Helping the Minoritized Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘time management’

Management: Effective Meetings

hold-a-meetingThis week at my supervisory management course, we learned about something I wish every single one of my colleagues would learn: how to have an effective meeting. As I am one of only a couple of faculty members in this course, it was quite startling to compare/contrast the types of meetings I am used to, to the types of meetings my colleagues on staff have. I would say that many faculty meetings have a lot of talking. In fact, in recent meetings that I have run (poorly), all I did as the meeting lead was stand at the front, mentally note who raised they hand when, and make sure people spoke in order and didn’t trample over each other. We spoke for over an hour! Just talking one after another. I also took notes in a notebook or on a black board so that I could transcribe them later. There are so many things wrong with how I run my meetings, it is ridiculous. But, these meetings are weird, because they are between a bunch of people who are basically equals who all like to talk – a lot, and all think that they are the smartest person in the room. That makes faculty meetings harder. When I have a lab meeting, where I am clearly the top of the hierarchy, they run very differently – maybe more like my counterparts’ meetings. I run the meeting, I set the agenda. People talk and comment, but I control it and don’t let it derail. Actually, sometimes I do let it derail because I like to make a fun environment and chatting is part of that.

What is the definition of an effective meeting? Meetings are effective when the goals of the meeting are achieved using a minimal amount of time and all participants are satisfied. Most meetings can be classified into two types: Information and Decision Making. Information meetings are used to convey information to a group or convince a group of something. Decision Meetings are used for goal setting, problem solving, and action planning. Most of the meetings I seem to have in academia, both with my research group and with colleagues on committees seem to be the second type. Straight information is (thankfully) usually conveyed in email format. Although sometimes it is useful to convey information in verbal forms (if it might get people upset, for instance).

Below are 10 characteristics of Effective Meetings. Here is a fun exercise: score your typical faculty meetings using the following rubric:

0 points if this never happens/never done for meetings,

1 point if you are not so good at this or this rarely happens in your meetings,

2 points if you are OK at this, or this occasionally happens in your meetings,

3 points for being generally good at this and this normally happens in your meetings,

4 points is your meetings always have this.

Score       Attribute

____     Seating in the room is arranged so that every person can see everyone else.

____     Equipment is available at the front of the room to record ideas/plans.

____     Your meeting has an agenda.

____     The agenda has time estimates for discussing each topic of the meeting.

____     At least 1-2 times in the meeting, there is a probe into how effective the meeting is going.

____     During the meeting someone records the ideas and decisions of the meeting. The data is prepared and handed out afterward to all concerned.

____     Meeting notes indicate who has agreed to do what before the next meeting.

____     Dates of future meetings are set in advance so people can arrange to attend.

____     Those in attendance decide who else should be involved for future meetings and those people are included.

____     At the end of the meeting, people review and confirm who is doing what.


So, how did you score? I score quite badly (about 13 out of possible 40) – getting a zero in many of the attributes. I often do not have an agenda and it certainly doesn’t have times set for each part. We always have a place to write notes – chalk/white board and projector, but most of the time someone doesn’t take note. I usually take notes, but sometimes I don’t have the time to transcribe and distribute them. Have you ever been to a meeting where it was stopped and someone asked how it was progressing? Big, fat goose egg on that one for me. Never, ever happened ever. Dates of meetings set in advance. Does 24 hours ahead of time count?

Are these things feasible to do at meetings in academia? I think they are, and I think it would make meetings more useful and less dreaded. I am going to endeavor to implement these attributes into my meetings from now on. I hope my colleagues say, “I love having meetings with WomanOfScience running them. They are so efficient and effective. We get stuff done without wasting time!” OK, that might be wishful thinking! What do you think? Post or comment here. To get an email every time I post, click the +Follow button.

Daily Choices

GoodSenseCorsetWaists1886page153I read an interesting article from another science blogger, Rigoberto Hernandez, on his blog EveryWhereChemistry. He had a recent interesting blog entry about what to spend your time on daily, where he compared the choices to Horcruxes and Hallows. Please go to read it. But, it got me to thinking about the different types of tasks we have presented to us daily, and the choices we make. The specific tasks depend on what level you are at, but the fact that you have to make the choices never changes.

Graduate School: In graduate school the choices should be easier, but they still exist. Should you attend that friend’s defense, or work on your paper? Should you take more data today, or analyze the data you already got, but aren’t sure if it worked? Should you spend a few months learning how to program to make your data analysis automated, or should you analyze it by hand to get it out faster, and will it really be faster?

Postdoc: As a postdoc, you are still focusing mostly on research, and you might have similar daily decisions similar to graduate school. Presumably, you figured out which are the right choices to keep advancing. As a postdoc, especially if you are fairly good, you are probably offered the ability to work on multiple projects. This can be very good for your career and your training. Good for your career because you could possibly get more papers out faster, which you need to get grants and get a job. Good for your training because as a faculty member, you will have to manage multiple projects that your students will work on. On a daily basis, you will have to decide which project to work on. Maybe you already tackled this issue as a senior graduate student, but postdocs are usually given more responsibility and more projects than graduate students. With multiple projects comes all the same decisions as on individual graduate projects, except multiplied.

Pre-tenure: Starting this job is like jumping into cold water. Now you have to teach, manage, write/obtain grants, initiate new research, train students, and on and on. That makes your daily choices so much harder. Should you spend your time working on your new class, writing a review article, writing a grant, working on research, meeting with students? The myriad of choices are endless. I would often divide the days into halves or 2-hour chunks and work on one thing for a set time before moving on to the next thing.

Post-tenure: If you made it past tenure, presumably you spent your time doing the right thing to achieve tenure – congratulations. With tenure comes a relaxation of the pressure to do what you have to do in favor of being able to do what you want to do.  So, what will you do? What will you choose to do each day? Somedays I find myself just putting out fires – doing a lot of things that are urgent but not important. Other days, I opt to work in the lab with students when I probably should be writing that next grant. The daily choices are a bit harder when you don’t have the pressure or the excuse of looming tenure. It is harder to say no or to prioritize the way you did before. You often get piled upon with more service and larger teaching loads. Unlike at the other stages, when you are still trying to make it, there is less advise for this stage, so you try to do the best you can, but are you making the right choice? Should I work on that paper to resubmit it to a new journal, or write that new grant, or work with that new student in the group?

I don’t know if I have advise here, since we all navigate these waters alone. What do you think? Any good ways to keep your priorities straight after tenure? Post or comment here. Follow this blog but hitting the +Follow button.

Women’s Leadership Backlash

Woman_standing_next_to_a_wide_range_of_tire_sizes_required_by_military_aircraft._-_NARA_-_196199A wonderful post from a WomanOfScience friend on women’s leadership. In particular, women in academic administration. Choosing to go the administrator route may be an exit from the research track.


I’ve always recognized the advantages of being a female faculty member in a male dominated field and try not to dwell on the instances of overt or subtle discrimination. For example, when I entered grad school (15-20 years ago), there were few women in my field that my gender alone made me memorable. Certainly I did good work, but also it was likely that a member of a faculty search committee was likely to remember me which no doubt helped my job search in a subtle way. When I was an assistant professor and gave birth to our first child, there were obviously some disapproving glares from some colleagues, but still I brought the 7 day old child into my office (in a cradle) and proved to my colleagues that this wasn’t disturbing to them and allowed me to maintain my productivity. Then the slippery slope began…

Some time ago, university administrators decided that one way to relatively painlessly reduce implicit bias was to have female faculty present on key committees (most importantly search committees, graduate admissions, and many policy setting committees). The result was that every female faculty member I knew was doing far more service than her male peers. The optimistic view, however, was that we made contacts and networks both within our home institutions and nationally that were far more expansive. Down the road a decade, we had far more administrative exposure and experience and were therefore ideal targets for administrative/leadership roles (at a time when many institutions would like to showcase their strong female leaders)… except that we were/are too young (many of us in our late 30s and early 40s). It is flattering to be asked to take over a high profile chair or deanship at a young age. And I wasn’t unique in this respect. Looking nationally, female chairs and deans are trendy.

This is where the glass is half full perspective ends… Our male peers are hitting their strides as full professors and racking up the high profile awards and kudos that will allow them to build their scientific reputations. While I was able to maintain this level of creativity and productivity through the births of my three children, there is no way to do the same in the face of the unrelenting distraction of running a large organization well. The inevitable result is to take the research hit in favor of building an administrative career. I am fully aware that I am complaining about an opportunity that women just 5-10 years older than me were denied simply for their genders. On the other hand, I worry that we’re complicit in self-imposing a glass ceiling. In my experience, great scientists look down on administrators that do not have scientific stature (I would contend that young female full professors have credibility, but not yet stature). Worst yet, one of my most creative, deeply thinking graduate students informed me she was leaving my group to join that of a male colleague. She said she joined my group because she loved the atmosphere of teamwork and close mentorship that I had a reputation for, but in the last couple of years (since she joined the group) she’s watched that decay exponentially as my administrative duties increased. I am deeply ashamed that I allowed the day to day fires of running this organization get in my way of educating my students! Worst yet, she cited my case as a reason to _not_ go into academia. That talented women get duties loaded on them until they drop the ball (she described it almost as a form of titration). I’ve sadly become the anti-role model.

This summer, my family and group will be uprooting to move to a new university. Everyone (my extended family included) keeps asking what job I will have there and I have been glorying in telling them that I will be “just” a professor again!

Thanks for that post! What do you think? Post or comment here. To follow this blog, push the +Follow button to get an email every time a new post appears.

Productivity and Effort

ProductivityPlotI just gave my State of the Lab address to orient the newest students joining the group to the ways of the lab. I have described the State of the Lab address before herehere, and here. In that address, I have a slide on how important it is to rest in science and to take breaks. It is very important to get a good nights sleep. It is essential to stop and eat. Doing exercise is also good for the body and mind. Taking breaks and getting sleep gives your mind a chance to work out solutions to problems. Ultimately, it makes you more productive to take these breaks. In the lab, I have been known to supply modeling clay for students to use during breaks. We ended up with a wonderful menagerie of little animals thanks to these breaks.

The entire discussion was prompted by the fact that I sometimes get a very hardworking and dedicated student who starts doing overnight runs and working non-stop. Inevitably, their Productivity goes down. I think that people of all ranks and stations do not realize that Productivity is not always a linear function of Effort. Figure 1 shows the true dependence of Productivity on Effort, which is really more of a parabola. I want my students to be in the linear regime of the curve. Although this is not the most productive location, the linear regime is good because if they need to give a little more Effort it will likely result in more Productivity. Indeed, being up at the apex, which does maximize Productivity, is very dangerous. If you need to add a bit more Effort, you will actually be less Productive. Further, that’s the region where small mistakes could cause accidents in the lab.

I was thinking about this over the past 2 weeks because I am living at or near the apex currently. Even my students told me that I need to get back into the linear part of the curve. They are right. I am running myself ragged, and it is only the second week of classes. This is because I am co-teaching 440 students in 2 sections for the first time and flipping the class to boot. The email burden alone is astounding. The most stressful part for me is having 30-50 unread emails in my inbox all day. I don’t even read them because I don’t have time to respond, so I read and respond in the evenings. This has been perhaps the most stressful, and I did not realize how much anxiety this would give me.  In addition, I had a paper returned from review that needed to be revised with 10 days (that’s the shortest turn around time I ever had).  Before I was given this teaching assignment (mid-semester last fall), I already made arrangements to travel 3 weeks during this semester for conferences. I am planning to use this time to actually work on research during the semester, which I would probably not have the opportunity for if I wasn’t co-teaching. I have two half-finished manuscripts that I need to get out before spring break! My service has also picked way up, and I am just barely performing there. I  dropped out of a few of the less important service items – even though one was university-wide.

I should say that even though I feel like I am at the apex, or perhaps past it, I am still getting 8 hours of sleep per night. Somehow I magically found Friday was easier, so it could just have been an adjustment period? Or maybe all the students don’t do my class on Friday. Only time will tell. So, I finally did have time to write this post on Saturday night.

So, where are you sitting on the Effort-Productivity curve? Post or comment!

Better Self-Organization

2475011402_bf70c92575_o‘Tis the season… for writing a huge number of letters of recommendation. This is happy, but I am always worried that I will miss one and be the reason why some poor person didn’t get into UniversityOfTheirDreams. It is a big responsibility to be a letter writer, and I do not engage in this activity lightly.

Each student who asks me for a letter, I require them to send me a statement of their research and give me a CV or resume. This helps me to write a better, more informed letter. It is also the same as when I suggest that you prep your letter writers in previous post. You should always have a conversation and give them written information to help your letter writers.

I have also started something new this year to help keep myself organized: a list. This year, I am asking all  students who ask for letters to give me a list of the schools to which they are applying, so I can make sure I send them all. Most students were surprised that I asked for all this information. But, it is all part of my new leaf to be better organized.

My new organizational schemes have been working most of the semester, and I am happy to say. Another thing that I rehashed was to have a notebook I always have with to do lists and notes for work. Much like a lab notebook, which I was really excellent at retaining, this notebook has all my important information. This semester, I ticked off entire do lists. Sadly, as soon as one was complete, I was able to create a new list de novo from my memory entailing an entire page work of more “to dos.”

I have also started a spreadsheet for manuscripts to track their progress and what I still need to do. This idea came from another, very coordinated WomanOfScience. It is a little disheartening at first to see all the papers I need to work on laid out in their various states of incompleteness, but it is also good to see when they make progress. I am hoping to clear some into the submitted regime over winter break.

So, what about you? Any special organizational schemes to keep on top of your work? If so, please share.


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