Month: May 2014

Responding to Requests for Academic Reference Letters

I have just made it through the deluge of reference letter requests that occurs annually from January to April. I am relatively new to the act of writing reference letters for students and have some words of wisdom to share based on my personal experiences.


1. Create a policy for academic reference letter requests and stick to it. Useful things to think about are who you will write letters for. For example, I only write letters for students who have: i) taken 2 or more classes with me and performed well in the courses, or ii) taken one or more classes with me, but have built a professional rapport with me by visiting office hours regularly, or iii) performed research in my laboratory. In order to write a solid reference letter I need to know the student and be able to talk about their particular strengths and weaknesses. I also let students know that reference letters need to be requested 1-2 weeks in advance of the deadline so that I have time to put together a strong letter.


2. Be honest with the student if you cannot write a strong reference letter for them. This can happen for a variety of reasons. You may not know the student well enough, you do not have the time to write the letter, or you may think that the program and the student are not a good fit. In these cases let the student know that you cannot provide them with a reference letter. If you feel that it is appropriate you can suggest other people who might be more supportive letter writers. You do not do the student any favours by writing a luke-warm reference letter.


3. Require students to provide relevant support materials to you in order to help you to craft your letter. I ask most students to provide me with a resume/CV, an unofficial record of academic transcripts, and information about the program that they are applying to. These materials allow me to make a strong case for the student in my letter. I also make it the job of the student to ensure that I receive any electronic links etc. that might be required for completing on-line reference letter submissions. If you see something in the student’s materials that should be corrected do them the courtesy of pointing it out and offering advice for improvement.


4. Write the strongest and most honest letter of reference that you can. Submit the letter on time. Confirm with the student that you have submitted your letter. I have been on the receiving end of poor and late reference letters from other academics and it is an embarrassment to the profession. If you agree to write a reference letter then you owe it to the student to do the best job that you can. I also ask students to keep me updated and let me know if or when they receive acceptance or interviews for programs or positions so that I can share in their success!

Leaky Pipeline: How Having a Uterus Almost Forced Me Out of Academic Science

We are fortunate in Canada to live in a country with an abundance of natural resources. The natural resource that will be most valuable in the future is fresh water. In many ways water is the essence of this country. Water is life. Water is transportation. Water is industrial processing. Water is power. Water is precious and should not be wasted. Water should be respected. Often in Canada we take water for granted because there is so much of it. Water leaks are a big deal. Whether they are a dripping sink tap, a water main break, or a flash flood they need to be repaired as quickly as possible. Sometimes you fix the drip by caulking or taping it up, sometimes you need to replace piping infrastructure, and sometimes you need to use sandbags.

Often when issues facing women in science are discussed we invoke the metaphor of a “leaky pipeline” . This leaky pipeline hemorrhages women at each level of academia at every step of the way. I am tired of the leaks and I want them repaired. I do what I can by wielding my plumber’s tape and caulk gun to plug some holes; I mentor and advocate for women in science. I fully recognize that I will not be able to patch the pipeline by myself; but I can call attention to the holes when I see them and demand that others help me to stem the flood of women out of science.

Today I read a blog post at University Affairs  that made me angry. It made me angry because the stories presented there are depressing examples of the reality of the “leaky pipeline” for women in science in Canada. It made me angry because I had extremely similar experiences with the incompatible and archaic policies of NSERC scholarships and fellowships and the federal employment insurance program in 2002 during the pregnancy and birth of my first child. It made me angry because I had hoped that a decade later these discriminatory practices would have been abolished.

I want to tell you my story as a cautionary tale. I can tell you my story because it is a success story and because I did not leak out of the pipeline. I need to tell you my story as a call to arms because I am tired of remaining silent.

A year and a half into my Ph.D. program at the University of Toronto (Scarborough) I made the conscious decision to start a family. I did not make this decision lightly. I thought that I fully understood the challenges that lay ahead and was resolved that my career choice was not going to dictate my reproductive choices. I was fortunate to conceive very quickly. Seeing the positive pregnancy test was wonderful and terrifying at the same time. I waited until I was through my first trimester of the pregnancy before disclosing my pregnancy to my research supervisor. I will be forever grateful to him for being completely supportive at that time in my career. I dreaded having that conversation for weeks and was so relieved to know that I had his support. Had he not been supportive I would have leaked out of the pipeline.

At that time U of T had a great deal of information available on parental leave policies for staff and faculty, but no information was available for graduate students. I was holding an NSERC PGS-B scholarship and working as a teaching assistant. I started making plans for parental leave very early on in my pregnancy and was horrified by the incompatible policies that I discovered existed between NSERC and the employment insurance program. There was, and still is, the expectation that NSERC award holders “limit the number of hours of employment per 12-month period to 450 hours” and that award holders “not hold full-time employment during any period of time in which you hold the NSERC award” . This makes it impossible for pregnant female students and post-docs to work the 600 hours required to qualify for parental leave through the employment insurance program . It is worth noting that I had been paying into the employment insurance program for 12 years ever since I first started working at the age of 16. I ended up working three teaching assistant positions in the fall of 2012 while 7-9 months pregnant in order to squirrel as much money away in an attempt to support myself while on maternity leave. I also found out by accident from another graduate student that NSERC does provide financial support to graduate students taking parental leave , but would have been completely ignorant of that policy had she not told me about it. Another frustration was that taking leave from my program had to be done on a semester time scale. Despite the fact that my baby was due in November, I had to start my leave from my graduate program in September. To add insult to injury, when I went on parental leave I lost my student status and then got a call from the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) and was notified that I had to start paying back my undergraduate student loans. So there I was with no financial support from the federal government from EI for paid maternity leave on the one hand, and the demand from the provincial government from OSAP that I start paying them back! What should have been a time of great personal happiness turned into a living nightmare and almost destroyed my academic career. The only way I was able to stay in the pipeline was because I had a partner who generated enough income to support us during the 9 months of parental leave; otherwise I would have leaked out.

It is my belief that these policies actively discriminate against female and male graduate students and post-docs wanting to start a family. Despite the policy horror story that was my first pregnancy, my partner and I decided to have a second child. This time around I was smart and worked part-time in a call centre while wrapping up my Ph.D. in order to bank the 600 hours needed to qualify for employment insurance for parental leave. Had my supervisor not been supportive of me taking on external work I would have leaked out.

Until today, I had thought that my experience was unique; that I was the only one who had experienced it. Judging from the stories in the blog post , this is not so. In contrast to other factors that contribute to the leaky pipeline, I believe that this is an easy part of the “leaky pipeline” to fix. This fix requires changes in policies.

I challenge NSERC to:

1) Either change your financial support policy  to provide support for students and post-docs that is equal to EI benefits available to working Canadians taking parental leave OR change your policies to allow students and post-docs to work 600 hours per year in order to qualify for EI in the first place. If the training of a diverse population of highly qualified personnel is a priority for research in Canada, then make the policy changes needed to end discrimination against scholars choosing to have families.

2) Better publicize your parental leave policies to institutions, supervisors, students, and post-docs.

I challenge the EI program to:

1) Take into account how long students have been paying into your program prior to becoming post-secondary students or trainees and allow them to access those funds retroactively when they need to go on parental leave OR

2) Reduce the number of work hours that are required by students to qualify for parental leave through EI OR

3) Keep the 600 hour threshold as a requirement of qualifying for parental leave, but allow students to earn these hours within a time window longer than 1 year prior to the leave.

I challenge OSAP to:

1) Accept a leave from an academic program due to parental leave as a valid reason to maintain interest free loan status and not require the repayment of student loans during this time.

I challenge academic institutions to:

1) Update your websites and program materials to make supervisors, students, and post-docs aware of parental leave policies, requirements, and supports.

2) Allow students to take leaves that are not limited to the semester time clock.

3) Advocate for your students and trainees in conversations with government partners and funding bodies.

The “leaky pipeline” is a very real problem for women in science in Canada. We do not need national, provincial, and institutional policies to continue to contribute to the problem; we need them to be part of the solution.