Tag: academic jobs

Book Review: What Works for Women at Work, Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey, 2014

Being a scientist is tough, but being a scientist who is female is tougher than being a scientist who is male. I know this because it has been my personal experience. I have had negative experiences during my training and work in my chosen profession that are shared by my female colleagues, but not one of these episodes have been shared by my male colleagues. I am therefore forced to conclude that most of these negative experiences are a direct result of my gender.

Equality and affirmative action have made some gains in the past decades and I am especially grateful. Without the work of these tireless pioneers I would not be a university professor. Sexism and misogyny have not gone away though; instead they have become subtle and in some ways more nefarious. Women experiencing sexism today risk “death by a thousand cuts”. One event by itself is survivable, but a lifetime of these smaller insults takes its toll. After a while you start to question whether it’s all in your head. I am being too sensitive? Pick your battles carefully. Don’t rock the boat. I’m sure he didn’t mean to come across that way, he’s a nice guy. Sexism and misogyny are clearly still a problem in science and academia. Two recent examples include the fiasco with the Ask Alice advice column at Science Careers and the illuminating interview of an academic couple in the journal Science .

What Works for Women at Work helps to articulate the subtle biases that women experience in their professional lives and is particularly relevant to scientists as a large portion of the interview data was collected from female researchers. The book focuses on four patterns that the authors identified in their data that represent challenges for women in their professional lives due to cultural and societal biases around gender. They are:

1) Prove-It-Again! I’ve already shown you that I’m a competent individual, but because I’m a women I need to prove my competence over and over and over again. If I’m meeting you for the first time you will make (often incorrect) assumptions about my competence just because I’m a woman.

2) The Tightrope. Women should behave a certain way. If I don’t act a certain way and I’m a woman then I’m trouble. Act too feminine; well you must be an idiot, so you’ll have to Prove-It-Again! Act too masculine and you are abrasive, aggressive, don’t play well with others, are difficult to work with, and lack social skills.

3) The Maternal Wall. If I don’t have kids then something must be wrong with me. Once I do have kids then I’m not serious about my career and somehow using my uterus has made me into an idiot and not fully committed to my work. If I chose to have kids then I should be at home mothering them 24/7 and therefore should “lean out” or give up my spot to someone who is fully committed to their career.

4) The Tug of War. Traditionally academia was a man’s game and was based on a monastic model of education. Do I try to play the game like the guys do? Do I do the opposite so that I can maintain my femininity? Can I attempt to change how the game is played? How are other women playing the game? Is there space for only one token woman in the game? Women often disagree with how other women are navigating this landscape; these disagreements are characterized as “cat-fights” and used to bolster the idea that women are irrational and emotional creatures.

That’s quite the stacked deck…certainly not a level playing field.

The strength of this book is that it clearly defines these biases and provides concrete examples of the behaviours that are the result of these biases that negatively impact professional women. The most valuable part of this book is that it goes one step further and provides strategies for combatting each of these biases. The authors are especially savvy since they recognize that one strategy will not work for everyone and they therefore offer multiple options that could be used alone or in conjunction through the course of a career. The strategies are realistic and take into account that you are playing a rigged game where you will likely be unable to change the rules of the game.

Part V of the book addresses the additional challenge of Double Jeopardy faced by women of colour who have to combat biases based not only on their gender, but also on their race. As a white woman this section of the book revealed my ignorance on the experiences of people of colour in academia. I need to do better.

The two final chapters of the book deal with the difficult decision of how to recognize a toxic environment and how to decide if it is worth staying, or whether the best career move is to leave. The final part of the book summarizes the book’s take home messages as 20 quick paragraphs.

I wish that this book had been available to read when I was just starting out my career in academia. It would have saved me many sleepless nights as a graduate student and post-doc, especially after I had my kids. I wouldn’t have felt so isolated and might have had better coping strategies than righteous anger. I’ll be recommending this book as a read to my trainees in an attempt to combat the “old boys network” culture that still pervades many aspects of academia. If you are a male academic wanting to be a real ally to your female colleagues, but don’t know where to start, reading this book would be a great first step. Perhaps the best analogy (especially if you are a gamer) for how “others” experience life can be found on John Scalzi’s website.

Advertisements

The Positives and Negatives of Conferences

I’ve been going to conferences for >17 years and many things have become much easier compared to my terrifying first conference experience, but some things will always stay the same. Below I talk about some of the positives and negatives of attending conferences.

  1. Travel

This can be both a positive and a negative. Getting to your destination is usually not a particularly pleasant experience. The first few times on an airplane, bus, train, etc. can be exciting, but after a while it gets pretty boring. I am constantly amazed by the bad behaviour of other people while travelling. Recent changes by air carriers in Canada has made this even worse by charging for checked luggage. This has led to a massive uptick in the number of passengers bringing carry-on luggage that has to be stowed in the overhead bins. If you can fit a small adult in your carry-on bag you need to check yourself…and your bags.

Once you get to your destination the fun can begin! Many locales that you travel to as a scientist are international and interesting; I consider this one of the perks of the job! I’ve been to Australia, England, Portugal, Spain, Austria, and various North American cities. After you’ve been doing science for a while, you may end up visiting the same locations which is not as stimulating. When the Icelandic volcano erupted in 2010, I got stuck in London, England for an extra 5 days. In that case the delay was somewhat positive as I got to visit Kew Gardens and the Victoria and Albert Museum , but the uncertainty of when I’d be able to fly home was pretty stressful.

  1. Meeting new people

The vast majority of the scientists that I’ve met at conferences have been awesome and amazing. I’ve started new collaborations, shared knowledge, developed new research ideas, and learned a great deal. These interactions are what make a conference worthwhile for most of us. I could certainly do without the creepers and the gigantic egos however.

  1. Oral presentations

Watching other people present is always an education. A great talk can be inspiring and offer tips on how to improve your own presentations. A bad talk provides you with a list of what not to do and can put you to sleep. I often come up with ideas for material to use in my courses, or slide layouts that are more visually appealing.

  1. Poster presentations

It’s really hard to put together a strong and effective poster, so I’m always on the look-out for great posters and what they have in common. I’m not a huge fan of poster sessions because I’ve often had the experience of having only a few people stop by my poster. I think that oral presentations offer better exposure and opportunities and therefore encourage my students to do talks if possible.

  1. Social events and field trips

These events are usually lots of fun. I look forward to them as a chance to catch up with friends and colleagues, recognize professional achievements, experience the culture and traditions of the host institution and country, and if I’m lucky- dance. I don’t enjoy being around scientists who drink to excess and make idiots out of themselves. I will remember that time in 2005 when you hit on that graduate student and refused to accept that she didn’t want to dance. It’s unfortunate that her first experience of being at a conference hosted by our society involved me tactfully removing her from the situation, making sure that she was o.k., and telling her that you were in the wrong. In retrospect I should have done more, but power differentials suck.

  1. Participating on the executive of your professional society

This is a great way to become involved and to meet new people. I’ve served on the executives of two different professional societies and I’ve gained a lot of transferrable skills and knowledge. Many societies have positions available for students and post-docs, so even if you are just starting out in science there are great opportunities available.

Overall, conferences are very positive, useful and fun experiences! I’d appreciate hearing your conference triumphs, tribulations, or disaster stories in the comments!

Book Review: Getting Things Done, David Allen, 2015 Edition

I first stumbled across an earlier version of this book while looking for ways to become more productive and efficient in my personal and professional lives. I have always been a Type A personality and a compulsive list maker which had served me well during my early education and undergrad degree. Once I transitioned to graduate school and a post-doc the number of projects that I had on the go simultaneously got to be a bit overwhelming. My primary frustration is that I would make awesome lists of things to do, and I would get a lot of the things on these lists completed. But at the end of everyday there would be several tasks that would keep getting punted onto the list for the next day. For some tasks that I frankly didn’t want to do, the shunting of particular tasks from one day to the next could go on for weeks. This was incredibly frustrating, but I couldn’t readily identify what wasn’t working.

When I read the first edition of David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” it was an epiphany! The book really spoke to me and was directly responsible for improving my productivity several fold by implementing his methodology. What is described in the book isn’t rocket science and is in fact quite simple, but the way that it is laid out communicates the ideas very effectively. The other thing that I liked about the approach in the book is that you don’t have to do everything all at once and you can ease into this way of doing things. There are several tips throughout the book that will save you huge amounts of time if implemented. I’ve probably read the first edition of David’s book 3 or 4 times and I always pick up something new to try when I do.

I was therefore excited to check out the revised 2015 edition of this book given how helpful it has been to me in the past. A lot of the material is not new, but has been updated for today’s world. For example, in the original book personal organizing devices like the Palm Pilot were big sellers and email was just starting to transition from being cool and new to overwhelming. Although David doesn’t make explicit recommendations about personal tech (e.g. iPad, Blackberry, vs. Android platforms and apps), he does spend some time talking about organization and workflow in our electronic era which is helpful. There is also a new chapter on Cognitive Science which is interesting and backs up why David’s approach is so helpful for many people.

David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” is by far the most useful and practical productivity book that I have ever read and was life changing for me. If you have not read the book and are interested in trying out his methodology I would recommend purchasing the 2015 edition. You’ll be very glad that you did!

Mental Health First Aid

Many of us in academia have taken first aid or CPR training. The first time that I had to learn some of these techniques was during swimming lessons as a child. I later took an intensive first aid course during my undergraduate degree. I’ve thankfully only had to use this training twice; both times involved successfully using the Heimlich maneuver to prevent someone from choking. I would therefore like to think that I would help someone out if I knew that they were in some kind of medical distress (e.g. having a heart attack, hit by a car, broken limb, etc.) You’ll notice that the examples that I’ve given here are physical ailments that have obvious symptoms. I’ve recently had to ask myself the hard question of whether I know what to do and would be willing to provide assistance to someone having a mental health crisis. Prior to last week, I would have been ill equipped to do so and probably would have hoped that some other bystander would step up to the plate and render aid. The easier choice in the moment is to turn a blind eye to mental illness perhaps out of fear, stigma, or ignorance, but I will argue that we have as much responsibility to render aid to someone experiencing a psychotic episode as we do someone who has suffered a concussion.

Last week I participated in a two day workshop on Mental Health First Aid offered by trained volunteers at my university. The program was put together by the Mental Health Commission of Canada . I would strongly encourage faculty colleagues to take part in this workshop or a similar one if offered on your campus. Many mental illnesses have an age of onset that overlaps with the ages of many of our traditional students. You may be in a position to recognize mental health problems experienced by your students and be able to provide assistance. The goal of this program is not to make you responsible for diagnosing mental illness, but to educate you so that you can provide initial support to someone who may be developing a mental health problem or is experiencing a mental health crisis.

The course also goes a long way towards combating the stigma that still accompanies mental illness. Mental health problems are common, but many suffer in silence due to a lack of knowledge about supports available and fear that they will be ridiculed or discriminated against due to their health condition. Mental health problems include substance-related disorders, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and psychotic disorders; chances are that many of your colleagues, friends, and family have or will have a mental health problem. According to the Canadian statistics, one person in five will experience some problem with their mental health in the course of a year, while one person in three will experience a mental health problem in their lifetime. The economic costs from lost productivity and medical leaves are huge, but it is the personal costs to the person with the illness that is the real tragedy here. Contrary to what we see on TV and in the movies, a person with mental illness is much more likely to be a victim of a crime than the perpetrator of one. People with mental illness are often ostracized, belittled, disbelieved, judged, or told that “it’s all in your head” or to “snap out of it”! These are real medical conditions; imagine telling someone with cancer that their disease would go away if only they “stopped being so lazy”. We have a long way to go in educating ourselves and fighting against ignorance.

I feel fortunate to work for an institution that recognizes the value of training its members to offer assistance to those experiencing mental illness. I hope that I will never have cause to use my training from last week, but that is an unrealistic wish and I recognize it as such. I look forward to the day when the stigma around mental illness is eradicated and the needed social supports are accessible and readily available. Until that day comes I will stand ready to offer assistance to those who need and want it and to dispel the myths that abound about mental illness. It is my wish that you will do the same.

Why aren’t more faculty members on Twitter?

Last week I participated in my first Twitter chat and this also coincided with serving as the moderator of the chat. The topic of the chat was live tweeting research talks and we discussed several issues pertaining to the use of Twitter by academics and others. One of the things that came up during the talk is how many faculty are not on Twitter and why that might be.

One reason I’ve often had expressed to me is that some colleagues don’t see the utility of Twitter. I will admit that this was me for a long time. I didn’t really understand Twitter and really didn’t see how it could be advantageous professionally (or personally). At first it seemed like a passing fad.

Another reason that many faculty don’t Tweet is fear of the unknown or fear due to a lack of control over social media. I think many of us are worried that we may not express ourselves well given the limit of 140 characters or that we might say something inappropriate that could have repercussions for our career.

Others may not use Twitter because it isn’t intuitively clear how you go about archiving tweets or how to quantify them in terms of impact. In the sciences, impact is usually a numbers game. Tools to do this like Storify etc. certainly exist, but there is a learning curve in figuring out how to use them.

These thoughts transitioned into how you might encourage colleagues to join Twitter. Suggestions included helping them set up a Twitter account, showing them how easy it is to do, providing tip sheets, giving examples of Tweets, and providing evidence of its impact and usefulness. The role of institutions and organizations was also seen as important in terms of increasing the adoption of Twitter by faculty.

I started using Twitter in December 2013 for fun. I didn’t have a goal or purpose in mind and just wanted to explore using it. Being connected to others through Twitter has had many advantages and outcomes that I would never have imagined in the beginning.

What are your thoughts on Twitter? Do you Tweet? Do your colleagues? Why or why not?

Book Review: McKeachie’s Teaching Tips 14th Edition

One of the more challenging aspects of my first year as a tenure-track faculty member was teaching a university level course for the first time. I had previously served as a teaching assistant in several labs and had done a few guest lectures prior to starting my faculty job, but I had never prepared, designed, and delivered a full semester course before. It was a terrifying prospect!

Since that time I’ve learned a lot from the experience of teaching multiple classes, but I’m always on the look-out for resources that could improve my teaching effectiveness and enjoyment of interacting with my students. I just finished reading the 14th edition of McKeachie’s Teaching Tips .

The book is divided into several major parts: Getting Started, Basic Skills for Facilitating Student Learning, Understanding Students, Adding to Your Repertoire of Skills and Strategies for Facilitating Active Learning, Skills for Use in Other Teaching Situations, Teaching for Higher-Level Goals, and Lifelong Learning as a Teacher. I liked this book because it does talk a bit about theory, but also offers tangible examples and exercises that you can try in your course preparation, in the classroom, during testing and evaluation, and in the future. This book offers a fairly robust coverage of most of the challenges that I’ve run into as a university teacher and suggests ways that these issues can be avoided in the first place and realistic solutions that can be applied when necessary. It’s very practical and has led me to think quite a bit about the structure of my courses and the assignments that I’ve been using to evaluate student learning. I’ve picked up several ideas that I might implement moving forward and found myself nodding in agreement several times while reading the book.

I think that it would be a great resource for new teachers in a university setting and is also a worthwhile read for experienced teachers. A bit of thinking and planning before launching a course is time well spent and this book is full of multiple gems of advice and knowledge for university teachers.

Moderating my first Twitter Chat

I was very slow to embrace Twitter and have only had an account since 2013. One of the interesting things about blogging is that you can never really predict when one of your posts will resonate with someone and what the outcome of it will be. Last week I wrote a blog post reflecting on the experience of live tweeting a research talk for the first time. The post caught the attention of our university’s Knowledge Mobilization officer and through that connection I was invited to moderate my first twitter chat at #KMbChat. The topic was my blog post which was very flattering.

The twitter chat took place yesterday and will be archived here . I wasn’t sure what to expect since it was my first time participating in a twitter chat, let alone hosting one! I can happily report that it was an awesome experience and that the community was fantastic and very welcoming. I learned a lot from the experience itself as well as from the content of our discussion.

My plan is to use several of the topics that came up for discussion in the twitter chat as subjects of blog posts over the next few weeks. Based on my experience yesterday, I can verify that Twitter chats are very useful from a professional standpoint and I’ll be actively looking to participate in more of them in the future.

Making bad choices? Blame decision fatigue!

I’ve finally come to realize that I make my best decisions in the morning and my worst decisions in the afternoon or evening. The reason for this is a phenomenon called decision fatigue . It’s the idea that the more decisions that you make during the day, your ability to make good quality decisions rapidly decreases as the day wears on. I used to think that living in a world with a myriad of choices available was a fantastic opportunity, but sometimes it is the availability of the huge number of options in our lives that can be overwhelming. I think that these ideas can feed into procrastination, especially when there are so many choices competing for our attention. I also wonder if this is partly driving why many of my students are so unclear about their next steps in education, life, and career. The more decisions that we have to make, the harder those decisions become.

So what can you do about decision fatigue and/or avoid it? This article at the Huffington Post provides some simple steps. I think that the best suggestion is to make important decisions in the morning when you are still fresh and have a large supply of willpower. The other hint that I think is helpful is to limit yourself to three options only and make a decision based on those. I’ll often do this when buying lab equipment. I’ll first think about the features that the item really has to have and only look at options that satisfy these criteria. This makes it easier to make decisions and feel good about them and avoids the trap of second guessing my decisions after I’ve made them.

The negative consequences of decision fatigue can be high. Maybe it’s starting a research project that ends up being a time, money, and resources sink. Sometimes it’s a bad equipment purchase. It could involve sending your manuscript to an inappropriate journal. Bad decisions are costly for a number of reasons; I do my best to avoid them by consciously choosing to make important decisions about work when I first arrive at work. A fresh brain is a brain that’s capable of making better choices.

Office supplies and technologies that can improve faculty productivity

Below is a list of office supplies and technologies that I find useful in my job as a faculty member.

1) Coloured file folders

We once dreamed about a world where technology would make it possible to go completely paperless. We aren’t there yet and I strongly doubt that we ever really will be. I’ve found it helpful to organize projects into coloured file folders that relate to one particular role of my job as a faculty member. Anything related to administration is burgundy (e.g. service, financials, etc.), teaching is violet (e.g. course syllabi, student assignments, tests, etc.), blue is research (e.g. lab supplies, vendor catalogues, grant applications, etc.), and teal is current projects (e.g. manuscript writing, lab experiments, etc.). I find that this colour coding helps to keep me organized.

2) Post-it Notes

The glue used in post-it notes was a failed experiment which as a scientist I think is hilarious and is a good commentary on the importance of basic research and making mistakes while doing science. I use post-its for a wide variety of reasons and in a multitude of colours. For the past several months I’ve been using 3” x 3” post-its on my personal Kanban board in my office and I hope to write a future blog post on that topic. I also use yellow lined larger post-its for capturing lists or ideas that I need to flesh out in more detail.

3) Label maker

I have already waxed poetic about the label maker in a previous post . It is one of the greatest human inventions ever. Enough said.

4) Writing implements (a.k.a. pens)

I am a pen snob and am very particular about them. About a year ago I discovered the Pentel EnerGel Metal Tip 0.7 mm ball pen in black . No leaking, no smudging, quick drying, smooth…this pen has it all. “Borrow” my pens at your own peril!

5) Notebooks

I prefer to use the Hilroy 80 page 1 subject lined notebooks. Many of my colleagues use bound notebooks (e.g. Moleskine), but I write in my notebooks and then rip out the pages so these don’t work for me.

6) iPad

I use my iPad in my daily work as my calendar, task manager, timer, etc. and have previously written a post on several apps that I find useful .

7) Generic office supplies

I’ve got a stapler, staple remover, paperclips, scotch tape, scissors, and a calculator that I use regularly in a desk drawer. I also purchased a letter opener and the number of paper cuts that I receive has dropped exponentially. I also find that the “sign here” sticky flags have proven very useful for one up approval of grant applications, financial reconciliations, and various other documents that need approvals from my departmental Chair and Dean.

8) External hard drive

I back up my laptop regularly in case my computer decides to go nuclear or on the small chance that my computer gets stolen. I’ll likely migrate to a cloud back-up soon, but if the laptop is in my office then the external drive comes home with me and vice versa.

None of these items is particularly ground breaking or earth shattering, but I find that when used together in my everyday work activities they save me a lot of time and vastly increase my productivity.

Care to share the office supplies that you find useful as a professor?

Moms and babies: Maintaining academic productivity while a mother is not a zero-sum game

My friend Dr. Andrea Kirkwood contacted me on Twitter this morning to direct me to this post at The Guardian. In it a new mother talks about her dismay when several of her colleagues judged her for “taking time off” for maternity leave and held her to higher expectations upon her return to graduate school. She felt she had to “make up for” what was perceived by others as a poor choice that proved that she wasn’t serious about her research. The post really resonated with me and I suspect with many female academics who are parents who have experienced the same biased responses upon returning to school or the workforce.

So let’s flesh out and challenge some of the erroneous assumptions that some faculty in the academy still make about parents.

1) Maternity leave = time off

Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! This is a good one and is totally hilarious. It is also totally wrong. By far the hardest thing that I have ever done physically and mentally in my entire life is give birth to and care for my children in the first 2 years of their life. Performing Ph.D. research, writing your dissertation, and defending your thesis is a cake walk compared to feeding, bathing, loving, diaper-changing, and raising a small child. Going back to school was far less challenging and demanding than the first 9 months that I spent with each of my children at home being the primary care giver. It is a trial by fire and you come through it changed forever; usually rising like a phoenix from the ashes. If I can handle that I can take whatever science wants to throw down. I’m ready to rumble…

2) Choosing to have children as a female academic = bad choice

My children have increased my appreciation of my life in a myriad of ways. They have opened up my eyes to seeing the world from entirely new perspectives and have allowed me to recognize that my perspective is not the only viewpoint and is not always correct. This is valuable. Having children exponentially increased my productivity, time-management, and project management skills while a graduate student and post-doc. These skills have directly contributed to my ability to secure a tenure-track faculty position and be successful at it.

Let’s replace these erroneous assumptions with some better realities.

1) Having children = getting a healthy perspective on what really matters

Crappy day in the lab? That’s o.k. because your son still wants to play Thomas the Tank Engine with you that evening and your daughter still thinks that you give great zerberts .I will always make the argument that people are more important than projects. Having kids has also made me a much more empathetic and considerate colleague. Everyone has a tipping point where more time spent on science does not equal greater returns and is in fact detrimental. Kids are great at making you realize the irrationality of your first world problems.

2) Having children = checking your pride at the door and learning it’s o.k. to ask for help

When I was younger I wanted to figure out everything on my own because I was ashamed to ask for help, didn’t think it was necessary, or thought that I knew best. Having children reveals the depth of your ignorance on a wide variety of topics. I’ve found that it’s had a profound mellowing effect on my high-strung, Type-A personality. Sometimes it’s o.k. to have cereal for dinner. Lots of times good enough and finished is better than perfect but not completed. Life gives you lemons, make lemonade. There is no point in reinventing the wheel. Great colleagues are always willing to help you out and you can return the favour when they need assistance later. An ability to admit ignorance is a strength, not a weakness.

I’m happy with my academic and personal choices and wouldn’t change much if I could go back in time for a “do-over”. The only thing that I would change if possible would be the attitudes of some people who seemed to think that I had checked-out of an academic career by choosing to have a family while a woman in science. There is an immense degree of satisfaction in having proved these nay-sayers wrong. I also feel fortunate to be in a position where I can help the women and men who are coming up the ladder behind me who would like to combine having a family with an academic scientific career. The view from up here is after all amazing!