Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘Postdoctoral research’

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.

Applications: Your CV and cover letter

TypingWell, it’s application season again – well, it’s application-reading season, anyway. The majority of my department, myself included, are currently serving on some sort of hiring committee. This means going through hundreds of applications. We are being very careful this year. The applicant pool is outstanding, and we don’t want to miss anyone. I am not sure how all committees are run, but the one I am on is going through a series of “cut-offs” to weed down to a set of applicants we will interview online and then fewer to bring to campus.

The first cut-off is to check that the the minimum requirements are satisfied. For instance, if the advertisement requires a Ph.D., we have to check that they all have Ph.D.s. A few people were cut out at that round.

The second cut-off was to read the cover letter and CV of each applicant and look for some set of preferred attributes. For instance, if we prefer that the applicant have taught for at least one year at the college level, but it isn’t a requirement, we might rate all the applicants on teaching experience. Then, we could have a cut-off based on that score from multiple people (we have 3 readers per packet for the first two cuts).

As I was going through the first and second cuts for the search committee I am on, I am surprised at people’s CVs. I have had a post on your CV in the past (here). This prior post is about getting your CV together for tenure. I think the same basic principles apply for getting your CV together for a job application, but I am surprised that people don’t spruce up their CVs as I would have expected. I have assembled some tips for your academic job application.

1. What are you applying for? Your CV should play up the aspects of your career that directly pertain to the position you are applying to. Does that seem obvious? Not to many of the applicants I have seen. If you are applying for a faculty job that will be research-intensive and require significant teaching, don’t discuss superfluous stuff up front. For a research-based faculty job, I want to see your research accomplishments up front. Don’t hide your publications at the end! Make it clear if you already earned some fellowships or grants. Showcase your invited talks at conferences or departments. If you are applying for a lectureship where you will be teaching and not doing research, don’t talk about your passion for research. Put your research accomplishments, but after your teaching experience and accomplishments.

2. Your CV should be well-organized.  It should be easy for people to find what they are looking for in your CV. You should use headers that distinguish different parts of your CV. The font should be clear and large enough to read. CVs can be longer, so just let it be long, if you have a lot going on with your work.

3. The cover letter and extras. In prior posts, I thought that cover letters weren’t as important, but I want to revise that. If you are applying for a position and there is no requested statements, the cover letter may be your only time to actually convey your desire and passion for the position to which you are applying. Also, almost all application systems allow you to upload extra documents. So, if an advertisement for a job does not ask for a research statement or a teaching statement, you should still provide one. If they don’t want to read it, they won’t. But, they might read it and want it. Now, if the hiring committee get a few of these and want them from all, they may come back to ask for it from all applicants. If you already have it in, you will have a leg up. If you get it in, they will likely look at it. Even if you don’t put in an extra document, you can always get your enthusiasm and excitement across in your cover letter, so use it.

On a similar note, I am also reading postdoc applications. Many of these same issues are important for cover letters, CVs, and extra documents are true for postdoc applications, too. Most importantly, putting your publications up front is essential! A postdoc position is (typically) a research only job, so you need to emphasize the research you did. Don’t hide your research accomplishments.

Anything that you have noticed that can be weird or awkward about job applications? These are my impressions from my limited view of this year’s applications, but perhaps others have advice from many other application seasons. Post or comment here. To receive an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

The Resistive Load vs. the Drift

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

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

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

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

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

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

Organizing Your Group – State of the Lab Address

I was just visiting with my former postdoc at her new tenure-track job to give a couple talks. I had the opportunity to talk withchemistry-glassware a few other relatively new female faculty members, and I was giving them a laundry lists of things that I figured out to do with my lab to make training students, setting expectations, and overall communication a bit smoother. Mostly, these are things that I didn’t start doing right away, but eventually figured out and they work pretty well. As always, if you have any suggestions of organizing tactics for your lab, please post or comment. To get updates from this blog, push the +Follow button. Today, I will describe an orientation I do twice a year in the lab, called the “State of the Lab Address.”

Frequency:  I give this talk twice a year to reinforce and to orient new people, mainly undergraduates, who start in the lab.

Social Orientation: I first go through a sort of social orientation for new lab members. I name and describe all the types of people in the lab: professors, postdocs, grad students, undergrads, high school students, high school teachers, technicians, or whomever. It depends on who is in the lab at the time.  For each type of person, I list the expected behaviors and tasks that they are supposed to do. I even do this for me, the professor. There is a chapter in the book “At the Bench” that goes through some of this. Remember that many young students have no idea the trajectory of an academic professor. By educating them, you can help people get along with each other and show each other the proper respect they deserve for achieving the level of education they worked hard to achieve. I set social expectations for respect to each other in the lab.

Lab as the Small Business: I relate the environment and structure of the lab to something they hear more about in the media – the small business. I state that we are shareholders of a small business called, “WomanOfScience Lab,” and we create knew knowledge and smart people who go off to do other great things. I say that I am the Principle Investigator (PI) of the lab, but my role is that of CEO. I have to make sure there is money to pay you, but it is also my job to promote the lab and make us all look good. So, I write lots of proposals for grants to pay people, and I go to give lots of talks to promote our work, so it is easier to get grants. They are the shareholders, and they need to work hard, so I can have something good to say to the grant agencies. Here, I set up expectations for professional behavior. Call in when you are sick, so we know not to expect you. Turn in assignments on time. Do you work in a timely manner. Make time for lab work (undergraduates need help with this).

Job Expectations: I specifically outline the expectations for each level of person in the lab. I make it very specific about how I spend my time (writing proposals, writing papers, traveling and giving talks, teaching to education people and recruit good, new shareholders). I find that, as a woman, people see you sitting in your office, and they automatically think you are goofing off, and not working. So, I make it really clear that, if I am here, I am working. It helps them understand all that goes into the job of being a professor, in case they are thinking of going the academic route.  I also describe all their jobs and expectations. For instance, I say that it is the job of undergraduates to try to learn, try to do experiments, and make sure that the work is fun, and you want to stay with science. Our goal is a paper, conference abstract and presentation either off-campus or on campus, and likely a capstone/thesis report. I also make it clear that their classes come first, and there are always times when you have 3 midterms, and can’t make it to lab. I remind them that missing the lab for other things is fine, but they need to report in via email or phone, so no one is worried they got in a car accident. When you give this talk, you can make your own definitions for each position, as they should work in your lab. Just make sure you are clear on these expectations.

Science of the Lab: I do an overview of the science work in the lab. I try to tie it together with a broad introduction, as I might do in a talk to undergraduates. I specify each experiment, the progress made by people in the lab (SoAndSo is writing a paper on this now). This is the easy part, because it is the stuff you think about often. I try to update it, but don’t have to update the front matter. I also explicitly discuss the money situation of the lab. In this, I am showing my personal belief that students need to understand “how the sausage is made.” It does no good to protect them. I tell them straight out, “We have a grant for this from FederalFundingAgency for this amount, and this covers one graduate student’s salary for 3 years.” Or, “We ran out of funds for this line of research, and I am working really hard to get a grant to cover X’s thesis project.”  Again, I want them to respect the fact that getting funds is difficult, and I am working hard to fund our science.

Rules of the Group: At the end, I go through any rules of the lab. For instance, I have weekly group meetings. If people can attend (if they don’t have a class), I require everyone to present weekly and each person must have 1 slide with a picture/movie/figure that illustrates what they did over the past week and describes what they will do over the next week. I make it clear that participation is not optional, presentation is not optional. If they are present, but don’t have a slide, they must do an interpretive dance of their work. I also try to establish that they need to be respectful of the equipment, materials, and physical property of the lab. Again, I am not afraid to bring up money. I tell them how much stuff costs, and how much we spend on materials and supplies. I also tell them that I often go without pay in the summer. This opens their eyes. In following posts, I will discuss the Rules of the Group in detail, so stay tuned for more.

So, why do this? I find that this 1-hour presentation helps to avert problems in the future and helps everyone understand each other. This is a time-saving mechanism. Further, it helps to head off questions and misconceptions about expectations. This presentation does not cover research training on what we actually do in the group. I train students on research skills as a group in a “Bootcamp” setting, which I will describe in future talks.

My question for you, is what am I missing? I have developed this de novo, but what else should I include? Comment or post to discuss.

Applying for Postdocs

Although the Fall is traditional application season, applying for postdocs can occur at any time. Unlike other jobs in academia that have start dates that coincide with semesters, postdoc start dates start when the money and the person coincide. You still have to apply for postdocs.

In my experience from the application side and the hiring side, are that hiring postdocs are extremely flexible and somewhat informal. When I was looking for a postdoc, my husband already had a postdoc offer at FancyIvyLeagueUniversity. We didn’t want to be apart, and were both graduating with our Ph.D.s at the same time. So, I had a targeted place to go for my postdoc. I saw a FancyBigShotProfessor from FancyIvyLeagueUniversity at a conference, and I went up to him and told him that I needed a postdoc at his university. He invited me to give a talk at his group meeting. FancyIvyLeagueUniversity was across the country from UniversityofState where I was getting my Ph.D., so I bought a plane ticket and went up and down the coast giving the talk at a number of places set up by graduate student friends. By the time I gave the talk at FILU, I was very prepared. FancyBigShotProfessor invited two other FancyBigShotProfessors to my talk, and they offered me a position doing a joint project with them. I feel like this was all very fortuitous and lucky. Or was it shameless self-promotion and crazy networking at a conference?

From the other side, as a professor hiring postdoc, I am trying to figure out what I think about when hiring. First, I very carefully read the letters from the recommenders. I often even call the recommenders on the phone and ask very specific questions about what I need from a postdoc at that time. Next, if the application looks good, and the letters and recommenders gave me what I need to know, I will bring the person for an interview. In the interview, the person will give  talk on their research. Can he/she communicate science to a general audience? He/she will meet with me and other faculty members in the group close to my own research. Most importantly, the candidate will meet and possible have a meal with the members of the lab. This is a crucial part of the interview. I need to know if this person will get along with other people in the lab. Can he/she be a mentor to the younger members of the lab?

So, the basic application for a postdoc can be anything from virtually nothing, as in my case when I applied, to a true full-fledged application process, like how I hire postdocs. The full-fledged application involves your complete CV, a cover letter (can be an email), and 2-3 letters of recommendation from people who know your research well from your Ph.D. Some people just ask for the recommenders’ information, so the PI can call or ask for the letters via email.

Do you have advise or information on your postdoc application experience? If so, post, or write a comment!

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