Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘getting tenure’

Controlling Their Expectations and Impressions

S._Sgt._Lorraine_Robitaille,_switchboard_supervisor,_from_Duluth,_Minnesota,_looks_down_the_line_of_the_Victory..._-_NARA_-_199009As I said in the last post, sexism and racism by students is real and exists. I gave some advice for how to combat sexist or racist reviews from students once you got them. I also gave some helpful hints to senior people to help younger people.

Not to be an a-hole, I took my own advice, and talked to a junior faculty member about his last year reviews. This is a perfect time to have this conversation because he is getting ready for this fall’s class. Going through his reviews, there was some definite and easy ways to get him some better evaluation scores. These changes fall along the lines of “Changing 20%” which is the scheme I advocate for making any changes for your life in general (for instance, see here and here). Based on my conversation with my junior colleague, I thought about some things I could share to help everybody score better evaluations.

  1. Never, ever say anything negative about yourself. I have had an entire blog post about this (here). Yes, I have said it before, but as any teacher knows, repetition doesn’t hurt. You should read that post, but also, just take this home: Do not ever say anything negative about yourself in class. It does not matter if it is true. This is actually an easy one to change.
  2. Set Expectations From DAY 1. I have also posted about how best to set expectations and set the tone in your class starting on the first day.
    • Your Syllabus. Your syllabus is your contract with the class. I have a post about your syllabus (here). I stand by what I said here, but I want to make something else very clear: You should make policies that WORK. When I was discussing with my junior colleague, there were a number of modifications to the syllabus that were needed to make it clear about the expectations. In his case, his late work policy was WAY TOO LENIENT. Because he had a “nice” late policy, the students took advantage of him.
    • Confirm the contract. In order to make it clear that the syllabus is a contract, get them to agree to it. I usually ask if they have changes they want to make, and they never do. They are often a little stunned at being asked their opinion.
    • Do something different. Yes, you will go through your syllabus, but you aren’t going to start teaching on day 1, are you? If so, don’t. It is a waste of time. They won’t retain anything. They might not even stay in the class. So, after going through the syllabus and getting is approved, I recommend doing something very different. As I posted previously, I take pictures of all my students. I have them go to the board, four students at a time. They write their names over their heads, and I take their pictures. I never force them, but have never had a student say no. I ask them to put up the name they want me to learn and know. They get to get up out of their seats. They realize that the class is different than other classes. You look whimsical. 
  3. Play to and Destroy Their Stereotypes. That last thing on the last part, where I say, “You look whimsical” this is so important. To me, looking whimsical, is a good thing. And, it undercuts some of their initial, likely stereotypes of me in the class. I prefer to look whimsical rather than incompetent, mean, or difficult. I believe that you must set the tone for their expectations of you. This means you must build an image of yourself in their minds. Unfortunately, they will come with culturally devised, pre-conceived notions of you based on your age, race, gender, hair, clothes, and height.
    • Example 1: Are you a middle-aged, tall, white man? Congratulations, your students will be very likely to think you are smart, competent, and correct all the time! Put on a little charm, act like you care, and you are likely to get very high evaluations.
    • Example 2: Are you a young woman? They will likely think you are incompetent, do not know your material, should be a push-over, and the class should be easy.
    • Read About It: If you are interested in this, I highly recommend this book: Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential by Neffinger and Kohut. It is not necessarily about teaching, but it describes cultural biases and norms for different body shapes, age, race, and genders. It helps you identify the positive stereotypes that you should play up, and those negative ones that you need to combat.
    • Say positive things about yourself: See point #1 above. Students will repeat what you say to them in your evaluations, so why wouldn’t you say positive things about yourself? I am not suggesting you brag or look arrogant. I suggest you mention good things about yourself in passing. Mention that you got tenure. Mention that you were nominated for a teaching award.
    • Tell them you care: This goes with the one above, but it is more specific. Because they will repeat what you say, you need to make sure you are telling them how much you care about them and their learning. You may think it is obvious because you are spending so much time on them, but they really have no idea what you are doing all day. When you are teaching them, I suggest that you tell them that you care and use that as a reason for pushing them. When things get difficult in class, be a cheerleader, be positive, and make it clear that you care. Plus, caring is one of the positive stereotypes of being a woman. The flip-side of this is if they think you don’t care, they will be VERY NEGATIVE about you. So, not only do to need to tell them that you care, you also cannot, under any circumstances, let them know that you don’t care. It is the kiss of death.
    • Realize that different classes may require different personas. When I teach majors, I have a different persona and project a slightly different personality compared to when I teach non-majors. This is because the students have different needs and expectations for me because on their backgrounds. I will probably try to detail and describe this more in a future post, but I believe it is important to keep in mind that your student populations are different depending on the class, the level, and even the year.
  4. Learn their names. An easy way to show them you care is to learn their names and use them. If you have a relatively small class, this is a must. If you have a big class, make sure you learn about 20% of them. Then, call them by name in class when they answer questions or when you call on them.
  5. Start off as a Hard-Ass and Ease Up. Your syllabus may have a strict late policy. For instance, mine is to not accept late homework. And I stick to this because I only count 10/11 homework assignments. But, about half way through, I start to ease up on some students. It isn’t that I really accept late work, but I start to allow somethings like scanned homework assignments emailed to me that I print and add to the pile. I tell the student I will make an exception only once. Why do I do this?
    • It makes me look nice and like I care. And because, honestly, as long as not everyone is doing it, it isn’t difficult on me. If you start as a softie, they walk all over you, and you are making exceptions all the time. There are a number of problems with being too nice: (a) Some kids never take advantage, and they resent that other students got away with stuff, (b) it is harder on you if this happens a lot.
    • Example: Another thing I do is to let them redo the question on their exam they lose the most points on. But, I don’t tell them this at the beginning. I act like it is a spontaneous act of kindness because I care. I want them to learn the thing they missed, and this will allow them to do this. I do this for every exam, because it is good for them to re-try and get right a question they missed. But, it makes me look nice, and that is a bonus.
  6. Be Fair. Part of appearing to care is to be fair. Being too easy or too flexible or allowing students to walk all over you is not fair. One nice thing that that you can often get out of annoying situations by playing the fairness card. For instance, you cannot offer only one person extra credit or accept a late assignment (which will be more hassle and a huge pain to you) because it wouldn’t be fair to everyone else. I use this ALL the time.
    • Give points – don’t take them away: This is perhaps obvious, but psychologically, students often think they are starting at an A and that you are removing points to make them get a lower grade. This, of course, is ridiculous. In fact, they start with zero points, and they must earn points. You need to set this straight from the beginning by making it clear that they are earning points for each assignment. Also, you should make it clear that THEY control their points – you are just reporting on what they do. This can be difficult in classes where they grading is somewhat subjective.
    • Have a rubric for grading: I have a secret. All grading is subjective. As much as we gripe about student evaluations of us, we are constantly evaluating and assessing our students. We have just as much opportunity (more actually) to screw them. We are also biased and can misjudge people. That being said, you should try to be as fair as possible when grading. One way to do that is to make sure you have a rubric when you grade. I also recommend hiding the student names.
    • Other Helpful and Time-Saving Tips:  If you are grading an exam of homework with many problems, you should grade one problem for all students in one sitting. Don’t grade the entire exam and then start on the next entire exam. This will also allow you to stay consistent between students, not look at their name before you grade AND it is much faster, because you can focus on one solution/rubric at a time and not be switching. Most people take 15 minutes to switch between activities, so why would you do this to yourselves??
    • Communicate: All of these policies are for naught if you do not communicate to the students what you are doing or how you are doing it. Fairness is a policy that should be in your syllabus. Most current college students hold this principle above all others. If they prefer for bias (in their favor), you can stick to your principles of fairness in the name of most of the others.
  7. Look accessible. Notice, that I am not saying you should “Be Accessible.” You just need to appear to be accessible. They have to think you are and that helps them realize that you care. Here are a few ways I appear accessible.
    • I have evening office hours. I posted about this before here. Most students could not make my daytime office hours because of other classes and commitments. The office hours are not really office hours, but rather homework sessions which allow me to help more students at one time. It also helps the students to build cohorts. Some students cannot do evenings due to personal issues, and I will make a daytime session, if they ask me, but I prefer evening office hours.
    • I email them back and use instant messenger. This allows me to respond back relatively quickly. I don’t necessarily email back the night before a homework is due, though. I warn them about this before, and tell them it is a conscious, pedagogical choice, so that they will learn to time manage and come to evening office hours. They typically respect this because I am so responsive otherwise.

Whoa! That was a lot of information. Some of it I had touched on or detailed previously, but some of it is new. I hope you find it helpful to keep in mind as you start preparations for Fall semester! Comment or post here, if you have something more to add. I am sure I missed something or there are better ways to do things. Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post!

Getting Past Sexist Evaluations

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 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.


Guest Post: Rant and Meta-Rant

GuestPostEvery now and then a friendly WomanOfScience graces me with a guest post. This is one of those times. I think it is interesting and funny. The advice is buried in self-reflection, so please read deeply. Enjoy! (BTW: to get an email overtime I post, push the +Follow button).

Rant and Meta-Rant (a personal diatribe by a woman of STEM currently up for tenure in a research-intensive Engineering department)

PART 1: Rant (in which I say many wrong things)

My immediate reaction to the tenure vote in my department (about two weeks ago) was anger and rage and sadness.

I’d made a concerted five-year effort to network with the right people who would support my tenure case in an alien field; I’d taught classes mere weeks after learning the required content; I’d written grant after grant, which returned rejected with a constellation of insightful, occasionally deprecating, but usually all-too-apt criticisms; I’d spent uncountable hours training the students working in my lab while feeling that progress was painfully, glacially slow; I’d written and rewritten manuscripts to the point at which I’d lost faith in our work; I’d carefully circumnavigated the departmental and college politics as one of the very few women; I’d toiled (albeit not uncomplainingly) in the shadows of my colleagues who received internal accolades and support for their successes in publishing and grant writing, and regularly congratulated them on their successes; I’d organized seminars and the occasional party as the good wife of several organizations; and, most notably, I’d managed a time-consuming internal service duty for two years that was above and beyond what was typically asked of junior faculty. I was tired, I was frustrated, and I was angry. Why had I bothered with any of it?

I suppose that I have should mentioned first that my colleagues voted to give me tenure, right?

Dear readers: as the doyenne of wildly inappropriate emotional reactions, I wasn’t happy or proud or pleased. Instead, I lost my shit completely for two weeks.

I was sad that my department had not noticed that I was doing sound scholarly work; I was angry that said scholarly work wasn’t rewarded; and I was enraged that the non-scholarly demands on my time would only increase in the future. I grumbled (nay, raved) to anybody who would listen — and to the friendliest and most supportive ears (and in particular to one close friend, a junior superstar colleague who had tried to give me helpful advice for navigating my less-starry academic career) I was cruelest and most cutting. I wallowed in misery, loudly.

Then I ranted to two friendly WomenOfScience (the blogmaster and a colleague of similar status and seniority) and got walloped by a clue-by-four.


PART 2: Meta-Rant (in which I analyze the wrongness and try to refocus)

Long ago my graduate advisor told me that I was going to have to learn to live with myself; that, like it or not, my outsized over-the-top reactions were apparently hard-wired, and that I was going to have to figure out how to manage them whilst staying productive.

My mien is not that of the logical, dispassionate ur-scientist. I am enthusiastic and elated, then morose and melancholy. Charming, then churlish; articulate, then profane. (A colleague once asked me: “Is it a taxing effort to speak as precisely as you do?” My response: “No, but it’s overwhelming for the audience— that’s what the profanity is for.”) Bluntly, my disposition is not stereotypically “male.” (Neither is that of many men. Conversely, some women are dispassionate. YMMV. This is about my reactions.) To manage this roller-coaster, I relied upon my generation’s snark-and-irony filter: snide comments about rejections and failures generated the needed emotional distance. I made frequent comparisons to bigger / faster / stronger / greater accomplishments by others to openly disparage anything I’d done — and I used those comparisons to justify not seeking the support that would help me to further my career.

When I ranted to my Women of Science friends, I was hoping for validation — I wanted to hear that I’d been poorly handled by my department, that I had a case for complaint. Instead, I heard that (minus the sturm-und-drang) many academic scientists experience similar feelings during and after tenure. My WoS friends also had similar issues, but had gauged what they needed to further their careers and hence were more adept at asking for and receiving support.

This is all to say: I fucked up like whoa, dear readers.

I agreed to write down my rant for the Woman of Science because I think it is useful to identify those features of my larger-than-life emotional reactions that did not help me during the first five years of my career. I write this with some trepidation; my stylistic choices may be an obvious identifier for close friends and colleagues. I note also that many of my issues are more likely to arise in the context of research-intensive tenure-track positions; my colleagues at teaching-focused institutions or in adjunct positions may have very different sources of sadness and anger. Nonetheless, I hope that, by talking about my sea of troubles, I can help others of similarly non-stereotypical dispositions more readily navigate the slings and arrows of an academic scientific career.

(1) I had let the incessant and vocal self-criticism become unhealthy. Unhealthy for my career: I refused to put myself forward because I could always find a reason to not do so. (Similarly, I used my inclination to not self-promote to whine about others doing so.) Unhealthy for my well-being: I have destroyed several long-standing professional friendships in the last year through my litany of constant negative chatter. (This I deeply regret.)

(2) I had let stress dislodge my horse sense. Academic careers can metastasize; and mine had engulfed much of my sanity and physical health. (I get vigorous exercise several times per week, but less regularly than I had five years ago. Similarly, I eat more foods of convenience and cook less than I used to, due to time demands.)

(3) Most deleteriously, by focusing on external markers of success I’d forgotten the joy in doing my science. About five days before the tenure vote, one of my graduate students produced data that strongly supported a tentative physical picture that we had suggested. The data clearly and uncontrovertibly confirmed our speculative picture and suggested a range of follow-up studies. I was thrilled! And yet, five days later I’d completely forgotten how happy and rewarded I’d felt by careful, detailed, dedicated work.

The solutions are easy to state and difficult to implement (for me, least):

(1a) Be passionate about my work. Toot my own horn when appropriate.

(1b) Be relentlessly positive with colleagues.

(1c) Value my supportive friends.

(2a) Exercise.

(2b) Eat well.

(2c) Take personal time.

(3a) Do my science.

(3b) Tired of some annoying aspect of my job? Do my science.

(3c) Frustrated with politics? Do my science.

(3d) Feeling unappreciated? Do more science.


PART 3: Going forward: I hope that my tenure case will be successful, but it’s out of my hands. I’m working on repairing the friendships that I’ve damaged in the past years of self-focused misery. I’ve asked for aid with the more onerous service tasks. I’m writing positive emails to my graduate students to reinforce good work and professional development. I am taking joy in a friend’s recent announcement — as a sign that thoughtful scholarship can indeed be valued. And finally I’m focusing on my science when I feel the urge to rant and rave, trying to redirect my passions towards healthier outlets than my native pessimism.

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.

Tenure Tips

USAFbrochureI was recently visiting another school for a seminar (traveling again!). I was chatting about some of the strategies I had when coming up for tenure. I have blogged about this before, but more generally about networking (networking on campus).

Keep your eyes open to the politics of the department and college. Do you know who the senior people (usually men) in your subfield or in related subfields who are well-respected in the department? I am being perfectly frank here: not all full professors are equal. In my department, there are several men who are well-respected and always listened to. There are others who are seen as extremists – they are the Fox News of my department. They make outlandish over-statements, and they are not respected for it. In my department, the measured, considerate people are listened to and have power of persuasion. There are other types of full professors, too. There are some who are too new to be respected because they do not understand the culture or value system of the department. Relatively new senior hires are often like this.

Why am I talking about these types of politics? Because keeping this in mind will help you to determine which people you need to convince of your excellence at tenure time. This sounds very cynical, but I am not implying that you should “kiss up” or somehow play up to these people once you identify them. I am going to suggest that you make damn well sure that those people know what you are doing. The people in your department whose opinions matter most (and there are always some) must know what you are doing and why it is important before they see your packet, before they read the outside letters, before they go in the room to vote, long before the decision is being made. This is not sucking up, but it is being smart and savvy. I am sure you are doing excellent work, but if you department doesn’t realize it, they could make a mistake. If the wrong people know it, or the right people don’t know it, your career might be in jeopardy.

How can you make sure the right people know about your work? Once you have identified the right people to make sure know about your work, you have to go about making sure they know about your work. I am sure there are many methods to do this. Here is what I did. Over the year before putting in my tenure packet, I went to lunch with each of these influential people. At the lunch, I was blunt. I told them that I was coming up for tenure, and I wanted to make sure that they knew exactly what work I have done, the importance of the work. We talked about my science mostly, what papers I had published and which were underway. We also discussed teaching – my evaluation scores and how they got better and my teaching philosophy. For these lunches, I tried to go off campus or to the faculty club so that we wouldn’t be interrupted by others. These influential people actually seemed to be genuinely interested and happy to chat about my tenure packet. They appreciated having the heads up.

So, what do you think? Any other helpful tips from your personal experience of getting tenure? Post or comment here. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Tag Cloud