On my role/effectiveness as a mentor

Graduate students are one of the best, and one of the most difficult aspects of my job. I constantly wonder if I’m doing it right. I worry because I care about the students. I care about whether they are learning and growing as scientists, and I care about them as human beings. I also care about their scientific output. In fact, as a lab-based scientist, I am dependent on the work that they do.

There are a two main flavors of my worry. First, Am I doing enough for their scientific development? Second, am I falling into the trope of the over-demanding pre-tenure faculty?

The first of these generally has two main steps transient* frustration with a student triggers a longer spiral of second guessing myself as a mentor.

The frustrations are usually normal** day-to-day things. Mistakes, failure to take notes of discussions, failure to locate notes from discussions, needing to repeat instructions that should not need to be explained again****, slowness of writing, oversharing about personal issues, failure to talk to me about research-related questions, and lack of keeping up with the literature, for example.

But then I start wondering: Is there something about what I am doing that could fix some of these problems? Am I giving my students too much room? Or am I micromanaging? Am I applying too much pressure? Not enough pressure? Is it contradictory if I am working on something up to a deadline, but demand they have drafts to me early?

Obvious frustration of a student can also trigger my second guessing – someone upset after feedback on their writing, or even a twitter discussion of unrelated trainees frustrated with their PI over feedback on a draft of a paper. Am I that PI? Did I not explain why changes need to be made?

I’m not alone in this – either the frustrations or the second guessing. And as of writing this, I don’t have good solutions*****. I also know that many of the things that frustrate me is caused by something that is a source of anxiety for students.

Writing? Terrifying. Talking to your PI about something in lab that you feel like you should know? Nerve wracking. Making a mistake on a critical experiment? Horrifying.

But these are exactly the same things that trigger my own concerns about the science that happen in the lab. I need to get papers out, so someone that constantly misses deadlines for getting their work written up is a real issue. And if they won’t talk to me about it, I don’t know whether it’s anxiety, if there is something I could help with, or if they are working on it at all. But what is the best way to respond to this? Should I be more demanding about deadlines and words on a page? Should I acknowledge that teaching and classes and having a life also require their time, or should I push for everything to be done all at once^. I could request a set number of words per day, but I’d usually prefer well thought out words, thoughtfully strung together than 500 words of mind dump^^^.

A major mistake on an important experiment – especially one that we have talked through what feels like a thousand times^^ – will always make my stomach drop. It’s a crucial part of learning, but it also slows down their experimental output. Should I be worried about the attention to detail from this person? Their notes? Or only worry if it happens again. Should I demand they work around the clock to redo the experiment? Or be satisfied with talking through the problem to make sure they have learned from their mistakes. Or should I just acknowledge and let it drop, assuming mistakes happen and redoing a long experiment won’t kill them, me or my research program?

I’m slowly finding my own way through some of these issues, trying to find a balance between getting the work done efficiently, and remembering that everyone has lives outside the lab. So far, the most important thing for me is making sure everyone is talking to me about their research, and their struggles with balancing the various parts of their job.

I still haven’t quite worked out how not to worry about my role in my students’ scientific development, or how to know if I’m doing too much of something or too little. 

* I rant to friends outside academia.
** I can think of examples where I was guilty of some*** of these myself.
*** most
**** Experimental designs should be in your lab notebook. In detail. Every single experiment.
***** Maybe tomorrow.
^ Something i’ve not learned to do.
^^ See also: failure to write/find notes on discussions.
^^^ One solution is to write the paper without the student. I’m not at all okay with this option. Writing is a hugely important skill for students to learn.

19 things I learned when my husband took paternity leave

My baby started daycare this morning. My husband and I went to drop him off together, and it was not as hard as I had expected. When we left the room he was happily playing with blocks, and he didn’t even notice us leave. I’m sure he did notice at some point, but it wouldn’t have been me he looked around for. My baby would have looked for his primary caregiver, Daddy.  Really, I left him some time ago.

I’ve been back at work full-time since August, teaching, pumping, going to meetings, pumping, trying to find bits of time for research, pumping, and pretending my heart wasn’t across town with a little boy that was learning to crawl and clap. My husband (also an academic) has been home with our son, playing on the floor, exploring the outdoors, changing hundreds of diapers, feeding pumped milk and an increasing number of solid foods, and wishing our baby would nap on a regular basis. Now his time away from work is ending too, so its time for the baby to go to daycare and begin a new chapter of his life.

So it seems like a good time to reflect on what I, the mother, learned when my husband took over the primary caregiver role. Here’s a listicle.

  1. There’s no such thing as paternity leave. Nope, nothing like that exists in the books at our university. As a father, my husband qualified for up to 12 weeks of unpaid FMLA time off in our baby’s first year. Because his role was “merely bonding”, he couldn’t tap into any of his stored sick leave. Only because we had been saving and because my salary is healthy were we able to go this long without the second income. That’s a luxury that most families don’t have.
  2.  There’s no such thing as paternity leave. Just like when I was on maternity leave (excuse me, FMLA, there’s no maternity leave here either), my husband found that it was impossible to leave his job behind entirely for the last few months. We hired a babysitter to cover two mornings per week so that he could meet with graduate students and get tiny bits of lab work done, and my husband often worked late into the night to squeeze in some research or write a review.
  3. Don’t count on nap time. Our baby boy is just too darn interested in the world to take reliable naps of any length, much less the sort of duration that would allow my husband to get work done. If the baby had been a “typical” napper, it might have been a fairly productive period for my husband, but as it played out, it wasn’t productive at all.
  4. Don’t tell your partner that the baby will nap. Yeah, I might have talked that up too much in the months leading up to the handover.
  5. Things will shift. It will feel awkward. As I filled out the daycare paperwork, I was struck by how much more my husband knew about my son’s habits than I did. What time does he take his bottles? I knew when I pumped, but I didn’t know when he ate the product. How often do you need to check his diapers? Answer: He’s not a subtle pooper. As someone who is used to knowing as much or more about our children as anyone, it was a strange and somewhat discomfiting feeling to need to ask for help with a questionnaire about my baby.
  6. Things won’t shift that much. The routines and division of labor we had established in the months and years ahead of my husband’s paternity leave more or less held true for the last few months. I did more of the logistics of appointment scheduling, bill paying, etc. and my husband did more of the cooking and laundry. I still had the primary night-time caregiving job, at least once the next day’s lecture was written.
  7. I don’t do well at working part time. I meant to come home early or work at home a few mornings per week in order to be a backup or provide my husband some reprieve. After all, he did that for me in the months immediately after birth. But then my schedule filled with classes, student meetings, lab work, more meetings, and pumping, endless pumping, and I was feeling hard pressed to get everything in. I do come to work a bit later and leave a bit earlier than I did before the baby, but (especially with the disruption of pumping), I’ve found it hard to do much more than that.
  8. Your colleagues and chair expect you are back 100%. After a semester and then some away from the department myself, and with my tenure case pending, face time has seemed important this semester. Plus, my colleagues and students are anxious for me to re-engage with collaborative research, teaching, and service. Saying that I can’t meet after 2 or that I can’t meet two mornings per week felt dangerous to me, like I was telling them that I wasn’t really back. I didn’t feel like I could say no, and that made it harder for me to backup my husband at home.
  9. Don’t count on seeing the baby at lunch. Before the semester, we talked about my husband bringing the baby over for lunch, a feed, and a snuggle a few days per week. That quickly went by the wayside, because we discovered that (a) the baby would fall asleep in the stroller on the way to the office; (b) the baby wouldn’t be hungry at our pre-scheduled lunch times; and (c) the baby would be so distracted by the novel environment he wouldn’t nurse in any case. So 100% workday pumping it was.
  10. When the primary caregiver is sick, the other parent is on baby duty. I was caught by surprise last month when I ended up home for a few days, healthy, and with a healthy baby, but with a very sick partner. I hadn’t ever thought before about what happens when the stay-at-home parent is too sick to do childcare.
  11. If it’s been a long day on the home front (and it’s almost always a long day on the home front), don’t talk about how great work is. I’m not good at following my own advice here, because I have a hard time switching my mind off work as soon as I get home. But I have learned to read some of my husband’s nonverbal signs of when he’s actually jealous that I got to sit in a faculty meeting, because it means I got to sit and have adult conversation rather than carry around a baby all day and wipe applesauce off my shirt.
  12. Your partner will worry about how this will impact his career. His productivity is taking a hit and he is doing something too often seen as unmasculine. What will the consequences be for his career advancement? Will people see him as unserious about his research?
  13. You will worry about how this will impact his career. Did my desire to keep my baby out of daycare a few more months derail my husband’s chance at tenure? How will he explain it on his CV? Did I just reinforce his status as a trailing spouse, even though I also took the same length of time off? How awful are gender stereotypes?
  14. Trust is key. My husband is a great dad and I feel absolutely confident that our children are in great hands when they are with him. If I were looking over his shoulder or second-guessing his decisions, I think things would have come off their wheels almost immediately.
  15. Communication is key. As always, as with everything. Our communications are often mundane (when was the last time he had a bottle? when did he poop?), but I think when we step into new roles, like stay-at-home parent, we need to remember to communicate our love and respect too. (Husband, I love and respect you more than ever for the wonderful job you are doing raising our child. I know it hasn’t been easy, but you are doing fantastically.)
  16. People won’t get it. From HR, to our colleagues, our families, our neighbors and beyond, the initial reactions have been a mixture of confusion and disbelief. When we explain that dad is staying home for a few months, the next reaction is that our employer must provide this as a great benefit. When we explain that it is unpaid, many seem to default back to disbelief.
  17. People will rave over how great a dad your partner is for staying home with the baby.  Because he is. But what he is doing shouldn’t be so exceptional that people rave over it any more than they do for a mother who stays home for 12 weeks with her newborn. We should shift our perspective (and our public policy) to enable more fathers to take a role as primary caregiver in their children’s lives, and we should expect them to be actively involved partners in parenting. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet, so instead you’ll have people tell you how great your partner is and how they could never expect their husband to do the same.
  18. Your baby will love his daddy in a way that will warm your hearts every day and make everything else totally worth it.
  19. You still won’t be ready to put your baby in daycare. Your husband will be ready to go back to work, just as you were when you returned, but no matter the baby’s age, it is still a little heart-breaking to leave your baby behind in the care of strangers for the first time. Excuse me now, while I go pump and look at baby pictures on my phone and miss my little one and hope he’s doing well.

I have a weird sounding (to you) name

I have a perfectly common girl’s name where I’m from. Not like Emma or Sophia, but a solid top-50 name that I don’t have to repeat twice when I order my coffee or spell out for anyone.

Not so in North America.

Here, I already know that people will not understand my name the first time I say it. It’s just not something that they expect to hear. It’s not long or particularly hard to pronounce, once you understand what I am saying, but something about it seems not to compute. So, I always have to say it at least twice. I don’t mind, really. I actually appreciate it when others make an effort to say my name correctly.

I do my best to help people remember my name and how to pronounce it. At conferences I always hold up my name tag as I say my name, and that usually helps. I put my name on every page of my handouts and slides, so students and talk attendees don’t have to to work hard to remember. On my website, part of my “personal” page is devoted to the etymology of my name, and there is even an audio of me saying it.

Another characteristic of my name is that it doesn’t end with an “-a” or “-ie” sound. In fact, it has basically all of the characteristics of a male name that are discussed in this article about boys’ and girls’ names that you should all go and read. So maybe it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that most people who have only seen my name in print assume that I am a man. That is depressingly common.

I can’t decide if I think that it helps me or not. I often think that being mistaken for a man is good for me—that people take my scholarship more seriously and judge it purely on merit. But then, more often than you might think, I meet someone for the first time, and they blurt out “oh, I thought you were a man,” and I can almost see them mentally readjusting their expectations. On the few occasions when I’ve asked why, the answer was either “it’s something about your name,” or “because you write like a man” (whatever that means). This kind of exchange always catches me off guard.

I am going to go ahead and assume that if you are a Tenure She Wrote reader, you might not say such a thing to a person. But biases are hard to get rid of, and I think many of us form opinions about someone’s gender and origin based on their name. They are important to acknowledge, as a first step to fighting the bias. Some things are easy to change. If you are introducing someone at a conference talk or at a campus visit, for the love of god, google them ahead of time so you’re not visibly surprised that they are a man/woman, and ask them how to pronounce their name instead of mangling it up in front of a large audience.

If you are a teacher and have students with unusual names, learn (or ask them to teach you) how to pronounce their names when you first meet them. Recognize that we are all likelier to pay more attention to people whose names we know. As a student, I would sometimes have the feeling that teachers were not calling on me because they didn’t remember my name. These days, I get that feeling when I raise my hand at conferences, but the moderator instead calls on “John” or “Jane.”

I wonder if perhaps all female scholars have a “weird sounding name” problem, to some degree. It seems to be a phenomenon, at least among my acquaintances, that male scholars’ names come to mind more easily than female scholars’ names. I have sat on organizing committees for conferences and colloquia where potential invitees’ names were thrown around, and the first 5-10 were invariably male. Women’s names eventually came up, but much later and sometimes only after pressure from some of the organizers that the gender balance was not quite there. This undoubtedly contributes to the all-male panel problem: we go with our first instinct, where really we should slow down and give it a bit more thought. And there is an easy way to start fighting this problem: learn to pronounce those less common names! Keep in mind that they may take a moment longer to be retrieved from memory. And give yourself that extra minute that your brain needs to do its job.

Guest Post: How to Not Listen to Women

Today’s post is by a guest author:

It’s happened again. A woman tried to show how bad people are at listening to women, and instead of listening to her, her words got twisted and used to attack women.

In her article, “Famous quotes, the way a woman would have to say them during a meeting”, Alexandra Petri describes how “Woman in a Meeting” language is unique. In order to avoid being seen as aggressive (or bitchy), and to be heard and taken seriously, women frequently police their at-work language. If they don’t do this and instead speak assertively, women are often perceived as being aggressive, and angry women aren’t taken seriously. Petri shared the example of Jennifer Lawrence being accused of being angry and aggressive by one of her male employees when after she spoke to him assertively (i.e., not using “Woman in a Meeting” language). It turns out, men frequently mishear assertion as aggression when women speak.

Petri quipped that speech strategies adopted by professional women to avoid making men feel uncomfortable would transform famous quotes by men into watery, weak questions. She did this to emphasize how ridiculous it is that women are expected to speak this way. For example, “I have a dream today!” might become “I’m sorry, I just had this idea — it’s probably crazy, but — look, just as long as we’re throwing things out here — I had sort of an idea or vision about maybe the future?”

What started out as a critique on societal expectations of women’s speech, has not been received that way. Instead, Petri’s witty satire has been turned against women. I’ve seen her article posted across social media in the last few days, and the majority of the comments surround it can be paraphrased and summed up like this:

LOL. Listen to how unclear that hypothetical woman is! Why can’t she get her point across? She should learn the value of confident speech patterns!

No mention of how inappropriate it is that men can’t listen to assertive speech from a female mouth without overreacting. No mention of the challenges women face being heard and seen as leaders in the workplace, even if they might be better qualified than their confidence-spewing male colleagues. Instead, the comments about this article that I’ve seen all use it to critique how women speak. Suddenly conversations about women’s use of uptalk (when the intonation at the end of the sentence rises as though asking a question) and vocal fries (when words are drawn out in a low creaky voice) are all over the place. The tone is very much “How dare women talk like that? Don’t they know they sound stupid? Don’t they know they make women look stupid?” That Petri’s examples were all hypothetical women who spoke as they did to avoid inappropriately aggressive outbursts from men in the audience seems lost on the public responses I’ve seen. Petri’s point – that men have a problem listening to assertive speech and seem to prefer when women slip into passive parlance – has barely been mentioned.

But this is an important issue. Women’s voices are policed more heavily than men’s voices (see here, here, here, and here). We claim that we worry about women coming off as unconfident, yet we are eager to strip their confidence by critiquing not only their clothes, their weight, their use of makeup, their hair-do, but also now their very voice! It’s hypocritical to expect women to speak out while simultaneously judging them for their vocal habits. And it misses the fact that how women say things wouldn’t matter if as a society we were encouraged to listen.

In response to Petri’s article, I observed professional colleagues discussing it on Facebook. Tenured women called out younger women (in general) for speaking passively at conferences. Tenured men liked the post and explained in lengthy comments how speaking with confidence is definitely a gender neutral issue. When an untenured woman spoke up and made the same points I’ve made in this essay, she was mocked and told that “speech isn’t a gender issue” and “young women don’t realize how they are messing up their careers with their voices” (not exact quotes, but the gist of the lengthy comments the post received).

But speech is a gender issue. How we judge speech and who we judge is often determined by the gender of the speaker. This issue is complex, but if confidence is not necessarily a sign of competence, the opposite isn’t necessarily true either. Instead of judging women for how they speak, we need to work on our collective ability and willingness to listen to what women are saying.

I don’t like me when I’m angry: rage, sustainability, and activism

The first time I went to a therapist, it was because I was angry all the time. It was during grad school, so there were plenty of sources of stress in my life, but what worried me most was the anger. I was fighting with my family. I had a short fuse about everything — random interactions, small infractions, selfish people, rude people, clueless people. Socks left on the floor. Empty ice trays. Inane administrative red tape. Mistakes.

At the end of our first session, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. In my case, anxiety and stress were translating into anger, especially at small things I couldn’t control. My therapist and I spent the next several weeks coming up with a set of tools and practices to process my anxiety in more healthy ways, which would turn the dial back from anger to calm. Each week, I would have different homework, as I slowly built my tool kit. The first week, I was asked to take a break from venting.

I was surprised, because I’d always thought of venting as healthy — it’s a way to process and release steam, like a safety valve (which even the name implies). But when my therapist asked me, “Do you ever feel better after you vent?” I realized I didn’t. Venting would wind me up, rather than cool me down. Instead of venting, he said, try just stating how you feel about something, and leaving it at that. That was six years ago, and I’ve found that letting go of venting has been one of the healthiest things I’ve ever done.

And then, I started this blog.  Continue reading

Ageism Goes Both Ways

I recently got into an argument with a friend and former colleague about ageism in academia. I insisted that young women professors experience regular, persistent, and pervasive ageism in the workplace. I couched this claim in my usual “the personal is political” mode and emphasized my own recent experiences with what I would call ageism. My friend shot back that ageism, like racism, can only go one way. Young people are the privileged workers of the academy. At the time I capitulated. Was I advocating reverse ageism? How embarrassing! But recent experiences have caused me to return to the question.

I do not in any way want to argue that academia is more or most discriminatory towards young faculty. Given the well-documented discrimination against older faculty who remain in temporary and adjunct positions with little chance of a full-time hire,  it would be ridiculous for me to participate in a discrimination competition. Robert Mckee has a great piece on this exact topic. I do want to argue that ageism is a complex and nasty monster that intersects with gender, race, class, sexuality, and other axes of oppression to close doors and make the workplace uncomfortable if not downright hostile to young women faculty.

Let me give you some recent examples from my daily work routine. Continue reading

The power of female leaders

I was recently invited to teach at a summer school in my area of expertise. My field has several of these summer schools running all across the world, with top researchers offering classes to local students at low costs. It is one of the things I love most about my field, and I was very happy to accept the invitation. This will be a new summer school, organized by a team of women whose goal is to assemble an all-female teaching staff. Initially I wasn’t sure about this concept, but a few events over the past several weeks have made me realize the importance of female leadership.

In the summer, I presented work at a major conference that was organized by a group of women at all career stages, from professors and postdocs, who were doing most of the heavy lifting, to graduate students and undergrads who were manning* the registration desk and chairing the sessions. The conference had seven invited speakers, of which six were female. The overall percent of women participants was about 50%. The session chairs were in charge of moderating the discussion periods, instead of the presenters themselves, and as a result many women were getting called on to ask questions. Women were also vocal during the breaks, and just generally much more active than usual. Continue reading