Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘Academia’

Frustrations of writing: don’t be too smart or too clear…

TypingSo, you are writing a proposal, huh? Yeah, you are. Maybe you just submitted your CAREER proposal, or maybe you are writing to Uncle Howie for that big whopper of a carrot on a string. Either way, you are trying to convince someone that the thing you do is the bees knees. Here is one on proposal writing. Just some thoughts. I’d love to hear what you have to say – post or comment here.

I was recently having drinks with a couple WomenOfScience. We were discussing writing – mostly grant proposal writing – as it is the life blood of the academic research scientist. We were discussing how, when you write a proposal, you need to skirt the line between writing for a general audience and being technical enough to prove that you can do what you say. The women I was talking with often fall onto the “too technical” side. Oppositely, I often fall on the “too colloquial” side in my writing. Unfortunately, both of these can be deadly to a proposal.

Too Technical: It can be insulting – you make others feel stupid because they cannot understand what you are saying. It can be frustrating to a reviewer. Reviewers are all smart people with PhDs or MDs. Further, many reviewers have egos. Egos need to be stroked, and making them feel stupid is the opposite of what you want to do. Reviewers might think you are trying to make yourself seem smart by putting others down. Also, it can look like you are hiding behind jargon. People can and do assume you don’t really know what you are talking about because you are using technical terms instead of explaining it simply.  This can be difficult to control, especially is you are naturally detail oriented and really do think about your subject in this technical way.

My suggestion: Spend a lot of time on the first couple pages trying to tone it down. If you capture your audience’s attention and get them on your side, you can ramp up the technical speak over the course of the proposal. This way, the technical stuff can sneak up on them, or even seem gradual. You should always spend a lot of time at the beginning, but if you are a technophile, you got to write it for your granny. I am assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that most people’s grannies are not PhDs directly in your subfield of science.

Too Colloquial: When I write a proposal, a paper, or give a talk, I automatically go into pedagogical/educational mode. Oddly, writing too colloquially can have similar issues as writing too technically: it can be insulting. You look like you think others are stupid, and that is why you are dumbing everything down. Another issue with writing or speaking too colloquially is that you can make what you are doing sound simple or easy. I am doubtful that any science being proposed is “easy” or else you wouldn’t need the bureaucracy of the university behind you.  Yet, writing in an easily accessible way can make what you do seem unimportant, easy, or obvious.

My suggestion: Sell up the innovation, importance, and significance. If you discuss significance in a clear way, people love it. Use your gift for laymen’s terms to explain the significance of your work and really sell it. Later in the proposal, you might want to explain the experimental or theoretical methods, which are bound to be technical. Thus, you will give your work a technical expertise that will ground it.

Unfortunately, I think both of these offenses are less acceptable if you are a woman. Let me explain.

If you are too technical, you might be incompetent. You are hiding behind jargon you don’t really understand. Or, you are a bitch who is purposely making others feel stupid with your fancy words.

If you are too colloquial, you are probably stupid and don’t know the technical terms.

So, either way, you are incompetent. This is the typical issue for women in the academy – you have to be more competent than the men. People assume you are less competent if you don’t perform perfectly. So, you must walk the line – strike that perfect balance. You are won’t succeed overtime. But, you know what? That’s OK, as long as you practice, and try and try again, and listen to your reviewers. At some point, you will figure out how you are screwing up, and probably go to far the other way. If you practice enough, you should be able to strike the right tone eventually.

So, anything to add? Comment or post here! Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.

Management: Effective Meetings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 points is your meetings always have this.

Score       Attribute

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

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

____     Your meeting has an agenda.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

The Resistive Load vs. the Drift

ResistorsAs I said earlier, I recently went to a BigIvyLeague University to give a talk, and I met with a group of young scientists – men and women – for lunch. The meeting turned into a mentoring meeting, as any meeting I have with young scientists tends too. As I said, there were two women postdocs, and we were discussing women’s issues. Another part of the conversation was about the impediments to advancement for women. Different people experienced the resistance at different stages, and this is normal since no two people’s trajectories will ever be exactly the same. Of the two women postdocs, one felt that she was being disregarded and put down even in graduate school. The other had a happy experience in graduate school, but was beginning to feel the resistance now as a postdoc. Of my WomanOfScience friends, many did not feel it until they got to a tenure-track job or even until after tenure. Myself, I had an 8th grade math teacher tell me that I could not advance more than a year in math. Perhaps my early exposure to the resistance is why I am so hyper-aware and intent on changing things.

Studies have shown that the glass ceiling for women in academia is at the full-professor level, as I describe and quoted primary research in this blog post. So, despite the onset age of the resistive load, the trend of the resistance, or other personal factors of each woman’s career, the highest resistance comes just at the precipice of really becoming a fully acting, voting, participating member of your department and college making similar wages as your colleagues. More on this issue in future posts, I think.

The main reason why I wanted to discuss the resistive load was because the meeting directly after the lunch, I met with a young, newly hired WhiteMale Assistant Professor. I had met this guy before at a small conference, and I knew he had been a postdoc at the same BigIvyLeague University where I was visiting, and where he was now tenure track. Some BigIvyLeague Universities do this, when the person is truly a superstar, so I assumed that this was the case, although I didn’t know his full record. This guy is young, and he was very open and honest when I asked him about his trajectory. He said that he had not had many other offers or even interviews, and that he was not, in fact, a superstar. The only places he had interviews were places where people already knew him. He said that this was because he had a low publication rate. Of course, BigIvyLeague University knew him, and his postdoc advisor was key to getting him this position. I consider this a gross case of “The Drift” where someone just continues to advance without any forethought or even any real effort. It is kinda like being in the lazy river at a water park. You get pushed forward.

I often see these people who appear to “Drift” in Second Generation Academics, whose parent(s) were also academics. Second Generation Academics are always typically extremely good at what they do, and in the meritocracy of academia  they advance seemingly effortlessly. In actuality, I think they just understand the game intuitively because they were raised in it, but they are good and working hard. Unlike a Second Gen Academic, this guy is an extreme version of a true Drift. He is literally coasting with no cogent plan. He isn’t applying to grants, or really trying to get students. He is trying to get a few more postdoc publications out because his publication record was reportedly slow.

The juxtaposition of this Drifter with the hard-working excellently bright, quick, and enormously put-down women of the lunch meeting was almost sickening to me. I was somewhat in shock as he told me his path and his non-existent plan. I would like to think that the system would weed this guy out, but given how far he has come, I cannot be sure. Being at a place like BigIvyLeagueU helps in so many areas, like getting good students and postdocs, getting grants, and having papers accepted based on BILU’s reputation. And the worst part was that I really couldn’t blame this guy. He is a nice guy. He is an open and honest scientist. So what if his publication record is slow? What boggles the mind is the system, the structure that promotes this guy and denies even better women and minorities the chance to  work in academia at SecondTierStateU without a hope of even getting to a place like BILU. Or, if you do get an offer at a BILU, they don’t have spousal accommodation, so you have to sacrifice other parts of your life for the benefits of BILU. Indeed, several women I met at BILU did just this.

This post has been long and rambling, so I apologize. These thoughts have been kicking around in my head, and I am not quite sure how to approach them to reconcile the fact that excellent women have so much resistive load against them. What do you think? When did you first feel the resistance to your forward progress? Do you know any female “Drifters”? Even the most excellent and well-promoted women I know really deserve it and still suffer from impostor syndrome, self-doubt, and are truly excellent yet still under-recognized. Post or comment here. Remember to hit +Follow for updates whenever I post. I hope to post more frequently now that classes have ended for the semester!

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