Tag: soft skills

The Real Value of a Ph.D.

In the past few years, a lot of the blogs that I’ve been reading have been challenging the structure of the Ph.D. in terms of its value and the process of how you get one. There have also been discussions about how there are too many Ph.D. degrees being awarded and not enough jobs (academic, industrial, governmental, etc.) available to graduates. These articles often make me feel guilty for two reasons: I am one of the lucky ones to have a stable, tenure-track position and I am contributing to this perceived glut of scientists problem by training a new generation of scientists in my lab.

This post at Wandering Scientist assuages some of my guilt by talking about some of the non-specific skills that you can pick up by doing a Ph.D. Based on her blog post, I would agree that she has picked up realizations about herself and a skill set that are much more valuable than the piece of paper that represents her degree.

I think that if you were to ask most people with a Ph.D. what the most valuable skill that they came away with from their stint in graduate school they’d probably talk about something technical like becoming a bioinformatics whiz or being able to build the flux capacitor of their dreams. You might get a few people who will talk about the development of time management, project management, or organizational skills or other similar soft skills. You’d get fewer still who would talk about how their Ph.D. experience shaped them as an individual.

Earning that Ph.D. results in your strengths and weaknesses being put under a microscope and being pushed to the limit by the time that you emerge on the other side. It’s pretty cool to go from being a caterpillar, to building your own chrysalis, to ripping that sucker apart to soar on new wings. It’s a transformation and at times it’s very painful, but I think that the experience is a valuable one that tells us more about ourselves than our research question.

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.

Time Management for Scientists

Over the years I’ve come to realize that science is an extremely creative enterprise. I am of the mind that I can be at my most creative when I have the time to think deeply about scientific questions and how I might approach answering those using various experimental approaches. I would argue that having time to think and plan is required to be a successful scientist.
With that in mind I’m always on the prowl for effective time management and productivity techniques. Below I list some tips and tricks that I’ve picked up over the years that might prove helpful to others.

1) Plan ahead. I can’t count the number of times that this mentality has saved my bacon over the years. I once heard that 3 hours in the library can save you 3 months in the lab and I absolutely believe it. I try to do some planning at higher levels (1-4 year time scale), medium levels (per term), and low levels (weekly and daily). I’ve found it useful to have weekly goals for what I want to accomplish and to plan which day I want to tackle particular tasks. I use Friday afternoons as my planning time as campus is quiet and I can reflect on the past week and then have a look at what’s on my plate for next week. Before I leave for the day I try to have 3-5 goals that I’m aiming to accomplish the following day.

2) Bundle tasks. As scientists we have to simultaneously complete multiple projects pertaining to research, teaching, service, and administration which have a tendency to fragment our days and have massive negative effects on our productivity. I’ve found that a good strategy is to group like tasks together and to complete them all in one go. For example, this term I was teaching Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and was therefore in a teaching mind-set on those days. As a consequence I made a conscious choice to offer office hours and to book my one-on-one update appointments with my lab trainees on those days. I also used those days to mark assignments and tests and to prepare for upcoming lectures and assignments. This left Tuesdays and Thursdays wide open for research focused tasks.

3) Wrestle email to the ground. Email is a time suck and it will take over your life and destroy your productivity if you let it. Humans see something new and shiny and are immediately drawn to it and forget what they were previously focused on. Your goal should be to only check email 2-3 times a day and to respond to messages during those times. Close your email program and turn off your notifications and get on with your tasks. Don’t leave emails sitting in your inbox as reminders to do something. Convert the contents of that email into a task that you can do and aim to get your inbox to zero. Easier said than done I know, but it works.

Transferrable Skills

I generally think that graduate students under sell their skill sets to employers. Many graduate students think only of technical skills when they are putting together their CVs or resumes and it’s a real shame. They are failing to capture many great skills that they have developed during the course of their graduate degree and are not effective in highlighting these skills in job applications. Many researchers are competent in running gel electrophoresis protocols, but not as many have competencies in project management or leadership. It is these “soft skills” that will make one applicant stand out from the crowd.

I also think that many principle investigators (PIs) don’t realize that transferrable skills are absolutely required by students in this economy in order to get a job. It is no longer enough to be technically competent; employers are looking for what additional value a researcher can bring to the job. I’ve always been dismayed by hearing stories from students about how their supervisor discourages them from attending professional development workshops. I think that this “chained to the bench” attitude has no place in science.

It is for this very reason that I encourage my graduate students to participate in professional development workshops, go to conferences and meetings, collaborate with other scientists, and take part in student government or organizations. These are opportunities that I took advantage of as a graduate student and post-doctoral fellow and they have served me well over the years. Frankly, these experiences (and the skills that I acquired participating in them) have provided me with an edge over the competition at every transition that I’ve faced in my research career.

Let’s talk about some tangible examples using the case study below. This is a case study that I’ve made up, but many graduate students would be doing these activities during the course of their degree.

Janet has just completed her thesis based M.Sc. degree in the laboratory of Dr. Jones. Her thesis involved the identification and cloning of a gene involved in the biosynthesis of digestive enzymes in mouse saliva. She also characterized the enzymatic activity of the protein encoded by the gene. During the course of her project, Janet was assigned two undergraduate summer research assistants by Dr. Jones to assist her with data collection. Janet’s research has led to the publication of 2 peer-reviewed research articles and 3 conference presentations. While in graduate school Janet was employed as a Teaching Assistant for a 3rd year undergraduate biochemistry course laboratory.

Here is a list of the obvious soft skills that Janet has acquired during her degree:

i) Ability to plan, execute, and finish a multi-year project

ii) Ability to supervise and manage staff

iii) Scientific writing skills

iv) Ability to present information in oral/written format

v) Networking skills

vi) classroom management

v) Ability to evaluate the performance of others

vi) Ability to work effectively with a supervisor

 

Some other skills that Janet might have gained along the way:

i) Teaching skills

ii) Ability to manage a research budget

iii) Ability to receive and use constructive feedback/criticism

iv) Ability to work as an individual and part of a team

v) Troubleshooting and problem solving skills

vi) Ability to adapt to new challenges quickly

You can see that the potential soft skills that could be developed by Janet during the course of her degree are diverse and that I have not included any of Janet’s technical skills (e.g. molecular biology skills, enzymatic characterization techniques, etc.) in this list. Obviously when you are putting together your CV or resume as a student you only want to list soft skills that you believe are relevant and that are your strengths. You also want to think about tailoring your application package to the specific job for which you are applying. When you think about your soft skills in addition to your technical skills, a larger range of job opportunities become available. Casting a wide net in terms of identifying potential employment prospects is a smart move these days.

Book Review: On Course: A week-by-week guide to your first semester of college teaching by James M. Lang

As a graduate student and post-doc one of the on-line resources that I checked out on a regular basis was the Chronicle of Higher Education. One of my favourite columns to read was written by Jim Lang who at that time was a new faculty member who had insightful things to say about teaching university students.

Although I’ve been teaching university courses for a few years now, I’m always on the look-out for ways to improve how I deliver and organize my classes. As such I recently finished reading “On Course: A week-by-week guide to your first semester of college teaching” by James M. Lang. The book was published in 2008 and most of what is discussed is still highly relevant to university teachers today, barring some references to MySpace, WebCt, and other platforms that have fallen out of favour.

The book is logically organized and starts with the creation of syllabi and ends with a discussion on the teaching face or persona that you show to your students. The book is a comprehensive overview of what it is like to experience teaching in a university setting for the first time. It contains many tips and tricks that will save professors time and angst as they prepare and deliver classes. His advice is dispensed with good humour and through the use of various anecdotes in an attempt to save new teachers from the pitfalls that are typical of the first year of teaching.

I would highly recommend this book to newly hired faculty members who will be teaching for the first time this fall as a “how-to guide” for successfully navigating the art of effective course planning and delivery.

The Academic Curriculum Vitae (CV): Service

The final section of my CV highlights my service activities. Service activities take place at various levels of organization, both within your institution and outside of it. If we start with external service, this might include serving as a reviewer for grant applications (e.g. NSERC, CIHR, grants from other countries), serving as an external examiner on M.Sc. or Ph.D. defenses, and reviewing manuscripts for peer-reviewed journals. You may be chairing sessions at academic conferences, serving as an executive member of a professional society, judging student awards at conferences, and organizing scientific conferences. All of these roles are contributions to your profession. You may also be involved in community or campus events such as judging school science fairs or serving as a guest speaker and performing outreach by representing your science to a broader audience. Within your institution you may be taking part in many service activities. For example, I sit on several university-level committees such as the Biohazard Safety Committee and the Women in Science Committee. In the past I’ve served as the president of a post-doctoral association and the graduate student association. You may be performing service within your Faculty by attending convocations, meet and greets, and student recruitment events. When you are starting your academic career you will likely perform most of your service within your department. This might include organizing the departmental seminar series, sitting on hiring committees, and serving as a departmental representative at various events on campus. It is often through service activities that we gain important “soft skills” that are applicable to a wide variety of careers.