Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘Professor’

Writing Letters of Recommendation

Power of WordsSorry for the delay in posting, but grading, the holiday, and trying to get a paper submitted caught up with me. I just had an email asking for mentoring on how to write letters of recommendation for graduate admissions and REUs and even a few for faculty jobs. After answering that email, I had a lot of fodder for a post, so here it is. Think of this as a possible outline for how to write a letter of recommendation. Hopefully it will help make sure we are including everything we should to give a complete picture of the student for the recommender. I am sure I am missing something from here, so please add any other suggestions for important parts or items by comment or post!

1. Use letterhead. Is this obvious? Maybe, but it is probably still worth mentioning. Best to make up a letterhead in Word or LaTex with the school seal and your information instead of trying to print onto letterhead. Also, it is good to have a scan of your signature to add to the bottom.

2. Introduction. Like other forms of writing letted of recommendation need an introduction. An obvious way to write is to introduce yourself and say you are excited to write this letter of recommendation for Student X. Then, you can say in what capacity you know student X: as the research advisor, as the student’s instructor in a course? as some other type of mentor or advisor? You should probably also say how long you have known the student in this capacity. Some of my research students were also students in the courses I have taught, so I  have to describe both.

If the student is from a class you taught, describe the class. Was it required for the major? Was it an advanced elective? Was it a lab course that would showcase research skills? What was the level of difficulty of the course?

If the student was a research student in your group, describe the research of your lab in general.

3. The student’s performance. In the second paragraph, I describe the performance of the student in the capacity that I know them. For a course, I list the student’s ranking in the course (i.e. “this student was in the top 3 of the 53 students in the course, earning 93% of the total points for the course”). For many of my students, I have interacted with them personally in class, in homework sessions (office hours), and outside of class activities. I describe the student’s  hard work, dedication, and scientific ability and intelligence, as I saw it from these interactions. I use specific examples to make my points and as evidence for my opinions. For instance, I might say, “Student Y had exceptional ability in the course, which I noticed during in class small group work and during homework sessions. In particular, Student Y was the first one to complete assignments and was often able to describe the solution clearly to her classmates to enable them to learn the material, as well.”

For a research student, I describe the student’s specific research project in the group in my words. The student should have also described their research in their own words, and these two descriptions should match up, more or less. The student’s description is often less precise than mine, but it is important that the person reading the recommendation has an idea of what the student was meant to accomplish. As for a student from a course, I describe the student’s work ethic, dedication, and scientific ability to do research using specific examples to back up my personal claims about the student. This is easy for a successful student who has a publication or has attended a national meeting and presented there, as there is direct evidence of success in research that is verifiable. For students who are not quite at that level, I use examples from the lab where I interacted with the student to demonstrate the student’s abilities. Why use examples? Our only way to assess future performance is based on past performance, at this point.

Interestingly, recent studies have shown that personality tests or “employment tests” can accurately assess a person’s ability to do a certain job (see recent story from NPR). As far as I know, these tests have not been tested for success in graduate school in science, but it would be an interesting thing to look at – maybe some Discipline Based Education Researcher should test this out? The benefit of these tests is that they remove inherent biases of “knowing someone who knows someone” and biases against certain genders and races. Kind of like when they started doing blind auditions for orchestras and realized that women and minorities can play just as well as white dudes. Also, these don’t have the same issues as Subject GREs, which are terrible for women, minorities, and people from SmallLiberalArtsColleges. Just FYI.

4. Personality and Social Skills. For each student, I try to describe the personality traits of the student that demonstrate an ability of the student for the position being applied for. I also point out the other non-scientific skills the student possess that will make him/her successful at the next level. Some important personality traits include: work ethic, perseverance and determination, follow-through (completing tasks), anxiety, niceness, etc. Some examples of important social skills include: ability to work in groups, ability to learn from mistakes, ability to take direction, ability to express oneself  in oral presentation, ability to write scientifically, ability to represent data graphically, ability to lead and mentor others. I know that some people shy away from discussing personality, or only discuss it for females and not males, but I include it for all because it is an important consideration when hiring or bringing in someone. If their personality is not a good fit, the person may ultimately  fail even if they are the smartest person in the application pool. Fit is important and social skills are important – not just if the person is a genius.

5. Personalization for each school. Some people think this is ultra important. But, if you are like me, and you have 4-5 students applying to 20 graduate schools each, that is way, way too much work. I might personalize a few if I particularly know people at the school, but for the most part, I just make it general. For faculty positions I always personalize every letter, and it takes forever, but you have to do it.

I am sure there is something I usually add, but haven’t included here. So what did I forget? Post or comment to fill in the gaps.

Writing, writing, writing

write-on-november-is-national-novel-writing-month-a5349cc216There is a lot of reading and writing in science. This is ironic for me, personally, because I went into science because I am a slow reader and I hated humanities classes where I had to read all day. I liked my math and science classes where I solved problems with pencil and paper. My professors delivered content, so I never read textbooks. It is true, despite the fact that I endorse active learning now where students have to read for themselves.

So, here I am, a tenured professor and all I do it read and write all day long. I rarely solve problems with pencil and paper, and I joy in the chance to do so for courses I teach or just snag some back-of-the-envelope time while reading a paper or writing up my own work. I also cannot get most of the content I need delivered, although I go to journal clubs and talks because I am a great auditory learner and I learn best that way. I even have to read papers to myself out loud. This is embarrassing, and I have to close my office door when I review manuscripts or proposals.

After writing that past post about how best to give presentations, I realize there a lot of aspects of this job that we can write how-to posts about. Writing has an seemingly unlimited supply, since we do so many types of writing. I think we will have a few posts (a theme, if you will) on writing. I am happy to entertain guest posts to describe your best practices for writing different things. I am going to list a few that come to mine, comment if you have more types of writing you can think of in addition to these.

  • Manuscripts
  • Proposals
  • Abstracts for posters/platform talks
  • Chapters
  • Books of research
  • Thesis
  • Textbooks
  • Lecture notes
  • Reviews of manuscripts for peer review
  • Reviews of proposals for peer review
  • Grant reports
  • Committee reports
  • Letters of Recommendation
  • Letters of Support
  • Job Application Materials for various stages and types of jobs
  • Published proceedings
  • Biosketches
  • Biographical Information
  • Webpages
  • Blog entries on science
  • Book reviews for publication
  • Articles for general audiences
  • Highlights of research articles
  • Annual personnel reports/highlights
  • Memoranda of understanding
  • Requests for waivers

OK, that is all I can think of. I have written almost all of these types of writing assignments over my career. I haven’t written a textbook, yet, but I really want to. I think I have worked out schemes for writing each of these types of things, and I will write a couple entries about some of the most prevalent ones (or you will). Do you have any advise to offer? Post or comment!

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!

All the Small Things

Post from another WomanOfScience about some of the little things that drive us nuts as WomenOfScience. Enjoy!

Silverback

Silverback (Photo credit: bergeycm)

I have a Departmental Dirty Little Secret (DLS). An ongoing source of discontent, a small sliver that festers and lies always just beneath the skin. It is not fatal but the “Silverbacks” (my term for the Male Sage Older Faculty) of the Department do not lean over and pull it out.

The Silverbacks agree “‘Tis a shame, how annoying,” they murmur as they pull their beards and stroke their pearls, but still. It is just a sliver (man up!).
“It will work its way out, in time, we have seen worse,” they say, “In our day they proclaim there was….”
But, it is infecting me, bit by bit.

Does each of us have a Department DLS? That small, shameful slight that we may read too much into due to convergence of where we are in time and space that is simply drawing our focus off research, or is an indication of something much worse that must be focused on and would be negligent not to?

Here is mine:
I have never had a graduate student from my program talk to me that I had not had in my courses as an undergraduate. They have never talked me about research, about serving on their committees or just about life. So, our undergrads have been socialized to see us, but why do we find this acceptable in a student coming into our graduate program from the outside?
I think it is a human resource issue as well, all these students are provided stipends. Not being seen is a direct loss of resources.
Worse, even our young DepartmentalGraduateStudents (DGS) is a Silverback in the making and already murmurs, “How unfortunate but what can be done?” Ahh, students, they will learn in time.

What is yours?

Here is my DLS: There is an older male faculty who runs much of the department including class assignments and committee assignments who constantly passes me over for leadership roles. My department gave me pretty much no committee assignments this year – the first year after I have tenure. This is supposed to be the year when they stop “protecting me” from service and really let you have it.  But, nope!

He even had to make  special effort not to give me a chairmanship of a committee. A crap committee that he doesn’t even care about! The department publicity committee! He gave the chair position to an Assistant Professor over me. I specifically asked to be given the chairmanship after the assignments were made, and he said “No.” I pointed out that other committees have chairmanships given to the senior person on the committee, which would be me. He said, “That’s not true.” I gave him several specific examples of when this was the case. He said, “No.” I then wrote him an email that said directly, “When you don’t give me leadership roles, it makes me feel like you don’t trust me, because I am a woman.” He still said “No.”

This Silverback – in the literal sense – is about to retire after Spring semester, so I am looking forward to a future without his presence in the department, but I can’t be lucky all the time.

So, what about you? Comment or post…

Harassment: What to do?

Frontispiece

Frontispiece (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although as women in science, we often deal with subtle bias, non-specific and irrational pre-judgement of our qualifications, and an overall lack of encouragement. Less often, yet still persistent occurrences of actual overt harassment still occur and are known. A recent post at another awesome Women in Science Blog, TenureSheWrote, brought up a very interesting question about what to do when you know there is a harass-er of women around, in your field.  Please go to see that post and comment there.

Here, I want to tell a story about what I have done about harassment, when I saw it. As always, I ask you about what you have done and to share your personal stories about how you have dealt with this when you see it. If you would have changed your reaction in hindsight. What were the consequences of your actions?

Here is my story:

When I first started as an UntenuredAssistantProfessor (within the first couple of months), there was a WhiteMaleEmeritusProfessor who was really nasty to everyone – men and women. He would bad mouth my new colleagues behind their backs to me and try to embarrass them in public. I attended a lunch with a MaleSeminarSpeaker a few weeks later, and the WMEmeritusProfessor tried to make my science look stupid in front of the visitor. I fought back with humor and made him look ignorant of the current jargon and the current knowledge of my field. He was not happy with me.

A few weeks later, when a YoungFemaleScientist came to give our departmental colloquium, I went to lunch and so did he. I sat across the table from him, and he sat next to the speaker, and he was hitting on this poor woman the entire time. At some point, I couldn’t take it, and I told him to stop – in front of everyone. I made a scene. I pointed out that he was being offensive and inappropriate. I used humor, but I didn’t let him off the hook. He tried to attack me saying that I was being politically correct (as if that was a bad thing). One of my senior colleagues was there at the lunch, and I had to talk about it with him later. I didn’t get the impression that he was on my side, but more that he was uncomfortable and wanted it to go away.

A month of so later, I was at a dinner with several AmazingWomenOfScience in my field. I was ecstatic to be invited because these were wonderful, powerful women in my field. When they realized my new university, one told a story about how, when she went to give a talk at my university, she was verbally attacked about her science by WMEmeritusProfessor. He interrupted her several times – far more than the norm for the field. He tried to get invited to dinner. Worse of all, afterwards, WMEmeritusProfessor started sending her love letters in the mail. I went from ecstatic to embarrassed. I was ashamed that people my university saw this happening and did nothing.

I went to a SeniorMaleColleague and asked what power WMEmeritusProfessor would have over my tenure case. The answer was absolutely none. So, I went to the chair and demanded that he be removed from all seminar lists. I had found out that other departments had stopped sending seminar announcements to my department for fear that WMEmeritusProfessor would show up. I also told the Chair about WMEmeritusProfessor’s behavior, and how it was embarrassing and affecting people in my field. I think WMEmertusProfessor must have been talked to, because he was not seen as frequently in seminars for many years after that.

I didn’t have to deal with him anymore, and things felt better. I certainly felt more comfortable in my department.

Several years later, I had my Nth (important milestone) birthday party and got catering for the event. The woman doing the cooking told me she had been an undergraduate in my department many years before I got there. When she had been there, WMEmeritusProfessor was a FullProfessor, and he taught her laboratory course. She said that he had harassed her directly. He asked for dates and said that she would do better if she did this of that thing with him. She said it happened to a number of female students. I was shocked! How could no one in the department have known about this? I realize there was only 1-2 women professors at any one time until a couple more of us came on board, but these women never went to them to tell about what was happening. I had no idea what to do, and I have never reported it – staying the supportive listener, but I am still shocked to this day.

Typing this post has been cathartic, and has helped me realize that I did stand up when I could, and have been on alert for this monster as he infrequently rears his head in the department. The woman who reported it to me, now many years later is confident and would not care if I brought it up, but what purpose does it serve? Should I say something now?

So, has this happened to you? In front of you? Did you say anything? Make a stand? Or try to ignore it? What should we do? Comment or post here. Remember to

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