“STEM departments are family friendly”

Faculty at my institution are upset over the family unfriendliness of the academic schedule.  A particular sticking point is that numerous events at the University begin after 5 p.m. – these are lectures, beginning of the year events, graduate recruitment events, and even job talks (leaving aside the necessity to go out to dinner with seminar speakers one hosts and job candidates if one is on the search committee).  For many faculty, an early evening event is on their schedule at least once a week. This is particularly frustrating to dual-academic partners and faculty with young children.

A survey was sent out to the faculty, and various potential solutions were brought forward. Many faculty would like the University to provide sitters at evening events or set up a drop-in sitting facility. Multiple requests were made for a more lenient Travel Fund for Dependent Care: each faculty member can apply for up to $500 once a year to bring a non-family sitter on a trip, but many argued it would be preferable to have this fund to applicable to non-travel situations (i.e., paying for a sitter when both partners are on search committees and need to spend evenings away from home). But far and away the greatest request was for an end to programming after 5 p.m. As one colleague put it, “In my ideal world, no one would expect faculty to be available after 5 p.m. for professional events.”

Many faculty feel acute pressure to be available in the evenings. These faculty tend to be junior faculty in small departments and faculty at all levels who have multi-disciplinary affiliations (often with cross-departmental centers or interdisciplinary graduate programs). Who feels the least pressure to attend evening events? Those in STEM departments, at all levels. For example, in my department, seminars and faculty meetings are always noon to 1 and any event after 4 pm includes children/partners with no perceivable penalty to missing those late afternoon/evening events. A colleague in the Humanities concluded that STEM family-friendly timing of programming likely stems (ha ha) from the longstanding awareness that gender diversity should be promoted in STEM fields.  But I think it’s more complex than that: so how is it that STEM fields at my institution seem to have gotten this right?

Is it because we have research groups, and we generally minimize department-level programming in favor of spending more time in the lab? Based on a small sample size of two departments (mine and one in the Humanities) I found that the male full professors in the Humanities department overwhelmingly have wives whose careers took a back seat when they had children or who never worked outside the home, while the male full professors in my department all have professional wives (physicians, teachers, nurses, lawyers). Senior women in both departments were unlikely to have children but likely to have professional partners. I wonder whether STEM faculty tend to belong to two-career families, making evenings more sacrosanct?

Two insidious imbalances among faculty were brought to light by this survey.  First, minority faculty answering the survey tended to have multiple academic affiliations and thus may feel obligated to attend more evening events than non-minority faculty. Anecdotally, I have heard minority colleagues mention feeling pressure to attend alumni events or events for parents to help showcase diversity in their department or at the university in general. For female faculty of color, the burden seemed particularly heavy; multiple faculty mentioned feeling worried about the consequences of saying no when asked to headline an evening event by their senior colleagues.

The second insidious imbalance?  Teaching load and, interestingly, length of time in class. Colleagues primarily teaching seminars, which meet once a week for 2.5 hours, felt much more frustrated about events scheduled in their day than colleagues whose teaching took place over multiple blocks per class per week (i.e., 90-minute sessions twice a week, or 3 50-minute sessions per week).  Classes in the Humanities are generally in seminar format at my institution, while those in the sciences are not.  And there’s the issue of colleagues outside STEM fields teaching much more than STEM faculty at my institution: the STEM load tends to be a class per semester, compared to two classes per semester in the Humanities and Social Sciences.  Is it that STEM departments have more time to set meetings/events during the day simply because we are teaching less?  TSW readers in STEM fields with heavier teaching loads and who teach labs (which can be very long): do you find your evenings getting eaten up with required departmental events like lectures?

This conversation at my institution particularly centers around the challenges of having young children. As the parent of a young child, I think that’s very shortsighted. The encroachment of work responsibilities into all 24 hours of the day (with the email-based world we work in) is instead a problem for all people: men, women, single people, partnered people, people caring for elders, people caring for children. I feel for my colleagues who are worried their tenure chances would be reduced by not attending numerous evening events and reducing travel. When promotion hinges in part on being perceived as collegial and engaging in service at multiple levels, how can colleagues keep in mind the value of time spent alone (or at least not working)?

Academic Travel on a Budget

This year has been extremely travel heavy for me, the most since I’ve entered the field. I’m at the point in my post-doc where I have a good sense of the research program I want to build, so now I’ve been taking it on the road to get others excited about it and hopefully create enough interest to open up a faculty position. When this year ends, I won’t have spent a single entire month at home, with some months travelling as much as once a week. Although it’s very exciting (and sometimes exhausting), there’s a particular aspect of it I want to discuss: reimbursement culture when you’re on a budget.

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Ask TSW: Can I do a project that’s outside the scope of my home department?

Dear TSW,

I have finished up my first year in my PhD program in public health. I like my classmates a lot, the classes are fun, and I am making the big leap of doing more research, but there are days when I question my decision to attend this program. My problem is that the people in my department seem very anti-health. In recent faculty and chair searches, I’ve discovered that global health isn’t a priority here. I think I can deal with this if I take the initiative. Sometimes I think I should have gone to a school with a bigger curriculum in what I want, but that school didn’t fund me nearly as well as this one.

What advice would you offer to someone who is pursuing a curriculum outside her home department and wants part of her dissertation, say 50%, to be done on a topic that’s outside of her department?  And let’s say the professor in global health can’t fund me, but I still very much want to pursue this?  What advice would you offer in terms of applying for a funding, or looking into grants on campus?

Also, the professor in global health wants me to help him develop a course for undergraduates. However, he knows it’s unreasonable to ask me to help him if he can’t fund me.  I would think developing a course isn’t exactly research, but if a student is considering joining faculty one day, I’d suspect this is something to put on a CV because it’s part of the PhD learning process.  So if I apply for some type of grant, is this something you’d put on an application or would it not be relevant?


MCH Student
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The Reference Game

Now that it’s job application season, it’s a good time to talk about references. References are an important part of any job packet, although searches may vary regarding when and how they will ask for your reference information. Unfortunately, even if you are the best candidate for the job, a bad or less-than-great reference can reduce your chances of making it to the next stage of the interview. Search committees notice letters that are too ‘honest’… it’s true that by and large letters of recommendation in the US are filled with glowing praise, so any negative comments really stand out (even though we all know none of us are perfect). Similarly, reference letters that are exceptionally short are a black mark. Does that letter writer not have enough to say? Do they not know a candidate that well?

In contrast, an excellent reference can solidify a positive impression the search committee has about a potential candidate, and can sometimes clear up any lingering concerns. For example, in a couple of the searches I have been on we expected candidates to have certain skills. Sometimes (not always – don’t get me started on that!) the candidate would address the required skills in their application. Even when they did, and particularly when they didn’t, we often wanted an outside evaluation of those skills. Phone conversations with references were very useful for asking for clarification and evidence. So how do you choose a ‘good’ referrer, and get the type of reference you want? Continue reading

Social Media as Professional Development

“Social media…what a waste of time.”

“I don’t get that whole Twitter and blogs business.”

“I made a Twitter account, but I’m not really sure what do with it.”

“You’re pretty active on Twitter…is it worth the time?”

“What have you ever gotten out of being on Twitter?”

All of these are things that have been said to me since I started blogging nine years ago and joined Twitter nearly 5 years ago. Fortunately, I have some pretty good answers – whether the commenter is a colleague in my field or at my university or someone who knows of my pseudonymous on-line presence. For me, the benefits of blogging and tweeting have been pretty important to my professional development, and I think my case makes a pretty good argument for strategically using social media as a young faculty member. However, I’m also completely happy to concede that on-line interactions are not for everyone and that are other perfectly reasonable ways to get the same benefits out of other activities. But let’s take a look at how social media has worked for me. First, I’ll talk about the things I’ve gotten out of being on social media under my “RealName”* and then I’ll delve into the perhaps less quantifiable, but arguably equally important things I’ve gotten out of being SciWo online. Continue reading

Grad student mentorship

One of the biggest sources of both joy and stress in my professional life is working with grad students. Joy because I love working with other people, particularly students, and feel an immense amount of satisfaction watching my students develop into fantastic scientists with their own ideas.  Stress because the process of mentorship is HARD, and also because I need to be able to fund my students- tuition, salary, and research expenses.

It’s that time of the year when I am starting to get emails from prospective students for admission in 2015, so I’m thinking hard about whether and how many students I would like to accept and what types of students I want.

With this post, I would like to accomplish two things: 1) to communicate to prospective students some strategies that will make me consider them beyond their initial email; and 2) to present the various constraints and opportunities that I am trying to balance, so that students know a little bit about what goes on in the minds of their prospective advisors. Continue reading

Reject, revise, accept: Becoming Reviewer #2

Paper reviewing is one of those weird aspects of professional development that academics are rarely taught to do. Most of us are literally tossed into the deep end when we receive our first reviewer invitation. This may be the first time we’ve ever seen a manuscript that isn’t our own or someone in our lab’s. Because of the confidentiality around paper reviewing, we’re not supposed to share the manuscripts we’re reviewing, though many PI’s will start farming reviews out to grad students as “professional development.” While this practive is technically unethical, I was grateful that I had the opportunity to weigh in on a couple of manuscripts before I had to do this myself.

When I reviewed my first paper (as a senior PhD student), I was nervous. I’d dealt with my own reviews which varied widely (and still do) in terms of quality, length, and tone (I’ll get back to that). We often joke ruefully about “Reviewer # 3,” a fictional aggressive reviewer who is so contrary or aggressive that they sink a paper, even when the other two reviewers may be positive. When reading those reviews, it’s impossible not to try to guess who they’re from. Sometimes, the tone is so strident and aggressive that, despite myself, I picture a Silverback — a senior male, close to retirement, delighting in shredding up others’ work with scathing phrases like “leaps of logic” or “laughable” or “woefully inadequate.” Continue reading