Helping the Minoritized Achieve in Academic Science

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Networking at Grant Panels

WomanNetworkNetworking is so very important!! I cannot stress this enough. This is true at all levels. At early levels (student), it helps you to establish connections and can even get you a job (see this post). Pretenure, it is essential to get the word out that you exist and are doing things that people should pay attention to. You gotta go to conferences (old post) and network on campus (recent post). When you are senior, lack of travel and often result in lack of recognition, and getting back out there can be essential to re-starting after a long absence due to childcare or other issue (see this awesome post).

When you are a professor, another important place to network is on grant panels. Serving on grant panels is so important for so many reasons:

  1. You get to read grants. Good grants, crap grants, many in between grants. When I read grants, I not only try to evaluate the science, but I also use the time to think about how best to write grants. Of course, you have to get rid of the grants afterward, but you can think and even write down what was good about the writing, the style, the format. All these things matter to writing a great grant that gets funded.
  2. You get to meet other scientists. On grant panels, you spend an intimate 1-4 days with a group of scientists talking about science that can be funded, using your expertise, learning new things you never knew before, and basically interacting. You are also together at meals where you spend time talking about your family, your pets, your house, and all the other lifestyle stuff. Scientists have similar lifestyles no matter if you are from California, Texas, or Michigan. This is the networking. This is the close kind of network that you often only find at very small meetings. Grant panels are the smallest of meetings.
  3. You get to meet program officers. In addition to working with other scientists who may or may not be in your field, you also get to work with the program officers who will presumably have the opportunity to fund your research. You can figure out what types of science they like to find and how they like to interact with scientists. Different program officers like to hear more about motivation or technical stuff or diversity impacts. Plus, if you are already at a funding agency, you might be able to visit other program officers while you are there.

What is a grant panel like? I have a lot more experience serving on NSF panels and foundation proposal review panels, so that is what I will describe. If you have information about NIH, DOD, DOE, or other, please comment here! At NSF you have to come prepared and be early. Most program officers want you to have all your evaluations uploaded over a day early, so they can prioritize the discussion list. Be prepared – it takes over an hour to review a single proposal and write a review, so make sure you start early enough.

At the panel. The program officer will start with a little background or information you need for the panel. Good ones will describe implicit bias and how it is important to be aware of biases, so that you can avoid them.

Reviewing. The panel will begin to review each grant. Some panels prioritize the grants so that the obvious ones (all highly rated or all low rated) are discussed first and taken care of. Sometimes the bottom ones are completely triaged – not discussed at all. Most program officers will try to keep you on track by giving you only 12-15 minutes to discuss the proposal. One person will be the “lead” discussant and describe the strengths and weaknesses of the proposal. The second and possibly third reviewers will describe and additional and not previously described issues. Typically, a third or fourth assigned reviewer will serve as the scribe who will record what is said at the panel to give some inside information about what was said in the room and write up the panel summary that also goes to the proposers.

Serving as a virtual panelist. In a recent panel, I served as a virtual panelist. In this, I used my computer camera to interact with the panel. Frankly, I didn’t like it. It was harder to interact and network with others. I felt like it was also more difficult to be convincing. Most of the other virtual panelists had cameras, but not everyone, so I couldn’t use facial cues to help me be more convincing. Also, I realize that I typically use these meetings for networking – specifically with the women scientists on the panel. I am not sure if I will be a virtual panelist again.

Anything else I missed? Post or comment here. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Follow-Up Guest Post: Changing 20%

The following post was written by a fellow WomanOfScience. She wrote previously about Changing 20% (here) after I blogged about this as an effective way to make changes in teaching (here). I am so happy this blog works for someone – anyone! I love hearing from you. If you want to post anything relevant, please send me an email with your post:

I hope you enjoy this post. I did!

A year and a half ago, I was inspired by a post on improving teaching slowly, by only making 20% changes at a time. I decided to try out this drastically minimal model myself. Here is my report,.

In short, I love it. The 20% model seems to give me the experience and confidence that some, finite, but non-zero change is possible. In some ways, I think I learned to cut myself some slack, in a productive way. This new year, I could not think of a single new years resolution. I know I need work/change (still self critical), but I know the work/change is possible and can be done (some productive slack).

Specific notes on the teaching plan laid out previously, and how it fared, as it may be useful to others.

Changing 20% in teaching:
1. Use the half hour before each lecture as office hour.

This works extremely well if the same classroom is available for the half hour prior to the lecture. Students hung out before class (they had no where better to go!), I bantered with them if they didn’t have questions (something I learned from this blog, that professors don’t have to be serious all the time), and asked them to use the whiteboard to work out steps and to explain to me which steps they were stuck on. Quarter way through the semester, my kids began to write down their work on the board before approaching me, and sometimes resolved the problem among themselves in the process without me (which is great!). Half way into the semester, I would walk into the classroom and find them working on the board without my prompting, showing each other their work. This was completely adorable, and in total contrast to the desolate scene when I held office hours in my office for the same class.

This does not work too well if the classroom is not available prior to lecture. It seemed that the trouble of getting to a different place (my office) was just not worth it. I know they enjoyed it: early in the semester I dragged a few to my office, they were having fun and did not want to leave to lecture (urgh…). But the momentum never caught on. Almost all the way through the semester, I was still getting questions on when/where my office hours were.

That being said, my impression is that holding office hours during the time prior to lecture can only add to, and does not negatively impact, student learning. Its advantage is not fully realized if the classroom is not available, but there is no disadvantage that surfaced in my experience. As an instructor, it still helps me consolidate time and task, so I would recommend it still.

2. Use the last five minutes of each lecture as an open floor Q&A.

I didn’t always remember to do this. I always hung around a bit, but I think making a habit out of explicitly seeking questions from them would be good. This is my next 20%.

My next goal is to changing 20% in management: Set clear, achievable, short-term goals to aid student progress.
I have a hard time being firm, for fear of various stereotypes… But why? Who suffers in this process? We all lose. I lose because, well, it’s obvious. The students lose, because they are there at least in part to receive training and mentoring.

I have started asking my students to set weekly goals, and document their last week’ progress and next week’s goal in our weekly meeting via a single powerpoint. The goals are set by the students, I give input on the scope of the goals. Whenever I can, I reiterate and emphasize the importance of 20% model: don’t plan to complete the entire project next week, but complete one achievable piece of the puzzle to push the project forward.

So this is my report. Looking back, I can see substantial personal and professional growth. I am rather impressed by the effectiveness of the 20% model. I now tell everyone about it, scientists, starving artists. I am interested and excited in how this model might work for building my management skills.

Management: Difficult Convos

ConvosOne of the most important and difficult things about being the boss is that you have to tell people things they might not like to hear. I have written about this before, but this time, I am going to actually have some advice for how to conduct these types of conversations from my recent supervisors management course.

One thing I learned from the course is that in the corporate world people don’t get feedback very often. Sometimes people do things incorrectly or poorly for years without being told. Supervisors often give a performance evaluation once per year, and if they chicken out about telling it straight, people can go for years without getting correction. One main point of this class was to say that supervisors need to give rapid and specific feedback to employees as soon as possible. That means having a conversation with the person as soon as possible addressing the issues that are occurring.

At first, I was surprised to hear that feedback is so slow in corporate situations, because I feel like in scientific research, we are constantly giving feedback to make sure our students are doing the work correctly. Then I thought about other things you have to give feedback on, personal things that you may not want to have to say. Like, a student who won’t wear shoes at his desk. These types of things are easier to try to ignore, but probably shouldn’t be ignored.

OK, so what is the best way to give difficult feedback? Here is a synthesized strategy:

  1. Make a plan for the conversation and write it down (an agenda) so that you don’t forget or lose track.
    1. First, start with something positive that your student is doing. Are they punctual? Did they come up with a good idea recently?
    2. Second, state the issue. If there are several, limit each conversation to 2 issues at most. You should have several motivations for why the person should make the change you need. If you are worried the person will be challenging, you should make sure you understand all the expectations and rules for the person.  Example: If your student is not coming into lab enough, you could remind him/her that the lab is a team that that other people rely on him/her to be present. If the person is a senior personnel in the lab, the junior people will need him/her to be present for safety reasons.
    3. Finally, make plans for corrective actions or ways to help the person overcome the issue. For example, if the student is missing time in the lab for a personal reason, perhaps the person needs to take some personal time to figure out the situation. Maybe the person really didn’t realize that they needed to work in the lab and was working at a coffee shop, but they were not letting you know. Clarifying the expectations of the position and setting clear methods of communication.
  1. Control Your Emotions.

You cannot have these conversations if you are emotional. You have to stay calm. If you are very angry about their person’s behavior, you should give yourself time to calm down before you have the conversation. For instance, I know that I am more likely to get upset if I don’t get enough sleep. Thus, I will cancel a meeting over a difficult conversation if I did not get enough sleep or have other stressors. If you feel like you are losing control, ask to stop and reschedule the meeting for another time when you are in control.

  1. Start positive.

When you get in the meeting, use your plan and start with the positive thing about the person.

  1. Focus on Actions and Behaviors – not on personality.
    1. Use your plan to make sure you are only discussing the behavior of the person. What are they doing that needs to be corrected.
    2. Most importantly, the discussion can not be about their personality nor about how you are feeling or how they perceive things.
    3. If they try to derail you, make sure you stay on topic of the behavior and the corrective actions. For example, they might say, “Well, no one else has to be in the lab. How come I am the only one being singled out?” You can say that this discussion is not about other people, but about their actions.  Such derailing comments or details are meant to try to make you defocus from what the real issue is. They are defense mechanisms, but you have to be strong against them. It can be very difficult. Role playing or practicing with someone else may help if you are particularly susceptible to these types of comments.
  1. Stop Talking. Seek Confirmation.

 Once you outline the issues, make sure that your student understands what you are saying. You may have to get them to say it back to you. This step is especially important if you are an extrovert and the student is an introvert. They may need time to think about what you said and process it. If you are an extrovert who hates silences in the conversation, you will have to try to control the urge to speak while they process. If you are an introvert and they are an extrovert, they might become defensive quickly. Make sure they understand exactly which actions or behaviors are being described and don’t let them derail you.

  1. Reaffirm your confidence in them.

 This is an affirmation of the positive. You can say something like, “You have been doing great work, but I just need to see more of you in the lab, so that the lab can work more productively as a team.”

  1. Determine the reason for the behavior.

 This is part of your plan (see #1). You should try to figure out why the behavior is occurring? What is the underlying reason for the actions that are not good. Is it that an expectation was not conveyed clearly? Is it there a personal reason for the change in behavior? Is there a new policy that was not made clear?

  1. Suggest solutions to solve problem.

Sometimes it can be as easy as letting the person know, and having them say, “Oh, I didn’t realize. I will fix that.” Unfortunately, sometimes the problem is more difficult, and you need to suggest solutions that will help rectify the actions. If it is a personal issue, you have to be able to suggest a solution without trying to be involved in the problem. Sometimes, that just means they need time, or they need to take sick leave or family leave. You should make sure that the expectations of the leave are clear, or you will find yourself back having another conversation about how they need to come back to work. Set timelines for any alterations and make sure the changes jive with the person’s job expectations and any union contract rules. This is what I mean by making sure you know all the expectations and rule for the person’s position. Many people in academia (grad students and postdocs) are now unionized. Make sure you are aware of all the rules for the union so that you comply with the rules. Have your ducks in a row before the meeting, if possible.

  1. Document the feedback.
    1. After the conversation and the agreed upon solution, you need to document the solution and let all parties who need to know the result in writing. This usually means sending an email to all parties, but if the person’s issue is that they don’t check email, print a copy and give it to them.
    2. In the email/letter make sure that you detail what the issue was (what behavior or action was not good and was discussed) and also document what was decided for the solution with as much detail as possible. If the student is taking time for a personal issue, make sure that you set specific dates and times for expected return to full time.

Notice that there is a right and wrong time to communicate over email. When documenting the conversation and the solutions, you email. Do not email to discuss. That is never good! These conversations should be done in person and in private – in your office is probably best with the door closed.  Don’t have these conversations in the lab in front of other people.

There is a big, big difference between being a research PI and being a supervisor in an office. For instance, we are actively trying to change our supervises through active training and mentoring. Supervisors in other settings cannot expect to change their personnel, but should work with the people they have and place them in the best positions and project to play up to their strengths. As PIs, we are suppose to build on strengths, but also work on weaknesses (such as writing or presentation skills). PIs have to provide constant constructive criticism of our students to help them grow and to learn. This type of criticism is another type of feedback about the science and the work, and it is better to do in public so that the entire lab can learn from the scientific mistakes of the others in the group. This type of feedback is not personal and is not really behavioral. Unfortunately, sometimes students can be very sensitive to the critiques offered about their work. They take it personal. If you sense that your student is becoming defensive or upset about your feedback, it is best to probably address this in a private conversation. You may need to think about how you are delivering your critiques – ask them about exactly what they are reacting to and why they are getting defensive. Don’t let them derail you or avoid the answer – make them be specific, or else you cannot change. It is also typical that the student is actually being too sensitive. The student may need to think about how they are receiving your feedback.

So, what do you think? Is this doable? It will take practice. I printed out a cheat sheet and tacked to behind where most of my students sit in my office. I am hoping that will help me stay focused and stick to the plan for my conversations. Post or comment your thoughts. To receive an email every time I post, click the +Follow button.

Management: Know Thyself and Themselves

Myers-BriggsThe first week of the supervisory management course was all about getting to know who you are and who the people you manage are. The course I am taking decided to go the classic route: Myers-Briggs. The Myers-Briggs is a personality test that classifies your personality using 4 descriptors. Also, did you know that Myers and Briggs were a mother-daughter science pair? Pretty cool. Anyway, in the test, you answer some questions, and it uses your answers to give you some feedback about your personality. You can find an online version here. Other versions cost money, and are more detailed, but they are pretty similar. I should say that almost everyone I talked to who took a management or leadership course started by taking some sort of personality test. It didn’t really matter on the exact type of test, but they all basically had the same result – getting to know yourself.

After you take the test, you get put into personality type categories. For the Myers-Briggs, the four categories are:

Extravert (E) or Introvert (I)

Sensing (S) of Intuition (N)

Thinking (T) or Feeling (F)

Judging (J) or Perceiving (P)

Some of the names are unfortunate because there are good/bad connotations, but you have to understand that each one is a measure of how you intrinsically deal with the world in a variety of ways. Also, the personality type you get depends on where you are and what you are doing. For instance, my personal personality type was different when I was at home with my kids than when I was at work.

Extravert (E) or Introvert (I): This is about energy. How do you draw energy and what spends your energy. If you are an extrovert, you get energized by hanging out with people and talking. Being alone is draining for an extravert.  If you are an introvert, hanging out with people is tiring and takes up energy, but being alone is revitalizing.

A fun exercise to do with your research group: Have them line up based on how extroverted or introverted they believe they are with extreme cases at the far ends. Working with the 2-3 people nearest them have them answer this question: How do you feel and act if you have to go to a party for work? Do you want to go to the party? When you are there, who do you talk to? The answers are quite interesting. You will find the introverts will not want to go to the party and will only talk to people they already know. Extraverts will be fine or excited about going to the party and will talk to all new people.

Things to think about when managing or talking to extraverts: They think out loud and may say things off the cuff but not truly believe them. They may seem more into or excited about things than they really are. They often hate silence in conversations.

Things to think about when managing or talking to introverts: They are more likely to think before speaking and may need time to think about the ideas before they answer. They may seem unexcited or less attached to ideas than they actually are. They are comfortable with silence in conversations.

Sensing (S) of Intuition (N): This is about information gathering. How do you notice or take in information about the world around you. Do you notice the forest (broad, general) or the trees (individual components, close). If you are a sensing, you are interested in the details and have a high attention to detail – you are interested in the trees.  If you are an intuition, you are interested in generalizations and larger concepts – you are interested in the forest.

A fun exercise to do with your research group: Have them line up based on how sensing (detailed) or intuition (general) they believe they are with extreme cases at the far ends. Working with the 2-3 people nearest them have them answer this question: Give directions from the room you are in to your house. Sensing people will give very specific directions using cardinal directions, street names, and landmarks. They will likely even give directions about how to get to the street from the room. Extreme intuition people will give very general directions – maybe point toward their house and say, “that way.” In my research group, people were pretty in the middle, which I think is a good thing for experimental scientists. They are focused enough to see the details to follow the directions correctly, but are interested in the big picture about what the experiment is saying.

Things to think about when managing or talking to sensing: They will need a lot of details. Giving general directions about what you want them to do, will not work. If you are an extreme intuition person, you will have to try to be a bit more specific when talking to students who are sensing.

Things to think about when managing or talking to intuition: They will be fine with less detail, and will think you are micromanaging, if you give them too much detail. On the other hand, they might not be able to determine the details and might not have an attention for detail needed for complex experiments or analysis.

Thinking (T) or Feeling (F): This is about decision making. What do you consider most when making a decision? Do you rely on facts? Or are people’s feelings more important to you? If you are thinking, you make decisions based on the facts and that is more important than people’s feelings. You will be a hard-ass, if you need to be. If you are feeling, the most important thing to you is how others feel. The facts are not as important as making others happy.

A fun exercise to do with your research group: Have them line up based on how thinking or feeling they believe they are with extreme cases at the far ends. Working with the 2-3 people nearest them have them answer this question: How do you pick a gift for someone else? Thinking people will try to pick out something useful and extreme thinkings will just opt for money – the ultimate useful gift. Feeling people will not just want to buy a personal gift, they will often want to make the gift for the person. As a follow-up question, ask them: Do you want to be present when the person opens the gift?

Things to think about when managing or talking to thinking: They will value and be convinced by facts over emotions of feelings. Use data and facts for examples and to convince them of your decisions.

Things to think about when managing or talking to feeling: They will care more about the personal feelings of people. You can make emotional pleas with them to convince them of your decisions.

Judging (J) or Perceiving (P): This is about how you organize yourself and your work. Judging people will pursue things linearly. They make lists, and they have a straight-forward approach to solving a problem. They don’t necessarily have clean desks, but the mess is organized. They prefer deadlines and might self-impose deadlines. Perceiving people work sporadically seemingly on disparate parts of the project. They can seem disorganized and often work best under pressure of a deadline.

There is no fun exercise on this. Most people think that the judging way of doing things, with making lists and approaching problems linearly, is the best way to go about getting work done. Because of that, most people will think they are judging, even if they aren’t.

Things to think about when managing or talking to judging: They will work best when given direct instructions in a linear fashion. It is best to give them deadlines and specific straightforward instructions.

Things to think about when managing or talking to perceiving: They will work best on a variety of things within a bigger project at the same time. They will need help keeping track of what they have already done, and making sure they don’t lose track of the tasks needed to be done. Many people are naturally perceiving, but try to force themselves to be judging. By understanding their true nature, you will at least understand their natural tendency, even if you both agree that a linear fashion is the best way – it might not be possible for a perceiving person to perform their tasks linearly.


I did these activities with my lab and I asked them to take the Myers-Briggs. They thought it was fun and interesting. It was a great way to get to know their peers and how they experience the world. It was super fun! I have a WomanOfScience friend who says she has always done this with her research group, and it really helps her to understand where her students are coming from and how they make decisions and can be convinced and persuaded of what is best for them (this is important when giving feedback – more on that in future posts!).

What do you think? Do you do this? Do you already know how your students are? Post or comment here. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

More Management Stuff

S._Sgt._Lorraine_Robitaille,_switchboard_supervisor,_from_Duluth,_Minnesota,_looks_down_the_line_of_the_Victory..._-_NARA_-_199009Over the past year and a half of this blog (has it been that long?) I have had a number of posts about research group management (i.e. here, here, here, here, herehere, and here). Wow! That’s a lot. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to manage my group well, but I don’t always think that I succeed. I had previously lamented before that I could not find a course locally to help with leadership or management. Well, I am happy to say that I have found and I am currently enrolled and taking such a course at my university.

How I found a course: Every year, we get a flyer about workplace development at UState. In some years, I went through it looking for interesting courses that would help me, but found nothing. Other years, I was so overwhelmed with stuff and getting tenure that I have no idea if i even got the flyer. This year, I noticed, looked, and saw two courses. One was half day workshop on stuff that seemed useful, but the one I signed up for meets 7 weeks for three hour sessions and is about being a Supervisor. A supervisor! That is what I am! I was using the wrong word before. This is why I stink at Googling. Anyway, I found the course and signed up.

Who this course is for: This course is geared toward anyone at UState who supervises others. It is also geared toward staff. The course has a majority of participants who are on campus staff, several participants who work for local non-profits and the local town governments, and two professors – myself and another WomanOfScience I convinced to take the course. The sessions are 3 hours every week for 7 weeks, and the time is during a seminar that I normally attend, so I am giving up some things to attend this course. I was a bit worried that they wouldn’t professors take the course, but we were welcomed to the course.

Is it good?: We have had two sessions (I will talk more about them in follow-up posts), and I am very happy with it. I feel like I am learning a lot! I would highly recommend taking  course like this. Also, having the course mostly filled with “normal people” who do not live for their jobs, but rather deal with a 9-5 business is good. It is great to see that they have similar issues that academics have. The course is taught in an active learning style where we discuss in small groups, share with the class, role play, and often do kinesthetic activities. Also, even though it is 3 hours, the time flies by, because the topic is interesting and I am very excited in learning about it.

So, I will be giving some updates about both the lessons I am learning and the effectiveness of trying to implement these lessons over the next few weeks. Stay tuned to have a bad version of a second-hand management course. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Miscarriages Happen

ICSI_WebAlthough a lot of the advice and stories on this blog are not necessarily for women only, there are some issues that are specific to women. For instance, I should have taken more bathroom breaks during my recent seminar trip. I was saved by wearing very dark jeans… The women know what I am talking about.

During my seminar visit, I had an explosion of women’s issues emails from 3 different women. Many of these were really specific women’s issues, and this post is one of them. Please enjoy!

I’ve had three miscarriages. There, I said it. I asked to write this guest post to highlight the cultural taboo against discussing miscarriages and infertility, and argue that this is a BAD THING. It’s a double standard that hurts women, especially those in academia with the special time pressure associated with being on the tenure track.

I am an assistant professor at Average Private University; this is my fourth year on the tenure track. Overall I really like my job and my department is great and friendly. My husband is also an assistant professor at APU, so we managed the two-body problem, which is a whole separate post. I have one wonderful daughter who is a year and a half old. Between her and the three miscarriages I’ve been pregnant or breastfeeding for about 3 of the 3.5 years I’ve been on tenure track.

Only two of my department colleagues know this. I have generally been fairly sick during the first trimester of pregnancy: vomiting, dizziness, extreme fatigue. But I didn’t feel comfortable telling most work colleagues about these issues, because you’re not supposed to tell anyone you’re pregnant until the second trimester. Why? Because what if you miscarry?

All three miscarriages also happened late enough in the first trimester that my doctor recommended surgery. In some sense I was lucky; I can’t imagine having a miscarriage or stillbirth in the second or third trimester. But in any case, I had to go in for outpatient surgery three times over the past three years. Of course, all three had to be scheduled during important faculty meetings. Did I feel comfortable explaining to my colleagues why I was absent from these important faculty meetings? No. Now I wonder how many of them think that I’m flaking out on faculty meetings and shirking my responsibilities as a faculty member.

This is bull. If my non-pregnant colleagues had the same symptoms I did, they would definitely go see a doctor, perhaps even take a few days of medical leave, and most of them would be perfectly willing to explain to other colleagues that they were behind because they weren’t feeling well. They would certainly tell a colleague they missed a faculty meeting because they had surgery.

This is not just academic. I know of a colleague who struggled with infertility (which can also be a taboo subject) and missed a lot of department functions/meetings while dealing with testing and treatment for that issue. Her department did not strongly endorse her for tenure, and the tenure process turned into a mess. While of course there’s a lot more to the story, I think the fact that she was dealing with infertility instead of a different medical issue made it more difficult for her to get the time off of work and the empathy and understanding of her peers.

And its not just work colleagues. Over the past three and a half years, I’ve turned down countless social invitations and opportunities to have fun because I was too “morning sick” to go or I didn’t want to explain why I wasn’t drinking alcohol or I was too emotionally/physically exhausted from the miscarriages themselves. In many cases, people have just stopped inviting me because I never say yes, and I don’t blame them. I’ve also heard more than a few stories of women who went to great lengths to hide the fact that they weren’t drinking due to pregnancy; one friend would fill up an empty beer can with water and carry it around for an entire party. Can I just say that THIS IS INSANE? I – we — should be able to explain to social acquaintances and potential new friends that we are sick and/or pregnant and provide some context for our absences or behaviors.

Why are miscarriages and infertility such a verboten subject? Many reasons, of course. It probably ties into our society’s general ambiguity about the human status of a fetus throughout pregnancy. I think it mostly ties into the fact that for almost all of human history, women who couldn’t (or chose not to) have babies were third-class (or worse) citizens. Women were supposed to have babies, and if they couldn’t, it was due to an inherent flaw in their womanhood. While most of us would acknowledge that this is complete crap, that narrative persists in our collective inability to discuss miscarriage and infertility.

It’s certainly not uncommon; unfortunately about 50% of conceptions end in miscarriage. To me as a scientist, it’s amazing that something as complicated as human development works out at all. (Of course, if it didn’t, we wouldn’t be here.) According to the US Department of Human Health and Human Services, about 10% of women struggle with infertility.

The statistics on miscarriage and infertility especially suck for academics. As discussed elsewhere, we often have to make difficult choices about when to try to have children, if we want them. Many folks (including me) decide to postpone until we get a tenure-track job (typically late 20’s, early 30’s) or get tenure (typically mid-to-late 30’s and beyond). This puts us at greater risk for miscarriages and infertility issues, and it also puts an increased pressure to keep trying NOW despite the emotional and physical toll of dealing with these medical problems.

So, what can I (we) do? I think that if I do have another pregnancy, and I have medical symptoms, I am going to openly tell colleagues early in the first trimester. It may make them a bit uncomfortable, and it will be difficult if I have to tell them that I miscarried again, but I think it beats the alternative, which is worrying that I might have a problem with tenure because of it. It also means that I can finally explain to people why I’m turning down social invitations, and say that I’d sure like to be invited again in about three months.

In general, I think women (and their partners) should be more willing to talk about our miscarriages/infertility and the way it affects our lives. By talking about it, we can make sure that women who experience these issues get the support they need instead of falling behind. Miscarriage or infertility is not something to be ashamed of, and it certainly shouldn’t hurt a person’s career.

So what do you think? What would you do? Tell early so people understand your medical conditions? Or not let them know because it is really none of their business. It is a tough call, but one we all have to make. Comment or post here. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

The Chain of Command

WomenPilotsAcademia is weird. Each research group is a little autonomous fiefdom where the professor is the lord and master. Yet, we are tied to and answer to a departmental structure. The department holds the key to our jobs at tenure and promotion time. We need the department to help us with administration. As I have said before, I think of my lab as a small business. I think of the department is the administrative unit that helps me run. It’s like being a small craft shop with an e-store on Etsy. I need the department to find students and manage my business, but the department doesn’t have much say about what goes on in my lab. So that is why it is sometimes weird when you have to go through the department structure to do things that you need for your research.

Yet, we do have a department and there is a chair, or a head, who is the leader of that department. The chair/head is responsible for many things – depending on your department. They are likely in charge of assigning committee work and teaching assignments. They might be in charge of space allocation and can give support for cost share on grants. Many times your chair/head is supposed to be your advocate and voice to help you get difficult of large things done. But, sometimes things don’t work that way. You have to go Around The Chain of Command.

I have a friend/mentor who was appalled by this idea. He is a department chair himself, and he advised me to never, ever go around my chair. But, I still think their are times when you have to risk it and go over the chairman’s head. If you have to go above your chair because they are not advocating for you like you need, you should be aware of the risks. If you succeed, you might not even need to say you are sorry for having bucked the chain of command. Here is an example from another WomanOfScience. Enjoy!

In my second year in my tenure track job, I did a small lab renovation to put in more electrical circuits. Of course, I soon purchased a piece of equipment that needed 208V instead of 110V. Classic new lab screw up. No problem, I had just had 8 110V circuits installed, and you only need to tie two 110V circuits together to make a 208V, right. Easy peasy? No. The guy from facilities or alterations or physical plant (yes, we have three, seemingly redundant groups on campus to do renovations that, of course, don’t talk to each other) came to visit and basically told me he couldn’t make the change for me. What? It was ridiculous. So I called back, hoping to get a different person. He came back. He told me I didn’t have enough circuits. See, he was confusing “outlets” with “circuits,” and he thought I was doing the same. Despite the fact that I had the circuits installed only 3 months earlier, he continued to tell me that I did not have enough “circuits” to do what I wanted.

{I would also like to point out that: (1) The facilities dude refused to look inside the circuit boxes to see how many circuits there were. (2) I got the impression that he thought I didn’t know what I was talking about because I look like I am an 18-year-old little girl. (We all know that you should judge a book by its cover, so I was probably incompetent.) (3) I continued to insist that I did have enough circuits, and told him to look up the recent renovation information that one of the other on campus groups (physical plant? alterations? facilities?) did. That was when I realized that my university did not keep records of renovations, nor did they share any plans or records with the other groups that did renovations on campus. (That’s a good bureaucracy!)}

During his third visit, he finally took out his screw driver from his tool belt and used it to open the box on the wall (gasp! what an idea!), where he proclaimed that I had 2 circuits inside each box and he could, in fact, tie them together to make a 208V circuit. (Duh! I told you that!)  This pursuit of getting the job approved took a several months, but at least they were going to move forward, right? Wrong. After that, all advances seemed to halt.

I went to my chair to get his help in pushing the renovation forward faster. I wanted him to advocate for me with the renovation people. My department chair told me he couldn’t do anything. His advice: If I wanted 208V, I should just punch a hole in the wall of my dark room lab to the lab on the other side and pull a 208V circuit from my colleague’s lab. WHAT THE F*CK?!?

Here are several reasons why this is not a good idea:

  1. The walls are cinder block and require a hammer drill to get through them.
  2. My lab needed to stay dark for my experiments.
  3. Such activities are illegal. The building is a state building and any renovations must be done by contract union workers.
  4. Such activities are dangerous because the equipment and wall are dangerous and the walls are full of asbestos. Further, I had equipment in the lab that I didn’t want accidentally damaged by reckless activities such as this.
  5. My neighbor is using the 208V circuit in his own lab that I was supposed to take.
  6. MY NEIGHBOR WAS PULLING 208V CIRCUIT FROM MY LAB IN THE FIRST PLACE. The reason why I couldn’t use the 208V circuit from my own lab was because (a) my colleague was already using it, and (b) because the circuit box was so old the plugs looked like something from a Mary Shelley novel, and I couldn’t actually use it legally because it wasn’t up to CODE.

So, what else could I do? I went over his head. I contacted the Vice Dean for Research in my College. I told him the situation and how long I had been waiting, and asked if he could find out what was taking so long. Within a week, I had the answer. They were waiting for Environmental Health and Safety to make sure their wasn’t asbestos in the electrical box. I told the ViceDean that this was ridiculous, since the box was brand new, as of  6 months ago, and it was highly unlikely that asbestos was used in the installation, and could he facilitate moving this forward and getting the redundant and silly inspection sped up? He did, and within a week after that, I was getting the circuit fixed, which literally took 1 hour. So, for a one hour job, it took about 5 months delay in the building of my lab. If I hadn’t gone over my chair’s head, I think it would have taken even longer.

So, this story illustrates that, although you should try to work through your department chair, sometimes you have to go around to get stuff done. In this case, the chair wasn’t mad at this WoS. But, there are other cases where going above your chair can get you in big trouble. Do you have any examples of when you went over your chair’s head and got in trouble? Was it worth it? Comment or post here. To follow this blog, pouch the +Follow button and type in your email.

Daily Choices

GoodSenseCorsetWaists1886page153I read an interesting article from another science blogger, Rigoberto Hernandez, on his blog EveryWhereChemistry. He had a recent interesting blog entry about what to spend your time on daily, where he compared the choices to Horcruxes and Hallows. Please go to read it. But, it got me to thinking about the different types of tasks we have presented to us daily, and the choices we make. The specific tasks depend on what level you are at, but the fact that you have to make the choices never changes.

Graduate School: In graduate school the choices should be easier, but they still exist. Should you attend that friend’s defense, or work on your paper? Should you take more data today, or analyze the data you already got, but aren’t sure if it worked? Should you spend a few months learning how to program to make your data analysis automated, or should you analyze it by hand to get it out faster, and will it really be faster?

Postdoc: As a postdoc, you are still focusing mostly on research, and you might have similar daily decisions similar to graduate school. Presumably, you figured out which are the right choices to keep advancing. As a postdoc, especially if you are fairly good, you are probably offered the ability to work on multiple projects. This can be very good for your career and your training. Good for your career because you could possibly get more papers out faster, which you need to get grants and get a job. Good for your training because as a faculty member, you will have to manage multiple projects that your students will work on. On a daily basis, you will have to decide which project to work on. Maybe you already tackled this issue as a senior graduate student, but postdocs are usually given more responsibility and more projects than graduate students. With multiple projects comes all the same decisions as on individual graduate projects, except multiplied.

Pre-tenure: Starting this job is like jumping into cold water. Now you have to teach, manage, write/obtain grants, initiate new research, train students, and on and on. That makes your daily choices so much harder. Should you spend your time working on your new class, writing a review article, writing a grant, working on research, meeting with students? The myriad of choices are endless. I would often divide the days into halves or 2-hour chunks and work on one thing for a set time before moving on to the next thing.

Post-tenure: If you made it past tenure, presumably you spent your time doing the right thing to achieve tenure – congratulations. With tenure comes a relaxation of the pressure to do what you have to do in favor of being able to do what you want to do.  So, what will you do? What will you choose to do each day? Somedays I find myself just putting out fires – doing a lot of things that are urgent but not important. Other days, I opt to work in the lab with students when I probably should be writing that next grant. The daily choices are a bit harder when you don’t have the pressure or the excuse of looming tenure. It is harder to say no or to prioritize the way you did before. You often get piled upon with more service and larger teaching loads. Unlike at the other stages, when you are still trying to make it, there is less advise for this stage, so you try to do the best you can, but are you making the right choice? Should I work on that paper to resubmit it to a new journal, or write that new grant, or work with that new student in the group?

I don’t know if I have advise here, since we all navigate these waters alone. What do you think? Any good ways to keep your priorities straight after tenure? Post or comment here. Follow this blog but hitting the +Follow button.

New Faculty Needs

WomenTrainingI was chatting with some new and not-so-new faculty recently. We all agreed that the first year of being a faculty is really tough. The toughest part about it is trying to figure out how to do, well, EVERYTHING. We go from being postdocs where we are trained how to conduct science research, write science papers, maybe mentor and give talks to having to… manage physical space, manage people, manage money, teach students, write grant proposals, and more. Many schools have an orientation to help new faculty “adjust” to the new role, but we found many topics to be sorely lacking. Below, I list and discuss several topics that could go in a new faculty handbook, if any such thing existed.

Laboratory Safety. When you get to your new position, you must take laboratory safety along with the students of various ages. If you are hoping that the lab safety officers are going to help you out and tell you the extra you need to know to manage the safety of a lab of other people, guess again. You are just going to get the same schpeel you got as a grad students and as a postdoc. But, you really need more. Like, how do you fill out all the extra paperwork the university will require for you to even do what you need to do? Need lasers? Extra paperwork. Need to use recombinant DNA? Lots of extra paperwork. Need to use cells? Mammalian cells? Even more paperwork for Biosafety Level 2+. If I was to design an orientation for new faculty, it would have an option to have a faculty-specific lab safety course where they emphasized the managerial aspects of lab safety and gave you examples of the paperwork you will be required to write out.

Grants and Contracts. Although there is some orientation about writing grants, it would be good to get some pointers on some of the drudgery of grant-writing. For instance, no one informed me at first about the 5 business-day rule.. you know… that you have to get your grant into the university grant office 5 business days in advance? Does the university require a full budget? Even if the granting agency doesn’t? How do you use the online submission software to submit your budget and proposal to the university for approval? Some of these items probably have training sessions of their own, so keep your eyes open, but a handbook of the basics would have helped a lot.

College Administrators and Their Duties. At the college level, there are likely various associate deans. Some may be assigned to new faculty development, some are designated for research, others are for teaching. Knowing which is which will help you when your lab needs new electrical or something comes up with the course you are teaching. Also, does your college have grant-writing support staff? Or is that housed at the departmental level? Where is the person who is supposed to help you write up budgets? It seems like a small thing that you should be able to do, but the rates of pay for you, your postdocs, and grad students change fairly often at my school, and I never seem to know who gets how much. Having someone to help with that is huge.

Departmental Administrator Duties. This was a big issue for me. Our department has several administrative assistants, but I had no idea who did what. I learned the hard way by asking the wrong person repeatedly and being rerouted. I really needed an ides of which admins did which jobs because our understaffed department had them all wearing multiple hats. Another issues was that sometimes they actually didn’t know how to do what I was asking. Sometimes it was because it really wasn’t their job. Even though my postdoc department had someone who’s job was to do XYZ thing, that responsibility was now mine here. Or, sometimes it was something they should do, but no one ever asked before. Since most faculty come into a department one at a time, having a department-level orientation is probably fairly uncommon. If you are a new faculty and you have a senior-faculty mentor – ask them and take notes on what they say. I wish I had done that. I wasted a lot of time running after administrative assistants asking them for stuff they didn’t do or know how to do.

If you made it through that, and your still want advice from me, check out these older posts with advice on starting your new job:

LabOf OneWhatDoIDo?YouBelongHiringWoesManagementSolutionsGettingCopiesOfGrants

What do you think? Post or comment! Click the +Follow button to receive an email every time I post.


NegotiationsA former student of a colleague was coming back to visit and brought some great news. He had landed a big fancy-named fellowship and a job offer. He started asking me questions that one has when put into a new situation – a rare situation – negotiations. He was at the negotiations stage. This is something that you don’t get to do very often, and thus, none of us are all that practiced at it. I have had a couple older posts about negotiating (Everything and Practice and StartUp).

One of the interesting things I noticed was that this student had not received much help from his advisors about how to go about the job search nor about negotiations. As I kept giving him advice on this and that, much of which was covered in the previous posts, he was very enthusiastically eating it up. It felt good to mentor this student to whom I thought I could have offered nothing.

As I was recently traveling, I had many conversations with other WomenOfScience that I do not usually get to interact with. One was a woman who did a particularly spectacular job at negotiating her first position, so we discussed some tactics and of negotiation. Although she negotiated everything from salary to office furniture, she warned against looking greedy and being too picky. She suggested that one strategy is to prioritize your request list. For instance, equipment for your experiments is likely to be crucial. Money for people is probably essential.

As I think back on my own original negotiations, I know I did things wrong the first time. I was very bad at negotiating my salary. I knew it was important, but I felt like I was negotiating my husband’s salary and his whole job, and I shouldn’t look too greedy (see previous post on solving the Two-Body Problem). I think not negotiating my salary at all was a mistake. Even starting a few $1000 ahead would have been better. I think this is very typical for women. Further, society tells us that women who ask for more money (even equal pay) are greedy and that is somehow less tolerable in women than in men. Men who ask for more money are not as likely to be thought of as greedy. There is some advice I have heard recently that I think is good to help overcome this: When you need to negotiate for more money – don’t think you are negotiating it for yourself, but rather for your family. You need more money so that your family has a better life. I think that would have helped me. Your salary is for your family to make sure they can live comfortably while you are busting your hump getting tenure – make sure you frame it that way in your mind.

I didn’t have any trouble negotiating for what I needed for my lab, because it was, in effect, not just for me, but also for the department and the lab, which is bigger than just me. If I could have framed some of the other aspects – salary and other personal needs – in a bigger context, I think I would have been more successful negotiating for those things.

What do you think? Any advice or suggestions to help others negotiate better? Post or comment. To get emails whenever I post, push the +Follow button.

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