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Posts tagged ‘Research’

Sabbatical Lies

national-lampoons-vacationSo, for those of you who know me, you know I am pretty honest. Some might say blunt. One comment on my 360 said that I do not “suffer fools.” I accept this about myself. I think it is a defining characteristic of scientists to seek truth and report it. Part of the drive behind this blog is to expose truths. So, that’s why I have to tell you this truthfully: going away on a sabbatical is hard and kinda sucks. And the worst part was that no one told me! All my friends who went on sabbatical in Japan, France, UK, San Francisco, they left out a lot of the hardships. It reminds me of people who have kids and they try to get others to have kids, too. They don’t tell the truth of the horror stories. It’s like a weird cult that they want others to join and buy-into. So, since I am so blunt, I will tell it to you straight. Going away on sabbatical is hard and parts of it are not fun. Of course, I am going to detail all the ways that sabbatical is tough. Some, you can probably guess, but others might not be so obvious.

Sharing your Office: When you go on sabbatical, you aren’t the big shot. You are a visitor. You will likely get a desk somewhere, but you will have to share an office. It has been 9 years since I shared an office, and I have forgotten the etiquette for office-matery. My first roomie was also a professor like me. We both realized pretty quickly that we were going to be annoying to each other as we held 2-5 Skype meetings every day. I brought headphones to try to be less annoying, but he did not. We also both traveled a lot, so that helped us to be less annoying to each other.

My first roomie left after a few months. He was a visitor, too. My next officemate is a new postdoc in some lab in the department. He is nice and quiet. I am annoying and loud on my Skype meetings. We never discussed how we would do the locks, but we figured it out through trial and error. We have now been joined by a new grad student in the same lab. The postdoc and student are from the same country and speak the same native language. They have a lot to talk about, but they don’t talk when I am there. If they were talking, they stop talking when I come in. I feel bad about this, but I haven’t exactly oppressed them. They just have a training to be respectful because I am a professor.

The worst part about sharing your office, especially if you aren’t used to it, is that you can’t really fart in your office anymore. I know you do it. We all do it. It’s OK because most of the time you are alone. If you have a single officemate, you can’t fart because it will be obvious it was you. Now that I have two officemates, I might be able to get away with it when they are both there. But, then I suppose they could talk to each other in a language I can’t understand to confer that it was me…

Leaving your House: I’ve had a previous sabbatical report from another WomanOfScience who described some sabbatical woes about renting out her house. That sounded bad, but the distress I am feeling is not so much worry about my house (since we are not renting it and had to have work done on it while away), but more a desire for normal size of our house. We are renting a small, two-bedroom apartment with a single bathroom for the 6 months of our sabbatical. No matter how nice, a rental is never going to have all the comforts of home. This place is really small – there isn’t even enough room for all of us to sit on couches or chairs in the living room at the same time! So, we are basically all crowded in this one small room. If I ever thought our house was too large, I definitely don’t think so anymore. It will be nice to get back to our small, but not too small, house in a few months.

The other thing is the completeness of our house. We are renting a furnished apartment with a lot of utensils and items you need, but it is always missing something. Here is an incomplete list of things that we have standard in the house, and I know exactly where they are: batteries, tape, decent scissors, knives that can actually cut, trash bags, a decent sized trash can, Band-Aids, extension cords, bags for groceries, sand toys, picnic basket, a drying rack, plastic cups, sippy cup lid closers, a bottle brush, and cable TV with basic network access. We have made due, but it is clear that “all the junk” in our house is actually stuff that we use – if not all the time – frequently enough to make it worth having and having a place for it.

Getting into the Lab: I have said before that it was hard to get into the lab because of the coordination with the PI, but really, it is also because the PI doesn’t go into the lab! I realized about a month in, that if I wanted to get into the lab, I had to make friends with the grad students and postdocs and shadow them on their work. Until I got a key to the lab, I also had to coordinate with one of them just to get into the lab. Then, there is the actual training of how to do things in the lab. I remember being a new postdoc and going into a new environment and needing to try and fail with a few things before feeling comfortable enough to get work done. This is even worse because I am sort of an intruder in these labs where the grad students and postdocs have their stuff working perfectly. This is also why befriending and working with the students is super-important!

New Schools: You might be worried that your kids would have a hard time adjusting to a new school with new kids and a new system. I think we should give kids more credit than that. Meeting new kids and having new experiences is exciting to them. On the other hand, figuring out a new system is difficult and burdensome for parents. My oldest kid’s new school apparently wants us to be helicopter parents and communicate directly with the teacher all the time and be all over our kid. Simultaneously, my kid’s teacher is disorganized and uneven. The school has a ton of projects and weekly reports on top of regular work that feels less important and more like busy work. My kid is very excited about all this, but HusbandOfScience and myself are less enthusiastic. It isn’t clear that our kid is learning the basics with these projects. Plus, they aren’t fun or easy for us, since we don’t have access to our normal slate of materials, supplies, and reagents (see Leaving your House, above). Unfortunately, our griping is starting to affect our kid, too. Kid is not excited about the busy work anymore (although the kid still likes the projects). My younger kid is the same here as back home – hates school when not there and loves it when there. Younger kid has also been complaining about wanting to go back home. I think most of these gripes are based more on the fact that we are squished in a tiny apartment and getting on each other’s nerves.

Summary: The worst part about having difficulties on sabbatical is that no one wants to hear you complain. When people ask, “How’s sabbatical?” and I say, “It’s ok, kinda hard.” The response I get is equivalent to a sarcastic, “Yeah right, I feel soooo bad for you.” But, the thing is, it is hard. And you know it is. I know you know because most of you, my colleagues, don’t even try to go away. You do “stay-batticals” where they stay and work in your own labs. This is much easier. You are in their own house, in your own labs, not teaching, not doing service. You might get sucked into things in the department and on campus, but I do too! The difference is that I get sucked in and I’m 3000 miles away and off by 3 hours! So, don’t believe the hype. Doing a sabbatical away is cool and good for you, but it isn’t easy. It takes a lot of planning, prepping, and shipping before you get here. But, being there isn’t a picnic in the park either. Much like having kids, it is worth it, but it is still tough. Don’t be fooled!

So, what do you think? Don’t hold back. What other woes have occurred on your sabbaticals? The time to be honest is now! To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

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.

Open Letter to Conference Organizers

Conference_de_londresDear Conference Organizers,

I love your conferences! They are in such wonderful locations. Many times I get to escape the cold or wet of my home institution to work on science with others in a warm, exotic or just plain different location. It is wonderful and really helps me to be creative and explore new areas of science that I might not be exposed to otherwise. It is great for my career to see and be seen, to talk to other scientists about not only science, but also management, mentoring, and other career issues.

I have a request, though.

  1. Can you maybe have at least one keynote speaker who is a woman? It really means a lot to me, personally, if one of the keynotes is not a macho, argumentative man, but rather a loud, bossy, argumentative woman. They are role models – still. I am surprised when this doesn’t happen.
  2. Can there be more than one woman in each room? I literally had to give someone the finger to get the point across that I wanted to speak in a session at a recent meeting. It was all in good fun, as I am notoriously PUNK ROCK but the point was clear: let me talk, too! I am still astonished that this continues to happen, and it is not your fault that another participant did this, but it is better when the room isn’t such a “sausage-fest.”
  3. Can we have bath tubs? I know not all women feel this way, so I will not speak for all, but I, personally, really want to have a bathtub. Here are my reasons:
    • I like taking baths. It is relaxing. I sit in there for a while, soaking, reading, unwinding. This is often especially important at meetings when relaxing and unwinding can give you time for your creativity to soar.
    • I like shaving my legs. No use being in an exotic, warm location and not being able to shave your legs. This is mostly a woman-only issue. Sure, I could shave in the shower, but I always miss spots, and I cannot see because I cannot wear my glasses in the shower. I guess I could not shave, but that is not really socially acceptable considering the hairiness level I allow my legs to approach when I am at home and always wearing pants. I suppose I could shave before coming, but I didn’t know there wouldn’t be a bath tub, and I used all my personal shaving time taking care of my children, getting my class ready for while I was away, and packing. I would love the opportunity to shave at the conference.

Overall, these functions are wonderful and fruitful for my career, and despite the drawbacks I listed, I would never stop going, participating, and working at your conferences. They are essential for my career development and maintenance.

Thank you for your attention,

WomanOfScience

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Management: Progressive Discipline

Skamvrån_av_Carl_Larsson_1894OK, the final topic from my management course that was new to me was Progressive Discipline. I am sure my friends in industry and the private sector will scoff and laugh at my ignorance, but I had no idea what this was. I also had no idea how to enforce what I wanted to happen in my group. If someone didn’t listen to me (they were insubordinate – another word that I “knew” but didn’t use before my management course), I would ask them to change and when they didn’t I would fire them. It wasn’t usually one strike and you are out, but I would not have any nuanced response. I didn’t have the  knowledge of progressive discipline.

So what is progressive discipline? Progressive discipline is the process of using increasingly severe steps or measures when an employee fails to correct a problem after being given a reasonable opportunity to do so. As you know, I have a Research Group Rules document, when I have described in the past (described here and here). After learning about progressive discipline, I updated the lab rules to include a section about it. Here is what the new section says:

Progressive discipline

  • Failure to comply with these rules or other requests made by me or failure to fulfill your assigned duties will result in the initiation of progressive discipline.
  • Warning. First indication of a problematic action will result in a conversation with me. A follow-up email to you from me will follow the conversation so that you are clear about the problem and the solution.
  • Official Verbal Warning. If the problematic actions persist, you will receive a verbal warning. The verbal warning will be documented and the documentation will be sent to your union (postdocs or other unionized workers), to your graduate program director (graduate students), to your undergraduate/major program director (undergraduate) and to the departmental personnel and business directors.
  • Official Written Warning. If the problematic actions persist after the verbal warning, you will receive a written warning. The written warning will be documented and the documentation will be sent to your union (postdocs or other unionized workers), to your graduate program director (graduate students), to your undergraduate/major program director (undergraduate) and to the departmental personnel and business directors.
  • Dismissal. If the problematic actions persist after the written warning, you will be dismissed from the laboratory. The dismissal will be documented and the documentation will be sent to your union (postdocs or other unionized workers), to your graduate program director (graduate students), to your undergraduate/major program director (undergraduate) and to the departmental personnel and business directors.
  • For undergraduates receiving a grade for credit, a verbal warning or worse will result in a lower grade for the semester.
  • There are two offenses that will result in immediate discipline and possible dismissal from the lab:
    • Safety violations. Actions that endanger the safety of the lab, yourself, or your labmates will result in immediate dismissal from the lab. You have many opportunities to learn how to conduct your experiments safely in the lab including Health and Safety training classes and online courses, the BootCamp, and this Lab Rule guide. Safety violations will not be tolerated.
    • Insubordination. Failure to perform your duties as outlined in your contract, in this Lab Rule guide, or verbally conveyed from WomanOfScience will result in immediate verbal warning (see above) or higher level discipline depending on history of insubordination.

This all sounds very strict and formal, but I think it is better than randomly firing people, which is what I felt like was my only recourse before. For each type of discipline that requires documentation, there are example letters with fill-in-the-blank regions to put the name and date and to fill in the offense. Examples can be found at your HR office and online.  Another note is that the written warning is a big step because it the last straw before termination/dismissal. For that step, you must have a lot of documentation. This is partly why you are documenting about your people (see last post), but also, you may need corroboration from others in the group.

Although this may feel like gossip or talking behind someone’s back, you need to gather this evidence. If someone keeps leaving the door to the -80C freezer open, you must find out who is doing it. If all fingers point to ParticularPerson, you must be able to find out to have a talk with ParticularPerson. Often other students in the group don’t want to rat out someone else, but you need to tell them that you cannot remedy the situation if you do not know the specifics. It is important that they feel comfortable telling you what is going on. Further, if you ask all the people in the lab, and 4/5 say it was ParticularPerson, but ParticularPerson says it was SomeoneElse or there isn’t an issue, then you have decent evidence that it was probably ParticularPerson doing the offensive activity.

Finally, different unions might have different rules for progressive discipline and the steps in the process. That being said, I have never once had a union-rep come to talk to me about this or tell me what the steps are. They are praying on your ignorance. If you fire a unionized person without using progressive discipline, and that person complains to the union, you could get in serious trouble and risk being sued by the union. Make sure you are aware of what the unions require.

So, what do you think? Going to try progressive discipline? It can really work to turn someone around and help you manage them better. It can also relieve you of guilt and stress because you have a rubric for getting rid of someone. You don’t have to sit with a terrible, lazy, nogoodnick in your research group waiting for the grant or contract to expire. You can take action and cover your butt at the same time. If you have other ideas, post or comment here. To get an email whenever I post, push the +Follow button.

Why I Love Undergraduate Research

IMG_0104I train a lot of undergraduate scientists in my lab. I have already discussed all the managerial methods I devised to train them including the bootcamp, state of the lab (orientation),  lab rules, and writing/presentations. But, I am not sure I have mentioned why is enjoy working with undergrads so much. So, here is a list of the top-ten reasons why I love working with undergraduates (in no particular order):

1. They are funny. Obviously not all people are funny, but every now and then I get a really extroverted and funny person in the lab. Maybe because the undergraduate lifetime in the lab is shorter (0.5 – 3 years) than a graduate student (4-5 years) or postdoc (3 years), so there are more of them in general coming through the lab, but there have been a higher frequency of funny undergrads. I realize that some people don’t like when students have a sense of humor, but I do. Mostly the students are self-depricating, and are not making fun of other people. Sometimes they rib the other students, but they are often too shy or scared to make fun of anyone much more senior to them in the lab hierarchy. Of course, there are times when the humor should be turned off, and they are able to understand that and act professional when needed. But, I love that they are funny.

2. They are brave. Approaching a professor about doing research in his/her lab – especially a professor you have never had for class – can be very daunting, yet undergraduates do it frequently. In my lab, most undergraduate researchers work on independent projects without the direct supervision of a postdoc or grad student. In a sense, they do science without a wire, but there is always a net. They often come into the lab not knowing what to expect or what they will do. But, they overcome these anxious feelings because they are wonderfully brave.

3. They are shy. Despite their bravery, many undergraduates are introverts or just shy. This is quite an endearing quality, especially when they put it aside to present their work and truly get into talking about the science they did. Being shy is not the same thing as being disengaged. They overcome shyness for science, even though, they are shy.

4. They are honest. Since they don’t usually know much about the science, undergraduates present what they think honestly. Sometimes knowing too much can be a hazard to discovering the real answer. They present what they see, even if they are shy or even anxious about it. I often give undergraduates high-risk problems that we have no idea what will happen. These problems are great because they sometimes result in very cool, unexpected results. If they had some idea that what they were seeing wasn’t right, they might be persuaded to alter their presentation of their results, but their naiveté helps them stay honest.

5. They are resourceful. Since I give my students new problems with unknown answers and no direct mentor in the lab, this allows them to own their projects. The goal is to teach them that they can learn these things on their own, and many times, they realize that they can use anything and anyone to help them. Through the process of doing independent scientific research, they become resourceful.

6. They are driven.  It is so easy for students to not do undergraduate research. At UState, we have no requirement for research in any major. Driven students seek out research opportunities and can get an immense amount of work done. The student who seeks out research is often very driven.

7. They are young. I love that the undergraduates are young. I love working with young people. It keeps you young. I don’t want to get mentally old. I want to learn new things, and so do they. Sometimes being young means they can be immature, but many of my students are very mature – it’s all apart of them also being driven. Mostly, they are fun and open because they are young.

8. They are smart. Undergraduates can be very smart. What does it mean to be smart? It can manifest in so many different ways: having a good memory, ability to represent complex information clearly, ability to explain things verbally, ability to make connections from old content/knowledge to new content/knowledge, ability to do math in their head… These are all good attributes for someone doing scientific research.  Do not confuse a lack of knowledge of content with smartness and ability to learn. Undergraduates don’t know everything or anything, but that is not the only marker of smarts; undergraduates are smart.

9. They are pliable. One goal of doing undergraduate research is to learn. It isn’t just about learning concepts or skills of the research, but learning many other types of professional skills such as writing, presentation, communication, and working in a group. College, in general, is a time we use to also learn who we are and who we want to be. Luckily, unlike us old-timer professors, undergraduates can still alter their personality. You can help them to identify what type of person they are and what type they might want to be. You can help them to become that new person inside and out, and this is only possible because undergraduates are still pliable.

10. They are open to fun. The main reason why I have so many undergraduates is because they are fun and open to doing crazy/fun things. When I say, “Let’s make a lab music video,” they say, “Yay! What song?” When I say, “Let’s try this experiment,” they say, “OK. How should I do it?” When I say, “Let’s have a party,” they say, “Woot! When?” I want my lab to be a fun place to be and a place people want to come to work. Undergraduate researchers are essential to that formula because they are open to fun.

So, what about you? What is your favorite reason for doing research with undergraduates? Post or comment here. To receive an email every time I write a post, push the +Follow button.

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!

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