Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘communicating science’

How to Meet with your Advisor

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.

Choosing an Advisor: Choosing Wisely

indiana-jones-last-crusade-grailRemember that scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when he makes it through all the trials to the room full of “Holy Grail” cups? When the old knight who kept watch on everything tells them to choose a cup and cautions them to “choose wisely,” and the Nazi totally screws up and picks the prettiest cup, and he basically melts into a puddle of Nazi-scum. Then the knight says, obviously, “He chose poorly.” Then Indie comes along and chooses an ugly, small, little cup, and he drinks and is fine, and Capt. Obvious lauds Indie for choosing wisely? Why am I bringing this up? Because, you need to choose wisely when choosing an advisor. There are many time points when you will choose an advisor including undergraduate, graduate, and postdoc. Interactions with your advisor can make your job a joy or a living hell. So, choosing wisely is very important.

I was asked to write this post months ago, and I went out to a number of students and postdocs to get their opinions. Unfortunately for you, dear readers, none of them responded. So, you will have to hear my personal opinions. Maybe by writing things, some of which they may or may not agree with, they will be prodded into the act of writing? Maybe not.

OK, so here are my *pearls of wisdom* for you.

  1. Work-Life Balance. If you want to have work-life balance, make sure that the advisor you pick has work-life balance.  If they do not, they will not allow you to have it. Warning – just being a woman or having kids does not mean the person has work-life balance. My first time out, I picked an advisor who was a woman with a kid, and she had no concept of work-life balance. She was also very unsympathetic toward people without children trying to have work-life balance (see this recent post). She felt like people without kids should just work all the time.
  2. Type of criticism. Science is critical. See this post about taking criticism (post). Different advisors deliver critique in different ways. You need to find one that you can tolerate. Advisors are like coaches. You should see them that way. Like a coach or piano teacher, they will always find something wrong, even when you do it great. There is always room for improvement in science – especially when you are still learning. But, if someone delivers the criticism in a way you cannot tolerate, you will have a very hard time taking it.
  3. Time to degree/completion & post-job placement. How long is it going to take for you to get your Ph.D? How fast did previous students graduate? Do they have one paper? Several papers? What do they do when they leave the lab? Do they get good jobs? Do postdocs get jobs as faculty, if that is what they want? Do they go to industry? Where? Do grad students get good postdocs? Do undergrads go to good grad schools?
  4. Funding. Some people put this as the most important thing. I agree that if you have to TA the entire time as a grad student, it will limit how fast you can get your thesis done. And, if a person doesn’t have money for a postdoc, they obviously can’t hire you for one. The advisor needs to be successful at getting funding. Will they train you at getting funding yourself (fellowships or scholarships)?
  5. Resources. Funding is one type of resource, but are there other resources available? Is there time on the equipment? Or too few instruments to get on to do your experiments? Is there money to go to conferences? What about other knowledge or skills? What happens when the advisor wants to do learn something new? Do they let you flounder? Or send you to learn it from another lab?
  6. Other students. To me, this is the most important thing to do when visiting a lab. You must talk to the current students about the lab. They will likely be very frank with you about what they like and dislike. How happy are they? Do they have work-life balance? What do they not like about the advisor? When trying to decide about an advisor, I would definitely try to have lunch with the people already in the lab to see how they like the advisor. Ask about how the advisor gives criticism? How well other previous students have done with finding jobs after? How well is the lab managed for resources? Is there enough equipment? The right equipment? If you have to do something new, does the advisor let people flounder? How are new skills brought into the lab? How are the lab meetings run? Do people cry or get upset often? How does the advisor handle conflict in the lab? Avoidance? Do they micromanage? Does the advisor listen to complaints and criticism themselves? How does the lab operate? How do they give instruction? How do they set expectations? What is the make-up of the lab? How many undergrads, grad students, postdocs? I recommend having a list of questions for the lab members and making sure they answer all your questions.
  7. Advisors are not perfect. They make mistakes. If you found someone who is genuinely interested in your development as a scientist, they will probably still have a lot of other aspects you don’t like. As they say in the Muppet Movie, “peoples is peoples.” To me, that means that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. You are not entitled to a perfect advisor. Nobody is perfect. You are entitled to a certain level of respect and civility from your advisor. You are also entitled to expectations being set. You are entitled to progressive discipline if you make a mistake. The advisor is also entitled to respect because they have achieved a lot to make it to the professoriate. They are able to fire you if you are insubordinate – not even a union can protect you, if you do not do what is asked of you.
  8. How to work with a difficult advisor. I should write a whole post about this – hell, I should write a whole book about this – and I probably will someday. Let’s be honest, even good advisors can say and do stupid shit that pisses you off and is disrespectful. I apologize for anything I have ever done like this, and I know I have done it. If the advisor is mostly good, you can forgive these transgressions.  If you are having a hard time with your advisor, I suggest speaking to them in private about what is bothering you. But, you don’t want to come off as entitled or complaining. I suggest trying to come up with a solution and bring that to the meeting, as well as your complaint. Believe me, I have tried other things, and this works best. It can be hard to do, because they have power over you, in the form of your letter for future jobs. It can also be hard because many advisors have egos and some are really big egos. A bad advisor will not care what you think or have a problem with regarding the lab or his/her management style. A good advisor will consider your words, and see if it is anything that can be done (sometimes there is nothing that can be changed). But, letting something that is bothering you go and fester can make everything worse. Also, remember that your advisor is not thinking about you all the time. Remember, professors have all-consuming jobs, so they really cannot and should not be thinking about you all the time. So, return the favor, and don’t worry about what they think about you all the time. This will help your relationship.

Notice what isn’t on my list? Science. Because, basically, I think the type of science you do is irrelevant. Yet, when I talk to grad students, they often say the most important thing is the science that is being done in the research group. I think this is very wrong headed. Why? Because there is usually more than one person in each field doing interesting science in that field. Chances are that some of the people in the field will be BigShots with lots of money, students, and postdocs. Some of these BigShots are amazing advisors. (Yes, they do exist! I can think of several in my field.) If you get one of those, you have hit the jackpot! Sadly, many BigShots are crappy advisors. They suck in, chew up, and spit out students like it is their job (when actually, it is part of their job to advise and help the next generation of scientists succeed).  There are also lots of little guys out there, doing good science, plugging away, and often in desperate need of smart, dedicated, and hard working students. They also often care deeply about mentoring and advising. As long as they have the resources for you to succeed, you can do great things at these smaller groups. Finally, I think there are so many great, interesting science questions out there, and you can make advances on anything. Grad school is about learning how to do a long project, so you need to go to a lab that will teach you those skills. But, I’m not sure you need a paper in Science or Nature to learn those skills.

In my time, I have picked several advisors, and I have chosen poorly and chosen wisely. The thing I was most surprised about was that many professors have big egos. Now, I am a faculty member, and students make decisions about me. I’m not exactly sure how to convince them that I am worth the risk. I have been successful with students graduating in a timely manner (five years) with several papers with mostly full funding. But, alas, they often do not care about such mundane, practical matters, despite the fact that it will affect them every single day of their lives in grad school.

I am sure there are lots of things I have forgotten to add, but these are the things I thought of first. Hopefully some other people will help by writing, too. If you have a blog post, feel free to send it to me to post. I hope to hear from you! If you want to get an email each time I post, push the +Follow button.

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.

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