Tag: HQP

Are you unintentionally writing biased reference letters for your female trainees?

While it can be argued that acts of outright sexism have decreased in the academy, acts of underground, unconscious, and unintentional sexist behaviour are rampant. We unfortunately have plenty of examples covered in the popular media of such behaviour that we can point to in the past several months alone.

A few years ago I heard about a study that indicated that male and female researchers exhibited unconscious negative bias when writing reference letters for female trainees. At the time I was concerned because I had just come back from a 9 month maternity leave after my son was born. Years later, I took a second maternity leave after the birth of my daughter. Was it possible that my reference letter writers, in an effort to be helpful, could actually be harming my chances of succeeding in academia?

A few days ago Natalie Samson wrote a great article for University Affairs that brought this issue back into my consciousness. In that article she confirmed that the Canada Research Chairs program is now including explicit guidance to letter writers on how to ensure that unconscious bias does not enter into their reference letters written for female nominees. Natalie Samson outlines quite effectively why the program has decided that these guidelines are necessary for letter writers.

Let’s take a look at some of the CRC recommendations for letter writers. There are two sub- sections in the “Guidelines and Best Practices for Reference Letter Writers” section that are pertinent. One is entitled “Best Practices” and the other is called “Limiting Unconscious Bias”. Several are really interesting.
For example, letter writers are warned against being “unduly personal” and to avoid using the applicant’s first name. Most of the letters that I write are for undergraduate students and in my introductory paragraphs I list the student’s full name (e.g. Ms. Jane Doe or Mr. John Doe) and then refer to them as Jane or John throughout the rest of my letter. I have yet to write a reference letter for a post-doc or colleague and in that case I think that I’ll now refer to them as Dr. Doe given this advice.

Another example that I would hope would be painfully obvious to everyone is to comment only on information that is relevant to the position and to “not include information related to ethnicity, age, hobbies, marital status, religion, etc.” The fact that this is included in the guidelines indicates that some letter writers have done this in the past.

The third great piece of advice is to avoid “revealing personal information about the nominee”. This is a fine line to walk and you need to consider carefully whether introducing particular pieces of information will actually be relevant or helpful for the candidate. The example that the guidelines give is mentioning “circumstances where health issues or family responsibilities have led to career interruptions.” Is it appropriate to mention your graduate student’s maternity/parental leave? Are you mentioning Jane’s maternity leave in the context of impacting her productivity? Would you also mention the fact that John being a new father impacted his productivity? Is it your place to disclose your student’s cancer treatment, a disability, elder care issues? I would argue that you should explicitly talk about those issues with your trainee prior to writing the letter and ask them how they would prefer that you handle it. I would argue that this would be the only context where talking about a student’s personal life is potentially relevant enough to include in your letter and that you should do so only after asking their permission.

What do we do as letter writers that is a disservice to our female trainees? According to the CRC Guidelines page, the letters we write for women are more likely to:
• be shorter in length and incomplete;
• include gendered terms (e.g., woman, lady, mother, wife);
• include fewer ‘standout’ adjectives (e.g., excellent, outstanding etc.);
• include ‘doubt raisers’ (negative language, hedges, unexplained comments, faint praise and irrelevancies);
• focus on interpersonal attributes versus research skills/achievements (e.g., kindness, compassionate etc.); and
• include personal information that was not relevant to the position.

Three effective ways to prevent this are to:
• Avoid using stereotypical adjectives when describing character and skills, especially when providing a letter for a woman (e.g., avoid words like nice, kind, agreeable, sympathetic, compassionate, selfless, giving, caring, warm, nurturing, maternal, etc.).
• Consider using ‘stand-out’ adjectives for both men and women, where appropriate (e.g., superb, excellent, outstanding, confident, successful, ambitious, knowledgeable, intellectual etc.).
• Consider whether your letter unintentionally includes gaps, or doubt-raising, negative or unexplained statements (e.g., ‘might make an excellent leader’ versus ‘is an established leader’).

These are great recommendations and should be required reading for any faculty members who are writing reference letters for their students and trainees. They have made me rethink several practices that I use in crafting my reference letters and have identified some things that I need to stop doing.

McDonald Lab: Applicants wanted for the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships program

The McDonald lab is seeking applicants for the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships program for Fall 2014. The award is valued at $70,000 per year (taxable) for two years (non-renewable). Further details about the program and eligibility requirements can be found at: http://banting.fellowships-bourses.gc.ca/home-accueil-eng.html

Our lab focuses on the electron transport systems of photosynthesis and respiration. Our particular interest is alternative proteins involved in putting electrons into or taking electrons out of these systems. Current research projects focus on the alternative oxidase, plastoquinol terminal oxidase, and alternative NAD(P)H dehydrogenases of bacteria, fungi, plants, and animals. We use various techniques to study the molecular, regulatory, and functional properties of these enzymes. Trainees receive training in bioinformatics, molecular biology, protein biochemistry, and respirometry. We strive to do excellent science and have fun while doing it! I take a strong interest in my trainees’ professional development and encourage them to maintain a positive work-life balance. Further information about the McDonald lab can be found at: http://www.wlu.ca/homepage.php?grp_id=12358&ct_id=2893&f_id=4.

Wilfrid Laurier University is a growing institution in Waterloo, Ontario. The city of Waterloo is a thriving community and technology hub centrally situated in southwestern Ontario with access to other large metropolitan areas including Guelph, London, Hamilton, and Toronto. The Biology department is a tight-knit community and offers many opportunities for collaborations and research support. Research at Laurier is question driven and uses a variety of techniques and approaches to answer hypotheses through investigation at multiple levels of biology (e.g. molecular, cellular, physiological, ecological, evolutionary). Our trainees leave with a solid biological background, the ability to use critical thinking to address important challenges and issues, and are prepared to succeed in a variety of career paths.

An application package consisting of a CV, all postsecondary education transcripts (can be unofficial versions), a one-page description of career aspirations and rationale for your desire to pursue a postdoctoral research experience at WLU with me (highlighting the benefits expected with respect to fulfilling career aspirations), and a 3-4 page research proposal must be sent to Dr. McDonald at amcdonald@wlu.ca by midnight on July 18, 2014.

The successful candidate will be expected to put together a complete application for the internal competition at Wilfrid Laurier University and submit it by August 22, 2014. Further details are available at: http://www.wlu.ca/page.php?grp_id=36&p=24457.  Applicants will be notified of the pre-selection results by September 3, 2014.  Successful applicants will be asked to submit their final application by September 24, 2014.

Responding to Requests for Academic Reference Letters

I have just made it through the deluge of reference letter requests that occurs annually from January to April. I am relatively new to the act of writing reference letters for students and have some words of wisdom to share based on my personal experiences.

 

1. Create a policy for academic reference letter requests and stick to it. Useful things to think about are who you will write letters for. For example, I only write letters for students who have: i) taken 2 or more classes with me and performed well in the courses, or ii) taken one or more classes with me, but have built a professional rapport with me by visiting office hours regularly, or iii) performed research in my laboratory. In order to write a solid reference letter I need to know the student and be able to talk about their particular strengths and weaknesses. I also let students know that reference letters need to be requested 1-2 weeks in advance of the deadline so that I have time to put together a strong letter.

 

2. Be honest with the student if you cannot write a strong reference letter for them. This can happen for a variety of reasons. You may not know the student well enough, you do not have the time to write the letter, or you may think that the program and the student are not a good fit. In these cases let the student know that you cannot provide them with a reference letter. If you feel that it is appropriate you can suggest other people who might be more supportive letter writers. You do not do the student any favours by writing a luke-warm reference letter.

 

3. Require students to provide relevant support materials to you in order to help you to craft your letter. I ask most students to provide me with a resume/CV, an unofficial record of academic transcripts, and information about the program that they are applying to. These materials allow me to make a strong case for the student in my letter. I also make it the job of the student to ensure that I receive any electronic links etc. that might be required for completing on-line reference letter submissions. If you see something in the student’s materials that should be corrected do them the courtesy of pointing it out and offering advice for improvement.

 

4. Write the strongest and most honest letter of reference that you can. Submit the letter on time. Confirm with the student that you have submitted your letter. I have been on the receiving end of poor and late reference letters from other academics and it is an embarrassment to the profession. If you agree to write a reference letter then you owe it to the student to do the best job that you can. I also ask students to keep me updated and let me know if or when they receive acceptance or interviews for programs or positions so that I can share in their success!

Leaky Pipeline: How Having a Uterus Almost Forced Me Out of Academic Science

We are fortunate in Canada to live in a country with an abundance of natural resources. The natural resource that will be most valuable in the future is fresh water. In many ways water is the essence of this country. Water is life. Water is transportation. Water is industrial processing. Water is power. Water is precious and should not be wasted. Water should be respected. Often in Canada we take water for granted because there is so much of it. Water leaks are a big deal. Whether they are a dripping sink tap, a water main break, or a flash flood they need to be repaired as quickly as possible. Sometimes you fix the drip by caulking or taping it up, sometimes you need to replace piping infrastructure, and sometimes you need to use sandbags.

Often when issues facing women in science are discussed we invoke the metaphor of a “leaky pipeline” . This leaky pipeline hemorrhages women at each level of academia at every step of the way. I am tired of the leaks and I want them repaired. I do what I can by wielding my plumber’s tape and caulk gun to plug some holes; I mentor and advocate for women in science. I fully recognize that I will not be able to patch the pipeline by myself; but I can call attention to the holes when I see them and demand that others help me to stem the flood of women out of science.

Today I read a blog post at University Affairs  that made me angry. It made me angry because the stories presented there are depressing examples of the reality of the “leaky pipeline” for women in science in Canada. It made me angry because I had extremely similar experiences with the incompatible and archaic policies of NSERC scholarships and fellowships and the federal employment insurance program in 2002 during the pregnancy and birth of my first child. It made me angry because I had hoped that a decade later these discriminatory practices would have been abolished.

I want to tell you my story as a cautionary tale. I can tell you my story because it is a success story and because I did not leak out of the pipeline. I need to tell you my story as a call to arms because I am tired of remaining silent.

A year and a half into my Ph.D. program at the University of Toronto (Scarborough) I made the conscious decision to start a family. I did not make this decision lightly. I thought that I fully understood the challenges that lay ahead and was resolved that my career choice was not going to dictate my reproductive choices. I was fortunate to conceive very quickly. Seeing the positive pregnancy test was wonderful and terrifying at the same time. I waited until I was through my first trimester of the pregnancy before disclosing my pregnancy to my research supervisor. I will be forever grateful to him for being completely supportive at that time in my career. I dreaded having that conversation for weeks and was so relieved to know that I had his support. Had he not been supportive I would have leaked out of the pipeline.

At that time U of T had a great deal of information available on parental leave policies for staff and faculty, but no information was available for graduate students. I was holding an NSERC PGS-B scholarship and working as a teaching assistant. I started making plans for parental leave very early on in my pregnancy and was horrified by the incompatible policies that I discovered existed between NSERC and the employment insurance program. There was, and still is, the expectation that NSERC award holders “limit the number of hours of employment per 12-month period to 450 hours” and that award holders “not hold full-time employment during any period of time in which you hold the NSERC award” . This makes it impossible for pregnant female students and post-docs to work the 600 hours required to qualify for parental leave through the employment insurance program . It is worth noting that I had been paying into the employment insurance program for 12 years ever since I first started working at the age of 16. I ended up working three teaching assistant positions in the fall of 2012 while 7-9 months pregnant in order to squirrel as much money away in an attempt to support myself while on maternity leave. I also found out by accident from another graduate student that NSERC does provide financial support to graduate students taking parental leave , but would have been completely ignorant of that policy had she not told me about it. Another frustration was that taking leave from my program had to be done on a semester time scale. Despite the fact that my baby was due in November, I had to start my leave from my graduate program in September. To add insult to injury, when I went on parental leave I lost my student status and then got a call from the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) and was notified that I had to start paying back my undergraduate student loans. So there I was with no financial support from the federal government from EI for paid maternity leave on the one hand, and the demand from the provincial government from OSAP that I start paying them back! What should have been a time of great personal happiness turned into a living nightmare and almost destroyed my academic career. The only way I was able to stay in the pipeline was because I had a partner who generated enough income to support us during the 9 months of parental leave; otherwise I would have leaked out.

It is my belief that these policies actively discriminate against female and male graduate students and post-docs wanting to start a family. Despite the policy horror story that was my first pregnancy, my partner and I decided to have a second child. This time around I was smart and worked part-time in a call centre while wrapping up my Ph.D. in order to bank the 600 hours needed to qualify for employment insurance for parental leave. Had my supervisor not been supportive of me taking on external work I would have leaked out.

Until today, I had thought that my experience was unique; that I was the only one who had experienced it. Judging from the stories in the blog post , this is not so. In contrast to other factors that contribute to the leaky pipeline, I believe that this is an easy part of the “leaky pipeline” to fix. This fix requires changes in policies.

I challenge NSERC to:

1) Either change your financial support policy  to provide support for students and post-docs that is equal to EI benefits available to working Canadians taking parental leave OR change your policies to allow students and post-docs to work 600 hours per year in order to qualify for EI in the first place. If the training of a diverse population of highly qualified personnel is a priority for research in Canada, then make the policy changes needed to end discrimination against scholars choosing to have families.

2) Better publicize your parental leave policies to institutions, supervisors, students, and post-docs.

I challenge the EI program to:

1) Take into account how long students have been paying into your program prior to becoming post-secondary students or trainees and allow them to access those funds retroactively when they need to go on parental leave OR

2) Reduce the number of work hours that are required by students to qualify for parental leave through EI OR

3) Keep the 600 hour threshold as a requirement of qualifying for parental leave, but allow students to earn these hours within a time window longer than 1 year prior to the leave.

I challenge OSAP to:

1) Accept a leave from an academic program due to parental leave as a valid reason to maintain interest free loan status and not require the repayment of student loans during this time.

I challenge academic institutions to:

1) Update your websites and program materials to make supervisors, students, and post-docs aware of parental leave policies, requirements, and supports.

2) Allow students to take leaves that are not limited to the semester time clock.

3) Advocate for your students and trainees in conversations with government partners and funding bodies.

The “leaky pipeline” is a very real problem for women in science in Canada. We do not need national, provincial, and institutional policies to continue to contribute to the problem; we need them to be part of the solution.

The Academic Curriculum Vitae (CV): Scholarship and research section: Training of Highly Qualified Personnel

The next section of my CV details the trainees that I have advised during my research career. If you are a graduate student or post-doc you may have served as a mentor or research supervisor to other students in the lab. It’s best to discuss your responsibilities and impressions of these duties with your principal investigator before listing anything on your CV. As a new faculty member I’ve supervised several undergraduate students, either as 4th year thesis students or volunteers, and several graduate students in my lab. I devote one table to talking about these trainees and use the following columns: Name of the Student, Type of HQP Training and Status (e.g. M.Sc.), Dates Supervised (e.g. Sept. 2011-April 2012), Title of Project or Thesis, and Present Position (e.g. student graduated and went on to do a Ph.D. at UBC).

In addition to training my own students, I contribute to the training of other students in my department by reading theses and sitting on thesis advisory committees. I capture this information in two tables; one for committee work that I have completed, and one for committee work that is currently in progress. I do this under two separate headers; one for graduate student committees and one for undergraduate committees. The columns in these tables are: Term (May 2010-May 2013), Student, Supervisor, My Role.

In my next post I’ll talk about how I list my teaching experience on my CV.