Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

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The Importance of Standards

Woman_standing_next_to_a_wide_range_of_tire_sizes_required_by_military_aircraft._-_NARA_-_196199In my department, it is hard to go up for promotion early. This is for both tenure/promotion to associate and promotion to full. Like many departments, there is an idea that you have to do “more” is you go up early. Personally, I think this is bunk. If you are ready, and you have satisfied the requirements for the promotion, you should get to go up and be evaluated by the same standards as everyone else. There shouldn’t be a requirement for “more.” Recently, our college personnel committee made the same decision, and released it in their annual memorandum. They said that they do not require anyone to achieve a higher bar to go up for promotion at any level.

Because of this memo and several other good things happening, I thought I would send out feelers for going for for full early. In initial conversations my chair seemed positive about me going up early, but said he would talk to others. I also met with the departmental personnel committee chair. That was less positive. He was defensive. He asked me why I should go up early before everyone else. I gave him my reasons for why I thought I was ready, but couldn’t speak for others. He said, “why shouldn’t I have gone up early?” (speaking about himself). Now, I don’t know how long ago that was, I can’t judge how old people are or know when they started their jobs, but it seems to me that this is pretty irrelevant. It really isn’t in my purview to know why he did or didn’t make his career choices. So, I asked him, “I don’t know why you didn’t go up early. Why didn’t you?” He said he had changed projects and didn’t have any papers out. Well, that seems fine, but it really has no baring on me or my record or situation. He asked if others who were associate were also ready to go. Again, I didn’t really see the relevance. He said, “well if you go up, why won’t they all ask, too.” I said, “I don’t know. That isn’t really in my control. I can only say that I think that I am ready.”

The weirdest thing was that he couldn’t tell me what standards I needed to pass to attain full. It was really like there were no standards – just wait for long enough and it will come.

Here is the thing. We need standards. There should be standards if we want to claim academia is a meritocracy. When you don’t have standards, people can’t judge for themselves when they are ready. It disproportionately disadvantages women and minorities who cannot be sure when they are ready. Further, not having clear standards allows unconscious biases to rear their ugly heads and take over. Again, this negatively affects women and minorities worse than others.

I have a friend who didn’t go up on time because there were no standards and no one told him he was ready. He agreed that we should have standards, because then he could have decided for himself if he was ready instead of waiting for someone to let him know. Luckily someone was watching out for him the following year and told him to put in his packet. In my university, this definitely affects women more than men. On average, women take 6 years longer to achieve full compared to men. There are other examples, too, like this self-study at the University of Maine and this article on inequality from Harvard Gazette.

Here are a few other things that piss me off about the recent exchanges I have been having – besides not having standards (which is absolutely the worst, I agree).

  1. When someone asks to go up for full, don’t tell the person asking you about checking on other people at the same level to see if they are ready. Perhaps you should do it. Yes, probably you should be talking to people every year about their career development and advancement – no matter the level. But, that doesn’t mean you should tell them about each other. That is bad leadership. That just makes them feel like crap unnecessarily.
  2. Don’t compare that person to yourself and where you were. Why is that relevant at all? It is in the past. You cannot change the past. Are you so insecure that you cannot have anyone else advance to your level? I really just don’t get this at all. I want my colleagues to be excellent and ultimately, to be better than I was. I also don’t understand the idea of holding someone back based on my personal history.
  3. Don’t compare that person to others at all. It is unnecessary. It is rude. It isn’t about anyone else but that person. It feels sexist/racist.
  4. Perhaps you should get people’s opinions about the person’s readiness for advancement, but you don’t need to share that with the person. You can just use it in an advisory capacity.
  5. When that person is chatting with you, don’t tell them that the dean thinks it would be fine for her to go up early – that she should just try. And even if it doesn’t go through, she can try again in 2 years.
  6. You may be worried about the political appearances within the department if one person goes up early before others – or even ahead of others. But, again, this is your concern and the concern of those people. It doesn’t have anything to do with the case of the person interested in going up early. If the person is ready, it doesn’t matter if others are or are not ready. The only time there is a confusion or difficulty with this is if you *don’t* have standards. In my case, I keep being told that others will want to go up early, too. “How will we distinguish?” My response is that, if you have standards, you will know and you don’t have to worry about it. If 5 people are all ready, they should just all be able to go up, and you shouldn’t need to worry about it because you can justify promoting people because they are ready because they are above the bar.

So, what do you think? What are the standards for full in your department? Comment or post here. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

End of Sabbatical

cycling_sabbatical_by_katandkitty-d5eakjxOh my! It has been so long since I blogged. Sorry about that. The last month was full of finishing: finishing up school, finishing up sabbatical, finishing up our visit, saying goodbye to new friends, and packing. It didn’t leave a lot of time for blogging.

Although I just got back from sabbatical (well, sort of, I’m heading off to give a talk in Europe this week), I have been thinking about the sabbatical and what I wanted to work on and what I actually got done.

First, I would have to say that I didn’t have a great set of goals for my sabbatical. It was vague and not well-formulated. The next time I have the opportunity to go on sabbatical, I want to have a specific plan for what I want to accomplish. I might even take the first week and just make a big to-do list and make a big poster to hang over my office and check each week that I am making progress.

Second, I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. Progress was made on a lot of things, but only a few things were completed. I worked on completing analysis and writing of a couple papers. On one, the data is complete, but I struck up a collaboration with a theorist, and that is taking some time, but it is out of my hands a bit. Sometimes you wait to make a better paper, but it means waiting on submitting. Another one needed a new analysis.

Third, I worked on non-science stuff. I did a better job of posting here, through most of my sabbatical, and started working on a couple books. One is on mentoring – and is with a few other people. Another is a murder mystery. I actually made a lot of progress on the mystery novel, so I feel good about that, but I certainly don’t have a complete draft of a novel. That might be something that makes progress for years and years, but doesn’t come out for a long, long time.

Fourth, I started a new endeavor. Part of being away really made me appreciate and fond of my colleagues and friends back at home. A bunch of us got together, and using my newly acquired leadership skills, we started a large-scale, multi-PI endeavor that we hope will bloom into a full-fledged center (with funding) over the next 5 years. I am very excited about this, and we even got some seed funding!

Fifth, I didn’t want my lab to explode, implode, or any other kind of -plode. Overall, I would say that was successful. There were definitely inter-personal issues, some of which I was addressing and already correcting upon my return, but mostly people learned, worked, and made progress. The long-term people in the lab are on their ways to first publications. I am happy with the progress, and looking forward to being able to make decisions daily to help people progress faster, as opposed to just weekly or monthly.

Lessons learned: So many! I was worried that moving my family would be the hardest part, and I focused on that. My focus made that part go smoothly, but I wish I had spent a little more time focusing on a plan for the time I was there and setting some specific goals for myself. Also, I  don’t think anyone wants to be away for 6 months again. It was too long. We are probably going to keep it to 3 months next time.

What about you? Comments on recent sabbaticals or sabbaticals in preparation? To get an email every time I post, push the follow button.

A Good Little Girl

Yep, yep, and yep. This is a good one, and far be it from me to deprive my readers of some sound advice. It also makes me think about how I have avoided some major crap service assignments and teaching assignments. I should write about that sometime soon.


When you are a woman in a male-dominated STEM field, weird things happen to you. People say weird shit or give you weird looks or write weird letters of recommendation for you. And this is just the good guys, the male colleagues who are at the core respectful and supportive of you.

A few years ago, there was some paperwork to be submitted by a deadline as part of a large collaboration. I was stressing out about it, and a very senior collaborator (older than my father) was mocking me for wanting to make the deadline “like a good little girl.”

And you know what? He was right. As a woman in science, who’s always done well in school, I have always been a good little girl who played by the rules. I see the same thing with the students in my undergraduate courses. Young women are very rare, but the average performance quality of the women is much higher…

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Academic Leadership Workshop

808px-Queen_Elizabeth_I_by_George_GowerSo, I went to an Academic Leadership Workshop. If you are interested in leadership at all or think you might want to run your department or college, I highly suggest going to something like this. The workshop was short, as these things go. It was about two jam-packed days. It was really informative and interesting. After attending, I really want to move into more leadership in various ways at my university. Here are some things we did that I thought were excellent about the conference.

  1. Types of leadership roles. When people think about academic leadership, they immediately think of being dean or provost, but there are many types of leadership roles. One thing I liked about the workshop I went to was that it discussed being a chair, dean, provost, chancellor, etc. But, it also talked about being the lead on a center grant within your institution or a multi-instiutional center. Further, there are a lot of leadership skills you need just to run your group, or lead a committee within a department. We talked about all these types of leadership roles and how leadership skills are important for all of them.
  2. Workshopping. A lot of “workshops” say they are workshops, when really they are just panels or lectures. This workshop actually allowed us to “work.” We were split into different groups and each group was assigned a different academic leadership role. My group was all people who would be applying for multi-institutional center grants. Other groups were people applying for chair positions at other schools (outside hires), dean positions, and provost positions. This part was really hard, which is to say that I learned a lot. The experts who were helping us were really good at pushing us to shore up our deficiencies in our proposals and hone our messages. It was pretty cool. We also had a lot of group work discussions about difficult situations and conversations revolving around making choices with your time, development (gift giving), and difficult conversations that leaders often have.
  3. Expert Panels. Just because we did a lot of workshopping doesn’t mean their weren’t panels. The panelists were pretty awesome. Some of the most important things I learned included: 1. Being an academic leader means you can help enable more science on a broader level than just doing science yourself. 2. You can have a life and be an academic leader. 3. You should maintain your research as an academic leader because then you will always have your research career to “fall back on.” 4. With more responsibility comes even more freedom to choose your own schedule.
  4. 360 Evaluation. Perhaps the most important and informative part of the workshop was the 360 evaluation of my leadership skills. If you haven’t heard of this, a 360 is where you ask people above, below, and at your peer level questions about your management and leadership style. They answer questions, and these questions address specific leadership style attributes. The interesting thing is that you don’t have to be good at every one of the 16 attributes to be a great leader – you only need to be good at 5/16 attributes. If you are not strong in 5 regions, you can work on complimentary strengths to get stronger as a leader overall. Finally, there isn’t one way to be a good leader. Perhaps people realize that now after seeing successful leaders of various types in popular culture. The interesting part of this exercise was to discover that I am a pretty good leader, and to understand what else I need to work on to continue to mature and become an excellent leader.

So, over the next few months, I will likely share more from this workshop. I won’t be able to capture all the excitement and enthusiasm that the experts gave, which really sold academic leadership for me, but I hope to communicate some of these ideas to help you become a great leader of your research group or departmental committee. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.


Hey Ladies, Where You At?

1600px-Solvay_conference_1927So, I just went to a BIG Nerd Conference this week. You know the one. No, not that one – I went to the other one.

I had a lot of fun talking with everyone and doing some service committee work. I met new people and connected with friends. I did a lot of mentoring. It was pretty exhausting, even though I only went 3 days. And, I noticed something… there were many times when I was the only one. Don’t make me say it. I was the only woman in a big group of men. It wasn’t all the time or every dinner, but it was noticeable and fairly often.

It got me to thinking… where were the women? I talked about it with HusbandOfScience, and we realized there were women at the meeting, but there were almost no women at my stage… that’s the post-tenure, associate professor stage. There were lots of young women – grad students and postdocs – even undergrads! There were lots of post-tenure, associate-level men, but there were only a small handful (a couple) of associate women. There were also about 2-3 full professor women floating around visibly. We brainstormed about women who were missing to figure out where they were. For each one, I realized they had told me in the past that they were going to “not travel so much” after tenure. Or, in some cases, they had a baby after tenure and couldn’t travel. And, now they are MIA.

At dinner, I was sitting with two pre-tenure women, and I asked one of them if she would continue to travel when she (inevitably) got tenure. Her answer was a clear “no.” And the reasons were multi-faceted. She said she would probably travel, if she were invited to speak. But, she didn’t want to go to as many big conferences (such as the one we were attending). She has two kids at home under the age of 5 and she wanted to spend more time with them. She felt that she was a better mom when she was with them. She, herself, had a stay-at-home mom, and she felt a lot of guilt from being away. She had a two-body problem, and her husband was going on the market. These are all really good reasons, but it just made me sad because it was another woman pledging to become less visible after getting tenure. Sometimes I think that it isn’t that women aren’t in science, it’s just that no one knows we’re here because we are diligently doing the science and not out there selling our science the way many men do (I realize #NotAllMen).

So, I am writing this post to plead with the women for them to come back to big conferences. Please – see, I asked nicely.

Here are three good reasons to return.

  1. Do it for you. Attending, networking, and participating at big conferences is important for  maintaining your enthusiasm, your creativity, and your visibility in the field. At the big conference this week, I saw two talks: my student’s talk and part of the one before my student. They were great. I wish I could have seen more, but I was too busy networking (schmoozing) and talking science in the hallway outside of the rooms. I had several meetings with collaborators, established some new collaborations, and met a ton of students and mentored them (see below). These connections with students, who will ultimately join our ranks, are just as important as the ones with the older fellows (of the society). The reinforced connections with my peers and near peers lead to continued invitations to conferences, seminars, colloquia, and nominations for awards. And, even though I didn’t see any talks, I did learn a lot of science (from the network). I learned what people are excited about and interested in. I talked to a program officer or two about big new ideas from my group. I was just obviously and actively engaged in the meeting.
  2. Do it for me. OK, that first one wasn’t convincing because you are a self-less, government(-financed) servant who works on science for the thrill of discovery, and you don’t give a f*ck what anyone else thinks now that you have tenure. I hear you. Well, how about you come back to big conferences for me? You are probably thinking that I don’t need you. But, I do. I need you so that I am not the only woman at dinner or after dinner drinks 3 out of 4 nights of the conference. I need you because I can’t talk to all the students myself and be the representative for my entire gender at this age/stage of career. It’s a lot of pressure. I have never been so sought-after for my advice. In fact, similar situations are what drove me to start this blog in the first place. And most of them didn’t even know I have a blog full of advice on exactly what they were asking me!
  3. Do it for them. And this brings me to my final reason, which piggy-backs on the last one. I shouldn’t be the representative woman. There should be other examples of women who do it differently. I am navigating my career in a particular way that works for me, but I am a big mouth feminazi. The students need examples of other types of women. What about if you are shy? What if you do theory? What if you are pregnant? What if you are conservative? What if you don’t want kids? What if you are gay? I’m not many of these things. We need lots of women to go to conferences who have successfully navigated tenure and are still visible to serve as role-models. OK, you don’t think of yourself as a role-model, and you didn’t have a lot of women role-models? Fine, but don’t you think there should be more women at the big conference who are successful, normal, middle-aged people who can relate to lots of different kinds of women? Because, the way this conference looked, if you were a woman, you were either pre-tenure or you had very limited options.

So, that is why I think it is important for women to continue to attend big conferences in their broad field. Your impact can be in just being yourself and reminding everyone you exist. What do you think? Will you continue to go to the big conference? Will you come back? I hope so. It is very lonely for me without you. If you want to get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Sabbatical Update

Sabbatical-1So, we’ve been on sabbatical for about 8 weeks. I have had several people ask me what I have been doing. So, this is an update on my work during my sabbatical.

Grant Writing: I have written and submitted two proposals, and I am working on another.  There might be a few others along the way.

Visiting Collaborators: I spent 5 days going to a single city that is within a few hours of the location of my sabbatical that happened to have multiple collaborators. With one collaborator, the three PIs were all together and we “ran experiments” but telling a postdoc what experiments to do for 3 days. With another collaborator, I worked with his students to train them on the protocols from my lab.

Visits Back Home: I have visited back home two times in the past 8 weeks. Once was for about half a week. The second was for a week. I scheduled a lot of meetings with the lab. I put a bunch of student committee meetings that week and got one student advanced to candidacy for the Ph.D. and another passed their Master’s.

Conferences: I have attended one conference where most of my lab was in attendance. I was able to have some good meetings with them. It felt good that some progress was made and we had cool ideas from the talks and posters we were watching. I have another conference in a few weeks. It is closer to home, so I will swing by and see the lab.

Lab Work: OK, the real low mark for me is my ability to get into the lab and actually do some experiments myself. First, it basically took me 8 weeks to get fully trained to access the labs. The training consisted of 5-8 videos on chemical safety, PPE, and autoclaves. After getting all this training, I had to have one-on-one training with the faculty of each lab I want to access in order to get a key or card access. This means getting two faculty members’ schedules in sync. It took a ridiculous amount of time to get trained, but I am finally trained and trying to get in a lab next week.

Staying in Touch: Based on advice from others, I am staying in contact with my lab in two ways. Every other week, I am having a lab meeting where I skype in. These have been annoying due to connectivity issues. I am not happy with my home institution’s internet. The other week, I have one-on-one meetings with my lab members. This is hard to coordinate and takes a ton of time. I am happy that people are making progress in the lab. This is not surprising, because I have excellent people, but it is a bit nerve-wracking to worry about.

I’ll try to update again in about a month or so. Hopefully I will have some experimental results by then…


Hiring Faculty

1600px-Solvay_conference_1927Although hiring for your own research group is a difficult task, most people you bring on to do research with you will have a limited lifetime in the group. Oppositely, hiring faculty colleagues can have a lifetime impact on you, the department, and the college. Having great colleagues can be inspiring, uplifting, and enhance your creativity and science. Having terrible colleagues can make you anxious, depressed, and unwilling to go to work each day.  All departments have a mix, and not everyone feels the same way about all colleagues. Further, much of these issues come down to personality, which can be hard to evaluate during even long, 2-day interviews that faculty candidates must endure.

There is another issue, which is the gender and race gap in most STEM departments. We are certainly no where near parity on diversity with the population at large in this country. Most STEM departments have the same racial make-up that they did in 1950. That is to say, they are very white. We are doing a bit better with women, although most of them are white, too.

I am very proud of my department this year because they overcame some bad behavior to do things in a better way and actually get some diversity during their hiring this year. First, I am going to bag on them a little. Just know that I feel like they saw the error in their ways and course-corrected for this year. Learning from your mistakes is something that my department can do, but I am not sure all departments even recognize their mistakes.

Not so good behavior: Last year, we had only one “token” woman in our searches. To me, this is not enough, especially when we are so far down on the percentage of women in the department. We did have some non-white candidates. Most were Asian of some sort. The top candidate of the search was actually non-white, but he took an offer somewhere else.

When we closed the search, we had to write a memo about the people who did not make the cut (most of the candidates including the one woman). The faculty were presented the reasoning outlined in the memo. The male candidates were lauded for their credentials, despite the fact that they were not chosen. Sometimes the reasoning for not being chosen was also forgotten. The description of the woman was very different. Her credentials were not lauded quite so much. Odder than that, the reason why the woman was not made the offer was stated that “she did not know enough physics.” I had to step in here, since this is not exactly specific or clear. It is definitely the kind of vague critique people use to bash women’s competence when there is no good reason. Further, I felt that the higher-ups might be suspicious of this logic. Truly, if the candidate did not “know enough physics” why did we bring her here in the first place?

Second chance at good behavior: This year, we were allowed to try the search again. The search committee did several good things to help prevent some of the problems from the last year. The chair of the search attended, and paid attention to, the information from the equal opportunity office. *YAY*

Before the candidates files were downloaded and examined, the committee came up with an agreed-upon set of criteria for the candidates. Using this criteria, they judged the files and invited two women in the pool this year. *YAY*

Next, when the candidates came, they were treated as equally as possible. *YAY*

When the candidates were evaluated, they were judged against the criteria already established. *YAY*

Both of the female candidates were placed above the bar and many more of the male candidates faired better was well. Perhaps it was a special year with an exceptional pool? Either way, I felt the process was more equitable and resulted in a better outcome for the women.

Side Effect: The side effect of this process is that I am feeling much better about my department and about my place as a woman in that department. Good scientists should be able to learn and understand that random metrics are not a good way to evaluate candidates. My colleagues showed that they can learn and be better people and better scientists. For me, it is more than just the possibility of hiring more women in the department. There is a collegiality and respect that I feel to/from my peers that makes going to work much nicer these days.

So, what do you think? How does your department make hires? Do you feel the process is fair? Does it bring in the best candidates? Comment or post here with more ideas on best practices for hiring and helping with diversity.


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