Tag: academic jobs

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?

Funding graduate student travel to conferences

This blog post was prompted by a disturbing post over at Tenure, She Wrote by a graduate student talking about the lack of funding for conferences. I am happy to say that my experiences of conferences as a graduate student were not like the experience that this student is describing, but I was horrified by the situation detailed in the blog post.

I’m now a PI and my goals with regards to graduate student travel funds are to be as transparent and fair with my graduate students as I can be. It is what I would like a supervisor to do for me if I was still a graduate student. Since starting my position 5 years ago, I have had an unwritten policy on this topic, but this student’s post made me realize that I should be more explicit in my policy and perhaps write it down so that there is less chance of a miscommunication with one of my students.

My goal for each of my graduate students is to send them to 1 conference per year of their program. Most of my students complete their program in 2 years, so this usually means two conferences. Usually the first conference is local and therefore lower cost and they usually present on work in progress at this meeting. These are smaller meetings where I am able to help them network and the attendees are friendly. The second meeting involves the presentation of the full story of their thesis work and I try to ensure that this is either a national meeting or an international one. This is my philosophy on meetings. I allow my students to present work in progress or partial stories at the first meeting and I know many PIs who don’t do this; I feel that the experience is worth it for the students even if the work doesn’t yet represent a full story. I tell my graduate students several times during the year that my goal is to send them to one conference per year. If students wish to attend more conferences, then we discuss their reasons for attendance and negotiate my financial contributions based on grant funds available.

I also have a very explicit conversation with my graduate students near the beginning of their program about how the costs of the conference will be handled. I pay for all travel, accommodation, meals, posters, and registration costs. If I can charge the cost directly to my grant (usually using an institutional credit card) I do so. If the cost gets charged upon arrival at the conference I either charge it in person upon arrival, issue the student a travel advance, or if the student is comfortable with it they charge it on their own credit card and get reimbursed. Fortunately our institution is fairly speedy with reimbursements, so students do not have to pay interest on the amount or carry the balance for more than two weeks after our return from the conference. I let the students tell me what they are comfortable with and I don’t judge. I let them know that if funds are tight, we will come up with a solution that works for both of us and that they should not place themselves in financial hardship to attend a conference. If the student wishes to pair travel to a particular location with a vacation and stay for a bit before or after the conference, then I still pay for the return trip, but during those extra days they are responsible for their accommodations and food and I explain that clearly before we make any travel bookings. I also ask my students to apply for all available travel grants that they qualify for to help support their attendance, but these funds do not make or break the trip.

As a graduate student I often had to share rooms with other students. At times this was fine and I expected it and at other times it was awkward (e.g. when I was pumping milk while still breast feeding). I initially ask students if they are comfortable sharing a room or a suite of rooms with other students. Residence and hotel options differ quite a bit and I ask my students to explore all options and let me know their preferences. I have had students who preferred their own room with a washroom, students who share a room and washroom with one other student, students who share a suite with other students (they have their own room, but share 1-2 washrooms with others), students who have their own room and share a communal washroom on the floor, etc. I respect the requests of my students and I assume that they have logical reasons for any limitations that they place on housing arrangements. I do not share accommodations with my students as I am not comfortable with that arrangement.

Affording all graduate students with the opportunity to participate in conferences is one of the commitments that I make to each student that I accept into my laboratory. Whether or not they can financially afford it should not dictate whether they can attend. I consider this philosophy one of the privileges and responsibilities of mentoring graduate students.

How do other people handle conference costs for their graduate students? Any horror stories that you’d like to share?

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!

The Disabled Scientist: Thriving in Academia with a Hearing Impairment

hearing aids

By writing this post I am outing myself as a disabled scientist. This will likely come as surprise to many of my colleagues and trainees as I haven’t disclosed my disability to many people at work. I have a hidden disability and as such have had the luxury of letting people know about my disability or not sharing this information. This ability to be selective in my disclosure choices is not one that persons with visible disabilities have. I have also not had to live with my disability for very long. I was diagnosed with my hearing impairment in February 2012 and have therefore only been aware of it for about 4 years. I am choosing to share my story now in order to show other early career scientists that it is possible to survive and thrive with a disability in academia. It can also serve as a reminder to everyone that disabilities can develop at every life stage and quite unexpectedly.

I first suspected that something was wrong with my hearing in the Fall of 2011. I was having consistent difficulty hearing my husband, especially if he was speaking to me around a corner or with his face turned away from me. At first we joked about my selective spousal hearing, but as time went on it became more apparent that something wasn’t right. My husband would often talk about everyday sounds (e.g. barking dogs, machine noises, thunder and rain) and how annoying they were, but I wasn’t hearing the same things that he was. I was also finding that I would have to ask students to repeat points that they were making in class because I would miss some things the first time around. In February 2012 I booked an appointment with my doctor who recommended that I see an audiologist for a hearing test.

Getting a hearing test done is a pretty surreal experience. You go into a sound proof booth, wear headphones and sensors and listen to tones and spoken words in order to assess the range of frequencies and syllables that you can hear. There were parts of the exam that were eerily silent and that signalled to me that there was something definitely wrong with my hearing. I have an impairment in the low frequency range which is very uncommon. Most people exhibit a loss of high frequencies and this typically happens as people age. As such, I’m a pretty unusual client for the clinic given that I have atypical hearing loss and I’m younger than most clients by several decades. The clinic was able to program some loaner hearing aids for me to try out the same afternoon as my exam as a first step towards treating my disability.

The first afternoon with hearing aids was pretty shocking. It was only at that point that I realized what I had been missing due to my disability and that the problem had probably been going on for quite some time. When I turned on my van to drive home, I heard a really strange sound. It turned out to be the seat belt warning bell and it sounded completely different than before. Dinner that night with my family turned out to be very challenging. The settings on the aids weren’t quite right and everyone sounded like they were screaming. It was pretty clear by that first evening that the hearing aids were extremely helpful and necessary.

Having a disability is financially challenging. The best hearing aids for my situation cost $5,000 (they are pictured beside this post). The government covered $1,000 of this cost and my employer’s health plan paid for $500. That left us on the hook for $3,500 which was a huge dent in our budget that year. I felt a bit guilty for needing the hearing aids, which was ridiculous. The other on-going cost is hearing aid batteries. I wear my units for 16 hours per day and need to replace the batteries every 5-7 days. It’s made me realize the true cost of assistive devices and the inadequate coverage by government and employer healthcare plans. After a request from me our union attempted to negotiate for better coverage in our last round of collective bargaining but was unsuccessful.

My disability largely presents challenges in the teaching and service realms of my job. I have difficulty hearing voices in the low frequency range, so “low-talkers”, male students, and quiet speakers of both sexes can have voices that are challenging for me to make out. This sometimes makes discussions and question/answer sessions in class difficult. I’ve gotten comfortable with asking students to repeat themselves or speak up when I need it. I may go so far this year to disclose my disability to my students and to ask for their assistance by requesting that they speak loudly and clearly for everyone in the classroom. I have also experienced some difficulties in faculty meetings, especially with some of my “low-talker” colleagues or friends who have learned English as a second or third language. At conferences, presentations in large rooms without microphones can be difficult and social events at the pub are my own personal version of Hell. Thus far I haven’t asked for any accessibility accommodations at work, but I have asked conference organizers to make sure that speakers use microphones and to think about background noise levels at social events. This summer I had a heating vent leak in the ceiling of my office that was making a hissing noise. Amplified by my hearing aids, the sound was distracting and irritating until fixed.

Assistance on campus is a bit confusing. Accessibility services are mostly focused on students and our equity office recently underwent restructuring. This has meant that knowing where to go for information and help is not always obvious. With the recent passing and implementation of the most recent version of The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act lots of positive change is happening on campus and in the community. I will admit to being woefully ignorant of accessibility issues prior to becoming disabled. I am still struggling to integrate my identity as a person with a disability with my other identities of being a scientist, female, mother, and partner. These multiple identities are really interesting and I’m still navigating the landscape.

Thus far I only disclosed my disability to two people at work. One is a friend and the other was a colleague that I was co-teaching with who I felt should know how my disability might impact my performance in the classroom. This blog post essentially lets the cat out of the bag with respect to my socially savvy colleagues. The timing of the post is not co-incidental; I waited until I had tenure before writing and publishing it. I fully expect that my colleagues will be supportive and understanding, but the fear associated with the stigma that still surround many disabilities certainly factored into my decision to delay disclosing my condition.

If we are fortunate to live long lives, all of us will have to stare disability in the face. My disability has made me a stronger and more compassionate person. I’m a bit chagrined that it took becoming disabled to recognize the struggles and everyday realities faced by many people around the world. If you are looking for a way to make a positive impact, there are some great resources on universal course design that you can implement in your syllabi, classrooms, and assignments. Accessibility accommodations don’t just help those with disabilities; they help everyone.

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!

DoctorAl Digest 2

An overview of neat things that I’ve found on-line in the past few weeks:

1. Some great tips on handling stress as a graduate student or post-doc. (Also applicable to faculty members!)

2. A very thoughtful post on ignorance and privilege. Confronting My Own Racism on the Women In Astronomy blog.

3. As usual, Kerry Ann Rockquemore’s advice is spot on!

4. We hear about microaggressions, but this blog post very succinctly outlines the threats of micropromotions for those who don’t fit the typical mold.

5. An exceptionally cool paper talking about eye-like structures in dinoflagellates that are assembled using mitochondria and chloroplasts. I especially liked the idea that “hidden organelle networks could be widely overlooked in nature”.

Book Review: I Know How She Does It, Laura Vanderkam, 2015

I’m a regular reader of Laura’s blog and have read several of her other books and was therefore looking forward to reading her newest book I Know How She Does It .

The book is essentially an analysis of time logs of successful women and a discussion of successful strategies for living a fulfilling life. Time tracking is a very effective way of seeing where your time goes; during the day you record what you did with your time in 30 minute blocks. Laura defined successful women as those who earned over $100,000/year and had at least one child under 18 living at home with them. The book is therefore ideally geared towards women in this particular situation, but several of the insights are applicable to everyone. We are definitely talking about first-world problems here.

The target audience for this book is women like me who are driven in their careers and who also have a family life. Many of us want “to have it all” and are frustrated by the old scripts that tell us that “you can’t have your cake and eat it too”, that you can be a good mother or a good employee, but not both, or that you should maintain strict separation between home and work life if you want to succeed. These narratives aren’t helpful and perhaps aren’t really true. They also induce a lot of guilt in women that doesn’t seem to be a hang-up that men have.

One of the take away messages from reading Laura’s book that I liked was that instead of talking about work-life balance or work-life blend, Laura is using the metaphor of a mosaic for how you spend your time. I really like this way of thinking about time because it allows you to see that fitting in the pieces of your life is like solving a puzzle, but it is a puzzle that is flexible and allows you to come up with your own final image and way of fitting the tiles of your life together. I think that these ideas of flexibility and autonomy are really key realizations to take away from this book. Many women I think get stuck in a false narrative that work happens from 9-5 p.m. and that the rest of your life has to be squeezed into the margins. This really isn’t sustainable or realistic, especially if you are a knowledge worker. She also spends some time debunking the myth that going part-time or “leaning out” always relieves these pressures.

Another thing that was fascinating about the book was that you get to see how other successful women are spending their time. Looking at other women’s time logs is rather voyeuristic, but can lead to the generation of new ideas or strategies to try out in your own life. I also like Laura’s approach to thinking about time on the scale of 168 hours (1 week) as opposed to getting bogged down in the daily crunch. While particular days may be work heavy, others are full of time spent with family; if we were only to look at things on a daily basis we would have a very skewed view of reality. We live in a society that brags about overwork and sees it as a badge of honour, but the average hours worked per week by the women in Laura’s sample was 35.

In Chapter 3 Laura discusses some strategies that successful women use in order to live full lives. These include split shifts, telecommuting, planning based on weeks not days, and retooling weekends. While these are ideas that have been bandied about before, Laura provides examples of how real women use each of these strategies effectively to make their lives easier.

Chapter 4 is focused on strategies that can be used to consciously design a better work life. These include obvious things like planning ahead, focusing on real work with maximal payoffs rather than merely keeping active with “busy work”, surrounding yourself with good people, and building in slack to your schedule. Laura also recognizes that some workplaces are still suck in the mentality that if a worker is burning the midnight oil then they must be a loyal, committed, hard worker. In my experience this often means that the worker doesn’t manage their time or projects effectively and has been slacking off during some of their work hours by using social media, web surfing, or playing MineSweeper. She makes the argument to be “strategically seen” at work given these preconceived notions of what it means to be a hard worker (i.e. face time is all important).

In Chapter 5, Laura offers some tips on the home front, with a focus on parenting and encouragement to re-examine mornings, evenings, family meals, and to take time to play and really be present when you are spending time with your kids. The section on outsourcing was incredibly funny to read. Several women in the study had hired housekeeping services, but then would frantically pre-clean before the cleaning crew arrived. She also makes the important point that child-care is not one size fits all and that what works for your co-workers may not work for your situation.

Often the thing that falls by the wayside during this work/life two step is self-care. Encouragingly, Laura found that during the course of a week, most women were getting enough sleep and were pretty good about exercising. Sometimes finding “extra” time is all about really examining how you are currently spending your 168 hours per week. Blinding browsing Pinterest or checking email represents “found time” that you could get back if you became more conscious of these automatic habits that have no real payoff.

Chapter 9 is all about mastering the tiles of the mosaic and offers recommendations like learning to better estimate how long things will actually take you to do, using travel time, multitasking when possible, taking advantage of unexpected free time, and taking a step back every once and a while to look at the whole picture.

There is a lot of creativity on display here in the tips and tricks that have been gleaned from other women’s schedules and there are a lot of practical things for you to try in your own work/family/personal life. I especially liked Laura’s focus on flexibility, breaking outdated rules and ways of thinking about work and home life, and the metaphor of the mosaic. The book will be most useful and will speak to working moms with children at home, but is a valuable read for anyone looking to fit all of the pieces of their life together in a format that makes them happy and fulfilled.

DoctorAl Digest

Here’s a list of links that I’ve found interesting this week:

  1. Octopi are cool creatures. A lovely video of new species looking for a name (h/t Malcolm M. Campbell)
  2. Women in Science calling out the whole Tim Hunt debacle using the cheeky #distractinglysexy hashtag on Twitter.
  3. A thoughtful post on making decisions over at the Beyond Managing Blog.
  4. I’m currently reading the book “I Know How She Does It” by Laura Vanderkam. Her website has focussed on associated issues of the work/life mosaic for women the past few weeks.
  5. Jacquelyn Gill’s tweets this week (@JacquelynGill) on her field work have been fascinating!
  6. Tanya Golash-Boza pushing back against the workaholic culture of academia with her refreshing post “Summer Hours: Enjoy your summer and be productive too!”
  7. The importance of “Finding new definitions for career success” over at Tenure, She Wrote.
  8. A reminder that some academic departments are toxic over at the Conditionally Accepted blog

On-line Storage of Lab Protocols

In the labs I’ve been in previously, common lab protocols were stored in a binder in the lab for reference. Usually I’d make a photocopy for my own use as a place to start and as I optimized the protocol for my experiments I’d mark up this copy. Once I had a solid protocol worked out, I’d generate my own copy of the protocol so that it served my purposes. When I started my own lab I wanted to make sure that my students had a binder of protocols that they could refer to for their own experiments. At the same time I wanted to prevent protocol drift (i.e. the inadvertent changing of a protocol over time). I thought about the common protocols that we would use in the lab and generated several binders for these that are stored in the lab. This approach works, but it’s a bit clunky and limited the students to looking at the protocols only while in the lab. I recently decided that it would make sense to generate a central, on-line repository for our lab protocols.

A quick search of the web showed that researchers do this in different ways. Some labs make their own Wiki to hold this information, others use cloud storage or an online protocol repository, and others used a campus intranet or password protected website. I’m currently in the process of evaluating all of the possible options. How does your lab store and manage experimental protocols? I’d love to receive advice and hear about options in the comments below!

Open vs. Closed Office Door

Interruptions are the bane of my existence. When I’m in the zone working on something it is very disruptive to be interrupted. As I do most of my work in my office on campus and my office is located directly across from the departmental office, there are plenty of sources of interruption throughout any given day. This can include people who pop by to specifically see me, loud conversations or noises in the hallway, and the persistent buzz of the door at the end of the hall every time someone uses their access card to open it.

During my first several years as a professor I had an open door policy. I didn’t have a great sense of the culture in my department yet and I felt that being seen as more available would be a good idea. This was a great decision as it allowed me to get to know my colleagues and made me accessible to students. Generally speaking, I would say that in my department most of my colleagues leave their doors slightly open if they are in their office working.

A few years into my position, I realized that I was losing quite a bit of time to interruptions. Some of these were a consequence of the location of my office. If the departmental office staff were on lunch or when the office was closed I would sometimes have to sign for deliveries or field inquiries from students or visitors. These interruptions didn’t take up much time, but they definitely disrupted my work flow. I also noticed that some of my lab trainees would pop by with quick questions that they could have solved themselves and realized that perhaps I’d made myself a little too readily available.

Since April of this year I have started an experiment. I’ve purposely closed my office door when I am completing a task that requires a high degree of concentration, and only open it when an interruption would not be detrimental. Part way through the past academic year I also booked weekly appointments with each of my trainees so that they knew that they would have scheduled one-on-one time with me when they would have my full attention. Both of these decisions have greatly reduced the number of interruptions during the course of a day and I feel that I am more focused and productive while at work. The only drawback to this approach so far is that several of my colleagues have noticed that I’m coming in to work, but that I’m closing my door and have commented on it (not in a judgemental way, but because they have noticed a change in my behaviour).

It’s a pretty tough balance between being accessible and friendly vs. productive and cloistered. I think that this is something that a lot of faculty members struggle with and I think is very dependent on your departmental culture. I’d be interested to hear how others approach this decision. Do you have a personal policy about open vs. closed office doors?