Category: Women in Science

How to Deal with Professional Disappointment in Science

Science is a profession of rejection. My history is a wasteland of rejected manuscripts, unwanted grant applications, and failed experiments. This is completely normal. What matters here is not necessarily the outcome (e.g. failure), but how the outcome is communicated to you and how you choose to deal with that information.
I am tired of hearing the mantra to “grow a thick skin”. That advice is crappy and is probably a result of the myth that science is supposed to be an unemotional and uncreative undertaking. Professional disappointments received now as an Associate Professor are just as unpleasant as they were when I was an undergraduate student; age and experience don’t make these events hurt less. What has changed is that my ways of coping productively have greatly improved.
Here are some strategies that I use to deal with professional disappointments:
1) You are not your science.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to avoid taking a professional rejection personally. For many of us, our scientific identity is wrapped up in and intertwined with our personal identity. We are after all a scientist and we study [insert your topic of research here]. It is very hard to tease apart our professional identity from our sense of self. I make the argument that it is healthy and useful to have as many other identities as possible in order to buffer yourself from the feelings that a professional rejection will engender. For example, in addition to being a scientist, I am also a parent, a spouse, a softball player, a reader of books, a polymer clay artist, a science fiction fan, a blogger, a Blue Jays’ fan, etc. When you have multiple identities, you feel less threatened by a rejection of an aspect of your professional work.
2) Educate yourself about imposter syndrome.
When I get a professional rejection, the first thing that I do is blame myself. This is not helpful and is destructive and paralyzing. I’ve found it helpful to education myself about the phenomenon of imposter syndrome. I also have an ego file where I store all of the great feedback that I’ve received on my research, teaching, and service which helps to combat these feelings of being a fraud.
3) Take a deep breath and walk away for a while. File away the rejection for 2-3 days and let your emotions stabilize. Then come back to things and do a post-mortem. What could you do better next time? Is it worth trying again, or is your time better spent moving on to other goals and endeavours? Rejection feels awful in the moment, but there are many things that we learn from failure. It is also worth remembering that you cannot fail if you don’t throw your hat in the ring or try for things. Science is probably 95% failure and 5% success; set your expectations accordingly.
4) Have more than one project/goal on the go at the same time. If one thing isn’t going well, chances are something else will pan out. It is easier to accept rejection if you have recently had a success.
5) Sometimes it’s not about you, it’s about them. There are many things in life beyond your control. Sometimes Reviewer #3 is a clueless idiot and nothing that you can say will change their mind. Let it go…
Let’s say that you are on the other end of one of these interactions. What if you have to deliver a rejection?
1) Be tactful and kind. It doesn’t cost you anything to be compassionate and polite.
2) Try to provide constructive feedback so that future disappointments can be lessened or avoided entirely.
3) Rip the band-aid off. Don’t leave people hanging once a decision has been made. The person may have other choices available to them if you impart the news in a timely fashion.
Professional disappointments are many in science and I’ve found that they don’t get easier over time. What strategies do others use to deal with rejection as a scientist?

The Ultimate Guide to Being a Gracious (Non-creeper) Conference Attendee

An important post went up yesterday over at the Tenure, She Wrote blog on the topic of microaggressions towards female scientists at conferences. If you’ve never heard of microaggressions before, a quick overview is available at Wikipedia. These behaviours create a toxic atmosphere, a chilly climate, and drive women and other minorities away in droves. It’s often a long pattern of experiences caused by many different individuals and that is what makes it so hard to call out. The examples provided in the above blog post were very blatant, but no one stepped forward to stop it; not the organizers and not the moderators. In fact, the two women who were the targets of the behaviours banded together in an attempt to support each other through the ordeal. We shouldn’t expect the victims of the behaviours to change them.

Below are a few thoughts that I’ve had over the years of both organizing and attending many conferences over a span of 20 years.

1) Organizing a conference is a lot of work. Be appreciative of the efforts of your hosts. Not everything will be perfect, but most things will not make or break a conference. If you have organizational or safety concerns, bring those to the attention of your hosts in a firm and polite way. Don’t wait until the end of the conference, because at that point the problem often can’t be effectively addressed.

2) Encourage the conferences that you attend to have an official policy on civil, professional, and non-harassing behaviour. The past several years have seen massive exposé stories on a large number of conferences that had systemic problems involving harassing behaviour that might have been avoided had such policies been in place. If you are a big-wig in the community, an effective way to encourage conferences to implement a policy is described by John Scalzi. A recent survey of conferences in the area of Artificial Life done informally in June is interesting in that it shows how few conferences have a policy. Do the conferences that you attend have such a policy? Can you advocate for one?

3) One of the great things about conferences is catching up with friends and seeing what’s new in their professional and personal lives. Thanks for asking about my partner and my kids and how they are doing, I’m happy to share updates and news about my life. I do not however appreciate inquiries about who is looking after my kids so that I can attend the conference (I guess I’m a bad mother and/or a crappy scientist who doesn’t take her work seriously), implied judgements about my spouse’s ability to care for our children (he does not babysit his own children by the way, he PARENTS them!). These lines of questioning make me feel like an outsider who doesn’t belong. When four people ask me this in quick succession it’s demoralizing.

4) Be aware of personal space boundaries. Unless we are besties don’t hug me, don’t greet me with the kisses on both cheeks, don’t rub my back, arms, or shoulders, and sure as hell don’t pull or tweak my hair.

5) Be aware of power dynamics. Use your powers for good, not evil. To believe that the undergraduate who is new to the field has the same influence or power as a senior PI is absurd. Advocate and speak up for those who need it. Be an ally. Actions speak louder than words.

6) You are a professional. Act like one! I have a long memory; what you said or did reflects poorly on you, your department, your colleagues, your institution, and our professional society, especially if you’ve been getting away with it for a while. Don’t use a professional setting as your dating and/or hook-up pool. Hitting on or flirting with students at the poster session is inappropriate. Propositioning post-docs for sex at the conference banquet is harassment. These are not misunderstandings; they are predatory behaviour.

7) Help others network. Remember what it was like to attend your first conference? Introduce people to each other and be kind to everyone. You never know when collaborations and great ideas could spring to life!

8) Take the opportunity to educate others about some of the above issues. Most people will be receptive and invested in making the conference better for all attendees.

Planning a Sabbatical

Due to the number of years that I’ve been at my job, I’m eligible for my first sabbatical opportunity next year. I’m planning to go on sabbatical from July 2016 to June 2017. At my institution this means that the application for the sabbatical is due November 1. My application needs to propose scholarly activities, the potential benefits to myself and the university, and the likely outcome of these activities.

I’ve been thinking for several months about what I’d like to achieve using the sabbatical and this has been more difficult than I anticipated. I’ve had several conversations with colleagues at my university and other institutions and have received conflicting advice. I suppose that’s to be expected as one size doesn’t fit all. My partner and I had several conversations about the limitations that we would impose on the sabbatical due to our particular family needs and situation. The two senior women that I spoke to indicated that although they had taken the full year abroad at a different institution with their families, neither would do it again. The stress of managing the logistics of schools, daycare, visas, housing arrangements, etc. made the mental cost of going elsewhere too high. It’s perhaps telling that the one resource that I found that dealt with the nuts and bolts of planning for a sabbatical (a book) was written by the spouse of the academic partner. Evidently she was the one responsible for co-ordinating all of the non-academic aspects of the experience. In my opinion that is an unacceptable burden and expectation to place on your partner.

My plans are shaping up slowly, but I have encouraging news from a friend in Spain and I’m hoping to go there for 2 months next summer with my family while my kids are out of school. The rest of the year I’m planning to attend several conferences that I normally can’t go to due to my teaching schedule. I’m also brainstorming about smaller research trips (2 weeks or so) with collaborators who are within driving distance of my institution (I am very conveniently located geographically). Several of the people I spoke with warned me about flakey collaborators and sabbatical projects that went nowhere.

I’m actively looking for advice from other scientists who have planned and taken a sabbatical. How did you come up with a plan? How did you work around any personal and professional constraints that you had? Did you go for a full year, do mini-trips, or stay at home? If you had the chance to go back in time what would you do differently and what would you do again?

DoctorAl Digest 7

This list by John Dupuis is a great summary of why as a scientist I will not be voting Conservative in the upcoming federal election.

An effective piece by Kausik Datta pointing out some authoring issues with ResearchGate and the algorithms used.

A great piece by Leigh Honeywell on making bingo cards to call out cluelessness about the challenges faced by women in tech.

The hottest tool in biotechnology these days is CRISPRs. A great blog post on the ways that phages have evolved to deal with the CRISPRs used as bacterial defense over at Eat, Read, Science.

DoctorAl Digest 6

Quite a bit of excitement for me this week as I participated in my first radio interview with the local CBC station on challenges faced by women in science. I posted on my preparation for the interview here . The link to the interview with myself, Anne Wilson, and the researcher who was the driving force for the display, Eden Hennessey is here.

A very informative and interesting article on the phenomenon of “plant blindness” from the guardian. Despite the fact that I’m a plant biologist, I’m as guilty of having this disease as the next person.

A cool gallery of contenders for the Agar Art contest being run by the American Society for Microbiology. Some of the images are quite stunning!

Stephen Heard has a neat post up on his blog about “The one thing I teach that nobody ever forgets. Perhaps as teachers this is worth thinking about?

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?

Education by Twitter: What Following others has taught me

I started my Twitter account in December 2012. I didn’t really have any expectations about what Twitter would do for me at that time; I was simply curious about what all the fuss was about and I stuck my toe in cautiously to give it a try. Some of my colleagues ask me about the utility of Twitter and I think that most academics come at it from the angle of “What can Twitter do for me?” I think that each person’s experience of Twitter is different and that’s pretty valuable.

Surprisingly in the past two and a half years Twitter has taught me a lot. I think that biggest impact is that Twitter has exposed me to voices that I didn’t hear before and a lot of this has to do with my privilege as a cis, heterosexual, white woman. It has been very eye opening to hear and learn about the experiences of people who self-identify or have been classified by people as “other” on Twitter. At the same time, Twitter has allowed me to be a part of communities of women academics and academics with disabilities which has been immensely helpful to my personal and professional growth. The impact of words, links, images, and videos in 140 character snippets has been impressive.

Twitter has made me aware of my own profound ignorance on a wide variety of socially important topics. In my opinion, that benefit has made my investment in Twitter well worth my 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.

DoctorAl Digest 3

Interesting reads and posts that I’ve stumbled across this week…

DoctorAl Digest 3

Thinking about having kids as an academic and want to do it with a partner? Yes, yes, yes to everything in this article! One of the most honest and frank articles that I have read on this topic.

During graduate school I participated in the thesis support group that was helpful in so many ways. I’m thinking that I might need to start a faculty writing group where I am.

A great overview of social media tools by Bonnie Zink that has been helpful to me as I become more savvy with these platforms.

A good, quick article on disruptions and distractions (and the differences between them) and some strategies on how to deal with them by Natalie Houston.

Having been at the cottage last week and thinking about West Nile Virus, here is a great blog post on how mosquitos look for their next meal by Betty Zou. Her summaries of scientific papers are always well written and interesting!

Happy reading!

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!