Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Archive for the ‘Mentoring’ Category

In the Service of Good

Conference_de_londresA few months ago, I had a post about how to manage your service. I titled it, with tongue in cheek, “How to get (the most) out of service.” I had a pretty hard push back on Facebook from a number of academic friends advocating for service – not getting out of it.

So, first I want to clarify some things. I agree that doing service is important, and when I advocate “mildly sucking” I am assuming that you are an over-achieving goody-goody, like me, and you put a lot of effort into everything. When I say mildly suck, I mean decide how much time you should spend and only spend that time on your service – especially if it is heinous. Do not over do it, because there are probably other things you should be doing with that time, and ask for help if you need it! Although that might not always work, either. We always talk about work-life balance, but we sometimes forget about “work-work balance.” This is an important part of any job, but especially one as free as an academic position.

One of my friends, has allowed me to paste in her comments (edited) advocating for service and doing it well. Enjoy!

  1. I disagree with academia’s disdain of service: because most of it (not all) is necessary for the smooth functioning of the university beyond what we (at R1s) see as our prime function. I have served on many more hiring committees than appropriate pre-tenure, for example, because I think that bringing in strong colleagues is one of the most important things that I can do for the university. Conversely, I never fill out my university’s annual “volunteer for committees” survey because the parking committee (as one egregious example) is not a good use of my time.

  2. I was overburdened with service pre-tenure. The most time-consuming service was the advisory role that I had for my last two pre-tenure years; I was not able to obtain assistance in a way that alleviated the burden until (bluntly) external people pointed out that it was too much. It was then split among multiple people and it’s been much more manageable since. In retrospect, I would have tried to make that argument more forcefully and directly to the chair earlier; I tried to be more subtle and it didn’t work. I think being straightforward would have been significantly more effective.

  3. I recognize that service is neither appreciated nor rewarded (and this is clearly expressed internally as well, in terms of merit and recognition). But: as a non-research-superstar at big-state-U, it allows me to make a positive contribution to our largely first-generation, heavily non-traditional student population. That is a more powerful impact (bluntly, again) than anything I do elsewhere is likely to have.

  4. I find that colleagues who value service often come from at least one non-privileged STEM community (gender and/or sexual identity, class, race) and I think this complicates discussions of “service doesn’t matter!” I think most academics aren’t unaware of the lack of value placed on service by institutions; but there may be significant personal importance in service for many people. I think that it is ok to make that tradeoff (especially post-tenure), as long as the reward structures are clearly understood.

  5. More germane to womanofscience’s post: asking for relief (directly or indirectly through my department) was not effective in lightening my service load; getting external comments that I was overburdened did.

  6. The good-little-girl is strong in me in that I won’t let things that I think are important not get done. I’ve found that suggesting (wisely) other people to help contribute has been another effective strategy to reduce service burdens. I also don’t do “unimportant” service (see above).

  7. I would like discussions of service to be more nuanced than “don’t do it!” I think for pre-tenure people, being graceful (and straightforward! and prompt!) about accepting and declining service, being passionate about the service that you choose, and (in a functioning environment, in which I am lucky to work) finding other people who can contribute are the best strategies towards making service meaningful and valuable without overburdening. But I would like academia to be more thoughtful about recognizing and rewarding those aspects of our multifaceted job that have less quantifiable impact.

So, what do you think? I tend to agree that service is the way to have things work smoothly and can have a big impact on your students. If you were to give true, important advice to a young faculty member (not the flippant advice of don’t do it), what would you say? Comment or post here. To get an email every time I post, click the “Follow” button.

Organizing Your Group: Semester Reports

TypingAlthough I have mentioned the semester report in prior posts (management, lab rules, management), I realize that I haven’t made it explicit what the report is for, what it asks for, and how I use it to manage the lab. First, I should say there are lot of ways to do something like this. I started having my students write reports after talking to a very senior WomanOfScience about how she organizes her group. She makes her students write monthly reports. I tried that, but it was too frequent for them and for me. I decided one per semester and one in the summer (3 per year) was a better rate for reporting. I give the students a specific deadline, usually September 1, June 1, and February 1. I also encourage them to take time away from performing new experiments so they can spend time reflecting and writing the report.

Q: Why do this? A: Pedagogy. As most of us are, I am an educator. I noticed that my students were not getting practice with their writing. We would have enough data for a paper, and they would freak out about having to write it. Or, they would write it very poorly. Sometimes they would not include information that they should (data, methods) in the paper because they literally forgot what they did. I decided that the students needed more practice and they needed to routinely recap what they did and their results before it all piled up. I also decided to use this report as a mechanism to help them plan ahead and to do a little self assessment.

Q: What? A: Specific questions. Unlike writing a paper that has a specific format, I wanted the report to be a historical recap of what the students did over the previous semester. I wanted them to think about what their plan had been, what they tried, what worked, what didn’t work, what they accomplished, and give them a place to think about the next 3-4 months. To do this, I ask them to address specific questions in their report. I paste in here the format I use:

  1. A list of goals that the student had for the previous semester/summer;
  2. A description of the experiments the student performed to reach those goals including:
    • The reagents and methods used to perform experiments
    • A description of any analysis you did including the programs you used and the metric you measured and why you measured them
    • A description of the results you found (using words in paragraph form)
    • Figures to illustrate the methods and results you found including images, timeseries of movie data, and plots of quantified data
    • A description of what you think your data means and what the next steps might be
  3. A list of unmet goals;
    • Any problems or issues that the student encountered in attaining those goals
    • Any improvements made or ways that progress can be made faster
  4. A list of goals for the next semester/summer;
    • Is this a reasonable amount of work?
    • What milestones do you expect to meet and when?
  5. A personal statement that addresses the following:
    • What is your personal career goal?
    • How will your work in this lab help you to achieve that goal?
    • What is your personal goal for completing your tenure in this lab? (If you plan to leave the lab eventually – most of you do!)
    • What are your personal goals for achieving your timeline? What skills are needed? What milestones and achievements do you need to make along the way?
  6. A self-evaluation of your progress and work in the lab, what you have done well, and what you need to improve on. For this section, please consider your:
    • Planning and completion of experiments
    • Organization, interpretation and presentation of data (written & oral)
    • Ability to think of “the next logical step” in your experimental design
    • Time management and commitment to research
    • Ability to work independently, troubleshoot & seek outside help when necessary
  7. Any new protocols developed over the last semester, typed, and as separate word documents. The protocols will be posted on the lab website for others to use.

Q: What do you do with these reports? A: Read and comment. I make all the spring reports due June 1, and I get a bunch in all around the same time. Then I have to spend some time reading and commenting. Sometimes I print them out, write comments on the papers, scan for my records, and give the comments back to the student. Other times, I write the comments in a word document and send that to the students. Interestingly, the part that the students are often most hung up on is their self-evaluation. Undergraduate students are especially hard on themselves often saying they are not dedicated enough to the lab. For the more senior students, it is great to see all the experiments they did over the last semester in one place. They often realize how much they did and are proud.

Q: Results? A: Awesome. These reports are super awesome. Here are some reasons why:

  1. The students get a chance to look at what they have done. As I said above, they are often shocked by how much they were able to complete. If they are balancing multiple projects, they are able to look at which projects made progress and which are struggling, and evaluate where to put their efforts.
  2. They get a chance to see what they are going to do. Sometimes students are so excited about taking data, they aren’t thinking about their progress, how much more they really need for a story, or if they might be done. Taking this time to rehash what they did often helps them to sort out where they are and what they still need to do.
  3. They get a chance to self-evaluate. Similar to giving them time to plan, giving time to self-evaluate is really important to stay motivated and keep things moving.
  4. Sometimes we realize they have enough for a paper. This has happened 3 times, in fact. I’m not sure how your science works, but in my field, it often takes a year to figure out how to take the data, but once you figure it out, you can basically take all the data in a couple months. Three different times, when I read a student’s report, there was enough data in there for a paper. Maybe a few new experiments were needed. Maybe a re-analysis, but the meat of a paper was there. Isn’t that amazing?

The only downside of this process is that sometimes I am too busy to do a good job reading the reports. That is bad, and I need to make time to do it. I am going to get many of them on June 1, and I need to make time to read and respond to them. It is especially important during my current situation (sabbatical) that I take the time to read and respond to all the reports.

What are your thoughts? Post or comment here. Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post!

 

Organizing Your Group: Group Meetings

WomenTrainingAs I was writing the post about how best to meet with your advisor, I kept looking through my own blog for advice on how to conduct group meetings. I couldn’t find a post just on that topic. How is that possible? How could I have missed such an important topic? Is the problem that the solutions are too varied? Or the topic is too broad? Perhaps. But it is more likely that it was just too damn obvious. I mean, I had all kinds of posts about novel ways to organize your research group including: StateOfTheLabAddressTrainingStudentsLabRules, but nothing on actually having a group meeting. And almost every research group has some kind of group meeting sometimes, so maybe I just thought it didn’t need saying.

Well, I think it does, so here I go. Actually, I am going to have a series of posts on this topic, similar to what I did about advice on when to have a baby. That is because I don’t think there is a single right answer. Different groups have different personalities and need to do different things. I have asked some awesome WomenOfScience to send me some of their group meeting advice, and they did! I will start off with what *I* do, and then I will have some posts about what others do. That way, if you see something new you like to do, you can try it. Also, I would be interested in follow-up posts. If you changed your meeting style, what was the outcome? Was it good, bad, ugly?

Types of group meetings: First off, there are lots of ways to meet with your group. I think when people discuss group meetings, they think of weekly meetings where one person of the group speaks about their work over the last couple months and gives a synopsis. We definitely have weekly group meetings, although I have a different style (see below). But, we also have broader, bigger group meetings with multiple groups and journal clubs. In the summers, we offer coordinated “classes” or lectures on special topics. Below, I describe these different types of meetings we have in our group and share how I personally conduct my group meetings and other such meetings. There is no one right way to do this! This is just one example that works for me.

Weekly group meetings: In my lab, I like to have every person present every week to update everyone else in the lab on what they are doing. This keeps me and others in the loop. I also encourage others to comment and make suggestions, so the team and benefit through our various backgrounds and knowledge bases.

To do this, I have a specific format for the presentations, so it doesn’t get crazy and unruly. First, everyone is limited to ONE SLIDE each. On that slide they must have 1. What they they last week, 2. What they plan to do next week, and 3. An image, picture, plot, movie that represents what they did the previous week. I try to get the slides in advance and put them all into a single presentation file that we can go through quickly. I often fall down on this part of the job and miss one or haven’t loaded them all by the start of the meeting, which is definitely not good meeting organization, but it does give us time to chat and talk about other issues in the lab. Group meetings are also a time to organize one-on-one meetings and discuss general group business.

If a student does not have their slide, there is a mild consequence – they must get up and present their slide as a chalk talk and perform a silly dance. Many students are embarrassed and do not forget their slide again. Some students do not find this to be a deterrent to forgetting their slide, which is a problem. There is a solution: I was chatting with another professor who also uses this style of lab meeting (including the  consequence), but his negative feedback is to have the student do burpees – those jump up push up things from gym class that NO ONE likes. Apparently, this is far more motivating than the dancing.

Journal clubs: During the school year, we have a weekly journal club, usually in conjunction with another lab. Some of my students are required by their graduate program to attend a weekly journal club for credit, so this fulfills that requirement. In our journal club, one person is in charge of picking the paper and distributing it. But, that person is NOT solely responsible for the content of the presentation. Instead, that person makes the slides of each figure, and we cycle through different people who present each figure. This format ensures that others have read the paper (at least enough to present their individual figure). This makes the discussion far better, since more people are prepared. I have seen a number of helpful instructions on how best to present a paper. It is very helpful to give these instructions at the beginning of the semester!

Larger/collaborator group meetings: We are apart of larger groups of researchers that collaborate or just work on related topics and want to get together to present their work and discuss and share issues and ideas. In these meetings, we rotate which group/student presents their work to the entire group in a one-hour format. Many times, we connect with collaborators via skype, which can be difficult. These meetings good for students to get practice with longer-format presentations.

Pedagogical group meetings: In the summers, we often have extra meetings that are basically lectures like one might have in a class. This is to help people learn a little more deeply about a specific topic of interest to the lab. Last year, we went through a book, chapter-by-chapter, and took turns presenting/lecturing on the chapters to each other. This year, I have a couple postdocs who want to teach some basics of some of the techniques we use in the lab. In past years, I have added time onto our weekly group meetings to go over professional development such as drafting a CV or guidelines on applying for fellowships or other things. Since the students organize and ask for these types of things, I think they must enjoy and get something from them.

So, what do you do? Post here in the comments, and I will use them for future posts on this topic. I know there are a myriad ways to have a group meeting – let’s hear yours! To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button. If you haven’t been getting updates, WordPress might have lost you (sorry). Please feel free to follow again!

How to Meet with your Advisor

Conference_de_londresSo, I’m on sabbatical. OK, you know. And, I’ve been having meetings with students over SkyFaceGoogleHangoutTimepe. And, I have to say that, while it is frustrating to be 3000 miles away from the lab which has definitely led to some problems, in general, my individual meetings with students have gotten… better. We have every-other-weekly individual one-on-one meetings, and the students are coming more prepared and more focused than they ever did when I was there in person (exceptions abound, of course). I can speculate all day about the reasons this may be happening, but the fact that it is happening has exposed some best-practices for having meetings with your advisor. I will describe those best practices here, but before I do, I would like to point to a couple posts of related interest including: Effective Meetings, StateOfLab, mentoring.

Bring your notebook: I can’t tell you the number of times I am meeting with a student and I ask a question about their work, results, protocol, and they say, I can’t remember. My response is: no shit. OK, not really. I say that in my head. See, that isn’t surprising because you aren’t supposed to remember everything. That is what a lab notebook is for. The beauty of having a lab notebook is that you don’t need to remember. Indeed, relying on your memory will get you in huge, huge trouble, because our memories are faulty, not everything makes it into long-term memory, and you can only remember about 7 things in your short-term. When the student says they can’t remember, I usually ask if they wrote it in their notebook. That elicits a response of, “oh yeah!” At this point, it is prudent to go get your notebook, but this whole time-sucking activity can be avoided if the student would just bring their notebook to every meeting. So, always bring your notebook to the meeting.

Bring your data: In addition to your notebook, it is best to bring your data with you. Most data nowadays is electronic, so that means bringing your laptop and hard drive. Many labs have some sort of intranet or server to share data. If you upload your data to that well-before the meeting, it will be uploaded and can be downloaded in a timely manner. You may have a lot of data, so you might need to pre-sort. Don’t spend time at the meeting clicking open random files to find the right one. You should have noted before hand in your notebook interesting and remarkable data sets. Also, make sure you have characteristic data sets. It always happens that some look “better” than others, but you should also show the “quintessential” data set. Maybe you are past the raw data part, but there will still be things to show. Show your analysis method. Show your analyzed data. Describe how you calculated the error bars. If the data is a distribution, is it Gaussian? What functional form does the data fit to? Is that reasonable? What is the goodness of fit? Your advisor should not only know how you did this, they should want to know. If you make a mistake, they can catch it early and help you correct it. That is always preferable to finding out after submitting the paper, accepting the paper, or publishing the paper!

Be prepared: Bringing your notebook and data are a part of being prepared for your meeting. But, they are not the only way to be prepared. You should have an idea of what you want to talk about. Do you want to show off your amazing data? Do you have a question about how to analyze your data? Are you worried that a recent experiment isn’t replicating the first couple of experiments properly? Have a list of topics and questions you need to address with your advisor. And make sure you understand how you got the data you are showing. All the questions I describe about data above are things you should be prepared to discuss. Again, you do not need to memorize these things, but be able to quickly locate them in your notebook or within your computer.

Take notes: I can’t tell you how many times I have been talking to a student and giving the most brilliant, insightful information about their work, and then I say, “You got that?” And they look at me, with no pen in hand, no notebook open, no ability to write or recall the rainbows of knowledge I just spewed from my brain. Actually, many times, I diagram things on the white board when I am talking. In a sense, I am taking notes – or making notes, but these are written from my perspective. It is far better if the student takes their own notes. We can always take a picture of the board, and you can paste it in your notebook, but my hieroglyphics might not make sense next week or next month. Best to take your own notes and paste the board in under.

Actively listen – restate and seek confirmation: For any conversation where you want to make sure that all parties are understanding, it is always best to use active listening. This is where you basically double check that you are on the same page. You should restate their ideas or instructions in your own words, and seek confirmation  for what you understand to be the sentiments of the other parties. This is important to do in any conversation, but especially one where instructions are being given or you truly need to ensure that you do the right thing.

Prioritize: Before you leave the meeting, it is best that you prioritize your plan of action and double check that is the right priority for your advisor, too. All too often, a student leaves the office with a long list of action items, but no priority on how to attack them. Best to check the priority before you leave to make sure you are working on the right thing first on the list.

When working from a distance, I have found that, in addition to the things described above, a few extra things are needed.

Send protocols: Because I cannot look at your notebook, I need some information on how you did your assay. I have found with several students over the past semester that I thought I was helping to troubleshoot why their experiments weren’t working. They told me, verbally, what they were doing, but I couldn’t see the notebook or what they were actually doing. The advice I gave them turned out to not help at all. After a couple weeks, and several failed attempts to fix things, I realized that I needed more information on what they were doing. Turns out, the affirmative statements they made when I asked how they were doing their experiments were not the whole story. What I was really lacking was the protocol of how they were doing their experiments. Luckily, all the students were actually taking good notes and using printed protocols. (There is no helping someone who doesn’t write anything down!) Once I got the protocol, I realized why all my advice wasn’t working. The protocols were completely effed. Much of this was either a new protocol or a specific variation of a worked out protocol that drifted way out of the bounds of reasonable. Most of the time, the student was doing something that was fundamentally “unstable” such as pipetting 0.2 ul or something equally prone to uncertainty.

Send slides: Because I cannot look at all your data, it is best when students send a powerpoint with representative data and analyzed data. Most of my students have gotten used to this, because I usually have weekly group meetings where everyone presents every week and they have to have one slide each (meetings, meetings). Unfortunately, sometimes this means they only send me one slide, but it is better than no slides.

Share your screen: Another way to effective communicate and share data and knowledge is to share your screen with your student. I have done this several times, especially when showing a student a new data analysis. But, the students can also do that with me to share data. When doing this, the same rules as above for bringing and pre-selecting the data need to be done. A word of caution – when using GoogleHangouts, you must pick the application, and you can only share that application – it is annoying. Skype is better at this.

Let me re-iterate: Take Notes! Actively listen! It is so much more important for the student to take notes and to check what you heard when the advisor is a little head on a screen. Once, during my sabbatical, I was talking to a student. As I was vomiting pearls of wisdom, the student looked up and said, “Wait! I need my notebook to take notes!” The student ran out of the room to grab the notebook, and began scribbling furiously upon returning. Of course, I didn’t say anything about the notebook, because I had no idea that the notebook wasn’t there. I could tell that notes weren’t being taken, but it didn’t occur to me to say anything. Since that time, this student has never forgotten their notebook again at an online meeting. A lot of the follow-up I have been doing has been taking pictures of my notebook where I took notes and sending that. Often those notes are multi-colored and with illustrations.

So, this is what I have come up with. But, I am sure I am missing something. If so, post here with a comment!! Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.

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.

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