Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

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Controlling Their Expectations and Impressions

S._Sgt._Lorraine_Robitaille,_switchboard_supervisor,_from_Duluth,_Minnesota,_looks_down_the_line_of_the_Victory..._-_NARA_-_199009As I said in the last post, sexism and racism by students is real and exists. I gave some advice for how to combat sexist or racist reviews from students once you got them. I also gave some helpful hints to senior people to help younger people.

Not to be an a-hole, I took my own advice, and talked to a junior faculty member about his last year reviews. This is a perfect time to have this conversation because he is getting ready for this fall’s class. Going through his reviews, there was some definite and easy ways to get him some better evaluation scores. These changes fall along the lines of “Changing 20%” which is the scheme I advocate for making any changes for your life in general (for instance, see here and here). Based on my conversation with my junior colleague, I thought about some things I could share to help everybody score better evaluations.

  1. Never, ever say anything negative about yourself. I have had an entire blog post about this (here). Yes, I have said it before, but as any teacher knows, repetition doesn’t hurt. You should read that post, but also, just take this home: Do not ever say anything negative about yourself in class. It does not matter if it is true. This is actually an easy one to change.
  2. Set Expectations From DAY 1. I have also posted about how best to set expectations and set the tone in your class starting on the first day.
    • Your Syllabus. Your syllabus is your contract with the class. I have a post about your syllabus (here). I stand by what I said here, but I want to make something else very clear: You should make policies that WORK. When I was discussing with my junior colleague, there were a number of modifications to the syllabus that were needed to make it clear about the expectations. In his case, his late work policy was WAY TOO LENIENT. Because he had a “nice” late policy, the students took advantage of him.
    • Confirm the contract. In order to make it clear that the syllabus is a contract, get them to agree to it. I usually ask if they have changes they want to make, and they never do. They are often a little stunned at being asked their opinion.
    • Do something different. Yes, you will go through your syllabus, but you aren’t going to start teaching on day 1, are you? If so, don’t. It is a waste of time. They won’t retain anything. They might not even stay in the class. So, after going through the syllabus and getting is approved, I recommend doing something very different. As I posted previously, I take pictures of all my students. I have them go to the board, four students at a time. They write their names over their heads, and I take their pictures. I never force them, but have never had a student say no. I ask them to put up the name they want me to learn and know. They get to get up out of their seats. They realize that the class is different than other classes. You look whimsical. 
  3. Play to and Destroy Their Stereotypes. That last thing on the last part, where I say, “You look whimsical” this is so important. To me, looking whimsical, is a good thing. And, it undercuts some of their initial, likely stereotypes of me in the class. I prefer to look whimsical rather than incompetent, mean, or difficult. I believe that you must set the tone for their expectations of you. This means you must build an image of yourself in their minds. Unfortunately, they will come with culturally devised, pre-conceived notions of you based on your age, race, gender, hair, clothes, and height.
    • Example 1: Are you a middle-aged, tall, white man? Congratulations, your students will be very likely to think you are smart, competent, and correct all the time! Put on a little charm, act like you care, and you are likely to get very high evaluations.
    • Example 2: Are you a young woman? They will likely think you are incompetent, do not know your material, should be a push-over, and the class should be easy.
    • Read About It: If you are interested in this, I highly recommend this book: Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential by Neffinger and Kohut. It is not necessarily about teaching, but it describes cultural biases and norms for different body shapes, age, race, and genders. It helps you identify the positive stereotypes that you should play up, and those negative ones that you need to combat.
    • Say positive things about yourself: See point #1 above. Students will repeat what you say to them in your evaluations, so why wouldn’t you say positive things about yourself? I am not suggesting you brag or look arrogant. I suggest you mention good things about yourself in passing. Mention that you got tenure. Mention that you were nominated for a teaching award.
    • Tell them you care: This goes with the one above, but it is more specific. Because they will repeat what you say, you need to make sure you are telling them how much you care about them and their learning. You may think it is obvious because you are spending so much time on them, but they really have no idea what you are doing all day. When you are teaching them, I suggest that you tell them that you care and use that as a reason for pushing them. When things get difficult in class, be a cheerleader, be positive, and make it clear that you care. Plus, caring is one of the positive stereotypes of being a woman. The flip-side of this is if they think you don’t care, they will be VERY NEGATIVE about you. So, not only do to need to tell them that you care, you also cannot, under any circumstances, let them know that you don’t care. It is the kiss of death.
    • Realize that different classes may require different personas. When I teach majors, I have a different persona and project a slightly different personality compared to when I teach non-majors. This is because the students have different needs and expectations for me because on their backgrounds. I will probably try to detail and describe this more in a future post, but I believe it is important to keep in mind that your student populations are different depending on the class, the level, and even the year.
  4. Learn their names. An easy way to show them you care is to learn their names and use them. If you have a relatively small class, this is a must. If you have a big class, make sure you learn about 20% of them. Then, call them by name in class when they answer questions or when you call on them.
  5. Start off as a Hard-Ass and Ease Up. Your syllabus may have a strict late policy. For instance, mine is to not accept late homework. And I stick to this because I only count 10/11 homework assignments. But, about half way through, I start to ease up on some students. It isn’t that I really accept late work, but I start to allow somethings like scanned homework assignments emailed to me that I print and add to the pile. I tell the student I will make an exception only once. Why do I do this?
    • It makes me look nice and like I care. And because, honestly, as long as not everyone is doing it, it isn’t difficult on me. If you start as a softie, they walk all over you, and you are making exceptions all the time. There are a number of problems with being too nice: (a) Some kids never take advantage, and they resent that other students got away with stuff, (b) it is harder on you if this happens a lot.
    • Example: Another thing I do is to let them redo the question on their exam they lose the most points on. But, I don’t tell them this at the beginning. I act like it is a spontaneous act of kindness because I care. I want them to learn the thing they missed, and this will allow them to do this. I do this for every exam, because it is good for them to re-try and get right a question they missed. But, it makes me look nice, and that is a bonus.
  6. Be Fair. Part of appearing to care is to be fair. Being too easy or too flexible or allowing students to walk all over you is not fair. One nice thing that that you can often get out of annoying situations by playing the fairness card. For instance, you cannot offer only one person extra credit or accept a late assignment (which will be more hassle and a huge pain to you) because it wouldn’t be fair to everyone else. I use this ALL the time.
    • Give points – don’t take them away: This is perhaps obvious, but psychologically, students often think they are starting at an A and that you are removing points to make them get a lower grade. This, of course, is ridiculous. In fact, they start with zero points, and they must earn points. You need to set this straight from the beginning by making it clear that they are earning points for each assignment. Also, you should make it clear that THEY control their points – you are just reporting on what they do. This can be difficult in classes where they grading is somewhat subjective.
    • Have a rubric for grading: I have a secret. All grading is subjective. As much as we gripe about student evaluations of us, we are constantly evaluating and assessing our students. We have just as much opportunity (more actually) to screw them. We are also biased and can misjudge people. That being said, you should try to be as fair as possible when grading. One way to do that is to make sure you have a rubric when you grade. I also recommend hiding the student names.
    • Other Helpful and Time-Saving Tips:  If you are grading an exam of homework with many problems, you should grade one problem for all students in one sitting. Don’t grade the entire exam and then start on the next entire exam. This will also allow you to stay consistent between students, not look at their name before you grade AND it is much faster, because you can focus on one solution/rubric at a time and not be switching. Most people take 15 minutes to switch between activities, so why would you do this to yourselves??
    • Communicate: All of these policies are for naught if you do not communicate to the students what you are doing or how you are doing it. Fairness is a policy that should be in your syllabus. Most current college students hold this principle above all others. If they prefer for bias (in their favor), you can stick to your principles of fairness in the name of most of the others.
  7. Look accessible. Notice, that I am not saying you should “Be Accessible.” You just need to appear to be accessible. They have to think you are and that helps them realize that you care. Here are a few ways I appear accessible.
    • I have evening office hours. I posted about this before here. Most students could not make my daytime office hours because of other classes and commitments. The office hours are not really office hours, but rather homework sessions which allow me to help more students at one time. It also helps the students to build cohorts. Some students cannot do evenings due to personal issues, and I will make a daytime session, if they ask me, but I prefer evening office hours.
    • I email them back and use instant messenger. This allows me to respond back relatively quickly. I don’t necessarily email back the night before a homework is due, though. I warn them about this before, and tell them it is a conscious, pedagogical choice, so that they will learn to time manage and come to evening office hours. They typically respect this because I am so responsive otherwise.

Whoa! That was a lot of information. Some of it I had touched on or detailed previously, but some of it is new. I hope you find it helpful to keep in mind as you start preparations for Fall semester! Comment or post here, if you have something more to add. I am sure I missed something or there are better ways to do things. Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post!

Getting Past Sexist Evaluations

WomanChemBlackBoardToday, I would like to comment on student evaluations. I have talked about them before here. There has been a lot of information about how sexist student evaluations are. Truly. If you haven’t seen it, take a look at this study where the professor’s genders were switched in an online course where the students and professors never even meet. Male names get higher scores than female names – always. Other analysis of the words used to describe men and women on show there are gendered words for women vs. men. How many times do we have to show it before you just believe us? It is true – ask any woman. Another study shows that gender bias can actually cause women scores to be lower even if they are more effective instructors. These studies and tons of anecdata come to one fact: the teaching evaluations of a woman WILL be lower than if she were a man.

The point of this blog is to help people, not to complain. So, I aim to help both the women and under-represented minorities, who will need to figure out how to combat clearly sexist/racist reviews and the senior colleagues (probably mostly white men, let’s face it) who will be evaluating them and seeing clearly sexist/racist reviews, or at least gendered reviews. For fun, I will start by quoting some anonymous and real statements made in the evaluations of women (also this video is hilariously funny on the same topic), as an example to show you the types of things that are clearly sexist that you should look out for:

“She wears very bright lipstick that was distracting.” (This professor reports that she doesn’t typically wear ANY lipstick.)

“Prof. WOS shows too much of her body.”

“Her clothing is distracting to the male students.” (This professor reports that she wore pants, boots, and t-shirts through the entire course.)

“She would be better off teaching kindergarten.”

“Really sweet but her laugh is annoying and she touches her hair too much.”

“Seems like a b*tch but really nice and friendly if you go see her in her office.”

“Nothing more than a glorified Vanna White, without the looks. Her lack of self-respect was evident in the way she dressed, with her frumpy attire.”

“She has a very loud voice for a woman.”

“Pregnant.” (Yes, that was literally the critique.)

FOR THE WOMEN: So, what can you do to protect yourself if you are a woman/minority at the receiving end of these disgusting, sexist/racist comments?

Talk about it with your colleagues. Honestly, people are way too quiet about their evaluations. When they are bad, we are scared to share them because we are embarrassed. When they are good, we are scared to share them because it is bragging, and you might make someone else feel badly about their scores. I am going to encourage you to get over your self-consciousness and show your evaluations to your colleagues and ask for help. Yes, this means showing them the sexist ones where they call you a fat pig, mock your clothes, or say you don’t know anything about your subject. In order to make progress and defend ourselves, we sometimes lose privacy. You must decide what you value more. I personally value the academic freedom of tenure more than privacy, but that is me.

Don’t Assume Others Understand or Know This Happens. Honestly, most of my male colleagues HAVE NEVER READ EVALUATIONS LIKE THESE. They have no idea the kind of cruel and frankly disgusting things students will write to women/minorities. This is because we live in a society that is inherently respectful to older, white, males (OWM). Yes, OWMs get criticism, I am not disputing that (“I would rather chew a mouthful of glass shards than take another class with Prof. OWM.”), but the criticism given to OWMs is not so debasing as the comments women get (“Prof. WoS dresses like a whore.”) Can you see the difference? You will likely, in addition to discussing your evaluations, bring some data and literature (references above, linked) to support your case.

Choose Your Allies. No, I am not advocating showing them to everyone. Pick the people you are sharing them with carefully. They should be people who will evaluate you who you trust. They should also preferably be people who are trusted within the department (see this post). Talking about this with another marginalized woman in your department IS NOT GOING TO HELP YOU. I am sorry, but I am being frank. You need to get the powerful, heavy hitting men on your side. (Having a powerful woman would help, but I don’t see as many of those in departments in the sciences.)

Make Sure They are Educated. When being evaluated (annually or at promotion), make sure someone on the committee not only knows about these comments, but can also point out that they are sexist and should be discounted. No one should bring up sexist comments in a case – they should be disregarded – but if they do, your ally can remind people about unconscious bias. Educate your allies about implicit bias with the references above and the implicit bias test. Arm your allies with the facts and data.

An example. A couple years ago, I co-taught with a white male ally in a class. We literally were in class AT THE SAME TIME. On the first day, we both spoke and went through the syllabus. He had spent an extra long time introducing me and giving my credentials. I, in turn, introduced him and gave his credentials. It was a pretty even split. At the end of class, he noticed that none of the students would come to ask me questions, but there was a line to talk to him. He pointed to me and said, “She is the instructor, too.” Afterwards, he said he was SHOCKED that the students did this. I wasn’t. It really opened his eyes to the bias of the students. At the end of the semester, my scores were significantly lower than his – despite the fact that we literally co-taught the course. I was there at the SAME TIME as him. In the SAME ROOM with him, talking to students, discussing the answers, etc… I talked to him about it, and it was clearly not fair. Luckily, he was on the annual faculty review committee (for yearly merit) that year. When my case came up, he described the sexism he saw and the fact that we co-taught the course – literally simultaneously. It was great to have someone to defend me in the meeting and set the record straight.

FOR THE REVIEWERS: If you are a more senior, more powerful, or more male faculty member, and want to help women, here is what I recommend:

Ask to Talk About the Evaluations. If you consider yourself a mentor or even a human being, it is not enough to just try to justify things after they come to a head, I recommend that you actually talk, discuss, and strategize with younger faculty about how they can combat the negative effects of sexist/racist evaluations. You will have to read the evaluations. If you think it is difficult to read these comments, just think about how the person being evaluated feels. Suck it up, and read them, so you know. Then, talk to the person. Try to cut through the bullshit to make the class better (take the criticism) and make some lemonade from those lemons. There are probably correctable actions in the comments. Fairness (or perceived fairness) in grading, being prepared, being on time, and returning assignments are all common complaints that are correctable. Other critiques, such as “Do more examples,” or “The exam wasn’t like the home work,” can be discussed. Basically every lazy student makes these same complaints. You can discuss how many examples are done and the exams, but probably the amount is just fine.

Evaluate the Person’s Teaching Yourself. You could sit in on a few classes and evaluate the teaching yourself. Many schools/departments already do this because they realize that evaluations are problematic. Many schools still don’t. There are some issues with this. If the person or students know there is an outside observer, it could skew the results – like a wave function collapse. What if the professor is rude, snappish, or otherwise terrible? You might not see it when you evaluate in person. Another issue is time. I understand it takes time to mentor someone and do these things. If it means someone’s career (tenure decision), isn’t it important that you do what you can – especially if the person is under-represented in your ranks?

Be an Ally. When evaluating the person for merit, promotion, or tenure, be an ally. Don’t let other colleagues gang up or misuse information that you know is biased. Remind your colleagues about unconscious bias. You can even go so far as to send out an implicit bias test, and challenge people to take it. Hopefully, you will have other allies. If not, you might have to discuss some things in private and let some other people know the types of terrible things students have written about the person.

These are my suggestions, but I am sure the readers have others. Post and comment here to continue the mentoring. Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.


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: 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 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.

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.

Guest Post: Rant and Meta-Rant

GuestPostEvery now and then a friendly WomanOfScience graces me with a guest post. This is one of those times. I think it is interesting and funny. The advice is buried in self-reflection, so please read deeply. Enjoy! (BTW: to get an email overtime I post, push the +Follow button).

Rant and Meta-Rant (a personal diatribe by a woman of STEM currently up for tenure in a research-intensive Engineering department)

PART 1: Rant (in which I say many wrong things)

My immediate reaction to the tenure vote in my department (about two weeks ago) was anger and rage and sadness.

I’d made a concerted five-year effort to network with the right people who would support my tenure case in an alien field; I’d taught classes mere weeks after learning the required content; I’d written grant after grant, which returned rejected with a constellation of insightful, occasionally deprecating, but usually all-too-apt criticisms; I’d spent uncountable hours training the students working in my lab while feeling that progress was painfully, glacially slow; I’d written and rewritten manuscripts to the point at which I’d lost faith in our work; I’d carefully circumnavigated the departmental and college politics as one of the very few women; I’d toiled (albeit not uncomplainingly) in the shadows of my colleagues who received internal accolades and support for their successes in publishing and grant writing, and regularly congratulated them on their successes; I’d organized seminars and the occasional party as the good wife of several organizations; and, most notably, I’d managed a time-consuming internal service duty for two years that was above and beyond what was typically asked of junior faculty. I was tired, I was frustrated, and I was angry. Why had I bothered with any of it?

I suppose that I have should mentioned first that my colleagues voted to give me tenure, right?

Dear readers: as the doyenne of wildly inappropriate emotional reactions, I wasn’t happy or proud or pleased. Instead, I lost my shit completely for two weeks.

I was sad that my department had not noticed that I was doing sound scholarly work; I was angry that said scholarly work wasn’t rewarded; and I was enraged that the non-scholarly demands on my time would only increase in the future. I grumbled (nay, raved) to anybody who would listen — and to the friendliest and most supportive ears (and in particular to one close friend, a junior superstar colleague who had tried to give me helpful advice for navigating my less-starry academic career) I was cruelest and most cutting. I wallowed in misery, loudly.

Then I ranted to two friendly WomenOfScience (the blogmaster and a colleague of similar status and seniority) and got walloped by a clue-by-four.


PART 2: Meta-Rant (in which I analyze the wrongness and try to refocus)

Long ago my graduate advisor told me that I was going to have to learn to live with myself; that, like it or not, my outsized over-the-top reactions were apparently hard-wired, and that I was going to have to figure out how to manage them whilst staying productive.

My mien is not that of the logical, dispassionate ur-scientist. I am enthusiastic and elated, then morose and melancholy. Charming, then churlish; articulate, then profane. (A colleague once asked me: “Is it a taxing effort to speak as precisely as you do?” My response: “No, but it’s overwhelming for the audience— that’s what the profanity is for.”) Bluntly, my disposition is not stereotypically “male.” (Neither is that of many men. Conversely, some women are dispassionate. YMMV. This is about my reactions.) To manage this roller-coaster, I relied upon my generation’s snark-and-irony filter: snide comments about rejections and failures generated the needed emotional distance. I made frequent comparisons to bigger / faster / stronger / greater accomplishments by others to openly disparage anything I’d done — and I used those comparisons to justify not seeking the support that would help me to further my career.

When I ranted to my Women of Science friends, I was hoping for validation — I wanted to hear that I’d been poorly handled by my department, that I had a case for complaint. Instead, I heard that (minus the sturm-und-drang) many academic scientists experience similar feelings during and after tenure. My WoS friends also had similar issues, but had gauged what they needed to further their careers and hence were more adept at asking for and receiving support.

This is all to say: I fucked up like whoa, dear readers.

I agreed to write down my rant for the Woman of Science because I think it is useful to identify those features of my larger-than-life emotional reactions that did not help me during the first five years of my career. I write this with some trepidation; my stylistic choices may be an obvious identifier for close friends and colleagues. I note also that many of my issues are more likely to arise in the context of research-intensive tenure-track positions; my colleagues at teaching-focused institutions or in adjunct positions may have very different sources of sadness and anger. Nonetheless, I hope that, by talking about my sea of troubles, I can help others of similarly non-stereotypical dispositions more readily navigate the slings and arrows of an academic scientific career.

(1) I had let the incessant and vocal self-criticism become unhealthy. Unhealthy for my career: I refused to put myself forward because I could always find a reason to not do so. (Similarly, I used my inclination to not self-promote to whine about others doing so.) Unhealthy for my well-being: I have destroyed several long-standing professional friendships in the last year through my litany of constant negative chatter. (This I deeply regret.)

(2) I had let stress dislodge my horse sense. Academic careers can metastasize; and mine had engulfed much of my sanity and physical health. (I get vigorous exercise several times per week, but less regularly than I had five years ago. Similarly, I eat more foods of convenience and cook less than I used to, due to time demands.)

(3) Most deleteriously, by focusing on external markers of success I’d forgotten the joy in doing my science. About five days before the tenure vote, one of my graduate students produced data that strongly supported a tentative physical picture that we had suggested. The data clearly and uncontrovertibly confirmed our speculative picture and suggested a range of follow-up studies. I was thrilled! And yet, five days later I’d completely forgotten how happy and rewarded I’d felt by careful, detailed, dedicated work.

The solutions are easy to state and difficult to implement (for me, least):

(1a) Be passionate about my work. Toot my own horn when appropriate.

(1b) Be relentlessly positive with colleagues.

(1c) Value my supportive friends.

(2a) Exercise.

(2b) Eat well.

(2c) Take personal time.

(3a) Do my science.

(3b) Tired of some annoying aspect of my job? Do my science.

(3c) Frustrated with politics? Do my science.

(3d) Feeling unappreciated? Do more science.


PART 3: Going forward: I hope that my tenure case will be successful, but it’s out of my hands. I’m working on repairing the friendships that I’ve damaged in the past years of self-focused misery. I’ve asked for aid with the more onerous service tasks. I’m writing positive emails to my graduate students to reinforce good work and professional development. I am taking joy in a friend’s recent announcement — as a sign that thoughtful scholarship can indeed be valued. And finally I’m focusing on my science when I feel the urge to rant and rave, trying to redirect my passions towards healthier outlets than my native pessimism.

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