Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

Sabbatical Lies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiring – Better Advice

HelpWantedI have tried to write about this before (post), but I think I was asking more questions and had fewer answers. After almost a decade of doing this, I think I have now learned some things – or at least made enough mistakes – that I can speak relatively intelligently about how best to hire. As always, there are multiple types of people you can hire for a research group. Undergraduates, technicians, graduate students, postdoctoral students, research scientists, administrative assistants, etc… Of course, as a faculty member, you will also have the opportunity to have a say about other faculty and staff hires in the department. Those are typically done by committee, and I have opinions about that process, too (more to come in future posts). This post is about some recent new practices that have been successful to hire people for your research group.

  1. Undergrads. OK, I don’t have much of a bar for undergrads. I do have a small hurdle. They have to fill out an application to be in the lab. The application is available on my website, or I send it to them when they request information about how to join the lab. When they turn in the application, they have to make an appointment to see me.  At that meeting, I describe the lab, some of the science, and how we run things. If they are still interested, they have to fill out an undergraduate contract. The contract has more specific expectations for hours and work. On the front, we decide together on how we will compensate the student: money via work study, credit via independent study, or volunteering. I am specific about the weekly hours, compensation, and I email the undergraduate program director or the personnel person in charge of getting the students paid at that meeting. We flip the contract, and outline the science that the student will do during their semester. I photocopy the contract – front and back – and keep the original, signed by both myself and the student, and they keep the copy. I have outlined this in previous posts, but it was a bit buried (post). Basically, if you are interested enough to fill out an application and make a meeting with me, you can be an undergrad in the lab.
  2. Grad students. I am apart of two different graduate programs because what I do is interdisciplinary. One program has formal rotations. The students actually work in your lab for a semester, and get to know how you work and vice versa. After two rotations, they pick an advisor, and that is where they stay until they graduate (or leave the program). The other program I am in does not do rotations. In fact, there is no formal, helpful mechanism for students to find their advisors. They basically have to try a couple, have some false starts, and then decide. It is like the most awkward dating game ever (previously described here).  They usually decide based on science, which I do not advocate (see post). For the students from the second program, I basically make them do a rotation over the summer for three months that I pay for out of pocket. At the beginning, I explain that it is a trial period, I even put it in writing. I pay them for their summer work, but that is the only commitment I make until the end of the trial. After the trail period, we have a meeting to discuss if they would like to continue to work in the lab.
  3. Postdocs. I recently hired a few postdocs. I had trouble getting good applicants for one, but had several reasonable applicants for the other. For both positions, I put out ads online. I think that was good because figuring out who has openings can be hard for recent grads who are applying (see post). In order to post an ad, I have to go through a formal process through my university equal opportunity office. Honestly, it totally sucked. They made it really long and difficult to get my ad out and to complete the hiring process. It basically took 6 months to fill one of the positions. This is terrible if you have to have results within a year for a grant. Once the ads were official and posted online, I started getting applications, and I definitely think I got applications from candidates who would not have applied if I had gone through the grapevine only. I made a spreadsheet for the applicants and set up a series of requirements including minimal requirements (which eliminated some applicants, but not many), and then preferred requirements. All the applicants who made it past that point were contacted to have a Skype interview, and I contacted all their references. In the Skype interview, I asked them about their work and described the lab. I basically tried to tell if they had some sort of red flag, but it is difficult to determine. The most important thing was to contact the references and ask them very direct questions about the applicant. I had a two-page set of questions (it really only took 30 minutes) where I asked about their research abilities, communications skills, work ethics, goals, and their personality and ability to get along with others. The last two questions I ask are: 1. Would you hire this person in your lab as a postdoc? and 2. Are there any red flags? You would be surprised at the number of people who say “no” to the first question. For the second question, this is important to make it clear that I cannot tolerate having a bad personality in a small lab, and I need to know if the person has issues. Honestly, every time I have called the references, and asked these questions over the phone, I made good hires. When I didn’t, I made bad hires. So, the most important thing in my mind is to CALL THE REFERENCES! After the references were good, and when possible, I had the applicant interview in person in the lab. I set up a whole day where they talked to other professors, gave a one hour talk on their research, and had lunch with the lab members at the faculty club without me. This last step was the most crucial because it was a litmus test of personality for the lab. I did not hire people based on this test if the people felt the interviewee was a jerk. In a small lab, the personality is crucial, but difficult for me to judge. The lab is a better judge, and I have to remember to always listen to them, no matter how good an applicant looks on paper.
  4. Technicians. I have hired a couple technicians/lab managers that didn’t work out so well. I now use the same process as for postdocs, and I think that will work better. Currently, I have a new technician who “grew up” in my lab starting as an undergrad and then a master’s student. This is a really great way to get a technician, but it is not exactly easy or common to find an excellent undergrad who wants to go this route.
  5. All. Lunch with current lab members. The lunch with the lab is the most important part of any interview, I think. I can’t tell you the number of interviewees who say stupid shit to the students when covering up their crazy for me. Plus, the personality meshing is so important, especially for a small lab. There could be a concern about racism or sexism, but educating students about their cultural biases, they can work to overcome them, as we all could and should.

So, what do you think? Any good advice on how best to hire people for your research group? Comment or post here. o get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Choosing an Advisor: Choosing Wisely

indiana-jones-last-crusade-grailRemember that scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when he makes it through all the trials to the room full of “Holy Grail” cups? When the old knight who kept watch on everything tells them to choose a cup and cautions them to “choose wisely,” and the Nazi totally screws up and picks the prettiest cup, and he basically melts into a puddle of Nazi-scum. Then the knight says, obviously, “He chose poorly.” Then Indie comes along and chooses an ugly, small, little cup, and he drinks and is fine, and Capt. Obvious lauds Indie for choosing wisely? Why am I bringing this up? Because, you need to choose wisely when choosing an advisor. There are many time points when you will choose an advisor including undergraduate, graduate, and postdoc. Interactions with your advisor can make your job a joy or a living hell. So, choosing wisely is very important.

I was asked to write this post months ago, and I went out to a number of students and postdocs to get their opinions. Unfortunately for you, dear readers, none of them responded. So, you will have to hear my personal opinions. Maybe by writing things, some of which they may or may not agree with, they will be prodded into the act of writing? Maybe not.

OK, so here are my *pearls of wisdom* for you.

  1. Work-Life Balance. If you want to have work-life balance, make sure that the advisor you pick has work-life balance.  If they do not, they will not allow you to have it. Warning – just being a woman or having kids does not mean the person has work-life balance. My first time out, I picked an advisor who was a woman with a kid, and she had no concept of work-life balance. She was also very unsympathetic toward people without children trying to have work-life balance (see this recent post). She felt like people without kids should just work all the time.
  2. Type of criticism. Science is critical. See this post about taking criticism (post). Different advisors deliver critique in different ways. You need to find one that you can tolerate. Advisors are like coaches. You should see them that way. Like a coach or piano teacher, they will always find something wrong, even when you do it great. There is always room for improvement in science – especially when you are still learning. But, if someone delivers the criticism in a way you cannot tolerate, you will have a very hard time taking it.
  3. Time to degree/completion & post-job placement. How long is it going to take for you to get your Ph.D? How fast did previous students graduate? Do they have one paper? Several papers? What do they do when they leave the lab? Do they get good jobs? Do postdocs get jobs as faculty, if that is what they want? Do they go to industry? Where? Do grad students get good postdocs? Do undergrads go to good grad schools?
  4. Funding. Some people put this as the most important thing. I agree that if you have to TA the entire time as a grad student, it will limit how fast you can get your thesis done. And, if a person doesn’t have money for a postdoc, they obviously can’t hire you for one. The advisor needs to be successful at getting funding. Will they train you at getting funding yourself (fellowships or scholarships)?
  5. Resources. Funding is one type of resource, but are there other resources available? Is there time on the equipment? Or too few instruments to get on to do your experiments? Is there money to go to conferences? What about other knowledge or skills? What happens when the advisor wants to do learn something new? Do they let you flounder? Or send you to learn it from another lab?
  6. Other students. To me, this is the most important thing to do when visiting a lab. You must talk to the current students about the lab. They will likely be very frank with you about what they like and dislike. How happy are they? Do they have work-life balance? What do they not like about the advisor? When trying to decide about an advisor, I would definitely try to have lunch with the people already in the lab to see how they like the advisor. Ask about how the advisor gives criticism? How well other previous students have done with finding jobs after? How well is the lab managed for resources? Is there enough equipment? The right equipment? If you have to do something new, does the advisor let people flounder? How are new skills brought into the lab? How are the lab meetings run? Do people cry or get upset often? How does the advisor handle conflict in the lab? Avoidance? Do they micromanage? Does the advisor listen to complaints and criticism themselves? How does the lab operate? How do they give instruction? How do they set expectations? What is the make-up of the lab? How many undergrads, grad students, postdocs? I recommend having a list of questions for the lab members and making sure they answer all your questions.
  7. Advisors are not perfect. They make mistakes. If you found someone who is genuinely interested in your development as a scientist, they will probably still have a lot of other aspects you don’t like. As they say in the Muppet Movie, “peoples is peoples.” To me, that means that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. You are not entitled to a perfect advisor. Nobody is perfect. You are entitled to a certain level of respect and civility from your advisor. You are also entitled to expectations being set. You are entitled to progressive discipline if you make a mistake. The advisor is also entitled to respect because they have achieved a lot to make it to the professoriate. They are able to fire you if you are insubordinate – not even a union can protect you, if you do not do what is asked of you.
  8. How to work with a difficult advisor. I should write a whole post about this – hell, I should write a whole book about this – and I probably will someday. Let’s be honest, even good advisors can say and do stupid shit that pisses you off and is disrespectful. I apologize for anything I have ever done like this, and I know I have done it. If the advisor is mostly good, you can forgive these transgressions.  If you are having a hard time with your advisor, I suggest speaking to them in private about what is bothering you. But, you don’t want to come off as entitled or complaining. I suggest trying to come up with a solution and bring that to the meeting, as well as your complaint. Believe me, I have tried other things, and this works best. It can be hard to do, because they have power over you, in the form of your letter for future jobs. It can also be hard because many advisors have egos and some are really big egos. A bad advisor will not care what you think or have a problem with regarding the lab or his/her management style. A good advisor will consider your words, and see if it is anything that can be done (sometimes there is nothing that can be changed). But, letting something that is bothering you go and fester can make everything worse. Also, remember that your advisor is not thinking about you all the time. Remember, professors have all-consuming jobs, so they really cannot and should not be thinking about you all the time. So, return the favor, and don’t worry about what they think about you all the time. This will help your relationship.

Notice what isn’t on my list? Science. Because, basically, I think the type of science you do is irrelevant. Yet, when I talk to grad students, they often say the most important thing is the science that is being done in the research group. I think this is very wrong headed. Why? Because there is usually more than one person in each field doing interesting science in that field. Chances are that some of the people in the field will be BigShots with lots of money, students, and postdocs. Some of these BigShots are amazing advisors. (Yes, they do exist! I can think of several in my field.) If you get one of those, you have hit the jackpot! Sadly, many BigShots are crappy advisors. They suck in, chew up, and spit out students like it is their job (when actually, it is part of their job to advise and help the next generation of scientists succeed).  There are also lots of little guys out there, doing good science, plugging away, and often in desperate need of smart, dedicated, and hard working students. They also often care deeply about mentoring and advising. As long as they have the resources for you to succeed, you can do great things at these smaller groups. Finally, I think there are so many great, interesting science questions out there, and you can make advances on anything. Grad school is about learning how to do a long project, so you need to go to a lab that will teach you those skills. But, I’m not sure you need a paper in Science or Nature to learn those skills.

In my time, I have picked several advisors, and I have chosen poorly and chosen wisely. The thing I was most surprised about was that many professors have big egos. Now, I am a faculty member, and students make decisions about me. I’m not exactly sure how to convince them that I am worth the risk. I have been successful with students graduating in a timely manner (five years) with several papers with mostly full funding. But, alas, they often do not care about such mundane, practical matters, despite the fact that it will affect them every single day of their lives in grad school.

I am sure there are lots of things I have forgotten to add, but these are the things I thought of first. Hopefully some other people will help by writing, too. If you have a blog post, feel free to send it to me to post. I hope to hear from you! If you want to get an email each time I post, push the +Follow button.

Sabbatical Preparations – Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyday Self-Management – As A Woman

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

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

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

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

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

Applying for a Postdoc – Take 2

Work for foodI am teaching at a short course and I spent dinner mentoring some senior graduate students in the course about how best to apply for postdocs. I wrote about this a while ago, but I like this advice better, so read this one!!

The students I was talking to are at just the right time to really plan for the next step – about a year out from getting their PhD. While I was talking, I realized this would make a pretty good blog post full of advice. Of course, this is just one WomanOfScience’s idea of what works. It is certainly from my position as a hirer of postdocs. These are the things I do and do not want to see when you approach me for a position. If anyone else has things they want to add or other strategies that work, please post of comment.

  1. How do you find a postdoc? Unlike applying for grad school, there is no one place to particularly apply. There is no clear application process. Being a postdoc is like being a gun for hire. You just have to go where the job is. But, how does one find that job? You have to approach people individually. When reading papers or at conferences, find stuff you like and see who the PI is. Be systematic about it. Make a list and see what is in common about those then maybe look for more working on those problems or with those techniques that interest you. Think to yourself: “How does this position fit into my life goals? Will this position help me to achieve my goals?” You should be able to answer that question should the PI ask when interviewed. You should also be able to answer the question, “What do you want to do for your career? (Or as I say, “What do you want to do when you grow up?) Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” If you cannot answer these questions, then perhaps a postdoc is not right for you. If you can, double check that you need a postdoc to achieve your goals.
  2. Now that you have a list of people to approach, you need to reach out to those people. The best way to do this is via an email. What should be in your email?
    • First, make sure you address the person personally. Do not write “Dear Sir.” This is for two reasons: 1. The person you are writing to might be a woman, and she will be mad if you say “dear sir” (don’t believe me, see this post). 2. “Dear Sir” or “Dear Madam” is impersonal. It sounds like you are writing a form letter and have no idea who you are writing to. If you are applying to a postdoc, you should not spam (send a million emails to a million people)  nor should you sound like you are spamming. I will not read your email if it sounds impersonal.  You should always write, “Dear Dr. SoAndSo,” or “Dear Prof. WomanOfScience.” This is formal because you are using my title, but it is also personal, because you used my name.
    • Next, write something that identifies you, “My name is Wendy Scientist, and I am a 5th year graduate student at BigStateU working in the lab of Dr. BigName.” Now add a sentence or two about how you know of the PI you are writing to, “I saw your work at the ScienceOfImportantStuff Conference last March and was very excited about it.” Or, even better, “We talked at the ScienceOfImportantStuff Conference about my work on ReallyCoolScience.” The second is better because you actually talked to the person. Will the PI you are applying to remember you? Who knows, but if he/she should, he/she will try to remember and continue reading to hear what you have to say. Of course, only say you talked to the person if you actually talked to them. Don’t lie. Scientists are not supposed to be liars.
    • Now write something about your work and their work and how you are excited about the opportunity to do a postdoc with them. This should be brief – not more than 1-2 sentences. They get the point that you are asking about postdoc opportunities.
    • Thank them for their time and sign off. Don’t write a long email because professors get 100s – 1000s of emails every day. You don’t want to waste their time. If they are not interested, they will let you know. If they are, make sure you include some information for them to read more about you.
    • Give them your information. What should you give them?
      • Your full CV. See this post for a lot of information about CVs. In a postdoc application, you need your contact information, your education, research, and work experience, any awards or honors you have won, and your publications in that order. After that, you can add anything else you want. A full CV can be long – it is full. Do not put a picture of yourself on your CV.
      • A one-page summary of your work. The PI you are applying to is not going to read your papers. Besides, they are listed on your CV, so he/she can look them up. Better to give a one-page summary of your thesis work and any technical skills you have. Yes, you can include a picture.
      • A list of references. These are people who can write you a recommendation. You should have at least three references. You can list them at the end of your CV or in a separate document. My university requires three letters for hiring. I will not only ask for the letters, I will also call at least a couple of them to ask about your abilities, skill set, and mentality in the lab.
  3. What to do if you do not hear back? If you don’t hear back in a week and you didn’t get an away message that they were out of the country for a month, send a short email to ping them. This should be very brief and remind them that you applied. Sometimes people won’t write back ever. That’s OK. They are busy or jerks, to whatever. You don’t want to work for someone who doesn’t have time for you, and we are all guilty of this at some point.
  4. What to do it they reject you? Accept it and move on. Sometimes people do not have money. Sometimes they need different skills? Sometimes it just isn’t a good fit. The relationship is about both of you, and it has to work for you both. If the PI senses something isn’t going to work, it isn’t going to work, and you should not push it. Try, try, try again. Just remember that this job is full of ups and downs (see this post) and that criticism is part of the game (see this post), but you have to push forward and keep applying.

So, what do you think? I think this advice is more concrete than the last set about applying for postdocs. I hope you find it helpful. Please feel free to add comments or other suggestions – especially those professors who have been doing this a long time. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Act Like A Woman

Think-Like-a-Man1I feel like a lot of advice for women in male-dominated fields leans toward the “act like a man” type. I have definitely given that type of advice here. For instance, in previous posts (here, here), when I advocated to modulate your voice during public speaking about science. And I also have given advice about what types of clothing to wear (here, here, for the men: here), and I typically say to error on the side of modest. There is also advice about acting confident and negotiating for yourself. These actions are stereotypically seen as male-oriented traits, and women are stereotyped as “less aggressive” and “less self-confident.” Frankly, I know a lot of really successful women who do these things really well, and they are not particularly gendered – except as how society views such activities.

Sometimes, fitting in is important and “acting like a man” in some ways can be helpful. But, in general, I think there are a lot of great things about being more stereotypically “feminine” that can really benefit collaboration, criticism, and science in general. So, I titled this post, “act like a woman.” I do understand that every woman is different, and I do not mean that all women act as I might describe (I include caveats below). Rather, I think that, in our society, women are socialized in certain ways and men are socialized in certain ways. Women are socialized to be better communicators (but, women are not all great communicators) and men are socialized to be more aggressive (but, not all men are aggressive). My point with this post is to point out some of the stereotypically “female” social constructs and how they could be beneficial to science discourse. I also want to say that many of my male colleagues do already act in these nice ways that I describe below, and it is enjoyable and a pleasure to work with them. If you disagree or have other points, I missed, feel free to comment or write a response post for me to post up here.

Saying “I’m Sorry” There was a fabulous sketch on Inside Amy Schumer where she shows a panel of high-achieving, amazing women and they spend the entire panel saying “I’m Sorry,” (episode, sketch, interesting articles about the sketch: above average, Huffington Post). As often with comedy, and especially with Amy Schumer, the sketch had a social point and then went haywire when one of the women apologized herself to death, basically.

I find myself doing this all the time. I apologize for things that are and are not my fault. In my very progressive local environment, many people will actually respond, “There is no need to be sorry.” True, sometimes I say sorry when it isn’t needed, but what I am really saying is, “I see you. I recognize you are there and you are a person who deserves a comment.” It doesn’t always actually mean, “I’m sorry.” Sometimes it means, “I empathize with you,” or “I acknowledge you.” I suppose I could say those other things, but “I’m sorry” is what always pops out of my mouth.

Saying “I’m sorry” is one of those things that men, women and others try to de-socialize out of women. They say it undermines your power to apologize all the time. But, does it? I have male colleagues who are sweet and kind, and guess what? I have noticed that they apologize a lot, too. It doesn’t seem to take away their power. Plus, it is not exactly distracting or bad or anything else (unlike in Amy Schumer’s sketch). In general, it is minor and not even noticeable. Why are we trying to remove people acknowledging each other and, in a sense, just trying to be nice? So, I am keeping the “I’m sorries.” I’m sorry if this bugs you.

Saying “I was Wrong” I find it ironic how adamant scientists can be even in the face of their utter incorrectness. We have to be able to acknowledge that we are wrong, or we might as well stop doing science at all. In general, although, again, not always, I find that women are more capable of accepting their incorrectness, moving to a new thought and accepting the possibility of other options in their science. But why? Is the proverbial woman more empathetic and thus more capable of seeing someone else’s view? Is it that we are bashed and criticized so much (more?), that we are more open to such critique?

Whatever the reason, the ability to accept that you might be wrong is essential, especially in this time when about 30-60% of studies have been shown to be “false.” There was a nice NPR story about this, just this week, actually, talking about the fact that many studies, especially in medicine or biology, are shown to be incorrect. In my opinion, this has to do with:

(1) Biology and parts of science are inherently statistical, yet we do not do a good job of quantifying our results and making the uncertainty clear. For many of their fields, a one-sigma difference is called “significant.” Think about that. One sigma. That means, statistically speaking, you are likely to be incorrect about 30% of the time. That is what a one-sigma difference means!! So, why are we shocked?

(2) People have a hard time admitting their uncertainty in their publications. Indeed, there is not incentive to accurately report your uncertainty when we are pushed to make big, broad claims about our work to publish in “high impact” journals. I find it weird that the old standard journals with good, solid work, much of which is reproducible, have the lowest impact factors. I find it even weirder that the newest journals on the street often have crazy high impact factors, when they have only been around a short time. That system is clearly flawed even more than the one-sigma significance system. At least one-sigma significance has a quantifiable uncertainty!

In the NPR story, the scientist double checking all the work said that he had some of his own original work debunked. He was asked why it is so hard for scientists to face the fact that they might be wrong. He said it was because we feel like the fact we discovered is a personal procession – we own it. I disagree. I am not so tied to my personal possessions, and many scientists are similarly minded. I think it is more that it feels like family or even a part of your own self-identity. Your scientific discoveries define you. To realize that they may be wrong is like realizing you, yourself, are not who you think you are.

So, I see that it doesn’t pay to clearly say “I could be wrong, and it may be by 30%.” On the other hand, your short-term gain is science and society’s long-term loss because we are working off of faulty data. So, overall, I think we could all benefit with being a little more honest with ourselves about our short-comings and admitting that we could be wrong, by as much as 30%.

Listen and summarize – don’t just contribute your own ideas all the time. There is a saying, “You have two ears and one mouth, so you should listen twice as much as you speak.” I have a majorly hard time with this, especially when the topic is something I am excited or passionate about. But, I have found myself in a number of meetings, especially over the summer, where the room was dominated by big voices and personalities talking about things I wasn’t as interested or passionate about. I noticed that the domination was coming mostly from males… OK, entirely. This is partly because I am in a male-dominated field. But, it was more than that. To me, in these meetings, I distinctly had the impression of male animals marking turf and competing with rivals for dominance of the room, ideas, and airtime. If I were to draw a picture, it would look like this:

 

WomenAtMeeting

This situation happened twice in recent memory. In the first instance, I was one of two women in the room. Both myself and the other woman worked with the group to synthesize the discussion and the loud ideas coming from the men. I also contributed many ideas that were incorporated. I felt valued and heard in that instance. It was clear to both myself and the other woman in the room that, without us, very little would have been accomplished because no one else was doing this oversight and group dynamic management that were were doing.

Another more recent occasion, there were three women. We all shirked our responsibilities as the “women who help” to synthesize and steer the conversation to productive avenues (see this article). Why did we do this? It seemed fruitless and a waste of time, given the personalities in the room and the way they interacted with each other. It was easier to keep our heads down. Every now and then, we three women would discuss separately, come to a good idea, and then patiently wait, literally with hands raised, until the males calmed enough to see us. We would give our idea, which was good, and often accepted, and another topic would follow with more “hoo-hoo” and “haa-haa” (gorilla noises in my head, see image) about the next topic. In this second venue, all three of us felt under-valued and unheard, despite the fact that our contributions were significant to making progress for the group. It is demoralizing and marginalizing and off-putting, and worst of the worst – wasteful and impeding to progress.

Again, yes, “Not All Men” and “Not All Women” but what I am advocating is the end of that type of behavior at all. Good leadership and meeting management can help avoid these types of meetings and interactions, but it would be better if such people just acted politer and more gracious – act like a woman – in the first place. I guess I am just saying that the aggressive posturing doesn’t actually work to make progress to solve problems, so why bother doing it?

Be constructive and nurturing – not destructive and critical for the sake of being critical. Many scientists are teachers, many are not – even if they work at a university. Even those who do teach, don’t always value or develop that part of their jobs. Teaching, especially at the K-12 levels, is a primarily female occupation these days, but the opposite is true at the professorial level. Why? Is it because the endeavor of actual teaching is seen as more nurturing and caring than other professions (such as scientific researcher) and women are the nurturers of the society, so they are steered toward those jobs? Whatever the reason for the switch from women educators at lower levels to men at higher levels, is not really my point here – sorry to lead you astray.

Here, I am advocating that science would be more fun, more collaborative, more productive, and more welcoming to under-represented groups if we could be more pedagogical with our criticism. As I have said before (above and in prior posts), criticism is vital for the re-evaluation and assessment needed to understand right and wrong (see above). What many people say though, is our current form of critique is too harsh. This relates to the points made above about impact factors and the cut-throat granting environment. As an editor and scientist who is reviewed, is that reviewers are often emotional, unhelpful, and frankly, a$$h0les, when doing reviews. This attitude doesn’t help science or the authors you are reviewing.

Instead of being harsh, I wish people would try to be educational. As with everything I am saying, there are always specific places where this is not true. I have a favorite “home base” journal where I like to publish. This journal is great because mostly, the reviewers are helpful and pedagogical without being pedantic, patronizing, or condescending. The reviews are helpful to making our papers better. Needless to say, this is not a “high-impact” journal in the short-run. But I have been able to replicate experiments published from that journal, AND using the experimental methods outlined in the papers as published. In the long-run, these papers will be the truly impactful ones – the ones that are correct.

I would like to note, when being pedagogical, try not to be patronizing or fatherly. This can be a hard line to walk. Just remember that the thing you are reviewing is actually written by “the expert” on that subject. You are brought in as an expert on what you do, which is not exactly what the authors you are reviewing do. They are the experts – it is their science. You are there to offer advice to help improve the manuscript or proposed science. Consider them a colleague seeking advise. If you blast off a review and act like a know-it-all, that is a$$h0lish, too. Basically, follow the golden rule – treat these authors the way you would want to be treated by a reviewer. Keep calm, don’t get emotional. Stick to the science and the facts – not your opinion of science and the facts. And, for heaven sake – cite your references in your review!

Man, that was a long one. What do you think? Comments are welcome. If you want to get an email every time I infrequently post, push the +Follow button.

Tag Cloud