Helping the Minoritized Achieve in Academic Science

WomanChemBlackBoardToday, I would like to comment on student evaluations. I have talked about them before here. There has been a lot of information about how sexist student evaluations are. Truly. If you haven’t seen it, take a look at this study where the professor’s genders were switched in an online course where the students and professors never even meet. Male names get higher scores than female names – always. Other analysis of the words used to describe men and women on RateMyProfessor.com show there are gendered words for women vs. men. How many times do we have to show it before you just believe us? It is true – ask any woman. Another study shows that gender bias can actually cause women scores to be lower even if they are more effective instructors. These studies and tons of anecdata come to one fact: the teaching evaluations of a woman WILL be lower than if she were a man.

The point of this blog is to help people, not to complain. So, I aim to help both the women and under-represented minorities, who will need to figure out how to combat clearly sexist/racist reviews and the senior colleagues (probably mostly white men, let’s face it) who will be evaluating them and seeing clearly sexist/racist reviews, or at least gendered reviews. For fun, I will start by quoting some anonymous and real statements made in the evaluations of women (also this video is hilariously funny on the same topic), as an example to show you the types of things that are clearly sexist that you should look out for:

“She wears very bright lipstick that was distracting.” (This professor reports that she doesn’t typically wear ANY lipstick.)

“Prof. WOS shows too much of her body.”

“Her clothing is distracting to the male students.” (This professor reports that she wore pants, boots, and t-shirts through the entire course.)

“She would be better off teaching kindergarten.”

“Really sweet but her laugh is annoying and she touches her hair too much.”

“Seems like a b*tch but really nice and friendly if you go see her in her office.”

“Nothing more than a glorified Vanna White, without the looks. Her lack of self-respect was evident in the way she dressed, with her frumpy attire.”

“She has a very loud voice for a woman.”

“Pregnant.” (Yes, that was literally the critique.)

FOR THE WOMEN: So, what can you do to protect yourself if you are a woman/minority at the receiving end of these disgusting, sexist/racist comments?

Talk about it with your colleagues. Honestly, people are way too quiet about their evaluations. When they are bad, we are scared to share them because we are embarrassed. When they are good, we are scared to share them because it is bragging, and you might make someone else feel badly about their scores. I am going to encourage you to get over your self-consciousness and show your evaluations to your colleagues and ask for help. Yes, this means showing them the sexist ones where they call you a fat pig, mock your clothes, or say you don’t know anything about your subject. In order to make progress and defend ourselves, we sometimes lose privacy. You must decide what you value more. I personally value the academic freedom of tenure more than privacy, but that is me.

Don’t Assume Others Understand or Know This Happens. Honestly, most of my male colleagues HAVE NEVER READ EVALUATIONS LIKE THESE. They have no idea the kind of cruel and frankly disgusting things students will write to women/minorities. This is because we live in a society that is inherently respectful to older, white, males (OWM). Yes, OWMs get criticism, I am not disputing that (“I would rather chew a mouthful of glass shards than take another class with Prof. OWM.”), but the criticism given to OWMs is not so debasing as the comments women get (“Prof. WoS dresses like a whore.”) Can you see the difference? You will likely, in addition to discussing your evaluations, bring some data and literature (references above, linked) to support your case.

Choose Your Allies. No, I am not advocating showing them to everyone. Pick the people you are sharing them with carefully. They should be people who will evaluate you who you trust. They should also preferably be people who are trusted within the department (see this post). Talking about this with another marginalized woman in your department IS NOT GOING TO HELP YOU. I am sorry, but I am being frank. You need to get the powerful, heavy hitting men on your side. (Having a powerful woman would help, but I don’t see as many of those in departments in the sciences.)

Make Sure They are Educated. When being evaluated (annually or at promotion), make sure someone on the committee not only knows about these comments, but can also point out that they are sexist and should be discounted. No one should bring up sexist comments in a case – they should be disregarded – but if they do, your ally can remind people about unconscious bias. Educate your allies about implicit bias with the references above and the implicit bias test. Arm your allies with the facts and data.

An example. A couple years ago, I co-taught with a white male ally in a class. We literally were in class AT THE SAME TIME. On the first day, we both spoke and went through the syllabus. He had spent an extra long time introducing me and giving my credentials. I, in turn, introduced him and gave his credentials. It was a pretty even split. At the end of class, he noticed that none of the students would come to ask me questions, but there was a line to talk to him. He pointed to me and said, “She is the instructor, too.” Afterwards, he said he was SHOCKED that the students did this. I wasn’t. It really opened his eyes to the bias of the students. At the end of the semester, my scores were significantly lower than his – despite the fact that we literally co-taught the course. I was there at the SAME TIME as him. In the SAME ROOM with him, talking to students, discussing the answers, etc… I talked to him about it, and it was clearly not fair. Luckily, he was on the annual faculty review committee (for yearly merit) that year. When my case came up, he described the sexism he saw and the fact that we co-taught the course – literally simultaneously. It was great to have someone to defend me in the meeting and set the record straight.

FOR THE REVIEWERS: If you are a more senior, more powerful, or more male faculty member, and want to help women, here is what I recommend:

Ask to Talk About the Evaluations. If you consider yourself a mentor or even a human being, it is not enough to just try to justify things after they come to a head, I recommend that you actually talk, discuss, and strategize with younger faculty about how they can combat the negative effects of sexist/racist evaluations. You will have to read the evaluations. If you think it is difficult to read these comments, just think about how the person being evaluated feels. Suck it up, and read them, so you know. Then, talk to the person. Try to cut through the bullshit to make the class better (take the criticism) and make some lemonade from those lemons. There are probably correctable actions in the comments. Fairness (or perceived fairness) in grading, being prepared, being on time, and returning assignments are all common complaints that are correctable. Other critiques, such as “Do more examples,” or “The exam wasn’t like the home work,” can be discussed. Basically every lazy student makes these same complaints. You can discuss how many examples are done and the exams, but probably the amount is just fine.

Evaluate the Person’s Teaching Yourself. You could sit in on a few classes and evaluate the teaching yourself. Many schools/departments already do this because they realize that evaluations are problematic. Many schools still don’t. There are some issues with this. If the person or students know there is an outside observer, it could skew the results – like a wave function collapse. What if the professor is rude, snappish, or otherwise terrible? You might not see it when you evaluate in person. Another issue is time. I understand it takes time to mentor someone and do these things. If it means someone’s career (tenure decision), isn’t it important that you do what you can – especially if the person is under-represented in your ranks?

Be an Ally. When evaluating the person for merit, promotion, or tenure, be an ally. Don’t let other colleagues gang up or misuse information that you know is biased. Remind your colleagues about unconscious bias. You can even go so far as to send out an implicit bias test, and challenge people to take it. Hopefully, you will have other allies. If not, you might have to discuss some things in private and let some other people know the types of terrible things students have written about the person.

These are my suggestions, but I am sure the readers have others. Post and comment here to continue the mentoring. Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.

 

catenary_bikeThis week, I just got my fourth of four submitted proposals rejected. I am not unhappy because I am already revamping the first two, which were reviewed quite well, and I think they will be written even better and get even better reviews (and perhaps some money?) in the next round. I also got a really nice WomanOfScience friend to help me jazz them up. They were good science, but quite dull-sounding. She just batted 1000 on her last 7 proposals, so she knows her sh!t. For the most part, I agreed with the criticisms of the reviewers. They were valid, and there are ways to make my proposals better. As I have always said, “Criticism: Take It.” I will take it and gladly ask for more.

But, I have a bone to pick. Let me quote one of my reviews (I know people don’t usually do this, but it is important you see what was written to understand).

Strengths:
The PIs have an outstanding record of mentoring students from underrepresented backgrounds.
Weaknesses:
The broader impact work is already ongoing, and new efforts are not described.

Notice this weakness. It is a weakness that I am already strong in broader impacts. THAT is a WEAKNESS! How? What should I do? Invent yet another class to take up more of my time so I publish fewer papers every year? Or should I mentor more than 6-10 undergraduates in independent research projects per year? Should fewer of these students be from under-represented groups? Because those students take longer to mentor because they are worried their parents will be evicted or deported while they are away at school, and that takes up too much of my time? Or perhaps I should do yet a 5th outreach activity to encourage women and girls of color to join STEM – maybe invent my own because the ones I am doing with established groups, such as Girls Inc, are blasé. I mean, everyone does it, right? WRONG! No! I will not take this criticism. This is NOT a weakness. I am not weak in broader impacts because I am doing so fucking much already, and to say this is a weakness is asinine and ridiculous.

But, I take criticism… Maybe there is another problem that I can solve? Maybe they don’t realize how much I do. I mean they have my name and record (and they can easily find me online), but I can only list FIVE synergistic activities in my 2-page long biosketch. My full CV is a whopping 25 pages long. The parts describing my teaching and service take up 10 pages of real estate and include 6 separate funded grants just for teaching and mentoring activities – that are in a separate section from my research funding. But, I can’t include all that in my biosketch. I can only include 5 synergistic activities. FIVE! That doesn’t even cover the funded teaching/mentoring work I do – let alone the unfunded work.

I could list all this in my proposal, but there isn’t really space. And if I did, I would be using up space I should be using for the more serious endeavor of science. I could put a link to my website in the proposal, but that is actually not allowed (despite having seen it in so many other proposals). I am afraid to not follow the rules and have my grant rejected for such a stupid reason. So, I don’t put in a URL to my lab website that lists all this work.

So how do I let them know, succinctly, yet firmly, that: No, I will not be doing any NEW Broader Impacts to satisfy their twisted idea that every new NSF grant must have yet another mentoring, outreach, or teaching activity to accompany it?

I am thinking of writing a statement such as this (let me know what you think)…

Broader Impacts:

In this section, I describe my commitment to teaching and mentoring women and under-represented minority students to train them to become the next generation of scientists, engineers, educators, and creators. The criticism that these efforts are “ongoing” and that “no new efforts are being established” is true, and I will likely get that critique as I usually do. But, I would like to point out that I participate in 15 other broader impact activities that cannot be fit into the 5 allowed in the biosketch nor in this document. I do not see the need nor the reason to create another mentoring or educational activity for myself in order to obtain this grant to perform research when I am already, as a woman in a male-dominated field, so over committed to teaching and outreach. Indeed, in a recent survey of my male colleagues in my department, I participate in 10x as many outreach activities as they do. So, there is no need for me to create anything new to make sure I am disseminating my science, educating the youth, or have a high quantity of mentoring and teaching activities. I am already doing what you want me to do.

Further, the criticism that I am not creating anything new or unique is not correct. I train 6-10 students per year. That is approximately 2-10x as many undergraduates as my colleagues (actually, some take zero undergraduates, but one should not divide by zero), creating research opportunities that are unique for each student. My students present at national conferences and many have published their work. To each of these students, their work, commitment, and time in the lab is unique and new for them. Together, we are creating new science and new experiences. Many of them have never solved a problem without a known answer prior to this work. So, I reject the critique that my broader impacts are not “new.”

Additionally, the fact that my laboratory is a diverse environment in terms of gender, religion, race, and ethnicity is also novel. Each new student adds to that novelty, that flavor, and that uniqueness. So, I believe that it is incorrect to say that my broader impacts are not “new.” Perhaps the idea of undergraduates performing research in a culturally diverse setting is not new to you, but it is certainly new to them (and it is unique within my institution).

Finally, if the reviewers need me to do something new for every NSF proposal, I will inevitably have to do one less thing that I am already committed to and maintaining through shear force of will. The activities I do are not complete in 3-year increments. I do not complete them with the completion of the grant. My goal is to sustain these activities. Thus, I cannot start something new every three years with the start of each new funded proposal unless I stop doing something else. If I did drop something, that would mean one less committee would have a smart, strong, female required for diversity. One more program will be lacking a woman to represent my entire field and gender to local middle school students. One more student will not be given the opportunity to try her hand at research despite her mother, her society, and yes, even herself, telling her that she should not. The things that I describe, that I am already committed to, are not mere whims to me. They are not things I do to pad my CV or to make you happy to fund me. They are part of the service I do to the community and to society to educate the young people of this country. I am sorry if what I do is not enough for you; if my students are not enough for you, but this is about all I can do.

So, what do you think? Perhaps I won’t write this after all, but maybe just put a link in my proposal to this post. (wink) Let me know what you think. Post or comment here. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

All the Kinds of PUIs

Wellesley_College_Green_HallIf you are reading this blog, you are probably already inside the academic system in some way. As this blog is meant as advice to help you navigate the academic world, and ultimately succeed at being an academic scientist, if you so choose, I thought it would be good to make sure we are all oriented about that environment. Even if you have been in academia for many years, as a professor, you might be surprised at the variety of different types of schools that exist. The reasons why you should know and understand this landscape are:

  • As a mentor of students who aspire to be professors, you should know the different types of schools, and what those types mean so that you can inform and properly guide your mentees into schools that are appropriate for their strengths and success.
  • As a person who might be seeking to stay in academia, you should know the landscape for when you apply to schools at which you might want to teach and do research in the future.

I am currently at a conference for teacher-scholars from both Doctoral Research universities with high activity (often termed, “R1” universities) and Primarily Undergraduate Institutions (PUIs) that have high research activity. Schools are periodically evaluated based on the amount of research they do and number of graduate students they have by the  Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, which was just updated in 2015. They do not use the terms R1 and PUI, but most academics use these terms as a sort of shorthand. I encourage you to take a little time to browse the types of schools, and the definitions – especially if you are considering going on the job market this year.

In this article, I want to give an overview of the different types of primarily undergraduate serving institutions of higher learning where you can still have an active science research program with undergraduate students. Any differences of opinion are welcome. Please comment and I will try to amend the article to include these views. Also, the landscape is ever shifting – even the terms change rapidly and schools get reclassified regularly, so it is important, if you are a job seeker and mentor, to keep talking to people broadly about the functioning of academia.

The types of schools that are represented here include:

  1. Private PUIs in the “small liberal arts” category. These types of schools are highly ranked and have a national “brand” that characterizes them and their student body. These schools require research for tenure, and most faculty will continue some type of research, although you will definitely have research-inactive faculty members, too.
  2. Large, public PUIs with some master’s degree students, but not Ph.D. programs. Many times the departments offering master’s degrees or other professional degrees are not in STEM (business schools or law schools), so these schools are still primarily undergraduate in STEM and with regards to NSF funding. These schools have a variable number of research active faculty. Some require extensive research prior to tenure, and some do not.

When you are considering applying to a PUI, especially one that does research with undergraduates, you should understand what that means and what you will be capable of doing. There are a number of private PUIs that are super active in research and expect all their faculty to be engaged in research with undergraduates and publish papers with undergraduates. It is a requirement for tenure, and a rate of 1 paper per year puts you in a the top performers bracket. The national average is a paper every two years. Some of my colleagues are doing research at schools where they are the only one doing research.

In talking to my colleagues here, they say the following:

  • When reading candidate applications, the first thing they do is flip to the research statement. If they read something that sounds like you have no idea what it would mean to do research with undergraduates, they don’t even consider you further. You need to impress that you understand what undergraduates can handle, you understand the time commitment most undergraduates can afford, you understand the time commitment you can afford both during the semester and during the summer, and you understand what facilities you need and can get access to on campus, and perhaps off campus through collaborations.
  • They do look at pedigree. They want you to have a postdoc experience with good, solid publications.  This is important training in research, particularly framing and executing a problem. The hard part might be making sure it is of a scope that can be achieved with you and undergraduate researchers who cannot work full time during the semester.

Hopefully someone who is actually at one of these places can write a blog post about applying to these jobs and reviewing candidates for these types of jobs in the coming months. I will ask around. Hope you found this discussion helpful, especially as the fall application season draws nearer. Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post. Comments that critique or amend this discussion are encouraged!

 

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.

In the Service of Good

Conference_de_londresA few months ago, I had a post about how to manage your service. I titled it, with tongue in cheek, “How to get (the most) out of service.” I had a pretty hard push back on Facebook from a number of academic friends advocating for service – not getting out of it.

So, first I want to clarify some things. I agree that doing service is important, and when I advocate “mildly sucking” I am assuming that you are an over-achieving goody-goody, like me, and you put a lot of effort into everything. When I say mildly suck, I mean decide how much time you should spend and only spend that time on your service – especially if it is heinous. Do not over do it, because there are probably other things you should be doing with that time, and ask for help if you need it! Although that might not always work, either. We always talk about work-life balance, but we sometimes forget about “work-work balance.” This is an important part of any job, but especially one as free as an academic position.

One of my friends, has allowed me to paste in her comments (edited) advocating for service and doing it well. Enjoy!

  1. I disagree with academia’s disdain of service: because most of it (not all) is necessary for the smooth functioning of the university beyond what we (at R1s) see as our prime function. I have served on many more hiring committees than appropriate pre-tenure, for example, because I think that bringing in strong colleagues is one of the most important things that I can do for the university. Conversely, I never fill out my university’s annual “volunteer for committees” survey because the parking committee (as one egregious example) is not a good use of my time.

  2. I was overburdened with service pre-tenure. The most time-consuming service was the advisory role that I had for my last two pre-tenure years; I was not able to obtain assistance in a way that alleviated the burden until (bluntly) external people pointed out that it was too much. It was then split among multiple people and it’s been much more manageable since. In retrospect, I would have tried to make that argument more forcefully and directly to the chair earlier; I tried to be more subtle and it didn’t work. I think being straightforward would have been significantly more effective.

  3. I recognize that service is neither appreciated nor rewarded (and this is clearly expressed internally as well, in terms of merit and recognition). But: as a non-research-superstar at big-state-U, it allows me to make a positive contribution to our largely first-generation, heavily non-traditional student population. That is a more powerful impact (bluntly, again) than anything I do elsewhere is likely to have.

  4. I find that colleagues who value service often come from at least one non-privileged STEM community (gender and/or sexual identity, class, race) and I think this complicates discussions of “service doesn’t matter!” I think most academics aren’t unaware of the lack of value placed on service by institutions; but there may be significant personal importance in service for many people. I think that it is ok to make that tradeoff (especially post-tenure), as long as the reward structures are clearly understood.

  5. More germane to womanofscience’s post: asking for relief (directly or indirectly through my department) was not effective in lightening my service load; getting external comments that I was overburdened did.

  6. The good-little-girl is strong in me in that I won’t let things that I think are important not get done. I’ve found that suggesting (wisely) other people to help contribute has been another effective strategy to reduce service burdens. I also don’t do “unimportant” service (see above).

  7. I would like discussions of service to be more nuanced than “don’t do it!” I think for pre-tenure people, being graceful (and straightforward! and prompt!) about accepting and declining service, being passionate about the service that you choose, and (in a functioning environment, in which I am lucky to work) finding other people who can contribute are the best strategies towards making service meaningful and valuable without overburdening. But I would like academia to be more thoughtful about recognizing and rewarding those aspects of our multifaceted job that have less quantifiable impact.

So, what do you think? I tend to agree that service is the way to have things work smoothly and can have a big impact on your students. If you were to give true, important advice to a young faculty member (not the flippant advice of don’t do it), what would you say? Comment or post here. To get an email every time I post, click 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.

TypingAlthough I have mentioned the semester report in prior posts (management, lab rules, management), I realize that I haven’t made it explicit what the report is for, what it asks for, and how I use it to manage the lab. First, I should say there are lot of ways to do something like this. I started having my students write reports after talking to a very senior WomanOfScience about how she organizes her group. She makes her students write monthly reports. I tried that, but it was too frequent for them and for me. I decided one per semester and one in the summer (3 per year) was a better rate for reporting. I give the students a specific deadline, usually September 1, June 1, and February 1. I also encourage them to take time away from performing new experiments so they can spend time reflecting and writing the report.

Q: Why do this? A: Pedagogy. As most of us are, I am an educator. I noticed that my students were not getting practice with their writing. We would have enough data for a paper, and they would freak out about having to write it. Or, they would write it very poorly. Sometimes they would not include information that they should (data, methods) in the paper because they literally forgot what they did. I decided that the students needed more practice and they needed to routinely recap what they did and their results before it all piled up. I also decided to use this report as a mechanism to help them plan ahead and to do a little self assessment.

Q: What? A: Specific questions. Unlike writing a paper that has a specific format, I wanted the report to be a historical recap of what the students did over the previous semester. I wanted them to think about what their plan had been, what they tried, what worked, what didn’t work, what they accomplished, and give them a place to think about the next 3-4 months. To do this, I ask them to address specific questions in their report. I paste in here the format I use:

  1. A list of goals that the student had for the previous semester/summer;
  2. A description of the experiments the student performed to reach those goals including:
    • The reagents and methods used to perform experiments
    • A description of any analysis you did including the programs you used and the metric you measured and why you measured them
    • A description of the results you found (using words in paragraph form)
    • Figures to illustrate the methods and results you found including images, timeseries of movie data, and plots of quantified data
    • A description of what you think your data means and what the next steps might be
  3. A list of unmet goals;
    • Any problems or issues that the student encountered in attaining those goals
    • Any improvements made or ways that progress can be made faster
  4. A list of goals for the next semester/summer;
    • Is this a reasonable amount of work?
    • What milestones do you expect to meet and when?
  5. A personal statement that addresses the following:
    • What is your personal career goal?
    • How will your work in this lab help you to achieve that goal?
    • What is your personal goal for completing your tenure in this lab? (If you plan to leave the lab eventually – most of you do!)
    • What are your personal goals for achieving your timeline? What skills are needed? What milestones and achievements do you need to make along the way?
  6. A self-evaluation of your progress and work in the lab, what you have done well, and what you need to improve on. For this section, please consider your:
    • Planning and completion of experiments
    • Organization, interpretation and presentation of data (written & oral)
    • Ability to think of “the next logical step” in your experimental design
    • Time management and commitment to research
    • Ability to work independently, troubleshoot & seek outside help when necessary
  7. Any new protocols developed over the last semester, typed, and as separate word documents. The protocols will be posted on the lab website for others to use.

Q: What do you do with these reports? A: Read and comment. I make all the spring reports due June 1, and I get a bunch in all around the same time. Then I have to spend some time reading and commenting. Sometimes I print them out, write comments on the papers, scan for my records, and give the comments back to the student. Other times, I write the comments in a word document and send that to the students. Interestingly, the part that the students are often most hung up on is their self-evaluation. Undergraduate students are especially hard on themselves often saying they are not dedicated enough to the lab. For the more senior students, it is great to see all the experiments they did over the last semester in one place. They often realize how much they did and are proud.

Q: Results? A: Awesome. These reports are super awesome. Here are some reasons why:

  1. The students get a chance to look at what they have done. As I said above, they are often shocked by how much they were able to complete. If they are balancing multiple projects, they are able to look at which projects made progress and which are struggling, and evaluate where to put their efforts.
  2. They get a chance to see what they are going to do. Sometimes students are so excited about taking data, they aren’t thinking about their progress, how much more they really need for a story, or if they might be done. Taking this time to rehash what they did often helps them to sort out where they are and what they still need to do.
  3. They get a chance to self-evaluate. Similar to giving them time to plan, giving time to self-evaluate is really important to stay motivated and keep things moving.
  4. Sometimes we realize they have enough for a paper. This has happened 3 times, in fact. I’m not sure how your science works, but in my field, it often takes a year to figure out how to take the data, but once you figure it out, you can basically take all the data in a couple months. Three different times, when I read a student’s report, there was enough data in there for a paper. Maybe a few new experiments were needed. Maybe a re-analysis, but the meat of a paper was there. Isn’t that amazing?

The only downside of this process is that sometimes I am too busy to do a good job reading the reports. That is bad, and I need to make time to do it. I am going to get many of them on June 1, and I need to make time to read and respond to them. It is especially important during my current situation (sabbatical) that I take the time to read and respond to all the reports.

What are your thoughts? Post or comment here. Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post!

 

WomenTrainingAs I was writing the post about how best to meet with your advisor, I kept looking through my own blog for advice on how to conduct group meetings. I couldn’t find a post just on that topic. How is that possible? How could I have missed such an important topic? Is the problem that the solutions are too varied? Or the topic is too broad? Perhaps. But it is more likely that it was just too damn obvious. I mean, I had all kinds of posts about novel ways to organize your research group including: StateOfTheLabAddressTrainingStudentsLabRules, but nothing on actually having a group meeting. And almost every research group has some kind of group meeting sometimes, so maybe I just thought it didn’t need saying.

Well, I think it does, so here I go. Actually, I am going to have a series of posts on this topic, similar to what I did about advice on when to have a baby. That is because I don’t think there is a single right answer. Different groups have different personalities and need to do different things. I have asked some awesome WomenOfScience to send me some of their group meeting advice, and they did! I will start off with what *I* do, and then I will have some posts about what others do. That way, if you see something new you like to do, you can try it. Also, I would be interested in follow-up posts. If you changed your meeting style, what was the outcome? Was it good, bad, ugly?

Types of group meetings: First off, there are lots of ways to meet with your group. I think when people discuss group meetings, they think of weekly meetings where one person of the group speaks about their work over the last couple months and gives a synopsis. We definitely have weekly group meetings, although I have a different style (see below). But, we also have broader, bigger group meetings with multiple groups and journal clubs. In the summers, we offer coordinated “classes” or lectures on special topics. Below, I describe these different types of meetings we have in our group and share how I personally conduct my group meetings and other such meetings. There is no one right way to do this! This is just one example that works for me.

Weekly group meetings: In my lab, I like to have every person present every week to update everyone else in the lab on what they are doing. This keeps me and others in the loop. I also encourage others to comment and make suggestions, so the team and benefit through our various backgrounds and knowledge bases.

To do this, I have a specific format for the presentations, so it doesn’t get crazy and unruly. First, everyone is limited to ONE SLIDE each. On that slide they must have 1. What they they last week, 2. What they plan to do next week, and 3. An image, picture, plot, movie that represents what they did the previous week. I try to get the slides in advance and put them all into a single presentation file that we can go through quickly. I often fall down on this part of the job and miss one or haven’t loaded them all by the start of the meeting, which is definitely not good meeting organization, but it does give us time to chat and talk about other issues in the lab. Group meetings are also a time to organize one-on-one meetings and discuss general group business.

If a student does not have their slide, there is a mild consequence – they must get up and present their slide as a chalk talk and perform a silly dance. Many students are embarrassed and do not forget their slide again. Some students do not find this to be a deterrent to forgetting their slide, which is a problem. There is a solution: I was chatting with another professor who also uses this style of lab meeting (including the  consequence), but his negative feedback is to have the student do burpees – those jump up push up things from gym class that NO ONE likes. Apparently, this is far more motivating than the dancing.

Journal clubs: During the school year, we have a weekly journal club, usually in conjunction with another lab. Some of my students are required by their graduate program to attend a weekly journal club for credit, so this fulfills that requirement. In our journal club, one person is in charge of picking the paper and distributing it. But, that person is NOT solely responsible for the content of the presentation. Instead, that person makes the slides of each figure, and we cycle through different people who present each figure. This format ensures that others have read the paper (at least enough to present their individual figure). This makes the discussion far better, since more people are prepared. I have seen a number of helpful instructions on how best to present a paper. It is very helpful to give these instructions at the beginning of the semester!

Larger/collaborator group meetings: We are apart of larger groups of researchers that collaborate or just work on related topics and want to get together to present their work and discuss and share issues and ideas. In these meetings, we rotate which group/student presents their work to the entire group in a one-hour format. Many times, we connect with collaborators via skype, which can be difficult. These meetings good for students to get practice with longer-format presentations.

Pedagogical group meetings: In the summers, we often have extra meetings that are basically lectures like one might have in a class. This is to help people learn a little more deeply about a specific topic of interest to the lab. Last year, we went through a book, chapter-by-chapter, and took turns presenting/lecturing on the chapters to each other. This year, I have a couple postdocs who want to teach some basics of some of the techniques we use in the lab. In past years, I have added time onto our weekly group meetings to go over professional development such as drafting a CV or guidelines on applying for fellowships or other things. Since the students organize and ask for these types of things, I think they must enjoy and get something from them.

So, what do you do? Post here in the comments, and I will use them for future posts on this topic. I know there are a myriad ways to have a group meeting – let’s hear yours! To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button. If you haven’t been getting updates, WordPress might have lost you (sorry). Please feel free to follow again!

Conference_de_londresSo, I’m on sabbatical. OK, you know. And, I’ve been having meetings with students over SkyFaceGoogleHangoutTimepe. And, I have to say that, while it is frustrating to be 3000 miles away from the lab which has definitely led to some problems, in general, my individual meetings with students have gotten… better. We have every-other-weekly individual one-on-one meetings, and the students are coming more prepared and more focused than they ever did when I was there in person (exceptions abound, of course). I can speculate all day about the reasons this may be happening, but the fact that it is happening has exposed some best-practices for having meetings with your advisor. I will describe those best practices here, but before I do, I would like to point to a couple posts of related interest including: Effective Meetings, StateOfLab, mentoring.

Bring your notebook: I can’t tell you the number of times I am meeting with a student and I ask a question about their work, results, protocol, and they say, I can’t remember. My response is: no shit. OK, not really. I say that in my head. See, that isn’t surprising because you aren’t supposed to remember everything. That is what a lab notebook is for. The beauty of having a lab notebook is that you don’t need to remember. Indeed, relying on your memory will get you in huge, huge trouble, because our memories are faulty, not everything makes it into long-term memory, and you can only remember about 7 things in your short-term. When the student says they can’t remember, I usually ask if they wrote it in their notebook. That elicits a response of, “oh yeah!” At this point, it is prudent to go get your notebook, but this whole time-sucking activity can be avoided if the student would just bring their notebook to every meeting. So, always bring your notebook to the meeting.

Bring your data: In addition to your notebook, it is best to bring your data with you. Most data nowadays is electronic, so that means bringing your laptop and hard drive. Many labs have some sort of intranet or server to share data. If you upload your data to that well-before the meeting, it will be uploaded and can be downloaded in a timely manner. You may have a lot of data, so you might need to pre-sort. Don’t spend time at the meeting clicking open random files to find the right one. You should have noted before hand in your notebook interesting and remarkable data sets. Also, make sure you have characteristic data sets. It always happens that some look “better” than others, but you should also show the “quintessential” data set. Maybe you are past the raw data part, but there will still be things to show. Show your analysis method. Show your analyzed data. Describe how you calculated the error bars. If the data is a distribution, is it Gaussian? What functional form does the data fit to? Is that reasonable? What is the goodness of fit? Your advisor should not only know how you did this, they should want to know. If you make a mistake, they can catch it early and help you correct it. That is always preferable to finding out after submitting the paper, accepting the paper, or publishing the paper!

Be prepared: Bringing your notebook and data are a part of being prepared for your meeting. But, they are not the only way to be prepared. You should have an idea of what you want to talk about. Do you want to show off your amazing data? Do you have a question about how to analyze your data? Are you worried that a recent experiment isn’t replicating the first couple of experiments properly? Have a list of topics and questions you need to address with your advisor. And make sure you understand how you got the data you are showing. All the questions I describe about data above are things you should be prepared to discuss. Again, you do not need to memorize these things, but be able to quickly locate them in your notebook or within your computer.

Take notes: I can’t tell you how many times I have been talking to a student and giving the most brilliant, insightful information about their work, and then I say, “You got that?” And they look at me, with no pen in hand, no notebook open, no ability to write or recall the rainbows of knowledge I just spewed from my brain. Actually, many times, I diagram things on the white board when I am talking. In a sense, I am taking notes – or making notes, but these are written from my perspective. It is far better if the student takes their own notes. We can always take a picture of the board, and you can paste it in your notebook, but my hieroglyphics might not make sense next week or next month. Best to take your own notes and paste the board in under.

Actively listen – restate and seek confirmation: For any conversation where you want to make sure that all parties are understanding, it is always best to use active listening. This is where you basically double check that you are on the same page. You should restate their ideas or instructions in your own words, and seek confirmation  for what you understand to be the sentiments of the other parties. This is important to do in any conversation, but especially one where instructions are being given or you truly need to ensure that you do the right thing.

Prioritize: Before you leave the meeting, it is best that you prioritize your plan of action and double check that is the right priority for your advisor, too. All too often, a student leaves the office with a long list of action items, but no priority on how to attack them. Best to check the priority before you leave to make sure you are working on the right thing first on the list.

When working from a distance, I have found that, in addition to the things described above, a few extra things are needed.

Send protocols: Because I cannot look at your notebook, I need some information on how you did your assay. I have found with several students over the past semester that I thought I was helping to troubleshoot why their experiments weren’t working. They told me, verbally, what they were doing, but I couldn’t see the notebook or what they were actually doing. The advice I gave them turned out to not help at all. After a couple weeks, and several failed attempts to fix things, I realized that I needed more information on what they were doing. Turns out, the affirmative statements they made when I asked how they were doing their experiments were not the whole story. What I was really lacking was the protocol of how they were doing their experiments. Luckily, all the students were actually taking good notes and using printed protocols. (There is no helping someone who doesn’t write anything down!) Once I got the protocol, I realized why all my advice wasn’t working. The protocols were completely effed. Much of this was either a new protocol or a specific variation of a worked out protocol that drifted way out of the bounds of reasonable. Most of the time, the student was doing something that was fundamentally “unstable” such as pipetting 0.2 ul or something equally prone to uncertainty.

Send slides: Because I cannot look at all your data, it is best when students send a powerpoint with representative data and analyzed data. Most of my students have gotten used to this, because I usually have weekly group meetings where everyone presents every week and they have to have one slide each (meetings, meetings). Unfortunately, sometimes this means they only send me one slide, but it is better than no slides.

Share your screen: Another way to effective communicate and share data and knowledge is to share your screen with your student. I have done this several times, especially when showing a student a new data analysis. But, the students can also do that with me to share data. When doing this, the same rules as above for bringing and pre-selecting the data need to be done. A word of caution – when using GoogleHangouts, you must pick the application, and you can only share that application – it is annoying. Skype is better at this.

Let me re-iterate: Take Notes! Actively listen! It is so much more important for the student to take notes and to check what you heard when the advisor is a little head on a screen. Once, during my sabbatical, I was talking to a student. As I was vomiting pearls of wisdom, the student looked up and said, “Wait! I need my notebook to take notes!” The student ran out of the room to grab the notebook, and began scribbling furiously upon returning. Of course, I didn’t say anything about the notebook, because I had no idea that the notebook wasn’t there. I could tell that notes weren’t being taken, but it didn’t occur to me to say anything. Since that time, this student has never forgotten their notebook again at an online meeting. A lot of the follow-up I have been doing has been taking pictures of my notebook where I took notes and sending that. Often those notes are multi-colored and with illustrations.

So, this is what I have come up with. But, I am sure I am missing something. If so, post here with a comment!! Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.

Sabbatical Lies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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