Helping the Minoritized Achieve in Academic Science

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Dignity in the Face of Jerks

catenary_bikeI swear, I do not ask for these things to happen to me. They just do. I am simply reporting the facts as they occurred…

It seemed to be a perfectly nice visit to a school with a good reputation who has enough money to purchase national academy members in order to increase their prestige. I was happy to have been invited to give a talk to this school. I was looking forward to impressing the scientists there with my cool science and my fast wit.

For those of you who don’t know, when you go to give a seminar, they put you through your paces. Not only are you there to perform for the people of the university who might happen to have the time to come to your seminar, but you also have 30 – 45 minute, back-to-back meetings all day with various faculty members. You typically eat lunch with students or faculty and then also have a dinner with faculty members. At each meeting you typically discuss the science of the person with whom you are visiting. It is possible to be talking about all matter of science within the span of 20 minutes, so you have to bring your A-game. I was ready for my long, exhausting day of fast-paced science. I wore a smart outfit and had updated my talk with some new data and cute animations and movies. I had great meetings all morning. The seminar is over lunch, but they gave me my food early, so I could eat (this sometimes doesn’t happen, so you should always bring snacks in your bag just in case). By the way, this is the same way an interview goes except for 2+ days.

So, I was having a good day. I got up to give my talk and just before it started an older gentleman came and sat in the second row. It was clear that he was a big deal. A national academy member (NAM). This group had three, and I know two of them pretty well. Of course, the two guys I know were out of town that day. I had never met this guy before, but the other two were pretty nice to me and liked my science. I began my talk with my usual quiz. See, I do a lot of active learning in my talks because (1) people remember it, and (2) people don’t fall asleep, and (3) people like it. Seriously, it is much more entertaining when you break the 4th wall (see post). 99% of people who hear one of my talks, love this style. At about the 3rd slide, NAM leans over the his neighbor and whispers something. Not too loud, but obvious to me what he is doing. I explain to the audience that I am using active participation of the audience to engage and to keep you from sleeping during my talk. That gets a few laughs.

The next time I have an activity for the audience, NAM does it again – he whispers. It is clear that he isn’t digging my talk style. But, I dig in. This is my talk, and I am not going to let him passively bully me… I didn’t have to wait long for him to stop being so passive about his bullying. About 20 minutes into the talk, I ask something of the audience like, “What do you think this means?” And NAM says very loudly, “Why don’t you just tell us instead of making us answer?” I get embarrassed. My face heats up (apparently red to match the temperature). My heart is pounding. I want to burst into tears.

I make a comment about how this style is the best way to learn. NAM responds by saying, “Yeah, yeah. I know the literature, and that’s fine for a class where you want the students to remember what you say 5 weeks later for an exam, but this is a seminar.”  WTF? Like, I don’t want people to remember my talk 5 weeks later? I want them to remember my work a year later. And, of course he knows the literature. The effing National Academy literally wrote the book on best practices in the classroom.

I respond with something like, “Well, this is how I made my talk, so I guess we’ll just have to continue on.” The very next slide has another quiz. I say, half apologetically, “Well, there’s another one. I guess we need to do it.” The students still give answers and respond. The next quiz I look at NAM and say, “Oh no, I know you don’t like this, but here we go again!” I make it into a joke that he doesn’t like what I am doing and I keep doing it. Making light of the situation does make me feel better, but I feel like total shit. This creep just fucked up my awesome talk.

Prior to this talk, only one person had ever criticized my “active learning” talk style. I gave a talk at a Gordon Conference and used candy as props to talk about a subject everyone in the room already knew and understood. Afterwards, one woman came up to me and say, “I thought that using active learning was really bad for a seminar or conference talk. Don’t get me wrong, I teach at a liberal arts school, and I use active learning in the classroom, but I just think it doesn’t have a place in conferences.” I was surprised that someone who is clearly an up-to-date educator would say that, and my face must have betrayed it, because she continued to say, “But you know what? Your talk is the only one of the morning session that I remember. So, I think I was wrong. I think active learning is useful at conferences, and I am glad you did it.” So, although she gave me crap for active learning at a conference, I actually changed her mind!

Of course, my day wasn’t over. In fact, I had a whole slate of meetings for the entire afternoon. The meeting just after my talk was with my host. He apologized for his NAM colleague. He told me some terrible stories about how he is like that to everyone, in the hopes that I wouldn’t feel like it was personal. But, it was personal. Just because he is a personal jack-ass to everyone, doesn’t mean it isn’t personal.

My next meeting was with the NAM. The first thing he does, is exactly what I expect. He fake apologizes for his behavior. He knows he was unacceptably an asshole. His apology is something like, “I’m sorry I spoke up and was rude, but that style is not good.” I said, back, “You are the only person I have ever met who thinks that.” He said, “Well, I’m not wrong.” I can’t help it anymore. I try to hold back, but the tears come. They fill my eyes. He avoids eye contact. I find an old tissue in my bag and try to dab away the tears of anger and unsaid words when he isn’t looking. But, part of me wants him to see. Part of me wants him to know that his words are hurtful. That I am a human. I sit there and I am crying at you. I do not run. I am not weak for crying. I am strong. Are you strong enough to see me cry? No, you are not.

He spent 3/4 of an hour mansplaining my research back to me. I didn’t get to talk at all. He gave me reprints in a little folder. Homework for me to read and educate myself on his brilliance in my field. He’s not actually in my field, but he has dabbled. My tears dry up within about 15 minutes, so 30 minutes are spent with me listening and trying to tell him what the latest in what he is saying is. Or explain why what he is saying isn’t right with what we know now.

The rest of the visit is good. Only 3 students show up to my student time (all men). I have lots of advice, but only three have time to hear. I worry that it is because I was publicly shamed about my talk. I wish his critique had been about science, so I could fight back. It was about style. How do you fight back against that? It’s like standing up in someone’s talk and saying you don’t like their voice or haircut.  The students who showed up apologized for NAM. They said he is a dick and he does that to everyone. They said that they liked my talking style. We talk about two-body problems and how to get jobs after grad school. Typical stuff young people are concerned about.

Other faculty apologize for NAM. I get a couple emails upon my return apologizing for NAM. I certainly don’t blame any of these other people. But, none of them calls NAM out. I put up the most fight against him of anyone. It definitely altered my visit. I message some WoS friends. I post about it on FaceBook. People are flabbergast that someone would say something like that. I don’t out NAM at first, but people can figure out where you are talking, and they can figure out who’s the asshole at that place.

So, here is a question. How do you handle this situation? And how do you handle the standing up for yourself. I did go to social media, but I kept it low and of course, my FB page is closed to friends only. I do not believe that any one asshole’s comments of this nature should get them grilled in the arena of public opinion (outright sexist or racist comments are very different). I do want to let people know who is an asshole, so they can prepare to defend themselves. I do want to learn from this event – what would you do? How can you fight back? Was it sexist? I don’t know. I’m sure he was more likely to be an asshole to me, but I would have thought he would attack my competence as a scientist – not as a presenter. Plus, who attacks someone’s strength? Maybe that means I showed no other weakness? That’s a nice way to read this.

I hope to hear back from you. Comments, suggestions, ideas are all welcome. Post or comment here. If you want to get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Hiring – Better Advice

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

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

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

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.

Do what it takes

2015-06-23 12.31.18This blog post was inspired by a recent conversation I had with two pre-tenure WomenOfScience. We grabbed a beer after a late night movie night to see the feminist action film, “Mad Max Fury Road.” Don’t believe me that a Mad Max movie is feminist? Check out these articles (guardian, jezebel) and this funny tumblr site (hey girl). My take on Mad Max: the movie was a tad violent and quite hilarious. Every other sentence or wry look screamed, “This apocalypse was caused by men!”

OK, so afterwards, we were discussing tenure, getting tenure, and crappy mentoring. See, these women are scared. There were 4 people who didn’t get tenure last year – an all-time high record for their university. Their departments are trying to figure out how to mentor them, but they keep giving them platitudes like, “write grants and get them,” or “have more papers,” which are not helpful. Other mentors say things to them like, “don’t be so stressed out,” and “why are you worried?” which are somewhat demeaning and ridiculous. I was worried. We are all worried. If you aren’t worried, you might be fooling yourself. As I have gotten further away from tenure, I can see that I am losing perspective myself. That makes me less and less helpful to people as an advice blogger on this topic. But, as we were talking, I realized that there were some concrete things I could add. I am going to try to summarize them for you, and please, others add more information and send questions and suggestions.

1. Write grants that are fundable. So, you got this job because you had a great, new idea and everyone thinks it is amazing and super smart. That is great. You have sent a few young investigator award applications out and perhaps 1 or 2 federal grants on this idea, and maybe it isn’t playing as well as it did when you could describe it in person. OK, there are two things that you need to do here:

A. You need to write grants on things that are less flashy, but solid and doable. When I first got to my job, I wanted to work on a really cool thing, but I couldn’t get funded for it. When I would talk about it, people thought it was cool and exciting, but I couldn’t articulate it well on paper. Further, I didn’t really have a lot of background in this thing, and I didn’t really have track record. So, instead, I sent out proposals on incremental stuff that was doable and, frankly, easier experiments. I got enough preliminary data on the doable work to show I could do what I proposed. I proposed 3 objectives. I got a theory collaborator. These things I got funded to do at first were not what I wanted to do with my career, but they built a foundation for what I wanted to do later. I could build a story that they were related and they got me money, papers, and (let’s face it) tenure. Maybe this is why I was so obsessed with tenure = freedom (post).

B. You need to practice writing about the big thing you are interested in doing and get preliminary data on it. As I said above, the really cool thing I wanted to do was not getting funding. What to do? I scammed it. Once I got a grant from the National Science Foundation, I made sure to write for supplemental funding for undergraduates almost every summer (they are called REU supplements). I used these funds and my undergrads to work on the projects that were a bit more risky. Undergraduates can work on high-risk projects because they don’t need to get a paper to graduate like a grad student does. Using this method, I got two papers on the really cool stuff. Those two papers fueled my applications for really cool stuff and I ended up getting two grants to work on it, just as I came up for tenure. Also, I never stopped thinking and refining my writing and speaking about really cool stuff. It helped that really cool stuff also gained traction in a particular subfield and became popular. I am not exactly known as a big shot in really cool stuff, but with our new grants, we are now working to get papers out and we are starting to get noticed.

2. Write grants to everywhere. The current funding situation is unprecedented. The older you are, the more out of touch you are with what you have to do to get funded because our older colleagues got tenure in a time of 30% funding rates. Now, our older colleagues are venerable and established, so they don’t have as high a bar to prove that they are fundable and doing good work as a new person might be. Despite my grousing about being a mid-career faculty, in my opinion, I have found it easier to get funding now that I have tenure and an established track record of many publications behind me. Even when I was applying to young investigator awards, I was told that I didn’t have enough of anything. I actually had one reviewer say that it (paraphrasing here) remained to be seen if I could even start a research program… well, duh! I was applying for a new investigator award. It did remain to be seen, but if I don’t get funding I won’t have a shot to prove myself. As I was saying, the current funding situation is abysmal. If you want funding, you need to apply to everywhere. If you think your stuff is best at NIH, write NIH AND NSF anyway. Here are my reasons why:

A. Writing is a skill that needs practice. Some people are really good writers. I envy them. I am not. You have read my blog, so you know that my writing is very colloquial. Some people like it, but it is not sophisticated. I have to practice and practice and practice. I wrote ~10 grants per year to get that practice.

B. You will get critique and feedback necessary to hone your message. If you are having trouble selling your message to the science community who are serving on panels, the practice (above) and feedback you will get from writing a bunch of grants are essential. Don’t forget to always look for the truth in a review (see this post on criticism) – even if you do not agree with their assessment or feel they didn’t really “get” your research. If they didn’t get it, that is YOUR FAULT. You only have one shot in a grant to get your point across and make the reviewers excited. Once again, that takes practice and listening to critique.

C. You might get funded at NSF. If you apply for funding from the NSF, here are some things that could happen: 1. You don’t get funded, and you get some feedback. -OR- 2. You do get funded.  Seems like a win-win to me. Here is why I like NSF: 1. You always get feedback as long as you are compliant. 2. Teaching is a bonus, and many of us do teach (and like it – gasp!). 3. There are many programs, and program officers will shift around your grant, if they think it will help. Sometimes this can hurt you, but you will get more critiques. 4. In the panels I have served on, the people have been fair and reasonable. I don’t get the impression they care about your status as much as NIH appears to (again, my opinion). But, they will likely not be right in your field, so you have to sell it to a broad scientifically-literate audience and write a grant that is clear.

3. Be a f*cking squeaky wheel. If you have been teaching for 3 years and have taught 6 different classes, you need to speak up. If you chair shrugs and says, “that is how it it – tough shit,” you take it up the ladder. My university has a wonderful awesome woman in the Dean’s office who is concerned with young faculty issues. Does yours? If you want tenure, you should know. You should know that person in person. I have had previous posts about jumping the chain of command (post). Your chair and senior people in your department should want you to get tenure. Simple rules within a department can really help, such as making sure that you get to teach the same class 3-4 times in a row before coming up for tenure (see below). Or to make sure that you are getting the resources you need in your lab space and office. Squeak, squeak, squeak. Why should you squeak? If there are issues that can be addressed, and you are hoping someone will notice, they won’t. This is your career. This is your life and livelihood. Do not leave it up to someone else. If someone accuses you of being pushy, aggressive, or of jumping the line, you will have to make a choice: do you prefer to be (A) liked -OR- (B) tenured ? Besides, if you couch your arguments in terms of seeking advice, help, and assistance (i.e. you are asking for help and assistance) most people are quite receptive. If you already asked for help from your chair and they are unhelpful, time to go OVER THEIR HEADS.

4. Teaching the same class multiple times. This follows from above. When you are pre-tenure, you need to make sure that you get to teach the same course multiple times and not jump around too much. I have had several posts about how you can make incremental changes to your teaching to be more effective and get better evaluations (here, here, herehere). But, you cannot implement changes if you do not get to teach the course again.

In some departments, like mine, you have to demonstrate teaching excellence at all levels. This can often be done with two different classes – one at the sophomore level (lower level) and one at the senior/grad level (upper level). So, even if you are only teaching 1 class per semester, you can still make sure you demonstrate your teaching ability at “all levels.” Demonstration of excellent teaching at all levels DOES NOT mean demonstration of excellent teaching in ALL courses. Many departments make you teach a huge lecture section before you get tenure (mine didn’t, thank goodness). All the more reason to get to teach it multiple times to get better at it.

5. Writing papers. OK, this is a no-brainer. We all know we need to get papers published to get tenure. Yet, some people still submit packets with 2 papers when going up for tenure. Let me tell you, two is most often not enough papers in most fields. ***There are exceptions, such as someone who is working with a mouse model and had to raise mice from pups and watch them die, which could take 2-3 years to do one experiment. If that is you, you better squeak and make it very, very clear in your tenure packet that this is standard in your field (see these posts about your tenure packet: research, teaching, service) and make sure your allies are in place (tenure tips). Yet, two papers of your own independent work is a lot to do in, let’s face it, 2-3 years. Because the first 2-3 years on the job is spent getting a lab space, lab equipment, training people, and just figuring this job out (see this prior post on how to organize your time efficiently when you start your job). OK, so what should you do?

A. You need to build your body of work. I don’t think that most places expect you to actually make a huge impact on your field before tenure. Let’s face it, only very few of our colleagues at BigPrivateUs can even do that with amazing resources and students. So, let’s not shoot for Science and Nature papers. Let’s shoot for good papers in reputable journals that are known for good, reproducible work prior to tenure. This goes along with point 1, A above. If you are writing and getting funded grants on attainable science, you should also be able to make a few papers on that science. It can be foundational, as I said, so that you can build to the really cool stuff you want to do, but it needs to be there. I think more schools are happy with 4-5 solid papers than 1 Nature paper. Besides, how will you get that Nature paper? It is an unobtainable goal for most people (more power to you, if it is within your grasp).

B. Collaborate. Sometimes when people are pre-tenure, they are told explicitly or implicitly, not to collaborate. I felt this pressure, too, and it made it so that I could not work with some of my best friends in science who were all also going through tenure. But, collaborating and lending a figure of original data to someone else’s paper can help build your body of work. Several of my papers pre-tenure were articles where my lab contributed a single figure to someone else’s paper. In my packet, I openly discussed these and made it clear exactly what my contribution was to each paper. Of course these do not count as much as articles where I am last author, but it demonstrates expertise and reputation. It also shows that good data came from my lab and we were being productive and collegial, even while we were getting our other papers out the door.

C. Get your opinion and work out there in any form. Part of building your reputation and your body of work is getting your ideas out there. When I was pre-tenure, I was asked to write a couple methods chapter and a few review articles. I did not turn many down. In each of these, I tried to be pedagogical and interesting and inspiring when I discussed my views on science or the methods being implemented. Although I agree that these publications are not as important as reviewed journal articles where I am the senior author, they do add to my reputation and body of work. They are an important part of building that body of work. And if you are having trouble getting those corresponding author papers out because of experimental issues, you will at least have something to show for your time and effort that can go on your CV.

OK, this post got pretty long. I hope you find it helpful. Post or comment, and please let me know if there are things missed or other topics you want to see posted. Writing a long one like this is good to tie in the many previous posts that you might not have noticed or seen before. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

How to Write About How Awesome You Are

1160px-Eleanor_Roosevelt_receiving_the_Mary_McLeod_Bethune_Human_Rights_Award_from_Dorothy_Height,_president_of_the_National..._-_NARA_-_196283I have said previously (a long time ago now, actually) that awards are important and publicity in general is essential (awardspublicitypublicity). When I wrote those original posts, I have recently gone through the tenure process. I was thinking about how you needed to publicize yourself to ensure that your letter writers can speak well about you. But, as you go along and get older, publicity is still important. Remember, being a PI is like being a pop star (PI Pop Star), you need to stay relevant and go on world tour to make sure your science is being heard. In that vein, getting awards is still important. Unfortunately, as I have said previously, once you get tenure, mentoring seems to more or less end (end of mentoring). That means that you probably have to try even harder to get nominated for awards. Further, since you no longer need mentoring or support, many people won’t even bother to write you their own letters. You will likely have someone request that you draft the nomination letter or letter of support for the award. This is for two reasons: (1) People are busy and we are getting busier every year, so providing the letter is essential. (2) You actually know all the great stuff about yourself way way better than anyone else. When people ask you to write your own letter, they often are thinking it will be better for you – especially if they are someone you do not know all that well. I recently did this to someone. I felt bad, but the letter this awesome WomanOfScience provided was way way better than anything i could have written.

So, the question remains: How do you write a letter about yourself? How do you nominate yourself for an award? What is you have to write letters from multiple people and make sure they are different enough? Obviously, you expect people to edit the letters, but in case they don’t?? Below, I give my advise:

Drink alcohol and get a bit tipsy before you start. This will help to lower your inhibitions about things, especially about talking about yourself. OK, I get that not everyone drinks, but what I am really saying is try to get to a less inhibited state. Our self-inhibitions make it really difficult to talk about ourselves in the awesome light you deserve. WARNING: Do not get drunk. You will get sleepy and actually do nothing. Just get tipsy.

Open your most recent and updated CV.  Do not use a biosketch! A biosketch is just that – a sketch – you should have a long CV. If you do not know what should be in your long CV, click here: Your CV. OK, now that you have your CV open (an updated) do the following:

Make a list of all your awesomeness in all categories: research, teaching, mentoring, service to field.  Now, what of these things would this person for whom you are writing the letter, know about? How would they know? What example can you provide that verifies the awesome attribute you are trying to write about? For instance, if you are trying to say you are creative, give an example of a particular time when someone could have observed your creativity. If you are trying to say that your work is paradigm-shifting, cite a particular paper or topic that is paradigm-shifting. What have you done for education or mentoring that goes above and beyond?

Stick to important things. I would not discuss how hardworking you are. You are not trying to get into grad school or a postdoc. You are trying to get an award. Awards are given for being smart – a genius even. I KNOW! This is so hard! Because (1) society tells us that women cannot be geniuses, (2) what does it even mean to be a genius?, and (3) even geniuses probably don’t think they are geniuses. Presumably as soon as you think you are a genius, you probably stop pushing yourself. That is why winning the Nobel Prize of Field’s Medal too early in your career is the kiss of death for your career. Think about someone in your field who you think is awesome. What would you write about them? Can you say anything similar about the same attributes about yourself?

Multiple letters. If you have to write multiple letters from multiple people:

(1) Pick a few things you think every single letter must highlight. Make sure that goes into all letters.
(2) Pick 1-2 important things that it would be reasonable for each of the people to know about you. For instance, if someone is from your home dept, they might know more about your teaching and mentoring activities. They could comment more on that. If another person is a big mucky-muck in your field, they should stress your research and your service to the field. More than one person can talk about these extras, but make sure it is reasonable. For instance, a big muckety-muck in your field won’t know about your mentoring per se. But, they might know you taught at a cool summer school or something that is higher profile teaching.

Have someone who is good at promoting others read it after you. Hopefully the person you are giving the letter to can do this. But, just in case, see if someone else can read it and help out.

Submission. When you send the letter to the person who is supposed to have written it, also send your complete CV. If they want to pick and choose a few extras, they can. They will have to submit the letter themselves, or the nominator will, so make sure they have all the information they need about how and when to submit it. You don’t want to lose out because they didn’t push the button in time!

Try again and again. Will you win every award? No. You do not get every grant awarded, and you will not win every award. But, your chances of winning are zero if you do not get nominated. There is NO DOWNSIDE to being nominated! People see your CV. They see people care enough about you and your work to nominate you. People will get to know your name. Even being nominated is actually great. Plus, awards committees often complain that very few qualified and excellent women are nominated. This is code for ZERO women who are qualified for the award are nominated. Yes, we have an uphill battle to win awards – especially awards where we are competing with men. Study after study show that women are always seen as less competent. Yet, we have to keep pushing and trying. We have to put ourselves out there. If enough of us are nominated (more than one woman), they will have a very hard time justifying only giving awards to men. When only one woman is nominated, it is easy to write her off. But, if 20, 30, 50% of the nominees are women, they will have to give it to a woman more often!

What do you think? Are there any more helpful hints about how to do this? If so, post or comment here. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Tenure Tips

USAFbrochureI was recently visiting another school for a seminar (traveling again!). I was chatting about some of the strategies I had when coming up for tenure. I have blogged about this before, but more generally about networking (networking on campus).

Keep your eyes open to the politics of the department and college. Do you know who the senior people (usually men) in your subfield or in related subfields who are well-respected in the department? I am being perfectly frank here: not all full professors are equal. In my department, there are several men who are well-respected and always listened to. There are others who are seen as extremists – they are the Fox News of my department. They make outlandish over-statements, and they are not respected for it. In my department, the measured, considerate people are listened to and have power of persuasion. There are other types of full professors, too. There are some who are too new to be respected because they do not understand the culture or value system of the department. Relatively new senior hires are often like this.

Why am I talking about these types of politics? Because keeping this in mind will help you to determine which people you need to convince of your excellence at tenure time. This sounds very cynical, but I am not implying that you should “kiss up” or somehow play up to these people once you identify them. I am going to suggest that you make damn well sure that those people know what you are doing. The people in your department whose opinions matter most (and there are always some) must know what you are doing and why it is important before they see your packet, before they read the outside letters, before they go in the room to vote, long before the decision is being made. This is not sucking up, but it is being smart and savvy. I am sure you are doing excellent work, but if you department doesn’t realize it, they could make a mistake. If the wrong people know it, or the right people don’t know it, your career might be in jeopardy.

How can you make sure the right people know about your work? Once you have identified the right people to make sure know about your work, you have to go about making sure they know about your work. I am sure there are many methods to do this. Here is what I did. Over the year before putting in my tenure packet, I went to lunch with each of these influential people. At the lunch, I was blunt. I told them that I was coming up for tenure, and I wanted to make sure that they knew exactly what work I have done, the importance of the work. We talked about my science mostly, what papers I had published and which were underway. We also discussed teaching – my evaluation scores and how they got better and my teaching philosophy. For these lunches, I tried to go off campus or to the faculty club so that we wouldn’t be interrupted by others. These influential people actually seemed to be genuinely interested and happy to chat about my tenure packet. They appreciated having the heads up.

So, what do you think? Any other helpful tips from your personal experience of getting tenure? 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: womanofscience2013@gmail.com

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: Delegation

I was feeling pretty down about how crappy my meetings are. I am glad to hear that not all academic meetings are so bad from readers and friends. It gives me hope that my meetings will go better if I try and practice good meeting habits.

The same week, we also talked about delegation. As bad as my meetings are, my ability to delegate was inversely awesome! We took a little quiz, and I scored great on it. Take the quiz here:

Delegation Quiz:

YES NO
1. I spend more time than I should doing the work of my students. Y N
2. I often find myself working while my students are idle. Y N
3. I believe I should be able to personally answer any question about any project in my group. Y N
4. My inbox mail is usually full. Y N
5. My students usually take the initiative to solve problems without my direction. Y N
6. My research group operates smoothly when I am away. Y N
7. I spend more time working on details than I do on planning or supervising. Y N
8. My students feel they have sufficient authority over personnel, finances, facilities, and other resources for which they are responsible. Y N
9. I have bypassed my students by making decisions that were part of their job. Y N
10. If I were incapacitated for an extended period of time, there is someone who could take my place. Y N
11. There is usually a big pile of work requiring my action when I return from an absence. Y N
12. I have assigned a task to a student mainly because it was distasteful to me. Y N
13. I know the interests and goals of every student in the research group. Y N
14. I make it a habit to follow up on jobs I delegate. Y N
15. I delegate complete projects as opposed to individual tasks whenever possible. Y N
16. My students are trained to maximum potential. Y N
17. I find it difficult to ask others to do things. Y N
18. I trust my students to do their best in my absence. Y N
19. My students are performing below their capacities. Y N
20. I nearly always give credit for a job well done. Y N
21. My students refer more work to me than I delegate to them. Y N
22. I support my students when their authority is questioned. Y N
23. I personally do those assignments one I can or should do. Y N
24. Work piles up at some point in my operation. Y N
25. All students know what is expected of them in order of priority. Y N

 

Scoring:

Give yourself one point each if you answered “Yes” for #5, 6, 8, 10, 13, 14, 15, 16, 18, 20, 22, 23, 25

Give yourself one point each is you answered “No” for #1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 9, 11, 12, 17, 19, 21, 24.

Score 20-25: You have excellent delegation skills that help the efficiency and morale of your research group. You maximize your effectiveness as a leader and help develop the full potential of your students.

Score 15-19: Your score is adequate, but not excellent. To correct, review the questions you did not receive a point for and take appropriate steps so as to not repeat the mistakes.

Score <14: Inability to delegate is reducing your effectiveness as a leader. This results in lower performance. Determine if you are unwilling to relinquish power and why. Inability to delegate can cause dissatisfaction among your students. They will not develop job interest and important skills unless you improve.

How did you score? I had a 22/25. The other classmates, who all work in regular offices or as crew managers, were grumbling about my awesome score. One person said, “I know what the correct answers are, but I answered honestly,” (not meanly, but in a dejected sort of way). The thing is, delegation is essential to running a research group. If you do not properly delegate, you will probably not succeed at running a research group in academic science.

The reason for this is two fold:

1. You cannot do all the things to get this job done by yourself. You will not be able to do all the research, write all the papers, make all the figures, write all the grants, teach all the courses, review all the papers and grants, serve on all the committees, yadda yadda yadda. Delegation is a matter of survival.

2. Your job is to train people. The best way to train someone to replace you is to give them some parts of your job to try out. This means not just doing the research, but all practice writing the papers and making figures, practice giving the talks, even practice reviewing papers. These things will have to be done with more or less supervision depending on the student’s abilities and maturity in research. But, by delegating tasks, the student will learn, feel apart of the team, and you will get more work done.

Another reason why I can delegate more than my peers in the management course is that running a lab is like running a small business. I can run it how I see fit. Delegating certain responsibilities of the job to my students make me more effective and efficient, so I take full advantage. I can also hire and fire, which many of my peers cannot do. If someone really can’t handle any task I give them (including research), I let them go. I don’t think it does anyone any good to keep someone in the lab who cannot make any contribution at all.

What do you think? Is delegation important? How well do you delegate? Is there a difference between delegation and training? Post or comment here. To receive an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Why I Love Undergraduate Research

IMG_0104I train a lot of undergraduate scientists in my lab. I have already discussed all the managerial methods I devised to train them including the bootcamp, state of the lab (orientation),  lab rules, and writing/presentations. But, I am not sure I have mentioned why is enjoy working with undergrads so much. So, here is a list of the top-ten reasons why I love working with undergraduates (in no particular order):

1. They are funny. Obviously not all people are funny, but every now and then I get a really extroverted and funny person in the lab. Maybe because the undergraduate lifetime in the lab is shorter (0.5 – 3 years) than a graduate student (4-5 years) or postdoc (3 years), so there are more of them in general coming through the lab, but there have been a higher frequency of funny undergrads. I realize that some people don’t like when students have a sense of humor, but I do. Mostly the students are self-depricating, and are not making fun of other people. Sometimes they rib the other students, but they are often too shy or scared to make fun of anyone much more senior to them in the lab hierarchy. Of course, there are times when the humor should be turned off, and they are able to understand that and act professional when needed. But, I love that they are funny.

2. They are brave. Approaching a professor about doing research in his/her lab – especially a professor you have never had for class – can be very daunting, yet undergraduates do it frequently. In my lab, most undergraduate researchers work on independent projects without the direct supervision of a postdoc or grad student. In a sense, they do science without a wire, but there is always a net. They often come into the lab not knowing what to expect or what they will do. But, they overcome these anxious feelings because they are wonderfully brave.

3. They are shy. Despite their bravery, many undergraduates are introverts or just shy. This is quite an endearing quality, especially when they put it aside to present their work and truly get into talking about the science they did. Being shy is not the same thing as being disengaged. They overcome shyness for science, even though, they are shy.

4. They are honest. Since they don’t usually know much about the science, undergraduates present what they think honestly. Sometimes knowing too much can be a hazard to discovering the real answer. They present what they see, even if they are shy or even anxious about it. I often give undergraduates high-risk problems that we have no idea what will happen. These problems are great because they sometimes result in very cool, unexpected results. If they had some idea that what they were seeing wasn’t right, they might be persuaded to alter their presentation of their results, but their naiveté helps them stay honest.

5. They are resourceful. Since I give my students new problems with unknown answers and no direct mentor in the lab, this allows them to own their projects. The goal is to teach them that they can learn these things on their own, and many times, they realize that they can use anything and anyone to help them. Through the process of doing independent scientific research, they become resourceful.

6. They are driven.  It is so easy for students to not do undergraduate research. At UState, we have no requirement for research in any major. Driven students seek out research opportunities and can get an immense amount of work done. The student who seeks out research is often very driven.

7. They are young. I love that the undergraduates are young. I love working with young people. It keeps you young. I don’t want to get mentally old. I want to learn new things, and so do they. Sometimes being young means they can be immature, but many of my students are very mature – it’s all apart of them also being driven. Mostly, they are fun and open because they are young.

8. They are smart. Undergraduates can be very smart. What does it mean to be smart? It can manifest in so many different ways: having a good memory, ability to represent complex information clearly, ability to explain things verbally, ability to make connections from old content/knowledge to new content/knowledge, ability to do math in their head… These are all good attributes for someone doing scientific research.  Do not confuse a lack of knowledge of content with smartness and ability to learn. Undergraduates don’t know everything or anything, but that is not the only marker of smarts; undergraduates are smart.

9. They are pliable. One goal of doing undergraduate research is to learn. It isn’t just about learning concepts or skills of the research, but learning many other types of professional skills such as writing, presentation, communication, and working in a group. College, in general, is a time we use to also learn who we are and who we want to be. Luckily, unlike us old-timer professors, undergraduates can still alter their personality. You can help them to identify what type of person they are and what type they might want to be. You can help them to become that new person inside and out, and this is only possible because undergraduates are still pliable.

10. They are open to fun. The main reason why I have so many undergraduates is because they are fun and open to doing crazy/fun things. When I say, “Let’s make a lab music video,” they say, “Yay! What song?” When I say, “Let’s try this experiment,” they say, “OK. How should I do it?” When I say, “Let’s have a party,” they say, “Woot! When?” I want my lab to be a fun place to be and a place people want to come to work. Undergraduate researchers are essential to that formula because they are open to fun.

So, what about you? What is your favorite reason for doing research with undergraduates? Post or comment here. To receive an email every time I write a 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.

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