Category: Working as a Professor

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.

Project Management for Scientists

project management notesToday’s topic in my group lab meeting is project management. It took me a long time as a scientist to believe that research projects could actually be managed. I think that I felt this way given the uncertain nature of scientific research; you never know if an experiment will actually work and you often can’t predict in which direction the research will go next. I’ve always been an organized person and it turns out that managing a research project isn’t all that different from other projects that you do in your day to day life such as go grocery shopping, clean out the garage, and plant a vegetable garden. Once I started thinking about science in the same way it’s like a light bulb went on.

I don’t recall ever having explicit conversations with my research mentors and supervisors about project management. That may be because I was fairly productive and am a planner by nature, but these are skills that don’t naturally come to everyone and that can be learned and improved over time. As a purely ridiculous example, I explicitly tell students that they should do something else with their time while PCR is running or they are incubating a sample for an hour. I’d like to think that they know this, but I have heard stories from colleagues, of students who will literally sit there for the duration of the incubation thereby wasting precious time that they could have used doing anything else. It’s like the science equivalent of watching paint dry.

Here are some thoughts on how I approach project management in laboratory science:

1) My first step is to define the project clearly and to determine what success looks like. If you skip this step you’ll never know when the project is done, nor will you know if you did it well. You need to identify the full scope of the work, what resources you’ll need (reagents, people, literature, etc.), and the time that you have available to do it in. Thinking about these limitations up front will decrease the amount of frustration that you and others experience later. At the same time, there is room for flexibility, which I will talk about later.

2) My next step is to think about the major milestones that need to be completed in order for the project to be finished. For even the most basic science experiment this will include things like generation of hypotheses and predictions, experimental design, ordering of reagents, allocation of people, doing the experiments, data collection and analyses, data presentation and communication (i.e. making figures, tables, diagrams, etc.), and generating a manuscript, poster, or talk to communicate your findings. That’s a lot of stuff to complete in order to successfully finish your project! One of the major things that I struggle with is maintaining an interest in projects that span several years of work; I often get bored part way through and struggle with staying motivated to finish.

3) Up next is thinking about the flow of tasks and their relationships to one another in your project. I like to think of the major milestones in a project as parts of a puzzle that need to be put together. When I build puzzles, I always start with the edge pieces first, and then work my way in; this means that the connection of some pieces requires the presence of other pieces first. With your project you want to determine whether some of your milestones are interconnected and have to happen sequentially, or whether some of your milestones are independent and could be worked on in parallel at the same time. For example, if you wanted to clone a particular gene in your critter of interest, you would first want to obtain the DNA sequence from a molecular database, you’d then design and order gene specific primers, you’d then perform PCR with your primers, purify your amplified DNA via gel electrophoresis and a gel extraction kit, clone your DNA product into a plasmid, and sequence the plasmid to ensure that the DNA sequence matched the one in the database. These tasks are sequential and one needs to happen before you move on to the next. Other projects have milestones that could be completed at the same time because one doesn’t depend on the completion of the other. This is also the time to identify what could go wrong. Where might your project go off the rails? Can you come up with a back-up plan to get around the problem should it arise? Can you plan ahead to avoid the problem? Can you ask for help?

4) Now you need to break your project milestones into smaller mini-projects that contain a small number of discrete steps. Ideally, you’d aim to complete a few of the small tasks every day and one of the mini-projects each week in the lab. This will help to keep you motivated as you’ll be able to measure your progress on the project and you will build up lots of little wins and that will keep your mental and emotional state positive.

5) The final step is putting together a timeline for completion. I like to set a deadline that I think is realistic, but I usually add several extra weeks and expect that something will go wrong during the course of the project. I then work backwards from that date when planning my time. I schedule in my major project milestones, my mini-projects, and my smaller tasks at a level of detail that I’m comfortable with. Some projects are tricky and it will be difficult to easily identify all of the mini-projects and small tasks up front. Do your best and don’t get off target because that can lead to project creep where the scope of the project balloons out and doesn’t resemble the scope of what you originally set out to do. You need to be flexible because plans can sometimes change mid-project, but head back up to what you defined in Step 1 if you feel that your project is getting out of control. You’ll often find that you reimagined the scope of the project without really thinking things through because you got excited by a neat result or finding. Think extra hard about whether you really want to commit to expanding the scope or redefining the success of your project before you leap in! That being said, there will be times when you need to retool your plans and timeline due to the unpredictability of lab research, but hopefully because you’ve identified the possible trouble spots in advance (Step 3) this will be minimal.

6) Execute your project management plan. Enter specific tasks and mini-projects in your daily and weekly calendar and set deadlines for your project milestones.

Some great resources:

If you need help with bigger project management concepts, Melanie Nelson’s blog Beyond Managing is great!

If you find that scheduling, prioritizing, and keeping up with your to-do list is a challenge, I recommend reading David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done” . It will change your life – I kid you not!

What tips and resources do you give to your trainees in order to help them manage their research projects?

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?

Review of the iPad App Fantastical

I’ve had an iPad for several years and have talked before about how I use it in my day to day work as a professor and some of the applications (apps) that I prefer.

In that blog post from last November, I was using the app Week Cal as my calendar of choice. A few months ago there was a software update and a giant black bar of doom started appearing across the screen in the app. At first it was merely annoying and I figured that the next update would solve the problem. Nope. I contacted the company and was told that it was happening because I was using an iPhone app on an iPad. This was stated matter of factly and it was very clear that there was no motivation or desire to fix this particular issue. Based on that interaction I started my search for a new calendar app for iPad.

Originally my goal was to get something for free that would get the job done because I like a good deal. The Apple calendar app is o.k., but I find that entering things in is a bit clunky. I also used an app called Sunrise for a few weeks which was a step up from Apple’s offering, but I still wasn’t really happy. A few quick searches of some of my favourite productivity blogs (Asian Efficiency , LifeHacker yielded an interesting possibility. Many readers on those two sites recommended an app called Fantastical.

First of all I loved the name FastastiCAL because I am all about horrible puns and plays on words. There are two major advantages to this app based on my usage of it for ~2 weeks. The first is the layout of the calendar. The top half of the screen shows you a weekly view and by pulling down on this panel you can expand it to fill the screen. The bottom half is filled by two panels; the one of the left shows you a rolling log of the events that you have coming up or recently completed, and the right panel is a monthly view. The second major advantage is that entering events is a breeze because you can type them in sentence form and have the event appear in your calendar. For example, if I typed in “Meet Carla for lunch at McDonald’s on Sept. 29” an appointment with Carla from 12-1 p.m. at McDonald’s would appear on my calendar for Sept. 29th. This saves me a ton of time and also makes entering recurring appointments very simple. An added bonus that I really appreciate is that you can move around in your calendar when adding events so you can avoid double booking yourself, or can look up what you already have planned for a particular day. There is also the ability to add events to your calendar verbally, but I haven’t tried that option yet.

One caveat is that I don’t use Outlook for my calendar scheduling, so I’m not sure if the app is compatible with that program. I do believe that it interfaces with Google though.

The other drawback is that the app isn’t cheap compared to other calendars that are free or a few dollars to purchase, however based on my use of the app over the past few weeks it’s been worth every penny for me. Fantastical also comes for iPhone and I may look at putting it on that device in the upcoming weeks.

Flexibility in Course Selection During Undergraduate Degrees

I completed my undergraduate degree in Biology from 1994 to 1998. One of the things that I really appreciated about my degree program at the time was the number of electives that I was able to take during the course of the degree. In this post I’m defining electives as courses that you take that are outside of your department and likely outside of your faculty. Our first year curriculum was very structured, but after we declared a major in second year there was space for electives during the rest of the degree. I had mistakenly assumed that this was the norm, but talking with colleagues in a faculty meeting last week revealed many different experiences with the number of electives taken in their degrees.

During my undergrad I took elective courses in Archaeology, Classics (Greek and Roman Civilization), English, and Ethics alongside my courses in Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Math. I viewed the courses that I took through the Faculty of Arts as a welcome break from the school of thought in the Faculty of Science. I was able to look at the world through different lenses and I think that this was valuable. I think that this experience has made me a better researcher and teacher and has given me a broader appreciation of what a university as a whole has to offer students.

My perception is that the academic curriculum of our students is becoming more streamlined and constrained in the name of efficiency of completing the degree within the required time frame. I’ve come to the recent realization that I don’t believe that this is a good thing and that some exposure to other ideologies and ways of teaching and learning is a positive thing.

How much academic freedom did you have during your undergraduate degree? Do you remember a particular non-Science class with fondness?

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.