Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘graduate students’

How to Deal

Nagasakibomb-colorOMG. My worst nightmare is a reality. Our next President is a confirmed woman assaulting, hate mongering, xenophobic, narcissist. Or at least he plays one on TV.

In the spirit of this blog, we all know what happened, and we know it sucks, but the question is: how do we deal with it? I have to say that I have become quite an expert at having difficult conversations with my students – and not just the shit sandwich kind. Here is what I did today (perhaps others can share what they did in the comments).

  1. If you are teaching, there are already a couple of resources online. One from the University of Michigan and a good article What Should We Tell The Children? You should decide for yourself if you want to bring it up or not. You should probably have a plan of what to say if a student brings it up. If you are a woman or person of color, students will likely come to you to talk, if they feel badly.
  2. If you have students who are at risk or feeling vulnerable, here is what I did.
    • We had a casual group conversation in the hallway with students who were supportive and positive about supporting these students. Much of it was the commiseration, but some of it was expressions of fears of people saying or doing something and stories of having people yell, “Go back from where you came!” at students in various places. As most college towns, the students feel, and probably are, safer here than in other rural places in the US, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t the target of bigoted, xenophobic slurs.
    • I already had a meeting with my middle eastern student, a wonderful scientist who works in a hijab. We discussed her abstract to be submitted Friday to a national conference. After the editing was done, I turned to her and asked if she was OK and if I could do anything to help her feel better. I told her that I wanted to have a diverse lab, and that she should always feel safe in the lab. That was the most important. If she ever didn’t feel safe, or was scared from people who might yell or harm her, that she should call or text me. And if something did happen, she should report it to me immediately. She was very grateful for my offer and appeared visibly relieved.
  3. Because I didn’t get to talk to everyone, and one student sent out an announcement about an on campus vigil that she was attending, I decided to officially condone the activity (despite missing it because I needed to get home to my kids). I also used the opportunity to send a message to my students. Here is what I wrote:
Dear Labbies,
I encourage anyone who needs help or support to consider going to the vigil tonight.
I am happy to talk with anyone personally about my views on these subjects, but I won’t put them in this email.
Also, I would like to say that it is important to me that my lab be inclusive and diverse. I strive to make it that way purposely. You should feel safe within the lab. Feeling safe is not the same thing as feeling comfortable. Being in a diverse environment can be uncomfortable, and being uncomfortable can be an important place for learning and growing. Part of being in college is being pushed to think about and discuss uncomfortable things in a controlled, respectful, and civilized manner using FACTS and not just opinions. I encourage conversations about our differences in experience in a calm, respectful manner. You may use humor, but not as a weapon.
Further, I want you to know that if you do not feel safe because of your faith, skin tone, or heritage, please come to talk to me immediately. You may call or text me (XXX-XXX-XXXX) if you are concerned for yourself outside the lab and you need help immediately, please call.
Finally, please watch out for each other. Many of you already text and chat to each other. Please do exchange numbers and call or text if you are in an unsafe or hostile situation and need help. I do not expect that to occur in SmallUniversityTown, but it can happen, as I am most worried that a Trump administration has emboldened hate groups with racist, misogynist, and violent intentions in our country. We can help each other. The best way to defeat a bully is by having friends nearby to help.
Please be safe and help each other,
WomanOfScience

Honestly, having all these conversations was as really good for me. It felt good to be in action and to feel like I could help in this terrible situation. But, my students helped me, as well. My middle eastern student told me about a time in her country’s history when they elected someone very similar to Trump and then had to live through it. For 8 years of his rule, student activists were jailed, killed, or forced to leave their country forever. If they could live through that, we would make it through Trump.

I told her I hoped that the Founding Fathers’ system of checks and balances and our active civil rights organizations hold better than that.Then she gave me some excellent advise: Don’t spend too much energy on this. Save your energy because it will be many years to fight. She told me that I am needed here to give energy to our work, including science and educating and helping my students. This is what she learned from watching others who lost their freedom, their lives, their families, and/or their countries during those 8 years (he was re-elected, and his second term was far worse than his first, apparently).

So, what do you think? Do you have a story to share? What did you say to your students today? Do you have better words of wisdom? Please share in a comment. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Management: Delegation

I was feeling pretty down about how crappy my meetings are. I am glad to hear that not all academic meetings are so bad from readers and friends. It gives me hope that my meetings will go better if I try and practice good meeting habits.

The same week, we also talked about delegation. As bad as my meetings are, my ability to delegate was inversely awesome! We took a little quiz, and I scored great on it. Take the quiz here:

Delegation Quiz:

YES NO
1. I spend more time than I should doing the work of my students. Y N
2. I often find myself working while my students are idle. Y N
3. I believe I should be able to personally answer any question about any project in my group. Y N
4. My inbox mail is usually full. Y N
5. My students usually take the initiative to solve problems without my direction. Y N
6. My research group operates smoothly when I am away. Y N
7. I spend more time working on details than I do on planning or supervising. Y N
8. My students feel they have sufficient authority over personnel, finances, facilities, and other resources for which they are responsible. Y N
9. I have bypassed my students by making decisions that were part of their job. Y N
10. If I were incapacitated for an extended period of time, there is someone who could take my place. Y N
11. There is usually a big pile of work requiring my action when I return from an absence. Y N
12. I have assigned a task to a student mainly because it was distasteful to me. Y N
13. I know the interests and goals of every student in the research group. Y N
14. I make it a habit to follow up on jobs I delegate. Y N
15. I delegate complete projects as opposed to individual tasks whenever possible. Y N
16. My students are trained to maximum potential. Y N
17. I find it difficult to ask others to do things. Y N
18. I trust my students to do their best in my absence. Y N
19. My students are performing below their capacities. Y N
20. I nearly always give credit for a job well done. Y N
21. My students refer more work to me than I delegate to them. Y N
22. I support my students when their authority is questioned. Y N
23. I personally do those assignments one I can or should do. Y N
24. Work piles up at some point in my operation. Y N
25. All students know what is expected of them in order of priority. Y N

 

Scoring:

Give yourself one point each if you answered “Yes” for #5, 6, 8, 10, 13, 14, 15, 16, 18, 20, 22, 23, 25

Give yourself one point each is you answered “No” for #1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 9, 11, 12, 17, 19, 21, 24.

Score 20-25: You have excellent delegation skills that help the efficiency and morale of your research group. You maximize your effectiveness as a leader and help develop the full potential of your students.

Score 15-19: Your score is adequate, but not excellent. To correct, review the questions you did not receive a point for and take appropriate steps so as to not repeat the mistakes.

Score <14: Inability to delegate is reducing your effectiveness as a leader. This results in lower performance. Determine if you are unwilling to relinquish power and why. Inability to delegate can cause dissatisfaction among your students. They will not develop job interest and important skills unless you improve.

How did you score? I had a 22/25. The other classmates, who all work in regular offices or as crew managers, were grumbling about my awesome score. One person said, “I know what the correct answers are, but I answered honestly,” (not meanly, but in a dejected sort of way). The thing is, delegation is essential to running a research group. If you do not properly delegate, you will probably not succeed at running a research group in academic science.

The reason for this is two fold:

1. You cannot do all the things to get this job done by yourself. You will not be able to do all the research, write all the papers, make all the figures, write all the grants, teach all the courses, review all the papers and grants, serve on all the committees, yadda yadda yadda. Delegation is a matter of survival.

2. Your job is to train people. The best way to train someone to replace you is to give them some parts of your job to try out. This means not just doing the research, but all practice writing the papers and making figures, practice giving the talks, even practice reviewing papers. These things will have to be done with more or less supervision depending on the student’s abilities and maturity in research. But, by delegating tasks, the student will learn, feel apart of the team, and you will get more work done.

Another reason why I can delegate more than my peers in the management course is that running a lab is like running a small business. I can run it how I see fit. Delegating certain responsibilities of the job to my students make me more effective and efficient, so I take full advantage. I can also hire and fire, which many of my peers cannot do. If someone really can’t handle any task I give them (including research), I let them go. I don’t think it does anyone any good to keep someone in the lab who cannot make any contribution at all.

What do you think? Is delegation important? How well do you delegate? Is there a difference between delegation and training? Post or comment here. To receive an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Management: Difficult Convos

ConvosOne of the most important and difficult things about being the boss is that you have to tell people things they might not like to hear. I have written about this before, but this time, I am going to actually have some advice for how to conduct these types of conversations from my recent supervisors management course.

One thing I learned from the course is that in the corporate world people don’t get feedback very often. Sometimes people do things incorrectly or poorly for years without being told. Supervisors often give a performance evaluation once per year, and if they chicken out about telling it straight, people can go for years without getting correction. One main point of this class was to say that supervisors need to give rapid and specific feedback to employees as soon as possible. That means having a conversation with the person as soon as possible addressing the issues that are occurring.

At first, I was surprised to hear that feedback is so slow in corporate situations, because I feel like in scientific research, we are constantly giving feedback to make sure our students are doing the work correctly. Then I thought about other things you have to give feedback on, personal things that you may not want to have to say. Like, a student who won’t wear shoes at his desk. These types of things are easier to try to ignore, but probably shouldn’t be ignored.

OK, so what is the best way to give difficult feedback? Here is a synthesized strategy:

  1. Make a plan for the conversation and write it down (an agenda) so that you don’t forget or lose track.
    1. First, start with something positive that your student is doing. Are they punctual? Did they come up with a good idea recently?
    2. Second, state the issue. If there are several, limit each conversation to 2 issues at most. You should have several motivations for why the person should make the change you need. If you are worried the person will be challenging, you should make sure you understand all the expectations and rules for the person.  Example: If your student is not coming into lab enough, you could remind him/her that the lab is a team that that other people rely on him/her to be present. If the person is a senior personnel in the lab, the junior people will need him/her to be present for safety reasons.
    3. Finally, make plans for corrective actions or ways to help the person overcome the issue. For example, if the student is missing time in the lab for a personal reason, perhaps the person needs to take some personal time to figure out the situation. Maybe the person really didn’t realize that they needed to work in the lab and was working at a coffee shop, but they were not letting you know. Clarifying the expectations of the position and setting clear methods of communication.
  1. Control Your Emotions.

You cannot have these conversations if you are emotional. You have to stay calm. If you are very angry about their person’s behavior, you should give yourself time to calm down before you have the conversation. For instance, I know that I am more likely to get upset if I don’t get enough sleep. Thus, I will cancel a meeting over a difficult conversation if I did not get enough sleep or have other stressors. If you feel like you are losing control, ask to stop and reschedule the meeting for another time when you are in control.

  1. Start positive.

When you get in the meeting, use your plan and start with the positive thing about the person.

  1. Focus on Actions and Behaviors – not on personality.
    1. Use your plan to make sure you are only discussing the behavior of the person. What are they doing that needs to be corrected.
    2. Most importantly, the discussion can not be about their personality nor about how you are feeling or how they perceive things.
    3. If they try to derail you, make sure you stay on topic of the behavior and the corrective actions. For example, they might say, “Well, no one else has to be in the lab. How come I am the only one being singled out?” You can say that this discussion is not about other people, but about their actions.  Such derailing comments or details are meant to try to make you defocus from what the real issue is. They are defense mechanisms, but you have to be strong against them. It can be very difficult. Role playing or practicing with someone else may help if you are particularly susceptible to these types of comments.
  1. Stop Talking. Seek Confirmation.

 Once you outline the issues, make sure that your student understands what you are saying. You may have to get them to say it back to you. This step is especially important if you are an extrovert and the student is an introvert. They may need time to think about what you said and process it. If you are an extrovert who hates silences in the conversation, you will have to try to control the urge to speak while they process. If you are an introvert and they are an extrovert, they might become defensive quickly. Make sure they understand exactly which actions or behaviors are being described and don’t let them derail you.

  1. Reaffirm your confidence in them.

 This is an affirmation of the positive. You can say something like, “You have been doing great work, but I just need to see more of you in the lab, so that the lab can work more productively as a team.”

  1. Determine the reason for the behavior.

 This is part of your plan (see #1). You should try to figure out why the behavior is occurring? What is the underlying reason for the actions that are not good. Is it that an expectation was not conveyed clearly? Is it there a personal reason for the change in behavior? Is there a new policy that was not made clear?

  1. Suggest solutions to solve problem.

Sometimes it can be as easy as letting the person know, and having them say, “Oh, I didn’t realize. I will fix that.” Unfortunately, sometimes the problem is more difficult, and you need to suggest solutions that will help rectify the actions. If it is a personal issue, you have to be able to suggest a solution without trying to be involved in the problem. Sometimes, that just means they need time, or they need to take sick leave or family leave. You should make sure that the expectations of the leave are clear, or you will find yourself back having another conversation about how they need to come back to work. Set timelines for any alterations and make sure the changes jive with the person’s job expectations and any union contract rules. This is what I mean by making sure you know all the expectations and rule for the person’s position. Many people in academia (grad students and postdocs) are now unionized. Make sure you are aware of all the rules for the union so that you comply with the rules. Have your ducks in a row before the meeting, if possible.

  1. Document the feedback.
    1. After the conversation and the agreed upon solution, you need to document the solution and let all parties who need to know the result in writing. This usually means sending an email to all parties, but if the person’s issue is that they don’t check email, print a copy and give it to them.
    2. In the email/letter make sure that you detail what the issue was (what behavior or action was not good and was discussed) and also document what was decided for the solution with as much detail as possible. If the student is taking time for a personal issue, make sure that you set specific dates and times for expected return to full time.

Notice that there is a right and wrong time to communicate over email. When documenting the conversation and the solutions, you email. Do not email to discuss. That is never good! These conversations should be done in person and in private – in your office is probably best with the door closed.  Don’t have these conversations in the lab in front of other people.

There is a big, big difference between being a research PI and being a supervisor in an office. For instance, we are actively trying to change our supervises through active training and mentoring. Supervisors in other settings cannot expect to change their personnel, but should work with the people they have and place them in the best positions and project to play up to their strengths. As PIs, we are suppose to build on strengths, but also work on weaknesses (such as writing or presentation skills). PIs have to provide constant constructive criticism of our students to help them grow and to learn. This type of criticism is another type of feedback about the science and the work, and it is better to do in public so that the entire lab can learn from the scientific mistakes of the others in the group. This type of feedback is not personal and is not really behavioral. Unfortunately, sometimes students can be very sensitive to the critiques offered about their work. They take it personal. If you sense that your student is becoming defensive or upset about your feedback, it is best to probably address this in a private conversation. You may need to think about how you are delivering your critiques – ask them about exactly what they are reacting to and why they are getting defensive. Don’t let them derail you or avoid the answer – make them be specific, or else you cannot change. It is also typical that the student is actually being too sensitive. The student may need to think about how they are receiving your feedback.

So, what do you think? Is this doable? It will take practice. I printed out a cheat sheet and tacked to behind where most of my students sit in my office. I am hoping that will help me stay focused and stick to the plan for my conversations. Post or comment your thoughts. To receive an email every time I post, click the +Follow button.

Sabbatical Report

cycling_sabbatical_by_katandkitty-d5eakjxI have two WomenOfScience Friends who just went away got sabbatical with entire family in tow. I have been asking them to write a blog entry about the do’s and don’t’s of going on sabbatical, but it turns out, when you go on sabbatical, life gets really hectic when you get back. Note to self: Life After Sabbatical is rough – try to take it easy.

Anyway, despite the huge amount of work and catch-up, I got one to write a little “report” on reflections on her sabbatical. If you like this blog, push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.  Enjoy!

My husband and I are both faculty members at the same university. This past year we took an amazing sabbatical for the entire academic year. We called it “Our BIG Year.” We were fortunate enough to both be awarded fellowships that helped to support our sabbatical research. We spent the first half year in Tokyo, Japan. I worked at the University of Tokyo and my husband worked at Keio University. Our two young sons attended day care and kindergarten in traditional Japanese schools where no English was spoken. The second half of our sabbatical was in Paris, France. I worked in a laboratory at the Pasteur Institute and my husband had an appointment at Paris 12th University. Again our two sons attended day care and at that point 1st grade in a typical French school.

For me there were two major concerns going into the sabbatical. The first was maintaining the base I had worked hard to establish in my research group during my first seven years as a faculty member. My second concern was about how my kids would adapt to multiple school situations on two different continents both taught in languages with which they had very little to no experience. I would say that my concerns were appropriate; those were the two major areas that most impacted my sabbatical experience.

When I applied for fellowships and sabbatical, I imagined that I would have a senior postdoc/research assistant professor to act as a stabilizing force in my laboratory while I was away. Due to some unforeseen funding changes, and problems with the visa of the postdoc/research assistant professor, I was not able to have that stabilizing force present in my lab I was gone. I decided to go on sabbatical anyway. Overall, it was a truly amazing experience, and I’m glad that I did it. In case you are considering a “Big Year” here is my list of considerations the next time I consider a sabbatical:

  1. One year was a very long time to be away from my research group without a senior staff member. I think 6 or 9 months would have been okay but one year was too long. I am afraid that some of my graduate students may have suffered a little bit during my absence. One graduate student decided to leave the lab about 5 months into my sabbatical. I think he would have stayed in the lab if I had not been abroad. This was the most significant casualty of my year-long sabbatical.
  2. The kids were extremely resilient. It was very difficult for them for the first month in both Japanese school and French school. Our 1-year-old had never had any problems at daycare drop-off in the US, but for the 1st month in Japan started crying the moment we left the house saying I don’t want to go to daycare. The transition for him seemed to be much harder than for six-year-old son. But after 4 to 6 weeks both of the kids were happily playing with the Japanese or French classmates, so I think the painful transition was worth it. Our dinner table conversations are now conducted in the melange of three languages. My six-year-old son loves to speak French and Japanese and recently told me “I’m thinking about taking up a new language, maybe Chinese.” He certainly takes pride in being multilingual.
  3. For both halves of my sabbatical, I established entirely new interactions with my host labs. I did not have an established collaboration before I approached either of them about being a sabbatical visitor in their lab.   Given the constraints I had with the responsibilities of mentoring my graduate students and the very real need to land and renew grants to support my research program, I could not devote all of my time to working in my sabbatical lab. I think the sabbatical would have been quite a bit more productive if I had gone to a lab with whom we were already involved in an ongoing collaboration. While my sabbatical was productive, I can imagine that a sabbatical could be even more productive under different circumstances.
  4. In both Japan and France I did (some) lab work. Of course it was highly inefficient, because I was in a new laboratory. I thought every day “If I’m going to be spending time in lab it’s really a pity that I’m not spending this time in my own lab in the US with my own graduate students.” On the other hand, I know that if I had stayed in the US for my sabbatical, I would have spent that extra time doing university related work, not lab work – because I’m not good at saying “No.”
  5. Due to financial considerations, we rented our house out. I tried to be mentally prepared for the fact there could be damage done to our house. Still, I was surprised upon our return. In the future I would definitely hire a management agency to deal with the renters, the assessment of damages, and the return of deposit.
  6. I had heard that Parisians dislike Americans and were extremely rude to Americans. I found the opposite to be true for us. We lived in the 15th arrondissement near the Montparnasse station and the Pasteur Institute in Paris. One of my personal side goals of a sabbatical in Paris was to resurrect the French I had studied in high school and college. I spoke to everyone I could in French. I really loved this. Perhaps partly because I was outgoingly speaking in French, people were very welcoming to us. In France parents pick up their children from school by standing outside of the school doors. Every day during this time I would strike up a conversation with another French parent. I will admit that no French parents ever struck up a conversation with me, unless we already had met. Nevertheless I found that all of them were very happy to speak with me. We soon felt welcomed into the community. One mother invited my son to join her son for lunch at their house once a week. This was a highlight for my son. Early on he was also invited to a birthday party where we met many other parents and classmates. Thus we became part of a social group that met for dinner, picnics in the park and play dates. For us having children in the Paris school system definitely helped us to become part of the community.
  7. The time difference between Tokyo and the East Coast of the US was 12 or 13 hours depending on daylight savings time. This was brutal. Because all of the members in my group were graduate students, I felt it necessary to speak to each of them on an individual basis once every other week by Skype. I also conducted our weekly group meetings and our weekly multi group meetings by Skype for the year that I was gone. During the time I spent in Tokyo, I had nearly daily meetings both at 6 AM and 10 and 11 PM Tokyo time. Therefore, although I expected my sabbatical to be very restful and rejuvenating, it was extremely exhausting. Next time I plan a sabbatical I will definitely take the time zone into consideration.

Culturally and personally Our BIG Year was an unparalleled experience for our family. There were so many elements that I loved (the language, the trips around Japan and France, the learning lots of new things, the exciting seminars, the connections on different continents). I am extremely grateful that we had this opportunity and this experience. Perhaps because it was complicated and exhausting and is too fresh in my mind, I am not sure if I would take another sabbatical abroad. Maybe a few years of being back at my home university will change my mind. It is likely that three years from now I’ll be planning another BIG year in some far flung location, but for now, it is great to be home where I can talk to my students casually on a daily basis and my kids can play in their own back yard.

 

Women’s Stats: The Facts

Christabel_PankhurstAwesome WomanOfScience and Editor of the Journal of General Physiology, Prof. Sharona Gordon, just wrote a very interesting and thought-provoking editorial about gender equality in Physiology. Although it is pointed at that field, her words can be generally expanded to all fields of science. See the full article here (http://jgp.rupress.org/content/144/1/1.full).

My favorite part of the article is the extrapolation of time to reach parity at the faculty level. Despite that 50% or more of the graduate students in physiology (and many other life sciences) are female, the percentage of faculty are strikingly low (only about 30%). Interestingly, the rate of female faculty is increasingly linearly, and extrapolating that line means that parity will be achieved in 40 years! I hope that is true, but I can’t help thinking that the level will asymptote to 50%, so it might well take longer than the initial linear dependence implies.

One of the main points of the article is that academics often choose to train their male students more/better than female students. Indeed mentoring is essential to getting more women and minorities through the pipeline. Yet, what is holding us back is that we select students who look like us or act like us to help propel them ahead.  I think we all treat trainees differently from one another. Sometimes it is because they are very different people, and they each need specialized treatment and mentoring, but sometimes there is something else. And you must think about it and analyze it. I sometimes worry that I inadvertently act sexist or racist, although I don’t think I have been after assessing my actions. Part of my worry is because I have had several African American undergraduates in the lab, but none have gone to grad school for a Ph.D. On the other hand, I have inadvertently convinced a number of women to go to graduate school without really trying. Often, I just tell them they *could* go, and ask if they are applying. Sometimes that nudge of support is all students really need.

As for my grad students, they (all women) look at me and what I do, and want to jump ship. I think they see that it is such a struggle. A struggle for money, a struggle for respect, a struggle to get published, a struggle to manage and mentor. They have their eyes open, and they have said, “If it is this hard for her, I don’t want it.” I feel badly that I have pushed them away from academia on accident. But, I am not one to sugar coat it or lie.

Another point I particularly like is the idea that the women who are becoming faculty this year are just as much pioneers as those who entered 15 years ago or 30 years ago. Perhaps the problems faced by this year’s faculty are slightly different from those faced by a woman entering 15 or 30 years ago, but this blog and many others prove that they are actually, perhaps surprisingly or not, the same. I certainly feel like a pioneer, and my attempt to help other women – the next generation – is written all over these blog pages. Some senior women have lamented to me that I still have to fight and write blog entries and feel the pull to take a stand and fight. They were hoping that my generation would be the one to have it easy. But, if the calculations found in this publication are correct, it will take at least another half century for parity – and that’s in disciplines with 50% females in grad school. Physics and engineering are still <30% women in grad school.

So, what do you think? What are your opinions about this recent article? Post or comment here. To get an email every time I post, click the +Follow button.

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