Category: Tenure

Enjoying the Successes of Colleagues

My impression is that a lot of scientists approach doing and funding science as a zero sum game. I suppose that it’s easy to get stuck in this mindset when resources are limited and as grant success percentages reach the single digits. I’ve always felt that this was an unfortunate way to go through your career and life. In recent years I’ve chosen to celebrate the success of my colleagues; I look at their success as a boon to our field of study, department, and institution. These successes also take many forms. While it is perhaps easier to see the success inherent in securing a grant, receiving a teaching award, or an honourary membership from a society or scientific body, due to the fact that they are measurable, I also think it’s important to celebrate other successes such as being a good mentor, an effective supervisor, a wonderful departmental chair, or a key contributor on a committee. Science is a hard taskmaster full of rejection and disappointments. It is well worth our time to celebrate the wins before we put our collective noses back to the grindstone. Take the time to congratulate your colleagues on their achievements; there are more than enough kind words to go around.



On Being a Mid-Career Scientist

Last summer I was awarded tenure and it felt amazing. It was one of the proudest and most significant moments in my life thus far. After the warm and fuzzy feeling wears off though, I was left wondering “what’s next”? I’m still struggling a bit with it, and from what I’ve read on the internet, I’m not alone. It’s a bit weird to have such a major milestone out of the way and it causes you to look ahead in order to figure out the next big goal. I suppose the obvious one for this year was to get my NSERC grant renewal (which thankfully did happen). The next major milestone on the horizon would be applying for Full Professor in about 6 years.

I also think that it’s incredibly funny that I can consider myself to be in the middle of my career. Most days I still feel like I’m learning the job and just doing my best. There is a certain level of competency, but I don’t feel a strong sense of mastery in many of the skills that I use in my day to day work. I still struggle with teaching, mentoring my students, doing my research, and contributing to service at my institution. I had always assumed that this feeling would go away with time, or that things would get easier, but so far it hasn’t. I also find it vastly amusing that my friends who aren’t in science are considered experienced and mature in their respective fields since they’ve been in the workforce since their early twenties. So have I, but most of that time for me was spent as a trainee and perhaps that’s why it feels different.

I think the key from this point on will be to celebrate the smaller goals and milestones such as manuscripts submitted, students graduated, conferences attended, courses taught, etc. I’ve also found it helpful to keep a running list of my daily successes in a journal so that I can see what I’ve accomplished and take pride in it. I think as academics we don’t do this enough; we finish a goal and then immediately move on to the next thing. Spending some time reflecting and planning is important I think. I’m aiming to use some of my sabbatical time to figure some of this out.


Here Be Energy and Time Vampires

Worry Energy Drain Time Sink

I’ve been doing my tenure-track job for 5.5 years. This past summer I was awarded tenure and it really felt as if a huge weight was lifted off of my shoulders. Like all of my other junior colleagues I was worried about whether I had met the bar for research, teaching, and service in order to earn tenure at my institution. I have only recently realized that only part of the oppressive weight that I felt prior to tenure was due to these particular factors. The rest of the weight came from inside myself and I have suspected for a long time that there was a gendered component to it. My suspicions were confirmed when I read a post this week on the Xykademizq blog.

The part that really caught my attention is what I’ve directly quoted below:

“Also, I wonder how much of it is socialization across gender lines. I see my DH and Eldest, and they spend vanishingly little time thinking about what anyone else is thinking or feeling; they don’t want to hurt anyone, but they go merrily on their way, doing what they want, until someone complains. I see it in my male colleagues, too, even very junior ones. I was a complete ball of nerves and insecurity when I was a junior professor, nearly paralyzed by a combination of the fear that I would mess things up because I didn’t know what I was doing and the fear that I would be inconveniencing people by asking them for advice. My junior male colleagues are much more bold (even when they objectively ought to ask for advice) and much more unapologetic about requesting help (or anything else they need). They are laser-focused on what they need and want, and perhaps only in the rear-view mirror they occasionally glance at the effect they might have left behind. In contrast, many female colleagues and I spend enormous amounts of energy wondering if we are entitled to do what we want or even need, and who might be inconvenienced or upset by our actions. I bet this stupid energy-drain channel is a major cause of burnout.”

I was so happy to see my feelings articulated in this post! How I envy those who go through life not worrying about the hurt feelings, inconvenience, and catastrophes that they leave in their wake! How freeing it must be to chug along oblivious to your impact on others unless they complain. This problem was a major energy and time vampire for me in my first 5 years on the job. Coupled with an unhealthy dose of imposter syndrome, this outlook can be paralyzing. I still felt this way despite being in a supportive department.

Tenure has afforded me a bit of relief from these concerns. I think that I now have a much healthier viewpoint.

My first media interview as a scientist

Today I did my first interview with a large media organization. While I had previously done interviews with some campus print media outlets this was the first time that I was doing an interview with media that was external to a university. The topic of the interview was the under-representation of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). That’s a topic that is very personally and professionally important to me so it was extremely vital that the interview go well. I was therefore very nervous about the interview.

The first hurdle came up this morning when determining what to wear. I wasn’t sure whether the interview was for TV or radio. TV is a visual medium, so rightly or wrongly half of the message that you’re sending will be based on how you look. From previous conversations and photo shoots I’d learned that patterns are bad for TV. Stripes especially look awful and appear unstable when broadcasted. My husband thought that my original shirt made me look washed out and pasty, so I switched to a darker, solid coloured top for the interview. I did my make-up, hair, and accessories as usual and kept things simple. As it turns out it was a radio interview, so a tip for next time will be to clarify this piece of information in advance.

Since I’d never done something like this before I wanted to make sure that I was as prepared as possible, so I did what any reasonable person would do and I researched how to prepare for a media interview using a quick Google search. I’d also previously participated in a media training workshop as a post-doc and more recently as a faculty member at one of Informed Opinion’s excellent workshops facilitated by Sheri Graydon. I quickly learned that it’s important to have 1 key message that you want to convey and to use 3 points or examples to hammer home that key message. I spent about 20 minutes fleshing out my key message and 3 talking points that I’d like to convey during the interview and practicing how I could say them in response to an interviewer’s questions. I think that the interview went very well and was a positive experience. I learned a lot from participating myself and from watching two other people being interviewed for the segment.

Our interviews will be edited down to a 7 minute radio and web segment and will likely to live tomorrow or Monday. I’ll add a link once it gets posted.

I’d be curious to hear from more seasoned interview participants. What are your top tips for a scientist who is speaking to the media for the first time?

Science Moms

There have been some great articles on-line this week talking about the realities of being a female and/or Mom in science and technology.

Meg Duffy tackles the logistics of pumping breast milk at work and sending bottles to daycare in today’s post over at Dynamic Ecology . This is a practical post about an important topic that doesn’t get talked about a lot. I give Meg props for making this work. I found that after my kids started daycare we had to switch to formula during the day due to a lack of supports for pumping/breast feeding on my campus. I just wasn’t willing to pump in a nasty bathroom stall and probably would have gotten bizarre looks if I had asked about a lactation room.

An awesome article posted yesterday by Rebecca Schuman in The Chronicle of Higher Education on how Academe Is a Lousy Family Planner. Rebecca has articulated very well how I felt as a graduate student starting a family. Looking back I’m amazed that I was so strong (or naïve) to start my family during that phase of my career. It was tough, but I have no regrets and the timing worked out exceptionally well for me. Start your family when you are ready; do not let the academy dictate your reproductive choices.

Jessica Valenti has an interview in theguardian with Anita Sarkeesian about GamerGate and how it has changed her life. The comments kind of say it all and illustrate the point of the article quite effectively.

I’m also pleased to have taken part in @EdenHennessey’s display that highlights the challenges faced by women in STEM. The #DistractinglySexist exhibit is on display @LaurierLibrary for the next month.

Western Conference on Science Education 2015

Last week I attended the Western Conference in Science Education in London, Ontario. My goal in attending was to pick up some ideas for new things to try in my classroom and get some tips on possible assignments to try in the future. I also presented on my experiment in my graduate course last fall on using blogging as an assessment tool for learning .

Below is a list in random order of ideas that I’ll be ruminating on in the next few weeks before teaching again in fall term:

1) Have your 1st assignment early. It gives students a chance to see how you write questions and to prepare for future assignments.

2) If you use in-class quizzes, let the students teach each other for a few minutes before you evaluate them. This allows peer learning to take place in the classroom.

3) Lists of learning tasks and learning outcomes are important. This is definitely an area where I can improve.

4) Start a teaching mentoring community for faculty so that we can discuss strategies, successes, and challenges and learn from each other.

5) Get over the need to feel that every minute of every lecture has to be perfect.

6) I usually have students evaluate my teaching using a paper survey that I hand out in class. Other teachers found that allowing the students to use 15 or 20 second audio or video clips to deliver feedback led to more authentic responses.

7) Investigate the PeerWise platform.

8) It’s important to teach our science students how to communicate science to non-specialists and to tailor their communications to their audience.

9) I attended a great workshop that discussed strategies for teachers to maintain their well-being during our busy teaching semesters. Lots of valuable tips that I hope to implement!

10) Think hard about my classroom policy on electronic devices and their use. Tanya Noel and Tamara Kelly gave a neat presentation on “Does the digital have to divide us?”

Reflections on Getting Tenure

On July 1st I entered a new phase in my academic career. On that day I officially became an Associate Professor with tenure. Tenure at my institution occurred at an accelerated pace; you can go up for tenure 4 years in, so as of July 1st I’ve completed 5 years of employment at my university. I think that this was a good thing. The time scale is much faster than the 6-7 years for my colleagues at other universities, so while it’s pretty stressful to prepare to go up for tenure so rapidly, the decision is made quickly.

Tenure is a big deal for me because I saw it in my mind as the last large hurdle that I needed to clear in order to prove that I belong in science and academia. I made some personal and professional choices along the way that were not “typical” and could have negatively impacted my success in this career. Based on the fact that I’m a woman and a mother, everything that I’ve read indicates that the odds were stacked against me in my chosen profession. It feels good to defy the odds.

The purpose of this post is two-fold. The first purpose is to thank everyone who had a hand in helping me achieve this milestone in my career. I have had a variety of friends, mentors, and supporters during my nascent career who believed in me and my ability to do this job. I will be forever grateful to my family and my partner for their unwavering support. The second purpose of this post is to serve as encouragement to people who identify as being “other” in academia. The road to tenure is long and challenging, but is totally worth it in the end. Hang in there and look for allies; we are here waiting to give you a hand up.

I think that I’ll take some advice from Hope Jahren and take my tenure out for a spin . I’m looking forward to the new journey ahead!

The Importance of Self-Care in Academia

There have been some excellent posts in the blogosphere recently that deal with aspects of physical and mental self-care including this excellent piece on Tenure She Wrote . This point was driven home for me during the holidays because I got sick with the flu bug from Hell. It started with chills and then a fever. Then the cough set in and I pulled some muscles due to the frequency and intensity of the coughing. And to top it all off was the violent expulsion of bodily fluids for several days that make that scene in The Exorcist look like a cake walk. It is the sickest I have been in a long time. I lost 10 pounds over 7 days that I couldn’t afford to lose. I think it was my body’s way of telling me to smarten up. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that my body got sick as soon as the stresses of the semester were over.

It’s served as a wake-up call by telling me that I need to make some big life changes. I need to really start using that YMCA membership. Unfortunately when things get really busy, physical exercise is one of the first things to go. This is a bad choice since it’s the physical exercise that helps me deal with stress and keeps me energized. I’m also spending way too much of my life sitting in my office and several recent studies have determined that it will take years off my life. I need to remember to take frequent breaks and go for some walks.

As academics we are busy people. There was a very funny piece about the busyness competition in academia a few days ago on the New Faculty blog that cracked me up. Like the author, I’ve decided to stop participating in that particular competition; it isn’t one I’d like to win. There are a lot of competing demands on our time and if you couple that with perfectionist tendencies it’s a recipe for disaster. Since starting on the tenure track 4.5 years ago it feels like I’ve been running on a treadmill where the speed is set a bit too fast. It’s felt like I’m always playing a game of catch up. Recently I have come to the stunning realization that I will never catch up. I’m not the only one who feels this way; the sensation is articulated very well in this piece on the Chronicle’s Vitae site by someone more experienced than I. I’ve decided that instead of the quick sprint that I’ve been doing, a more effective strategy would be to pace myself for a marathon. I think that it’s about realizing my limitations and accepting them and being kinder to myself. I’m stepping off the treadmill and I’m going to start doing things my way at a pace that is manageable and sustainable. I’d like to model a more realistic way of doing science for my students; I think that is a worthy goal.

Being sick also served to remind me of the many great things in my life that I take for granted. I live in a safe and comfortable home. I am fortunate to live in a democratic country with robust social and health support systems. I have a great and funny family who are there for me when I need them. I have a fantastic job with excellent colleagues and students. I have a great deal of self-agency and autonomy. I am relatively healthy and have a lot of personal privilege. Perspective is everything.

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.