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Guest Post: Rant and Meta-Rant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(1b) Be relentlessly positive with colleagues.

(1c) Value my supportive friends.

(2a) Exercise.

(2b) Eat well.

(2c) Take personal time.

(3a) Do my science.

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

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

(3d) Feeling unappreciated? Do more science.

 

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

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.

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: Documentation

documentationMy management course is now officially over. I feel that I learned a lot. I think I will actually be a better manager. That doesn’t mean I am terrible now, or that I will be perfect later, but I have gained the knowledge of several specific activities/actions that I can do to be a better manager. The last two things I will endeavor to do better are (1) documentation and (2) progressive discipline. In this post, I will discuss my new approach to documentation.

When I took the management course I thought I was documenting what was going on in the lab enough. Here is what I was doing before:

  1. I have people give weekly lab meetings. They make a weekly Powerpoint that goes into a Dropbox Folder.
  2. Everyone is supposed to write a report at the end of each semester and at the end of the summer. The report has specific things for them to write about. It includes them doing a self-evaluation.
  3. When I met with people one-on-one, I took notes in some notebook.

But, I realize that I can’t remember what people in the lab did over the entire last year. I can only remember the last 3 months. And, I don’t go back to look at those things they produced before. Sometimes they don’t do what I ask, and I don’t have Powerpoints in Dropbox or end of semester reports. Then, I have nothing to document what they did. Further, these are all self-documentations of stuff they did as they saw it. It is useful, but they are not necessarily my impressions of what they did or (more importantly) how they performed. I realized I needed a new system.

My first thought was to have paper files for each person where I write my thoughts and comments, but then I was worried my office might look like that picture above, and decided against it. Instead, I asked around at the management course, and a couple of people there were already documenting things well. They have a word document (or other program- pick your favorite) for each employee. Whenever the person does something good, they write it down and date it. If the person does something bad, they write it down and date it. By the end of the year, when they need to do an annual review, they have all the goods and bads documented, and can just pull up the document and read it to remind themselves.

Based on this approach, I made my own plan. Here is my plan:

  1. I have a word document for each person.
  2. When I have a one-on-one meeting with the person where we discuss what will be done, experiments, things for graduate program, tasks, I will write it up there and date it. For tasks and assignments, I will copy and paste it into an email, so we are all on the same page.
  3. I will also monthly or twice a month write my impressions from the most recent weeks. I will say things like, “GradStudent did a good job this week on xyz experiment,” or, “Postdoc was OK, but needs to focus on ABC and defocus from LNMO. Jenny will have a discussion with Postdoc about this within a week.”
  4. I will use this information for grad students when talking to their committees. I will use this information for postdocs when writing their letters for jobs. I will use this information for undergrads when writing letters of recommendation or determining their grades for semester research credits. I will use this information for technicians when performing their yearly evaluations.
  5. I will use this information when documenting performance and if I need to implement “progressive discipline.” What is progressive discipline? Tune in next time to find out more.

So, what do you think of this plan? I think the hardest part will be remembering to do it. Remember to bring your computer. Remember to open the document while talking. Remember to make notes on the person once a month or so. I have held on for a month so far.

Are their any suggestions you would recommend? I am open to alternatives. Comment or post here. Also, to receive an email every time I post (I promise to be better once I get over the current hump in work load), push the +Follow button.

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.

Management: Effective Meetings

hold-a-meetingThis week at my supervisory management course, we learned about something I wish every single one of my colleagues would learn: how to have an effective meeting. As I am one of only a couple of faculty members in this course, it was quite startling to compare/contrast the types of meetings I am used to, to the types of meetings my colleagues on staff have. I would say that many faculty meetings have a lot of talking. In fact, in recent meetings that I have run (poorly), all I did as the meeting lead was stand at the front, mentally note who raised they hand when, and make sure people spoke in order and didn’t trample over each other. We spoke for over an hour! Just talking one after another. I also took notes in a notebook or on a black board so that I could transcribe them later. There are so many things wrong with how I run my meetings, it is ridiculous. But, these meetings are weird, because they are between a bunch of people who are basically equals who all like to talk – a lot, and all think that they are the smartest person in the room. That makes faculty meetings harder. When I have a lab meeting, where I am clearly the top of the hierarchy, they run very differently – maybe more like my counterparts’ meetings. I run the meeting, I set the agenda. People talk and comment, but I control it and don’t let it derail. Actually, sometimes I do let it derail because I like to make a fun environment and chatting is part of that.

What is the definition of an effective meeting? Meetings are effective when the goals of the meeting are achieved using a minimal amount of time and all participants are satisfied. Most meetings can be classified into two types: Information and Decision Making. Information meetings are used to convey information to a group or convince a group of something. Decision Meetings are used for goal setting, problem solving, and action planning. Most of the meetings I seem to have in academia, both with my research group and with colleagues on committees seem to be the second type. Straight information is (thankfully) usually conveyed in email format. Although sometimes it is useful to convey information in verbal forms (if it might get people upset, for instance).

Below are 10 characteristics of Effective Meetings. Here is a fun exercise: score your typical faculty meetings using the following rubric:

0 points if this never happens/never done for meetings,

1 point if you are not so good at this or this rarely happens in your meetings,

2 points if you are OK at this, or this occasionally happens in your meetings,

3 points for being generally good at this and this normally happens in your meetings,

4 points is your meetings always have this.

Score       Attribute

____     Seating in the room is arranged so that every person can see everyone else.

____     Equipment is available at the front of the room to record ideas/plans.

____     Your meeting has an agenda.

____     The agenda has time estimates for discussing each topic of the meeting.

____     At least 1-2 times in the meeting, there is a probe into how effective the meeting is going.

____     During the meeting someone records the ideas and decisions of the meeting. The data is prepared and handed out afterward to all concerned.

____     Meeting notes indicate who has agreed to do what before the next meeting.

____     Dates of future meetings are set in advance so people can arrange to attend.

____     Those in attendance decide who else should be involved for future meetings and those people are included.

____     At the end of the meeting, people review and confirm who is doing what.

 

So, how did you score? I score quite badly (about 13 out of possible 40) – getting a zero in many of the attributes. I often do not have an agenda and it certainly doesn’t have times set for each part. We always have a place to write notes – chalk/white board and projector, but most of the time someone doesn’t take note. I usually take notes, but sometimes I don’t have the time to transcribe and distribute them. Have you ever been to a meeting where it was stopped and someone asked how it was progressing? Big, fat goose egg on that one for me. Never, ever happened ever. Dates of meetings set in advance. Does 24 hours ahead of time count?

Are these things feasible to do at meetings in academia? I think they are, and I think it would make meetings more useful and less dreaded. I am going to endeavor to implement these attributes into my meetings from now on. I hope my colleagues say, “I love having meetings with WomanOfScience running them. They are so efficient and effective. We get stuff done without wasting time!” OK, that might be wishful thinking! What do you think? Post or comment here. To get an email every time I post, click the +Follow button.

The Ups and Downs of Science

catenary_bikeMy kid was watching “Bang Goes the Theory” this morning (nerd mom, so proud), and they had a segment about making a bike with square wheels. Obviously, such a bike only rides smoothly on a surface that is humped. I wish I had a personal life bike like that, so I can navigate the ups and downs of being an academic.

Not sure if others agree with me, but I feel like this job is very cyclic in how it makes you feel. At some times you feel amazing, like you are invincible and you walk on water and can do no wrong (e.g. you get your first paper, you get your Ph.D., you land a tenure-track job, you get a big grant, you get tenure, you win a big award). At other times, you feel worse than the crap someone accidentally stepped on and are trying desperately to scrape off onto the side of a cement step (your reviews come back from a paper or grant and they say you are stupid, your colleagues are jerks and bully you, you get no respect, attention, or credit for your work). Somehow the great things flocculate to make the highs so high, but that only makes you have farther to fall when the crappy things also flocculate.

For me, the timescale of a full cycle (up to up) is about 2-3 years. I am currently in my second “down swing” after getting a tenure track job. I had one just before turning in my tenure packet and it lasted about a year. This one is even worse than last time, but I am trying to see the long-time trends. This too shall pass, and I just have to fight and scramble and push until I pull back out of it. This adds a lot of stress to an already stressful and (frankly) overworking and overtiring job.

Another issue is that the personal issues (your health, your family’s health, your fitness) all flocculate down together, too. So, that adds immensely to the stress, and you can easily downward spiral. I know just when this recent down swing started because I gained 5 pounds. In this down swing, my health got wonky and my baby most likely has asthma and is allergic to cats. So, we had to give away a cherished family member who was may older child’s cat. And we now have to clean the house top to bottom to remove all cat hair and dander. Right. Because I was cleaning my house so well before. I do have a cleaning service and grass cutting people (as previously discussed in prior posts about getting the help you need here, here), but now I need them to come every week. Cleaning people won’t move furniture and clean behind it – even if you pay them extra. Instead of spending more time having fun on the weekend with my kids, I spend time moving furniture, vacuuming and mopping behind it, and moving it back.

But I am a fighter. So I am pushing back. I am turning around and pumping out new versions of rejected papers. I am cleaning my house top to bottom. I am even trying to get back on the wagon with the gym to stay sane. I will survive. I am wondering if you have any tips? Have you battled your way out of a slump? What is the collective wisdom for reaching those high highs again? Or even just leveling out the ups and downs? Do people think it gets better or worse over time?

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Daily Choices

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad Mommy?

Travel-smallI did a lot of traveling last semester. Ironically, I had decided that I was going to take break on traveling and only do the really important and exciting stuff, but somehow I couldn’t say no. Part of it was flattery of my ego. Some of it was emotional blackmail. Over the semester, my HusbandOfScience, didn’t do as much travel and stayed home with the kids. It was a brutal winter full of snow storms and illnesses that resulted in many missed days from school. It was quite hard on HusbandOfScience.

As the old adage goes, “Payback is a Bitch,” and I am getting my just desserts this summer with his back-to-back travels. The kids’ illnesses haven’t yet subsided, despite being well into summer, although it is easier to cancel meetings than classes (thanks, summer!).

Sometimes I feel like I am a bad mommy. Let me give you some examples of my mommy-fails:

1. The baby: My youngest can’t sleep when HusbandOfScience is out of town. He wakes up every 2-4 hours even though, when HOS is in town, he can sleep through the night. I also have a hard time falling asleep without HOS next to me, so I go to bed late and get woken up a lot. I am a freaking zombie when HOS is out of town.

2. Groceries: I don’t know how to go grocery shopping. HOS does that chore and goes every week. He has a routine. He makes a list. When I go, I look like an idiot. I don’t know where things are in the store. I am juggling the scanner thing and the kids. I can’t find my superspecialsavershopper card for grocery discounts. I forget things.

3. Dinner: Another of HOS’s chores is dinner. We have a set menu every week to simplify things. You know, “Macaroni Monday,” Taco Tuesday,” “Whatever Wednesday” (that’s a bad one – can’t really ever figure out what to do there) “Pizza Thursday,” “Finger Food Friday.” I have no ability to organize dinner. I can’t get food to all come out at the same time or when anyone is actually hungry. This means the side dishes sit around while the meat parts take forever and I am chopping veggies for the salad. I always make way too much or way to little. And I burn things. I burn a lot of things. I often set off the fire alarm.

Sometimes, especially the public displays of missing mom parts (like the shopping), I feel like I am not a good mom because I don’t do ALL these things well. But, then I think that this must be how all families are – not just mine. Doesn’t every family have a division of labor where one person specializes in some chores or the other. Unfortunately, the split is especially pronounced and annoying when the other person travels. The traveling in academia can be crazy.

Thinking back, I realize that when I was a kid, the same thing happened. Both my parents worked, but my dad’s job was the only one that had travel associated with it. When my dad would go out of town, my mom made the craziest lunches. See, this was one of my dad’s jobs in the house – he made the lunches for school. When my dad was out of town, I would get crackers with peanut butter instead of a sandwich, no drink, and 3 moon pies in my lunch. It must have been difficult for my mom to get us out of the house. I wonder what other things happened that I never even noticed.

So, in the end, even though I feel like the house is falling down around me, my kids are sick, and I am getting no work done while my husband travels, I think it really isn’t so bad in the long run. Further, just because I don’t normally get groceries, cook dinner, or am the go-to parent for my child, doesn’t mean that I am not a good mom. It just means that when HOS travels I am a single parent, and these things are more difficult because I have to do them all. How do single moms do it?

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New Faculty Needs

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

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

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

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

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

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

LabOf OneWhatDoIDo?YouBelongHiringWoesManagementSolutionsGettingCopiesOfGrants

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