Month: December 2014

Describing Social Media Activities in Promotion Packages

This past summer I spent a great deal of time in July and August putting together my tenure package. My view of tenure packages are that they are very individualized documents and this made it challenging to put the document together. It was also very rewarding when I completed the process and was a great opportunity for self-reflection. Recently, both Terry McGlynn and Jeremy Fox have discussed how they have handled their blogging activities in promotion packages. When I was putting my tenure package together it was clear that biologists who study ecology and/or evolution seem to be much more social media savvy compared to biochemists and physiologists. I found little advice on including social media activities in tenure packages and what I did find was posted by scholars in social sciences and humanities. I thought that I’d offer my perspective as an early career scientist who decided to include my social media activities in my tenure package.

At my institution we are evaluated for tenure on the basis of scholarship, teaching, and service. I have been blogging and using Twitter for about 1 year and I wanted to capture these activities somewhere in my tenure package. I consider the attitudes of my colleagues and my institution to be progressive and felt that those who would be evaluating my tenure package would be amenable to hearing about how I was using social media as a scientist.

In November 2013 I attended a workshop that directly addressed the role that social media could play in increasing your scientific profile. At that time I had a Linkedin page and had a ResearchGate profile. I was making an effort to keep my lab webpage up to date. We have a Knowledge Mobilization Officer at my university and she convinced me that I should step up my game. My first step was to open a Twitter account. I had resisted doing this as I wasn’t sure what kind of value it would offer. In the past year I have found Twitter to be useful in the following ways:
1) It has helped me find other female early career researchers and allies online and has made me feel part of a broader community.
2) It has provided advice and guidance on how to navigate the tenure-track.
3) It has given me some great ideas for teaching and active learning exercises to try in the classroom.
4) It has made me more aware of the challenges facing various “outsiders” in science and the role that I can play in challenging and ending inequities.
5) It has allowed me to increase my blog readership.

For several months I had also been toying around with the idea of blogging about being a research scientist. I had already decided that I wasn’t going to blog directly about my specific research field, but that I had a lot that I wanted to say about the actual process of doing scientific research and the “unwritten rules” or “Hidden Curriculum” of being a biologist. My focus would be on transferrable skills and to look at science through the eyes of a female early researcher on the tenure-track.

In my tenure package I made an argument that part of my scholarship was devoted to issues involving women in science and the professionalization of scientists. In addition to my social media activities, I’ve also been offering workshops on these topics as a post-doc and faculty member at my institutions and national conferences. While it is not my primary research focus, it is very much a large part of my scholarly identity and that is the case that I presented in my tenure package. The workshops and presentations at scholarly conferences served as quantifiable data that I could use to support my argument. I also used altmetrics such as the number of blog and Twitter posts, number of page views, visitors from various countries, number of retweets of my tweets, etc. as data to support my impact through my blogging activities. I also included hard copies of each of my blog posts in my tenure package.

I have been blogging for 1 year and have really enjoyed it so far. I have been approached by several graduate students, post-docs, and faculty who have told me that they read my blog and find it useful or interesting. That is very satisfying to hear and demonstrates that I have something valuable to add to the scientific enterprise and online conversations.

Are you unintentionally writing biased reference letters for your female trainees?

While it can be argued that acts of outright sexism have decreased in the academy, acts of underground, unconscious, and unintentional sexist behaviour are rampant. We unfortunately have plenty of examples covered in the popular media of such behaviour that we can point to in the past several months alone.

A few years ago I heard about a study that indicated that male and female researchers exhibited unconscious negative bias when writing reference letters for female trainees. At the time I was concerned because I had just come back from a 9 month maternity leave after my son was born. Years later, I took a second maternity leave after the birth of my daughter. Was it possible that my reference letter writers, in an effort to be helpful, could actually be harming my chances of succeeding in academia?

A few days ago Natalie Samson wrote a great article for University Affairs that brought this issue back into my consciousness. In that article she confirmed that the Canada Research Chairs program is now including explicit guidance to letter writers on how to ensure that unconscious bias does not enter into their reference letters written for female nominees. Natalie Samson outlines quite effectively why the program has decided that these guidelines are necessary for letter writers.

Let’s take a look at some of the CRC recommendations for letter writers. There are two sub- sections in the “Guidelines and Best Practices for Reference Letter Writers” section that are pertinent. One is entitled “Best Practices” and the other is called “Limiting Unconscious Bias”. Several are really interesting.
For example, letter writers are warned against being “unduly personal” and to avoid using the applicant’s first name. Most of the letters that I write are for undergraduate students and in my introductory paragraphs I list the student’s full name (e.g. Ms. Jane Doe or Mr. John Doe) and then refer to them as Jane or John throughout the rest of my letter. I have yet to write a reference letter for a post-doc or colleague and in that case I think that I’ll now refer to them as Dr. Doe given this advice.

Another example that I would hope would be painfully obvious to everyone is to comment only on information that is relevant to the position and to “not include information related to ethnicity, age, hobbies, marital status, religion, etc.” The fact that this is included in the guidelines indicates that some letter writers have done this in the past.

The third great piece of advice is to avoid “revealing personal information about the nominee”. This is a fine line to walk and you need to consider carefully whether introducing particular pieces of information will actually be relevant or helpful for the candidate. The example that the guidelines give is mentioning “circumstances where health issues or family responsibilities have led to career interruptions.” Is it appropriate to mention your graduate student’s maternity/parental leave? Are you mentioning Jane’s maternity leave in the context of impacting her productivity? Would you also mention the fact that John being a new father impacted his productivity? Is it your place to disclose your student’s cancer treatment, a disability, elder care issues? I would argue that you should explicitly talk about those issues with your trainee prior to writing the letter and ask them how they would prefer that you handle it. I would argue that this would be the only context where talking about a student’s personal life is potentially relevant enough to include in your letter and that you should do so only after asking their permission.

What do we do as letter writers that is a disservice to our female trainees? According to the CRC Guidelines page, the letters we write for women are more likely to:
• be shorter in length and incomplete;
• include gendered terms (e.g., woman, lady, mother, wife);
• include fewer ‘standout’ adjectives (e.g., excellent, outstanding etc.);
• include ‘doubt raisers’ (negative language, hedges, unexplained comments, faint praise and irrelevancies);
• focus on interpersonal attributes versus research skills/achievements (e.g., kindness, compassionate etc.); and
• include personal information that was not relevant to the position.

Three effective ways to prevent this are to:
• Avoid using stereotypical adjectives when describing character and skills, especially when providing a letter for a woman (e.g., avoid words like nice, kind, agreeable, sympathetic, compassionate, selfless, giving, caring, warm, nurturing, maternal, etc.).
• Consider using ‘stand-out’ adjectives for both men and women, where appropriate (e.g., superb, excellent, outstanding, confident, successful, ambitious, knowledgeable, intellectual etc.).
• Consider whether your letter unintentionally includes gaps, or doubt-raising, negative or unexplained statements (e.g., ‘might make an excellent leader’ versus ‘is an established leader’).

These are great recommendations and should be required reading for any faculty members who are writing reference letters for their students and trainees. They have made me rethink several practices that I use in crafting my reference letters and have identified some things that I need to stop doing.

Gestating in STEM: Blending family with a tenure-track academic career

This past weekend I attended a scientific conference. As usually happens at these events, I had an opportunity to catch up with long-term friends and to make new acquaintances. Often when I’m speaking with young women in STEM the subject of having kids comes up in conversation. I take every one of these conversations as an opportunity to dismantle the myth that a tenure-track academic career is incompatible with having a family. I speak from experience.
For as long as I can remember I have loved biology. Biology makes sense to me intuitively and now permeates how I see the world. I conducted early scientific experiments in the creeks of small towns in Ontario where I grew up. It’s where I learned that crayfish will scoot backwards in order to evade capture. I was devastated when I accidentally killed tadpoles by feeding them bread. I got exceptionally good at catching frogs. I learned what skunk cabbage smelled like and was amazed that a plant can melt snow.
I entered my undergraduate degree in Sciences fully believing that I wanted to be a doctor. Most of my first year grades quickly disabused me of that notion, but biology made sense to me. I completed a fourth year research project and was hooked. I briefly toyed with the idea of becoming a lawyer after my undergrad, but decided that doing biology made me happy and I went on to complete a M.Sc. degree.
The M.Sc. degree was challenging academically, but was also challenging personally. I’d met my partner in the first year of my undergrad and we ended up having a long-distance relationship for 3 years while I completed my B.Sc. (Honours) and M.Sc. degrees. During one of our weekends together he proposed and I said yes. When it came time to do a Ph.D. degree we made a deal; I would do the Ph.D. in the city where he was kicking off his career and when it came time for the post-doc, he’d pick up and move where I needed to go. Life is about compromise, but it’s also about picking the right partner.
The Ph.D. was exceptionally rewarding and challenging at the same time. I made some amazing scientific discoveries and triumphed over some systemic hurdles. I got married and we made the conscious decision to start our family the next year. The statistics will tell you that it was a dumb move, but I wasn’t about to let graduate studies in science dictate my reproductive choices. It was an unconventional choice at the time and I had several people ask me if the pregnancy was planned; the implication being that only an idiot would become pregnant in grad school on purpose. The hardest part of the Ph.D. was the lack of support from public programs after the birth of my son. I took 9 months off from my program and it took me 6 years to complete my degree, but I finished it. I defended my dissertation 3 weeks before my daughter was born.
My post-doc was a great experience and by now I was an old pro at juggling science and family. Compared to many other jobs academia affords a great deal of flexibility in terms of how you spend your time. Life and career can never fully be separated and there will be many times that you have to improvise and come up with creative solutions to problems. I’ve found that having children early in my academic career was an excellent choice for me. I have a great deal of respect for colleagues who are just starting their families while on the tenure-track.
The aim of this post is to serve as encouragement to young women who are starting out in STEM. The statistics show us that the odds are stacked against you, especially if you choose to marry a partner and if you choose to have children and want an academic career. I am here to tell you that it can be done; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Here are some pearls of wisdom that I have picked up along the way:

1) If you choose to have a partner, make sure that they are a true partner in every sense of the word. If you both have careers, expect that one person’s career will take precedence during different stages of your life, however, you should not always be the one making career sacrifices. Your partner needs to fully support you in your career and needs to do their fair share of domestic chores and organization. If you have children with a partner, this person should be willing and able to care for your children (e.g. change diapers, clean up puke, play, feed, and clothe them) and not just “babysit” them.

2) If you decide to have a child or children, it is much easier to do this with a network of supportive people. Whether this is a partner, extended family, or friends there will be many times where you will need assistance. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. Toss the myth of the Superwoman out the window. Life will never be perfect; let it go.

3) Availability of good child-care will make or break you. Whether this is provided by your partner, family, friends, an in-home daycare, or a daycare centre, if you are worried about the quality of care that your children are getting you will be unable to be productive at work. This may come at a steep financial cost, but it is worth every penny.

4) Be prepared for people to judge your personal and professional choices. Listen politely to their opinions, let it roll off your back, and move on. Everyone’s life is different and we are all dealing with challenges of our own, many of which are not visible to others. Your colleagues may not have children, but may be dealing with elder care issues, disability, chronic illness, etc.

5) Pay it forward. Share your wisdom with those who are coming up the Ivory Tower behind you. Give them a leg up when you can. Kindness is vastly underrated.