Tag: Networking

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?

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.

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?

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?

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!

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?

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.

Academic Speed Dating: The Do’s and Don’ts of Approaching Potential Graduate Research Supervisors

Small Pond Science has a great post up right now on how to “cold call” other scientists in order to set up collaborations. Making a cold call means that you don’t directly know the person that you are contacting, which means that it is often awkward and uncomfortable to do. Experienced researchers find this challenging, so it’s no wonder that undergraduate students looking for potential research supervisors would find it mysterious and terrifying!

As someone who operates a research lab I receive a lot of inquiries that are cold contacts from undergraduate students, graduate students, and post-docs about working in my lab. I’ve seen this approach done really well, but I’ve also seen it done poorly. Below are some tips for making effective first contact with a potential research supervisor.

 1) Please read my previous blog post about narrowing down the potential locations and supervisors for graduate school. Do your homework and investigate the institution, department, programs offered, and the faculty members who supervise graduate students. Identify several potential professors that do research that you think is interesting. Come up with a list of reasons why you would like to work in a particular lab or area of research. Define what it is that you can offer the lab in terms of skills, educational background, experience, work ethic, etc.

2) Draft a short, professional email that clearly explains who you are and what you are currently studying. Explain why you are interested in working with this particular professor. Explain what skills you can bring to the table. Indicate that you are exploring options for graduate programs that have a particular start date (e.g. September 2015) and ask whether the professor has space and funding available to support a graduate student at that time. I usually recommend that students do not attach any additional documents to this first email. The goal of this email is to determine whether the professor is i) able to take on a student, ii) interested in further exploring your candidacy for that opportunity. It would be very helpful if you have multiple people read your draft to catch obvious spelling errors and to ensure that you’ve captured the right tone in your email. Use a professional salutation (e.g. Dear Dr. X) and close (e.g. Sincerely). I am a female professor, so if you start your letter using “Dear Sir” I delete it since it tells me that you can’t be bothered to read my webpage and learn some basic things about me and my lab. You should craft an individualized email for each lab that you are approaching. We can spot a generic letter from miles away and they get deleted. If it is clearly a cut and paste job it goes straight into the trash bin.

3) Make sure that you send the email to the correct email address.

4) If you have done the first 3 steps well, you should get a response from the professor within a few days. That being said, keep in mind that professors are busy people and do take vacations, so don’t panic if you don’t hear back within minutes of sending your email. If you haven’t heard anything back in a few weeks, feel free to send a second email reiterating your interest in joining the lab. If you don’t hear back, move on in your search and don’t take it personally.

When done well this cold call approach can serve to open a conversation between you and a potential supervisor. At this point you are both attempting to collect information in order to determine if a future scholarly relationship will be a good fit and of benefit to both of you.

A Modest Proposal to Conference Organizers

Most of the academic conferences that I attend take place during the summer months from May to August. This means that many people are hard at work during the upcoming months putting together conference programmes. Having organized a conference myself I know how much work this requires and I have the utmost respect for these volunteers who work tirelessly so that we can have a valuable experience. This task includes organizing events that are research related such as symposia, keynotes, plenary sessions, etc. It also involves organizing events that are more social in nature that allow for networking and the development of new acquaintances and the renewal of long-standing friendships. My overall experiences at conferences have been mostly positive, but over the years I have witnessed or been privy to inappropriate and unprofessional behaviours and when these occur they diminish my enjoyment of meetings. In the past I was often silent about these incidents as there were large power differentials at play and I felt I was at a vulnerable stage of my academic career. Now when I see these things happen I point them out. In some cases this involves challenging the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours of colleagues and in other cases it involves speaking directly to organizing committee members or society representatives in order to effect changes that remove systemic bias. I have been attending academic conferences since 1998 and present my biggest pet-peeves below. Wherever possible I offer solutions to these challenges.

1) Our goal should be to have a professional conference. Knowing that people sometimes act unprofessionally despite this fact, a written, clear, code of conduct and repercussions for unprofessional conduct should be generated, made widely available, and enforced. This includes mechanisms for the safe reporting of unprofessional conduct and transparency of these processes and the outcomes. Conferences should have a zero tolerance policy for harassing, threatening, or disruptive behaviour. This provides a means of addressing overly aggressive questioners/hecklers to addressing incidents of sexual harassment and ensures that conferences are safe spaces for everyone.

 2) Child-care, elder-care, and accompanying persons should not be an afterthought or receive only lip service. People have complex lives; do the best that you can to recognize and accommodate this fact. At the very least, do not put up additional barriers that have to be overcome in order for scientists to attend and fully participate. For example, does your venue have a lactation room? If you have ever had to breastfeed your child or pump milk in a filthy toilet stall you will understand why this is important.

 3) When picking your venues for events, please think about safety and accessibility. Are you forcing people to choose between networking and personal safety? I especially dread the late night walks in unfamiliar surroundings from the pub back to the hotel that seem to be a staple of academic conferences. Can everyone fully participate in all of your events if they wanted to? Are you using older buildings that lack ramps or elevators? That networking session in the loud bar is a nightmare for anyone who has a hearing impairment. Does your venue have gender-neutral washrooms or washrooms that can accommodate those who require assistance from an attendant? Are your food and beverage options meeting the dietary needs of your participants?

 4) Ask yourself if the speakers/presenters at your conference are reflective of the diversity of your profession and professional society. If they aren’t then you need to try harder. You’re a scientist; use your creative problem solving abilities to fix it.

5) Are your registration and accommodation costs reasonable and varied? Can you offer discounts in exchange for volunteering? Please make an effort to remove financial barriers to attendance. This is especially important for student and post-doc participation.

6) Do you have any hazing rituals that are disguised as “hallowed traditions”? Perhaps it’s well past time to rethink those and end them.