Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘collaboration’

Do what it takes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pop Star PI

buckaroo-banzai-movie-poster-phantom-city-creativeI have been thinking recently about how being a research-intensive academic in science (I will qualify with many fields, but realize not all are like this) is like being a pop music star. Now, you may be scoffing and getting ready to stop reading this post, or you may immediately think of Buckaroo Banzai, so hear me out. I think that this analogy can go pretty far and actually has merit. Further, I hope that by making this analogy, I can help some of you come to terms with different aspects of this career path. For instance, if you are part of the postdoc army and thinking you want to be a faculty member, thinking about being a research-intensive academic in this light might help you to position yourself better to become a professor.

  1. Scientists and Musicians are both creative. I know it is obvious that pop stars and musicians are creative because they make up new lyrics and guitar rifts that are catchy and moving. But, scientists are inherently creative, too. Our entire job is to solve new problems that have never been tackled before. We invent new techniques to observe, analyze, model, and describe the phenomena of the world around us. I think that there is some idea that what we do is not creative because it is often opaque, uses math, and results in facts and new knowledge. On that note, there is another issue, too. By the time we present our results (perhaps on NPR, if we are cool), we are telling you some new facts. But, we don’t capture and retell all the creative moments it took us to get to these new facts. We don’t advertise very well that science is creative.
  2. Scientists and Musicians are influenced by the past and present of the field. In music, it is clear that there are trends in sound (remember auto-tuning?) and rehashing of old sounds to make them new again (sampling and covers). Scientists need to be pushing forward while constantly keeping the literature of the past and present in mind. Previous experiments and results help us to find the path on our future experiments. Referencing the literature is the first thing we do in journal articles. Further, some of our intellectual work is in the form of review articles where we completely rehash the literature in new ways, trying to make connections between what has come before with what is happening in a field now. Finally, every now and then, a field will “rediscover” a whole type of experiments or model that was basically ignored or dead to completely revive these ideas to have significant impacts on a field.
  3. Scientists and Musicians both have to re-invent themselves every couple of years. Part of being creative is pushing yourself to be creative about new things. Musicians come out with new albums every few years. Many times the sound is new and they even re-invent themselves. If they are good at it, a pop star can have a 30 – 40 year career or longer (think about Madonna or the Rolling Stones). A typical tenured and continuously active (see below) scientist will have at least 30 years of productivity in their career. Over 30 years, there is no way to continue to do the exact same thing. A scientist must re-invent themselves every few years to continue to come out with new ideas, results, and papers. So, it is not enough to have an idea of what the next experiment is, you must think about what the next big idea that will result in 5-10 or 20 papers. Then you must give it up and move on to the next, next big thing. To be truly excellent, you should be inventing fields that hit and riding the wave of popularity – not following it. Of course, there is merit to studying one thing really well, but even in that, you should be applying new techniques and learning about new avenues, or else there will be nothing new to study.
  4. Scientists and Musicians have a public face and profile to maintain. In my “state of the lab” address (post, post, post), I call myself the CEO of the lab. Much like a pop star, you have a public face that you present that needs to be maintained. In addition to being the “front-(wo)man” of the lab, I am also the manager. I maintain my lab website. I make sure that our great achievements are properly advertised. I make sure we are seen at all the right venues (parties for pop stars and conferences for scientists).
  5. Scientists and Musicians both have to go on tour. In order to both maintain their public profile and to promote their new work (album or results/papers), musicians and scientists both have to travel. Musicians can also make money on their travels because touring is the best way for musicians to make money these days. For scientists, some fields do pay honorariums for giving talks, but usually you just get your travel paid for (reimbursed). Around tenure time, many people go on a “tenure tour.” I am not an advocate of the tenure tour. In my mind, by that time, it is too late. You should be touring all the time to promote yourself, your work, and your personnel and students consistently.
  6. Scientists and Musicians often marry others in their field. Musicians often marry other musicians, artists, actors, or similar creative types. Scientists often marry other scientists. This can make touring and work-life balance difficult (see next item). At least musicians can make music wherever they want. To do science, you must be at a university or research institute. There are not an unlimited number of open slots at these locations. There are very few (I have met one only) self-employed scientists. There are many, many self-employed musicians, and you can live wherever you find inspiration, if you are self-employed. So, this ended up being a similarity that resulted in a huge difference.
  7. Scientists and Musicians have to juggle work and family. With all this touring and creating, it can be difficult for pop stars and scientists to have kids, juggle their jobs, and get to PTO meetings. Also, creative jobs are often all-consuming. Creative types, when engrossed in the creative process, often have a hard time putting their jobs to bed at night. This also makes work-life balance difficult.
  8. Scientists and Musicians are both mostly men and there is a glass ceiling. Many of the top pop stars are women, and certainly being a woman in music is more socially normal than being a woman in many scientific and engineering fields.  That being said, there are few women in the Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame (salon). Beyonce is not remarked to be a marketing and musical genius (although I think she is) (Atlantic). How many women in rap can you name? (girl talk, smithsonian) I won’t rehash all the literature about the fact that there are very few women in STEM, but I’m just saying – women musicians and women scientists all live in the same male-dominated society and are fighting a lot harder for the recognition they deserve.
  9. Scientists and Musicians collaborate. Musicians naturally collaborate to make their music. Most obvious are musicians in bands, but even solo artists work with musicians, producers, and sound mixers. In science, very few papers are single-author. As a PI, I always have my students and technician on the paper. This is the equivalent to the band and support. In addition, the duet is making a comeback in pop music and people have always sung together with people in different bands. Similarly, scientific collaborations are common, frequent, and often changing. This is because working with new people can be intellectually invigorating and enable you to recharge your creative spirit.
  10. Scientists and Musicians set their own schedules daily, monthly, yearly, career-wide. Just like some pop artists are one-hit-wonders, there are a number of scientists out there who basically only did one thing. A pop artist with a one-hit-wonder might be able to live off the royalties for their whole lives (maybe not so much anymore with pirating music), just as a one-hit scientist can get tenure and hang around forever living off their singular accomplishment. In both science and music, one-hit-wonders are not well-respected… I’m just saying.
  11. Scientists and Musicians can both be “night people.” There are very few fields in the world where waking up late and working to the wee hours of the evening is a plus, but both musicians and scientists can definitely do this. For musicians where you might be taking the stage at 10pm, it is a must. For scientists, it isn’t a requirement, but seems to be very popular. In fact, as a morning person, I feel like a huge slacker compared to HusbandOfScience, who can work on real science all night. All I can do is write blog articles with millions of typos.

So, have I convinced you? Did I miss anything? Add it via a comment or send me a post of your own! If you want to be a tenure-track professor, are you thinking of the job in these terms? To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

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