got tenure. Those milestones were more important to my self-esteem than as hurdles to overcome.

Anyway, what do you think? Are labels and titles important or should we remove them? I kinda think that if you are already a majority person with assumed competence and authority, it is easy to throw away your title. But, if you are an under-represented person who people automatically think is less competent or perhaps “doesn’t look like a professor,” I totally understand wanting to hold on to, hold up, and brag about your title.

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Everyday Self-Management – As A Woman

USAFbrochureI am a women in a male-dominated field. You may have guessed that, considering I am a scientist. I think a lot about how I am perceived – a lot more time than my male colleagues do, and a lot more than males probably think I should. In fact, the typical male response when I try to explain this stuff is, “Why do you care what others think?”

Frankly, we all care. In fact, your reputation is a very important asset in science. Good reputations can get OK work into Science or Nature. Bad reputations can kill your funding, publication, or student acquiring opportunities. So, the advice to stop thinking about what others think is complete BS, in my opinion. People who don’t care about what others think aren’t making it in science. In addition, as a woman, there are a number of ways I think about how to carry myself and interact, even dress. I am going to share a few recent experiences and thoughts about interacting with others and representing yourself as a woman in a male-dominated field.

  1. What to Wear. I recently was part of a site visit from a funding agency. We already got the grant, and it only started a few months ago, so we don’t have much progress, yet. But, the funding agency wanted to meet us and see our plans. I had absolutely no idea what to wear. I am the only woman on this grant, and I am, of course, the youngest. I knew enough not to wear my jeans and Chuck Taylor’s, but how dressy? How casual? I also was self-conscious about asking the lead PI about it. Sometimes when you ask these types of questions, men think, “Why are you thinking about these things? What a waste of time?” So, I contacted some of my WomenOfScience friends, and they helped me out.  I decided to error on the side of over-dressed and wore a full suit. I didn’t wear a button-up – just a nice shirt underneath. I also roped in the female administrative assistant to do some reconnaissance about what the lead PI was wearing. One friend suggested I wear make up (I didn’t) and to put up my recently purple-tinted hair (I did). One of my friends warned me that older, male program officers are likely to be patronizing. Luckily, of the program officers, only one was an older male. There was a youngish/middle aged woman, and a second young woman of color (woot!). They weren’t patronizing, and they weren’t as dressed up as me, but they were wearing blazers and slacks, so I was doing good. It turned out to be a pretty good visit.
  2. Looking young.  I have had other posts about looking young (post). In the past, it was annoying, because I didn’t like being mistaken for a student. Now, I prefer to be mistaken for pre-tenure or a young person who needs help. Studies have shown that, as women get older, their likability goes way down. Now, I strive to stay young in people’s minds and eyes, so that they will continue to want to help a youngster succeed, and will be less threatened by me. Since society already thinks that women are incompetent, it is better to be young, and have a good reason to be incompetent, rather than old and annoyingly incompetent. (BTW – women are NOT incompetent – we all have strengths and weaknesses.) So, I decided that I prefer to stay young-looking for as long as possible. It’s isn’t a vanity thing – it is a survival thing.
  3. My voice. Recent studies have shown that when women are frustrated or emphatic, they are misconstrued for being angry or overly emotional. There was a recent edition of Lenny Letter that got a lot of press where Jennifer Lawrence wrote a piece about her wage disparity. She told a story in that article about how she was speaking her mind and was chastised by a dude. She writes “A few weeks ago at work, I spoke my mind and gave my opinion in a clear and no-bullshit way; no aggression, just blunt. The man I was working with (actually, he was working for me) said, “Whoa! We’re all on the same team here!” As if I was yelling at him. I was so shocked because nothing that I said was personal, offensive, or, to be honest, wrong. All I hear and see all day are men speaking their opinions, and I give mine in the same exact manner, and you would have thought I had said something offensive.” It seems that women’s words get misconstrued as angry and upset, when really they are stating opinions directly. I think it is because when men get angry, their voices go up in pitch. Women’s voices are already higher, so maybe we sound angrier than we are. I have certainly gotten this when even recounting stories of things that mad me upset. People worry that I am still so upset, but it turns out that I’m just trying to convey the story. I’m not actually upset myself at the time. I am working on trying to convey anger and frustration without alienating people.
  4. Comedy. There was a nice blog article recently on Tenure She Wrote about if you curse at work. There were some interesting scenarios, and actual positive reasons to curse and break the ice. I have to say that I swear like a sailor. I tone it way down for this blog, at the request of Robin. Cursing definitely breaks the ice. In addition, I diffuse a lot of tension about me being the only woman in the room using humor. I try to make a joke early in each meeting, so people realize that I am not uptight. Women who are successful are often seen as uptight. For me, this comes naturally, because I like comedy and try to be funny all the time. I understand that this cannot work for everyone, but even telling a bad knock-knock joke can help some people realize that you, surprisingly, are a person, and not a judge for the sexism police.

So, these are some of the extra things I carry around and constantly consider everyday. Exhausting. It reminds me of that scene in Harry Potter where Hermione is explaining to Harry why Cho is confused about her feelings for him. Ron can’t believe that someone would be feeling and thinking all these things at the same time. Frankly, I think women do this all the time. It is why I truly think women are inherently smarter than men. If we could ever not need to think about these things, and refocus all this mental space to science, we would dominate.

What do you think? What other things do you constantly consider? Comment or post. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

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