Should I stay or should I go now?


Or maybe an alternative title could be “The Accidental Academic”.

This November I heard back from the two main Swedish funding agencies that I didn’t receive a grant this round. For me this means not only that I don’t have funds to run my lab, but also that I don’t have a position for myself. Because my temporary professor position is coming to an end, no grant also means no funding for my salary and I’m transitioning to being an unemployed academic.

So, should I stay or should I go now? The question has been rattling round in my head ever since I got the grant rejections. Continue reading

If you have a bad advisor in grad school


A couple weeks ago, I emphasized that most PhD advisors are really good.

In a haphazardly conducted poll, one in four people reported their PhD advisor that was not caring or helpful. Crappy advisors may not be the norm, but we still have 1 in 4 too many.

I’ve seen a variety of situations, choices, and outcomes over the years, and would like to share some thoughts with grad students who are experiencing a bad PI. I’m hoping those of you who have gone through nasty experiences might be able share insights as well. I’ve just been a bystander, and there should be many more voices than my own.

When dealing with a bad PI, I think there are two big questions:

  1. What can be done to ameliorate the situation?
  2. When should you bail on your PI and move to a new lab or even a new institution?

Continue reading

A lot of scientists are kind, careful and caring


I just returned from a tremendous meeting of the Entomological Society of America. I experienced a lot of moving moments.

I attended my first EntSoc meeting twenty years ago, as an early grad student. I’ve skipped the last few years (because family). This return brought a flush of friends and close colleagues that I don’t see on a regular basis. I got to meet PhD students who are being advised by my own former undergrad students. When I was in grad school, my advisor had two small kids. At this meeting, I got to see his older daughter, now in a MD/PhD program.

There are so many scientists who made a difference in my life — professionally and personally —  and having so many of them gathered under one large roof was overwhelming. Continue reading

The dangers of twitter


When I first joined twitter, I was nervous I might mess up somehow. I wanted to use my professional identity but because no one around me* was using twitter, I didn’t know how it would be perceived. Also, we’ve all heard about disastrous mistakes on social media that have lead to personal and professional fallout. Although I didn’t think I would do anything that extreme I was worried about job applications and such. So in short, I was cautious and worried about the dangers of putting myself out there on twitter. Now over two years and some 6000+ tweets later, I am less so**. Continue reading

Academic Hazing


A recent conversation* on twitter made me think about academic customs. The conversation centered on PhD comprehensive exams (PhD candidacy in the US system that happens about halfway through the PhD) but applies to all gate keeping parts of a PhD (or Masters) program. These can vary a lot between countries, universities and even departments (I wrote about the defence a while back). But this conversation was basically about how these hoops/tests can drift towards a hazing function rather than a learning or career building function.

Let me just get my opinion out from the first. I don’t think hazing is useful, respectful or professional. Full stop.

But one of the things that struck me is the difference between true hazing and an experience that can feel like hazing or at least slightly ritualized torture but in hindsight really isn’t. I’m one of the lucky ones it seems in that my experience was more the latter. Continue reading

Be a gracious winner and not a sore loser (or don’t be a jerk)


There are a bunch of life skills that come in handy in academia. Some are obvious and discussed a lot like time management, setting goals, getting stuff completed, etc. Others fly under the radar but maybe shouldn’t. One of those things is how you handle competition. Academia is one of those careers where competition is constantly part of the gig. As much as collaboration can be an essential part of success, there are also winners and losers throughout. The competitions vary but all of us fall on both sides of the line at least some of the time.

It starts even before grad school with who gets in, on what scholarship (or not) and where. Continue reading

Academic self care


The semester has begun and everyone is returning back to campus. It means my commuter bus is full and I rarely get a preferred seat. Bike parking in Uppsala is a lot harder too. For me this means that I’m returning to my office and there are people walking around in the corridors. I spent my summer doing a mix of work travel, fieldwork, housework, vacation and lots of mad writing at home. It was a nice break from the routine and a hopefully productive summer. Mostly it has meant that I’ve only dropped by the lab every once in a while to run samples but otherwise I haven’t spent much time there.

So when I started coming back into the office, I’ve been catching up on all those things I’d ignored during the summer. There is juggling the samples I’ve accumulated, meeting with students, catching up with my PhD student about her work this summer, chatting with colleagues, digging out my desk, and trying to finish up writing on a deadline.*

When I get into a rhythm of working at home/in the field, I often find that I don’t transition well to being back in my office. I’m not sure why really but I tend to get distracted by all the things that need doing. I don’t drink enough water. I eat my lunch late and I generally push myself in ways that are unhealthy. It only takes heading home with a headache to reset my mindset and remind myself that I don’t need to do all the things. And if I ignore my body it comes with a cost.

In the ‘back to school’ season it is good to remind myself to take care of myself and remember to listen to my body. I think that academia can be quite bad at creating healthy work environments. Although there is the issue of taking care of your mental health, and I know they are connected, but in this post I’m going to focus on physical constraints of a job in academia. I think the job can lend itself to all kinds of bad for you behaviours. I’m definitely guilty of a few.

In my experience, one of the problems of research can be that you never do any particular task (accept maybe computer work) for long enough periods of time to ensure they are ergonomic and not damaging. Now before you start thinking about those long days in the field or lab doing some horribly repetitive task for hours on end and disagree, I’m not talking about hours, days or even weeks here. I’ve done some tasks in physically awkward ways (or witnessed them) simply because it isn’t such a long term thing. You just need to get through these 100, 1000, etc samples/computer files/whatever. If it were your job to do that thing and only that, you’d never be able to sustain it if you didn’t have a good work station. But we often only work on short-term assembly line tasks so they are often not set up in the most ergonomic way. Of course some situations are beyond your control. It is difficult to measure flowers on a plant at an awkward height but you can’t change how the plant grows. You can however, varying your position, use a camping stool, sit on the ground and otherwise make accommodations so you don’t strain your body. The same is true in the lab or at the computer. I know many examples of grad students who developed some kind of repetitive stress injury while doing their research. It a real and can be debilitating thing.

Most of us spend a lot of time at our computers so it is a good idea to create a good desk situation. Separate keyboards from your laptop, raised screens, a good chair… all these things can help long hours at the computer. Meg Duffy has also talked about her treadmill desk and its benefits and limitations. I have an adjustable desk for standing, which I try to do much of the day, but haven’t ventured to a treadmill. But it isn’t just posture at your desk that can cause problems, typing and mouse work can lead to repetitive stress injury so setting up your work station can be crucial to successful computing (some ideas for avoiding bad computer setups and injury here).

Similar principles apply to your lab and fieldwork. The more conscious you are about the way you have to do the activity and think about it before hand, the more healthy you can be. I also find that those few moments of thinking about how to do a job in a healthy way also improves efficiency. It is hard to be efficient at a task if it is physically awkward in someway. So whether you are processing 10, 100, 1000 or 10000 samples, making it easy on your body is worth a few moments of contemplation.

I try to be mindful of the tasks I do and set things up in a way that are ergonomic, even if I’m not going to be doing that activity for extended periods. But it is easy to forget about your body, get caught up in a task. For me it is always the rush to the finish line that gets me; it is precisely because I see the end of the task that I tend to push myself too hard.

I’m definitely not writing from some moral high ground. I am currently battling frozen shoulder, which was probably made a lot worse by spending too many hours painting windows this summer. I’m sure the inactivity of desk work doesn’t help me either. But the experience has got me more conscious of what I’m doing with my body and I hope after some physiotherapy I might be able to lift my arm above shoulder level again some day soon. Now I just need to also remember to take breaks, drink water, don’t over-caffeinate and generally take care of myself at the office.**



*Who in their right mind accepts to co-author a review due at the end of the summer? So glad I said yes, and more so now that it is submitted, but it definitely made for a crazy summer.

**Thanks to @CMBuddle and @Julie_B92 who got me thinking more about the topic.

Parental care and scientific careers: a fish metaphor


Dads typically do less parental care than the mom, at least in the US. This is a problem, especially for the mom’s career.

Many men, and I suspect particularly academics, are genuinely focused on parenting. They want to do right by their partners, and make sure that they don’t create an inequitable parental burden. Parenting is a joy, but time demands of the required tasks involved are often burdensome. In some some families, if you fast-forward from zygote to toddler, you’ll find that some, if not many, of these guys are not doing their share. Continue reading

How honest should I be about my career goals? My post-PhD story.


My post-PHD journey is peppered throughout the posts I write here but I was inspired by a blog carnival over at the Contemplative Mammoth to put together a single post. After May 28th Jacquelyn Gillpromises to compile all the links, so if you’re interested in what people do after their PhDs, head on over there.

Long before I finished my PhD, my path in academia was never particularly clear. I came to research late in my undergraduate studies and at every stage I have thought: “Well this is interesting, challenging and fun, so lets see if I can find a masters/PhD/position”. I knew that at each of these filters there was a real possibility that I wouldn’t be able to find the next position. So I remained cautiously optimistic but always thought that at some point I would have to figure out what to do when I go up. Since I was aware of the possibility that I wouldn’t find a position along the academic trail, I’ve never been focused on a tenure-track position as the only career choice that will make me happy. But as I have progressed, I wonder how honest I should be about this fact.

You see I’m not convinced that I will end up as a professor. I know that it takes an incredible combination of skill and luck to land a position. Although I ended up doing a PhD in one of the top programs of my field, when I applied there were other top schools that didn’t invite me to interview. So even at that stage I was aware that there is variance in decisions and that I am not one of the applicants with a flawless CV (at that stage I had good research experience but less than top undergraduate grades and GRA scores). Last year I was one of the selected candidates to interview for two positions in Sweden. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t get either but what was interesting was that I applied for the positions with two of my colleagues. The person who got one of the positions wasn’t even invited to interview at the other and the two of us that did interview for both flipped in ranking between the two jobs. I don’t take this as a sign that the system is random but rather that when comparing good candidates, how qualities are weighted will always vary between selection committees. But of course it does worry me that I might never quite make it to the top of the list.

So given what I think is a somewhat realistic frame of mind, I have always taken the ‘let’s see what happens’ approach. That means that in conversations throughout my career I have not been dead certain that being a professor is my one and only goal. But when I’m honest about my uncertainty, I find that it can be mistaken for a lack of desire or drive. Like hinting that you are aware that there are few permanent professor positions and the reality is that you might not get one means you aren’t interested in continuing in academia.

To be clear: I love my job. I am sometimes afraid to admit how much I enjoy it, like a kid not wanting to jinx my chances. Sure there are lots of things that stress me out about this path but when I take a moment to think about it, I love my job. I love being able to think about new questions and new problems all the time. I love teaching and getting students excited about the world around them. I love the challenges I face that force me to grow and learn all the time. I love to write and present findings at conferences. I love talking to people about their work and collaborating. As a career, I can’t think of any better and I truly hope that I can keep on doing what I’m doing.

But here’s the catch: I’m not willing to sacrifice everything to achieve a tenure track position. I have a family that I need to consider if we make a move for a position, but I also have a family that I want to spend time with. For me that means I work less than I could and that is certainly is reflected in my publication rate. So when I look at my CV, I see that I could do better but I also know that I don’t want to trade-off my happiness now for some uncertain happiness in the future when I have tenure.

So should I be honest about my uncertainty? I have become wary of talking too frankly because I don’t want the perception to be that I’m not dedicated. Thus far I have been fortunate that I have been able to keep going in academia and I haven’t seriously considered other options. I might have to do that when my current funding runs out but for now I continue on working towards an eventual permanent position.

So for me, my post-PhD story doesn’t have an ending. I still feel in flux and don’t know where I will end up, geographically or otherwise. But for now I’m enjoying the ride.

Is grad school a good time to have a baby?


I have no clear answer and I had my daughter just after finishing my fourth year…

A post on having kids in grad school has been on my roster basically since I started blogging. I sometimes get asked this question because I had a baby in grad school. While contemplating what to write, I realised I actually know quite a few mothers who started their families in grad school. Some have gone on to continue their careers in academia while others made the decision to leave. Although motherhood plays a part of their personal stories, the mothers I know are not unlike the general population of grad students I came through with, who are all also trying to find their way and decide what to do with their lives and careers.

So last year, I decided that to ask all the people I knew who had babies in grad school about their experiences and what advice they would give to the question “Is grad school a good time to have a baby?”. The one thing that these parents all have in common is an enthusiasm for the idea and a lack of follow through (including me!). I posed the question but then got caught up with other things as I’m wont to, just like I’m sure all the other parents who said they’d like to contribute but ended up being far too busy to write about it. Instead of pestering them after having dropped the ball before, I thought I would write my own perspective first.

What follows is a modified email that I sent to a female grad student who directly asked me for advice on whether grad school was a good time to have a baby. One thing that did come to mind when thinking about this question is that I come from a supportive department in this respect and it clearly shows in the number of grad school babies that born there. So my answer to the question is coloured with the privilege of support, both from my advisor and department. Many are not so lucky.

My advice and perspective is also skewed towards mothers, although I know grad school dads as well. Part of the challenge of having a baby during grad school for a woman is, well, having the baby. Although parenting can be a lot more equal pretty quickly as long as both parents make an effort for it to be, the burden of pregnancy and breastfeeding (if you can/do breastfeed) falls squarely on the mother. There are real physical aspects of this time that means extra support and consideration for mothers that I think shouldn’t be ignored. You’ll see some of that perspective in what follows.

Here is my advice from a couple of years ago to a fellow grad student* pondering having a baby before finishing:

I seriously feel unqualified to offer advice–somehow I managed to make it through but I’m still not sure how. So I’m not sure I have wisdom but here are a few thoughts. First, they always say there is never a good time to have kids and although its true, you should never let that stop you. It is a tough thing to plan and it is always more of a crazy disruptive thing then you imagine it will be. But it is also amazing so if you want it I would say give it a try–you will always make it work somehow–sometimes things go a little slower than planned or differently than planned but that is all part of it. I think you will make your priorities happen–if you want the baby and want the PhD, you will make it work. My story was that I did manage to have a double TA at the end and that helped a lot. But I did it in the opposite direction from (another grad student)–I took off a semester (‘writing’)/had Maiken and then double TAed. Somehow I managed to come back, double TA and finish. I think that had a lot to do with the fact that my committee was very forgiving—I am still working through publishing my chapters and sometimes I am amazed they let me go**. And of course, having a supportive spouse is huge–I couldn’t have done it without my partner’s help.

I think everyone’s situation is unique though. I thought I would do some writing when I was off but I did next to nothing those first few months. The birth was a lot harder than I had hoped (I had to have an emergency c-section). The recovery took more out of me than I thought–emergency means bigger cut and it was a while before I could even get out of bed normally. I also did not do well with the sleep deprivation so that made it tough to think and function–the hormones also can make you a little crazy and seriously effect your brain function. No one told me that I would be more forgetful once I became pregnant, for example…. Not to scare you but things can go in unexpected ways and although it is totally doable, pregnancy/breast feeding, etc is definitely a draining experience–but you will roll with those things as they come and they shouldn’t stop you. And many people have it much easier than me and hopefully you will too!

Ultimately, the decision should be up to you and your partner, so in some ways, I don’t think you need to talk to anyone officially until it is certain you are having a baby. Then the logistics can be worked out as they need to be and my experience with the department is that they are pretty supportive. My opinion is that it is your right to have a baby so they need to deal with it and they want you to graduate so they’re going to work with you to make that happen. When I passed 3 months, I went to my advisor and then my committee and the department chair. I basically started by saying I was pregnant and I had a rough outline of a plan of how to finish up. My biggest request was the double TA*** and they were good enough to give me that. I think they thought I was a little crazy and that I would not manage moving to Sweden, having a baby, coming back and defending but they were definitely supportive. I did lose one committee member because they wasn’t around when I needed to defend but everyone was fine with that and since I had four members I didn’t need to replace them. I guess you just should be prepared to be a little flexible and figure out what is feasible but I think it is definitely possible to manage it.

Having a baby is always going to be a huge disruption of everything else in your life and they only continue to be that. But grad school isn’t a bad time to start. You’re time is actually pretty flexible. So even though it was crazy busy, I’d do it again. The writing/stress of finishing always seems about the same to me, whether or not you have a baby (at least from watching other people). You basically fill up the time. When you have something else so huge going on, you are forced to work more efficiently and not worry about it so much. Revisions can always go on forever, when you don’t have forever, you basically have to stop. Part of the reason I am still working on things from my PhD is because I am trying for good journals so that is also a choice…

Anyway, personally, I wouldn’t ask permission/talk to anyone that I thought would try to dissuade me from doing it, at least if they were in a position of power. If they try to say it isn’t for the best and then you do get pregnant you’re possibly creating unnecessary tension. But once you are pregnant, it isn’t like they can advise you not to be. So the discussion will hopefully be more productive and positive about how to make it work.

I hope this ramble makes some sense. Follow your hearts, do what feels right and it will work out.****

So in short, is grad school a good time to have a baby? It was for me.***** I have a wonderful/stubborn/imaginative/annoying/beautiful/challenging/creative daughter and so far a career in science that I love. I wouldn’t change any of it. But having a baby is a deeply personal choice and I don’t think anyone can truly answer for another whether any particular time is ‘good’ or not.


*I’m happy to say said grad student now has a lovely daughter and PhD degree.

**Impostor syndrome alert: I had one published chapter and three manuscripts at the time of my defence. Not such an uncommon combination…but I had high expectations of myself and was disappointed that I hadn’t submitted more at that point.

***My salary support was through TAships and doing all my teaching duties in one semester instead of spread across two meant that I could come to Sweden and be with my partner during the first few months of my daughters life (her due date coincided with the start of the fall semester)

****I tend to live by this philosophy, although the ‘working out’ might not be how you first imagined.

*****A recent twitter conversation about grad school stipends directly relates to the finances of being a parent in grad school. I didn’t have to support my family on my stipend, nor was I a single parent, important distinctions.

More backyard reflections: connections between farming and fieldwork


The weekend was beautiful and I spent a good portion of it in the backyard digging up grass. The plan is to have a small raised garden for vegetables, nothing too extensive but enough to plant a few things and enjoy them straight from the earth. You can’t get more local than that. As happens when doing something physical, my mind wandered. I had some “help” from my 4 year old but she would quickly bore of the repetitive nature of the task at hand so I was often left to my own devises.

Beginning of the vegetable plot. Looks easy but my body can attest to the amount of digging it took!

Beginning of the vegetable plot. Looks easy but my body can attest to the amount of digging it took!

Not surprisingly, digging in the dirt got me thinking about the summer I turned 20 and spent 5 months on an organic farm. It was an interesting summer, where I learned a lot but I had no idea I was preparing for a future as a field ecologist. That summer I was a bit lost. I had gone to university for a single semester before dropping out (finances being a major factor) and spent the next year or so working at various service jobs in Vancouver. I knew those weren’t things I wanted to do forever but I wasn’t sure what it was that I wanted. So I headed back across the country to Nova Scotia to live and work on a farm very near where I had spent some of my childhood. The memories of exactly how this plan came to be are foggy for me now (think my mother subtlety encouraged the Nova Scotia angle) but however it came about I ended up living on an organic farm, working for $50/week with three other exploring (or lost depending on how you want to look at it) young women.

Before working on a farm I had a romantic notion that maybe farming was one of things I’d want to do with my life. Farming cured that even though I absolutely loved the summer doing it1. What I saw though was the stress of worrying about the weather, the pests and all the other things that can go wrong. The funny thing is that I face lots of the same problems these days, just in a different context. I’ve lost experiments to deer browsing, mowing and bad weather. One major lesson I took from those farming days is to diversify and protect the truly important “crops” (experiments). I usually have a few field experiments/a few more replicates/etc running ‘just in case’2. A lot of the ‘just in case’ also makes good ecological sense. It is important to know, for example, if the patterns you see are consistent in different populations. It also helps when the deer eat all your plants in one of the populations; at least you still have some data to work with. Protection like fencing is also sometimes a critical part of ecological experiments. If you want to examine plant-insect interactions for example then it doesn’t help if the deer eat everything. If you want to eat the tasty vegetables you plant and know there is at least one hare that prowls your yard, fencing it is.

In plant ecology, often experiments require planting out particular populations or communities. There is the raising of the seeds, planting of the individuals, harvesting of the data and the stress of choosing the right time to do all these things. Sometimes you get it wrong. I always loved this story of a large planting that got hit by a frost; smart and experienced researchers don’t throw up their hands when the frost kills half your plants. If they’re lucky there is variation in survival and they write a paper about that instead.3 However, these decisions aren’t without consequence. While I was a grad student, I witnessed another’s unfortunate loss of an entire experiment to frost shortly after planting one summer.4 So the stress that I thought I was turning away from when I finished at the farm is actually a regular part of my summers. Maybe my income isn’t so directly tied to the harvest as on a farm but if experiments and papers are the currency that allows me to keep going as a scientist, then I’ve definitely paid the price of random events throughout the years.

I learned a lot that summer but probably most things were really about me. I learned I had stamina and that I could push my body and mind to keep going. I learned that I could tolerate bad weather and good to get the job done.5 I learned to laugh at rain and hailstorms and freezing weather and heat that makes you feel like passing out every time you get up.6 I learned that no matter how well you prepare, sometimes you just need to drop everything and change directions. Perhaps most importantly I learned that I liked being out there each day and being proud of what we accomplished. And I learned that some of the best friendships come from sharing the good and the bad of fieldwork (/farm work).

These days I don’t spend 5 months outside maintaining plants and collecting data but when I get to get outside, it is often reminiscent of those farm days. But perhaps that is only since I’ve found myself doing a lot of work in old fields…

And perhaps since I’m not outside toiling in the fields all summer, I have the opportunity/energy to grow my own garden. I know my little garden isn’t enough to even provide for our family. It is really a luxury hobby. But I am growing it because I also want my daughter to have a sense of what it takes to grow food. I want her to be able to recognise what the plants many vegetables come from look like, not just what vegetables look like presented in the store. She’ll probably not grow up to be an ecologist but I want her to appreciate the living world around her, both the wild bits and the tamed.


Ecological Life Lessons:

1Try something before you decide! Seriously, think you want to be an ecologist? Then go work in a lab, if you can’t do that, volunteer. Or if volunteering/work aren’t options, take as many courses as you can that expose you to research experience and get on board for a research project/honours/whatever they call it at your institution. The important thing is to get exposure to what ecologists are really doing on a day-to-day basis. Of course, this advice applies to anyone looking to invest a lot of time in training for a job, not just ecologists. But familiarity of the process of research is a really good thing before you start a masters/PhD program.

2The opposite lesson is to avoid spreading yourself too thin. My PhD student has been collecting data like mad and has a lot of really good hints at what is going on in her system but this year we’ve decided that she needs to do less of the different kinds of things and concentrate on a few key studies that will wrap up her experiments nicely. Right now there is a lot of data but often not sufficient to truly say what is going on. Sometimes this is hard to avoid (e.g. we didn’t know that the variation in the things we’re looking at is so great that it is making it hard to detect whether there is a signal in the data) and she’s also had her fair share of run-ins with the deer and mowers.

3I haven’t yet had the opportunity to turn a disaster into an opportunity at this scale but I certainly look at my failed experiments to see if anything is there.

4Learn from other’s misfortune, as well as your own. As a grad student, you’re actively learning how to run your own research but you’re also surrounded by a bunch of people doing the same thing. Talk to them! Hearing about their successes and failures can be just as important as doing the things yourself. This can apply to teaching, writing, analyses, fieldwork, labwork and the list goes on. These days if I know someone who’s done something that is new to me I ask them for advice. There is always so many tricks that make life simpler, once you’ve figured them out.

5Fieldwork is often not for the faint of heart. Know your limitations. I know I need sleep and I don’t function very well without it. More than that, I work pretty poorly at night. So I won’t ever take up a project looking at night pollination. Cool stuff but I know that it would drain me in ways that super strenuous work during the day never would.

6When things get tough you basically have two options: laugh or cry (or get really sour and unpleasant and take it out on those around you). I prefer to laugh (or at least try to), makes for a better field season.

After one year as a Visiting Assistant Professor


This is a guest post by Carrie Woods, a Visiting Assistant Professor at Colgate University. This is a follow up to her post from last year, about starting out in a VAP position.

I just completed my last lecture of my first year as a Visiting Assistant Professor at a liberal arts University. Each semester I got to design my own course and teach three lab sections of a general biology course called Ecology, Evolution, and Diversity. Having graduated in August 2013, this was my first experience in designing and teaching my own course and it was absolutely amazing.

I did stumble a bit at the beginning though. In the fall I taught Plant Physiology, a junior level course of my own design, and had a bumpy start trying to figure out how to teach. Given that all of my post-secondary education has been at research I universities, I assumed the most familiar teaching format I knew – standing in front of students, powerpoint up, throwing information and numbers at them. That was my first lecture. I blew through what I thought would take me three lectures in one hour.

Then I did what anyone in my position would have done: sought advice from fellow faculty. This is a top-notch liberal arts university after all, and I am surrounded by teaching gurus. Within a couple of hours and several meetings with different faculty post-first lecture, I completely changed how I thought about teaching. As per the advice of the faculty, I abandoned my powerpoints (except for complicated images and figures) and returned to the most basic method of teaching: the chalkboard.

My second lecture, I asked what they had learned from my first lecture and, after many mumbles and looks of confusion, I decided to start from scratch and re-teach the first lecture. I was honest and open about it and told them that if I was doing something that confused them, I wanted them to let me know. I used a socratic method and got them engaged and involved by asking questions constantly. I used the chalkboard to write and explain key concepts. The classroom transformed into an open and engaged learning environment. I was happier, my students were happier, and my teaching was way better. The learning curve wasn’t just steep, it was 180°!

Through my Masters and Ph.D., I had so many opportunities to TA courses as a graduate student that I realized my teaching skills were developed for running labs. So the lab sections of the biology course that I ran were much smoother than my Plant Phys course. I shadowed the faculty member who was the coordinator for the course, by which I mean I went to every MWF lecture and to her Monday lab so that my Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday afternoon labs went smoothly. Although it took quite a large time commitment, I learned a lot by doing this and incorporated the same questioning and engaging teaching methods from my classroom into the labs.

With new skills in hand and great feedback from my students in the fall, I designed a CORE science course on agriculture called Food for Thought this spring. By far, this has been my most rewarding teaching experience. The class is for freshmen and sophomores in any discipline. I only have three students from biology the rest being from varying departments – political science, economics, philosophy, English, and sociology. Students discovered biology through the history of agriculture and current farming practices. We examined environmental impacts of farming, GMOs, and had a continuous debate about the global food crisis and how to feed the world. This class (again!) taught me how to be an effective teacher because of the new challenge of teaching non-biology students. The course went so well that I have students knocking on my door asking if I could teach it again in the fall so they could take it. I am so touched.

I am so grateful to have had this experience. I am a much more effective and creative teacher and would recommend this job to anyone looking to better their teaching skills. I liked it so much that I have decided to stay for another year.

Flexibility is wonderful, and horrible.


Academics have a wonderfully flexible job.

If my kid is sick, or has a performance at school in the afternoon, I can change my schedule. I can work from home if I’m not teaching. I can focus on a crisis, or a grant, or revisions and drop everything else if necessary. I can get new tires for my car on a weekday morning instead of the weekend.

This flexibility shouldn’t worry those who think that we somehow have it easy. It turns out that we university scientists work far, far more than the 40 hours that is contractually required of us.

The downside to our flexibility in scheduling is that we grow to depend on that flexibility. And we have the capability to schedule ourselves into traps.

Because we are accustomed to flexibility, we have the latitude to schedule things that other, more reasonable, people might not schedule. We have the capability to create untenable and inflexible schedules.

Take, for example, my schedule at the moment. I’m now somewhere remarkably far away from home for two weeks. Before this trip, I was away from home for a week and a half. So, I’m gone for almost the entire month of January.

I’m traveling for two good reasons. I’m now setting up some students with exceptional research opportunities And I also found it too tempting to turn down an opportunity to join a field course, which was fun but also an important obligation in my view.

I also have two, more important, reasons to be home. My spouse and my kid.

This is a very long time away from home, especially considering that I spend weeks away in the summer on fieldwork. At the moment, I am a delinquent parent and a delinquent spouse. While I’m away, I’m missing important events (both good ones and bad ones). I’ve put an undue and undeserved burden on my spouse, who I clearly owe big time when I get back home. I don’t want to be the oafish not-adequately-involved dad who prioritizes science and career over family. This trip, I’ve pushed that margin too far.

We agreed to all of these scheduled things in advance, but that doesn’t make the situation any better. It looks different on the calendar than when you’re actually away.

What’s the fix to the inflexibility of our own flexible schedules? How do we make sure that we don’t overcommit ourselves, just because we can? The answer is simply to say “no” once in a while. But of course it’s not that easy. If it were, I wouldn’t be in this mess, having a remarkably fun time, but far away from my family with whom I want to, and should, be with.

Tenure denial, seven years later


Last month, l linked to a series of posts about my job search after tenure denial, and how I settled into my current job.  Here is the promised follow-up to put my tenure denial ordeal, now more than seven years ago, in some deeper context.

As I was getting denied tenure, nobody suggested that tenure denial was actually a blessing. Nevertheless, if anybody would have had the temerity to make such a suggestion, they’d have been right.

I don’t feel a need to get revenge on the people who orchestrated the tenure denial. But if the best revenge is living well, then I’m doing just fine in that department. I’m starting my fourth year as an Associate Professor of Biology in my hometown. Without asking, I was given the green light to go up for promotion to full Professor two years early. In the last few years, I received a university-wide research award and I was elected to a position of honor in my professional society. I feel that all aspects of my work are valued by those who matter, especially the students in my lab. I’ve managed to keep my lab adequately funded, which is no small matter nowadays. Less than a year ago, I started this blog. That’s been working out well.

The rest of my family is also faring well, professionally and personally. We are integrated into the life of our town. We have real friendships, and life is busy, fun and rewarding.

I’m high enough on life that I don’t often reflect on the events surrounding my tenure denial. There’s nothing to be gained by dedicating any synapses to the task. Three years ago, I wrote that hindsight didn’t help me understand why I was denied tenure. One might think that a few more years wouldn’t add additional hindsight. But a recent surprise event put things in perspective.

As part of work for some committees, I’ve been reading a ton of recommendation letters. One of these letters was written for someone who I know quite well, and the letter was written by my former colleague, “Bob.” (I don’t want to out the person for whom the letter was written, so I have to keep things vague.) This letter was both a revelation and a punch to the gut.

Bob was a mentor to me. He was an old hand who knew where the bodies were buried and was an experienced teacher. I knew Bob well, and I thought I understood him. When came upon Bob’s recommendation letter for this other person I know, I was stunned.

Bob primarily wrote in detail about a single and irreparable criticism, and then garnished the letter with faint praise. The two-page letter was written with care. Based on how well I know Bob, or how well I thought I knew him, I am mighty sure that it was not written with any intention of a negative recommendation. (I also happen to know the person about whom the letter was written better than Bob, and it’s also clear that the letter was off the mark.)

Being familiar with Bob’s style, if not his recommendation-writing acumen, I clearly see that he thought he was writing a strong positive letter, short of glowing, and that he was doing a good deed for the person for whom he wrote the letter. He didn’t realize in any way that he was throwing this person under the bus.

How could Bob’s judgment be so clouded? I am pretty sure he merely thought that he was providing an honest assessment to enhance the letter’s credibility. In hindsight, I see that Bob often supported others with ample constructive criticism. (For example, he once gave me a friendly piece of advice, without a dram of sarcasm, that I was making a “huge mistake” by choosing to have only one child.)

It didn’t take long for me to connect some dots.

I remembered something that my former Dean mentioned about his recommendation to the independent college committee (which oddly enough, also included the Dean as a member): the letters from my department were “not positive enough.” (I never had access to any of these letters.) Because my department, and Bob in particular, claimed to support me well, I found this puzzling.

At the time, I suspected that the Dean’s remarks reflected the lack of specific remarks and observations, as most of my colleagues skipped the required task of observing me in the classroom, despite my regular requests. Presumably nobody bothered to visit my classroom because they thought I was meeting their standards.

Then I recalled that one of the few colleagues who actually visited my classroom on a regular basis was Bob. Did his letter for me look like the one that I just read? Did he write that my teaching had some positive attributes, but I that my performance fell short of his standards for a variety of reasons?

Did Bob try to offer some carefully nuanced observations to lend credibility but, instead, inadvertently wrote a hit piece? That seems likely.

Considering the doozy of a letter that he wrote for this other person who I know well, it’s hard to imagine that he even knows how to write a supportive recommendation letter. Since he was my closest mentor and the only other person in my subfield, I’m chilled to think of what he wrote for my secret tenure file.

Meanwhile, it’s likely that my other official mentor wrote a brief, weak, letter, because he couldn’t even spare the time to review the narrative for my tenure file before I submitted it to the department. Thanks to the everlasting memory of gmail, check out what I just dug out of my mailbox:


So, why was I denied tenure? It’s not Bob’s fault for writing a bad letter. The most parsimonious conclusion is that I just didn’t fit in.

I saw my job differently. At the time, I would have disagreed with that assessment. But now, I see how I didn’t fit. The fact that I didn’t even realize that Bob would be writing bad recommendation letters shows how badly my lens was maladjusted. If I fit in better, I would have been able to anticipate and prepare for that eventuality. I trusted the wrong people and was myopic in a number of ways, including how others saw me. I probably still am too myopic in that regard.

How was I different? I emphasized research more, but I also worked with students in a different manner. Since I’ve left, my trajectory has continued even further away from the emphasis of my old department. I’m teaching less as my research and administrative obligations grow, and my lab’s productivity is greater than could have been tolerated in my old department. My lab is full of extraordinary students that would have been sorely out of place in my old university.

I work in a public university with students whom my former colleagues would call “poor quality.” I am changing more individual lives than I ever could have before, by giving students with few options opportunities that they otherwise could not access.

It is fitting that my current position, at a university that gives second chances to underprepared students from disadvantaged backgrounds, is also a second chance for myself.

I might not have gotten tenure in my last job, but I had lots of opportunities to work with students. These interactions transcended employment; they were mutualistic and some have evolved into friendships. I look on my time there with great fondness, despite the damage that my former colleagues inflicted on me. I am gratified that I made the most in an environment where I didn’t belong.

I hope that it is obvious to those who know me and how I do my job, that my tenure denial does not make me look bad, but makes my former institution look bad. If I were to draw that conclusion at the time it happened, it would seem like, and would have been, sour grapes. Now that more time has passed, I’m inclined to believe the more generous interpretation that others have proffered.

I resisted that interpretation for a long time, because others would correctly point out that I would be the worst person to make such an assessment. I still have that bias, but I also have more information and the perspective of seven years. Is it possible that my post-hoc assessment paints a skewed picture of what happened? Of course; I can’t be objective about what happened. If I have any emotion about that time, it’s primarily relief: not just that I found another job, but that I found one where people make me feel like I belong.

I don’t stay in touch with anybody in my old department, as I snuck away as quietly as possible. Tenure denial is a rough experience, and I didn’t have it in me to maintain a connection with my department mates, even those who claimed to be supportive. We had little in common, other than a love for biology and a love for teaching, but both of those passions manifested quite differently.

I don’t have any special wisdom to offer other professors that have the misfortune of going through tenure denial. Tenure denial was the biggest favor I’ve ever received in my professional life, but I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone else. If it were not for tremendously good luck, I probably would have been writing far grimmer report.

Update: After a couple conversations I realize I should clarify how evaluation letters worked where I was denied. In the system at that time, every professor in the department is required to write an evaluation letter that goes straight into the file. These are all secret evaluations and it’s expected that the candidate is not aware of what is in the letters. If I had the option of asking people to write letters, I don’t think I ever would have asked Bob to write a letter for me, because I had several colleagues who I knew would write me great ones. The surprise about Bob was had the capacity to write such a miserably horrible letter and not even realize it. He is even worse at nuance than I expected.

Getting back to the routine.


Last year was a pretty big one for me, both personally and professionally. We bought a row house and moved to the city where my husband works, meaning a significantly different commute for me. I also interviewed for two permanent faculty jobs here in Sweden but was offered neither. I started chatting on twitter and writing here. All in all, despite some disappointments, it was a good year for learning and exploring. I’m really excited with the direction both my personal and professional life is going. But by the end of this busy year of challenges and changes, my whole family was exhausted.

This Christmas/New Year holiday, we decided to stay at home. We had some friends visit and share celebrations but we stayed put. Having a 4 year old means that we are also pleasantly forced into taking a real holiday. When the daycare closes, it is family time. In Sweden, Jan 6th is also a holiday, so today is the first day back to reality.

Living without a schedule for a couple of weeks has been relaxing. We enjoyed lazy mornings and unstructured days. Without setting out to do it, this break also became a ‘get fit’ holiday. The weather was depressing here in Sweden; no white Christmas for us. Given that we’re so far north that also means that it is dark and the rainy grey weather really hasn’t helped. But the relatively warm weather was good for getting us out for regular runs. I’m hoping we can continue regular exercise as the semester gears up but I know that it will be harder when balancing few daylight hours, commuting and working.

Academia is a funny place for schedules. Although when you are teaching there is little flexibility for those hours and as the semester gets back under way departmental seminars and meetings start to fill up your schedule, much of our time is quite flexible. There are lots of demands on that time but how you arrange it is often up to you. As a grad student, I used to be much more irregular in my working time, working early or late as it suited. Now with the twin pressures of a commuting schedule and daycare opening hours, my schedule is pretty much set each day. That always makes it challenging to get back in the rhythm after some time away. So this week we all face the challenge of getting back into the regular routine.

How scheduled are your days? Whether you took real holidays or just got away from the scheduled pressures of the semester this break, how do you get back into the routine? I always find that it takes me a bit to get back to being efficient and productive after setting things aside. So I usually tackle small tasks and try to cross off as many things off of a to do list as possible to get me back into work. It helps me feel productive and get a handle on what needs to be done. My first day back includes really reading the review from our recently rejected paper and seeing what to change before submitting elsewhere, pursuing a few papers for a meeting about potential collaborations later this week, finishing up commenting on a student’s work, writing a few emails to collaborators and planning more seriously for the coming days. I’m off to North America in less than two weeks so that should give me just enough time to get back into the swing of things before completely throwing off my schedule again!

Why I knit (and give thanks)


I am Canadian, and living in Sweden, I often get comments suggesting that I’m really American (North American, true but somewhere along the line the United States took over the term ‘American’). So, although I know that I am very similar to my American neighbours in many ways, I always bristle a bit at being called an American (probably the one unifying trait of Canadians!). One small thing I could never wrap my head around was American Thanksgiving. I lived in the US for 5 years, so that was 5 Thanksgivings to get used to the idea. But still it always came as a surprise (4-days off work, now?) and I rarely had plans like everyone else seemed to because the date wasn’t engrained on my mental landscape. And it is not like Canadians are foreign to the idea of Thanksgiving… But as a grad student it was often a time to catch my breath during the semester and I usually didn’t leave town or doing anything big.

It is work as usual today in Sweden but Thanksgiving talk on facebook, twitter and whatnot has got me thinking about taking a moment and catching my breath.

As a scientist, a mother to a young child, partner to an also busy man, it is easy to forget to take moments to reflect. I know I’m happier when I do, but that doesn’t mean I always manage it. I like the tradition of taking time to gather your friends and family and remember what you are thankful for. Whenever I take a moment, I realise how much I am truly thankful for.

So Happy Thanksgiving to my American friends! Hope you have a lovely one this year.

As I was thinking of taking a moment to ground yourself and in my case this fall, just calm the f*ck down (interviews, rejections, and other stressors), I starting thinking about on what helps me actually do that. For me, it isn’t surprising given my ecology leaning that being in nature is a good way to restore balance. With our recently purchased row house, I’m also rediscovering the meditation of gardening (although that is mostly come to an end for the season). Exercise always helps. But I also find cooking/baking calming and I’ve always loved to make things with my hands. I come from a crafty family and I have a whole closet full of supplies for beading, sewing and knitting.

In all of this, I started thinking about knitting more and why I do it.

What does knitting have to do with ecology or academics? On the surface, maybe not so much. I happen to do both, so maybe I see connections that few would. Strangely enough, knitting and science came hand in hand for me. When I started my masters program, there was a knitting group starting up. I went out and got some random wool and needles and showed up. One fun discovery was that my hands remembered the motion of knitting learned and quickly abandoned around age 10. I don’t think I ever even finished a scarf then but I guess I did it enough to learn the skill.

Since my knitting has developed along side my science career, the two are loosely linked for me. Here is my semi-random list of what I have learned from knitting and how it applies (in my mind at least) to ecology/academia.

The big picture. It is pretty easy to get caught up in the details of a project. It is only through keeping the big picture in mind that you can troubleshoot along the way and end up with something useful.

Seeking patterns. Now this might mean different things in ecology and knitting but ultimately in both I find that I spend a lot of time collecting information on patterns. In both it is good to know when it is time to stop seeking (reading the literature, etc) and start doing. Research is good but you’ll never have that scarf if you don’t start it. The same applies with a study, experiment or whatever.

Be willing to tear it all apart. Once you’ve constructed a sweater, it would be nice to say, ok, it is done; the same with a manuscript. In both cases, I have had times where things just didn’t fit or weren’t working as I wanted. Whether that means unraveling a sweater or completely reworking an introduction, you need to be able to both accept when it isn’t working and be willing to take it apart to make it better.

Creativity is important. Sure you can always follow someone else’s pattern but some of the best projects are often those that modify an existing pattern. Build on what others have learned but do something new with it. This philosophy works for my knitting and my research.

There is beauty everywhere. Even the most simple, functional items can have a beauty to them. The world around us is a beautiful place. If I pay attention to that beauty, of a well-constructed garment or a weed in a crack in the sidewalk, I tend to be happier and more grounded. In all the hard work (and sometimes frustration) that goes into a project, sometimes it is easy to forget the beauty of it. There is beauty in understanding the world, even the small piece of it that I study. As much as knitting reminds me to keep the big picture/end product in mind, it also helps me appreciate the small things.

Mistakes are common and ok. It’s life. Some mistakes require big fixes but others you need to just let go. Sure it is a lofty goal to make something without mistakes (slipped stitches, typos, …), it is important to remember that we all make them and learn from them. Learning to let go of perfection is important, otherwise the expectation of perfection can be crippling. Although I do admit to cringing at the typos I have missed in a publication.

Everything gets easier with practice. I can now knit simple patterns without constantly looking at the work and there are so many skills that I’ve picked up along the way in my career. Skills all start out slow and awkwardly but with practise can become automatic. It is good to remember that when facing down that new challenge. Maybe someday I’ll try a more complicated colour work pattern (such as Fair Isle) and then there is that spectrophotometer I’ve just order for the lab…

Ultimately, I find knitting calming. It helps clear my mind and lets me feel productive when I just want to shut down my brain. There is something very soothing about being able to directly observe my progress as well. Unlike science, when I learn a knitting technique or stitch or whatever, I can see the results right away. The progress of a project is visible rather than abstract. Sometimes it is nice to have that to contrast the ephemeral accomplishments in science.

What are the things you do to calm down and remind yourself of what you are thankful for?

On creating your own path through life


This weekend, I took my kid to a Mythbusters live show. When I left, I was inspired.

The source of inspiration wasn’t the world’s most impressive paintball gun, modified from an anti-aircraft machine gun. Though that was pretty cool.

I was inspired by learning about the wandering path taken by Jamie Hyneman. He’s the quieter Mythbuster that always wears a beret and has walrus-y facial hair. A one-page bio of Hyneman was in the big glossy program connected to the show.

As long as it’s all true, it seems that Jamie Hyneman has led one hell of a life. I’ll try to capture his trajectory, based on what I learned from his bio as well as his Q&A session during the show. The timing of all these things is rather vague to me, but here are highlights:

  • He grew up in a small Midwestern town. When he was 14, at his request, his parents sent him to a hardcore wilderness survival training school in Wyoming.
  • When he graduated from high school he bought a pet shop, and then sold it after a few years.
  • He went to college and got a degree in Russian. At one point along the line, he worked as a librarian for the United Nations in Geneva.
  • He worked as crew on sailing vessels in the Caribbean. He eventually bought his own ship, and got all the certifications to be a captain, and sailed around for a living.
  • He was interested in the various creative challenges with movie effects, so he left for New York City, where he started working in entry-level jobs in movie production, working to gain new skills.
  • He moved to San Francisco to access more exciting movie production work, and when his company folded he bought up the shop and went into business for himself. One of the guys he hired along the line was Adam Savage. At some point he asked Adam to join him in a pilot for Mythbusters, and you can figure out the trajectory for the following ten years up to the present.

I hear far too often, “What can I do with a degree in X?” This question comes with a false assumption: what you do after college must directly follow from the undergraduate degree. When a premed asks me what’s a good major, I say: “What do you find interesting? Since you’re going to be a doctor for your whole life, then what do you want to do before you get trained as a doctor? Art? Philosophy? Economics? Cell Biology? Music?”

Jamie Hyneman became a Mythbuster, with a degree in Russian. One of my siblings became a financial manager with a degree in Art. Another became a middle school special education teacher with a degree in Theater. A friend of mine became an FBI agent with a degree in Biology.

We chart our own paths in life. Far too often, we let our past decisions dictate our future directions far more than necessary.

The way that academics discuss their jobs in the university, they make it sound like we are captive to our disciplines. Tenure has been called the golden handcuffs. That’s pretty much the silliest notion ever. You can study — and do — whatever you want with tenure.

Linus Pauling, a tenured protein chemist, won a goddamn Nobel Peace Prize because of his social activism. This didn’t happen because he was handcuffed to the laboratory. Then again, nobody ever used the term “golden handcuffs” in the day of Linus Pauling. Nobody told him he couldn’t be both a scientist and social activist.

Jamie Hyneman could have made a go at his Indiana pet shop until retirement, or he could have stayed on as a Russian librarian, or he could have been running a sailing business in the Caribbean for his career. Or he could have kept to movie effects and never made a TV pilot. Mythbusters isn’t the culmination of his life. It’s just one chapter, albeit a very public one. He’s chosen an exciting and rewarding route.

All of our lives are short, and from the looks of it, Jamie Hyneman is making the most of his.

My trajectory is as linear as Hyneman’s has been circuitous. I went to high school, then college. Then I farted around for a year before grad school. Then I did a postdoc, visiting faculty, assistant professor, associate professor. I’ve lived in different places but I have been a scientist since the age of 20, and I enjoy science so much, that I’ll just keep doing it.

I have a very rare gift – tenure – and I don’t want to waste it. I have the opportunity to attempt the extraordinary, and am able to keep my stable job and pension in my back pocket the whole time. I’d like to think that what I am doing, on a day-to-day basis, is a part of this attempt. This blog is part of the attempt, and the continued effort to provide opportunities to my students is part of that attempt. This attempt at the extraordinary means that I will continue to pursue high-risk experiments that might not work but could turn out to be exciting. I’d like to think that with less personal security, I’d be just as inclined to take chances. I don’t know how true that would be.

The most extraordinary endeavors can also appear, on the outside, to be the most mundane. Being a parent, and spouse, is a special responsibility and joy. Sometimes the most extraordinary thing is making waffles for my family on a weekend morning. That might seem like an odd take-home message from a night out with the Mythbusters. But if Jamie can give up his gig as a Russian librarian to become a movie special effects wiz, then I can be, and do, far more than the stereotyped professor, husband and father.

This purposefulness about living an intentional life did not emerge in isolation. Overwhelming anything related to Mythbusters, this weekend my family experienced a loss that was was simultaneously sudden and gradual. I’ve been freshly reminded of the brevity and preciousness of life.

Perhaps the best way to honor those that have given us life is to make utility of this life as much as possible. It can be entirely workable that inspiration for our own utility can come from unconventional sources.

Are you a fighter? A women in science post.


Earlier this fall, I had an interview for a tenure-track job here in Sweden. I didn’t get the job, which was of course disappointing, but that isn’t really why I am writing here. The interview process was stressful and it is tough sitting in front of a panel addressing their questions one after another. It feels a bit like everything about you is on trial. I was prepared to answer tough questions about my work, how I would function in the department, as an advisor, etc. But there was one single question that really threw me: ‘Are you a fighter?’

In the interview, my mental response was basically WTF? It felt like a gender-specific question—are you one of those women who will just trying to please everyone and do as you are told or are you a fighter? Now to be fair, I’m pretty sure the question was asked to see how I would respond and I heard the other candidates had a similar kind of experience. Regardless of the reason, the fact that such a question could be construed as gender-specific was disturbing to me.* It pushed a button because I realised that I am a fighter and what is more I have had to be to get where I am.

I have been incredibly fortunate in my scientific career. I’ve had great, if sometimes difficult, relationships with my mentors and advisors. But really, I’ve had lots of support throughout. I also have not experienced any direct sexual harassment in a professional context. So, in that sense, science has been a safe place for me. This fall, twitter and the blogosphere are showing that this is not the case for many (one summary), which is unfortunately not at all surprising (wouldn’t say I’ve lived a harassment-free life). I have been deeply saddened by the revelations about race and gender and sexual harassment. I truly applaud the bravery of the women who are speaking out because I know first-hand how tough that can be. But I’ve been quiet about my own feelings, in part because I haven’t had my own experiences to share.

Unfortunately, there has been another development recently with an inappropriate/offensive joke video where Einstein is seen sexually harassing Curie. If you are not a part of the “online science community”, you’re probably sheltered from these discussions. Being pretty new to blogging and twitter myself, I’ve felt mostly like an outsider—I haven’t been directly affected by what’s happening and I haven’t known any of the players. But all the events have got me thinking about many aspects of privilege and gender.

Of course there have been times where I wonder how my gender plays a role in where I am. Have I been passed over for opportunities because I am female? Have I been asked/hired/etc because I’m female? These doubts can play a role in undermining who we are as women and scientists. Follow #ripplesofdoubt on Twitter to see how pervasive this can be and #ripplesofhope to see positive reflections on change.

Although I haven’t faced direct discrimination, there have been situations where my gender has been at the forefront:

  • On not getting a talk award (think it was meant to be consoling): “Men are more convincing because they have deeper voices and sound more confident. Your voice is too high.”
  • An off-handed comment about having met with someone in a professional context: “He does like talking to the ladies.”
  • Or undermining responses course evaluations about my appearance rather than my teaching.
  • Or those times I’ve watched younger students/mentees turn to a male colleague to seek answers/approval.
  • Or having your male colleagues worry they don’t have a chance at a job because they are male and thereby implying that you have a leg up because of your gender.
  • Or that time I was talking to a high profile evolutionary biologist and I mentioned my daughter as one reason for not staying on in my PhD to do more experiments. The response “Can you publish that?” immediately told me that I wasn’t in a safe place and reminded me that I could be judged for considering anything other than the science when making decisions.

But like many women, I have tended to shrug these incidents off. I haven’t wanted to be too sensitive, and too, well, female. So I pretend that the comments don’t matter and they don’t affect me. But of course they do. Although these are subtle forms of suggesting that I don’t belong or aren’t good enough, they are a part of what many of us experience.

One positive thing that has come out in the last few months has been that people have begun to speak up. I have come to realise that I need to make more effort to do the same. Although it is tough, it is important to speak up both for myself and for other women. Ignoring and internalizing comments changes nothing. We all need to be allies. I’ve been encouraged by the efforts to be positive and change things for the better (e.g., see here for lots of good ideas on supporting other women). Science is a tough gig; it’s what drives many of us. But I hope we can all move towards a more inclusive place where we support each other regardless of race, gender, age, size, hair cut, clothing, family….. Hopefully discussions surrounding causal and not so causal sexism/harassment can help us all get there.

At the interview, when asked if I was a fighter I was thrown off. I was mad and I struggled to regain my footing in the interview. I highly doubt that it cost me the job but I left the interview unsettled.

The next time someone asks me whether I’m a fighter, I know what I’ll say: I am a scientist. I am a woman. I’m here. Of course I am a fighter, what else could I be?**

Post script: writing about sexual harassment and discrimination while simultaneously watching cartoons is both very strange and comforting at the same time. I’m home with my sick 4-year old daughter and being with her reminds me part of why I want to do my bit to change things for the better.


*When discussing questions afterwards with two male collaborators who where also interviewing, we were able to match most of the things we were asked, except they were not asked if they were fighters.

**I think that men also face some of the same struggles in academia. You have to have a bit of fight in you to stay in this game.

Why give a seminar?


What is the purpose of an invited seminar?

Everybody wants to give a great seminar. But when the speaker gives the talk, what is the purpose or goal of the talk? What is the speaker trying to accomplish?

The purposes of dissertation defenses and job talks are obvious. However, whenever an invited speaker comes to give a seminar as a part of seminar series, the speaker could show up with many different kinds of priorities and purposes. We all have a variety of motivations that are context-dependent. Visiting speakers have overt and tacit messages that they have designed to be delivered in their slightly-less-than-an-hour timeslots.

Here is a classification of the non-exclusive goals that speakers might seek to accomplish in a seminar.

Build a reputation as an important scholar.  Seminars can be used to help the speakers grow the perception that they, and their work, are important. To some extent the invitation to give the seminar itself is a validation, but the delivery of the talk is required to cement that validation and help people spread work.

Being an alpha.  Some speakers know that they don’t need to build their reputation, but they can use the time allotted to them in a seminar to assert their dominant status. These talks might be used to stake out territory of interest to people working in the institution sponsoring the visit.

Be a beta. If the visiting speakers were invited by more prestigious research groups, then the speakers might choose to demonstrate behavioral submissiveness to the dominant hosts.

Bask in one’s legacy.  Some speakers don’t want to say anything particularly new, but want to use the time to provide an overview of the major accomplishments that have been made over a successful career.

Promote students and postdocs.  Seminar speakers are often invited to be the schmoozed, but they also can use seminars to promote the work of the members of their own labs. These kinds of talks heavily feature the roles of lab members in work presented in the talk.

Be entertaining and have fun.  Some talks are designed to entertain the audience rather than inform. Moreover, the speaker could be giving the talk just for the fun of it.

Show off smarts.  On some occasions, the speakers just want to show off how smart they are. This is likely to involve a number of obscure details that the audience wouldn’t want to bother understanding.

Not embarrass oneself.  The imposter syndrome is well described in academia and speakers might not recognize that they are up to the task or are worthy of an invited talk. Other speakers might feel great about their science but are not sure that they can give a great talk. So, just getting through the talk without screwing up might be a goal of its own.

Build collaborations.  When scholars visit one another’s institutions, the social context and resource access can facilitate collaborations more readily than what might occur at a professional conference. The seminar might be constructed to demonstrate opportunities where collaborations could be most fruitful.

Recruit students or postdocs.  Faculty should always be on the lookout for motivated and talented future lab members. If there are potential recruits in the audience, the talk could serve not only as inspiration but also communicate clear possibilities for exciting student projects.

Give a lesson or advocate for an approach to how science is done.  Oftentimes, seminars are most interesting not because of what was learned, but because the person presenting the work explained their rationale for choosing their experiments and provided arguments for the effectiveness of their approach to doing science. Speakers might choose to use their talk to give a lesson about more abstract ideas about the best ways to do science.

Argue for or against a pet theory, or shape the future of the field. Speakers might not be so heavily focused on their own findings, but instead use the seminar to advocate for or against a broader theory or direction for the field.

Pick an unnecessary argument.  Some people are inherently antagonistic. They might think so strongly that the advance of knowledge emerges from arguments among academics, that they pick arguments and intentionally say controversial things to get the ball rolling on arguments.

Be cool.  Some people need to show that what they are doing is cool. Obviously this purpose could overlap with other purposes, such as building a reputation or having fun. But sometimes, being cool is most important.

Inspire a new generation of scientists. Some speakers design their seminars specifically to be inspiration for the grad students in the audience. They might not be working hard to market their own ideas, or promote themselves, but to provide guidance for the junior scientists.

Actually give a science lesson.  This might sound crazy, but some people design their talks so that they are giving a lesson about their own scientific research so that people can understand more about the world.

And that’s it for the list.

So, what are my priorities in giving a talk? I’m all for everybody having fun. If someone in the audience sees potential for collaboration, then that would be really cool. I make sure that my students get appropriate credit when due, and I highlight the fact that my lab is an undergrad-run operation. I also want the grad students there to see what I’m doing and realize that a job at a teaching institution is compatible with mighty awesome research. Of course, I really do want people to learn a bunch about the topic of the seminar, and more generally I like to make the case that we need to change how we do science. (For example, in my next batch of upcoming seminars, I argue that orthodox ideas often are nonsensical and not well supported, and my whole talk is built around one of those ideas.)

And, I’d be dishonest if I ignored the fact that giving a kickass talk makes one look good in the professional arena, which has practical long-term career advantages. It’s all a part of the dumb sociological game in science. While we can pretend to transcend the game, we are on the game board whether we like it or not.

Later this week, I’ll be considering the various priorities that people have in mind when hosting a visiting speaker.

Remembering what it’s like to be a college student


When working with others, it is good to respect differing perspectives and values, even if we don’t understand them. Professionals maintain this respect even when the behavior of others is overly selfish or inadequately respectful.

When I have read about how some of my colleagues at other universities regard their undergraduate students, I’m reminded of the saying, perhaps originally from W.J. King of UCLA:

A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter, or to others, is not a nice person.

Likewise, a person who is nice to you, but not nice to undergraduates, is not a nice person.

It’s never an easy task to get inside someone else’s head. There is no universal change that happens as a 20-year-old evolves into a professor. But change definitely happens. I think back about my priorities when I was in college, and it’s hard to imagine the processes that resulted in the me-of-now evolving from the me-of-then.

The me-of-then is a not a model for my own students. Nonetheless, if I can imagine what I was like back then, it helps me keep a more open perspective when my students seem irrational to me. While I recognize that people can differ in their values and priorities, seeing the fact that my own perspective changed radically over time makes me sensitive to differences of opinion with other people.

Here are two literature-based examples. Before senior year of (private, male, Catholic) high school, we were assigned three fat books to read. One of these books was John Fowles’s The MagusI didn’t get into it, and gave up, and just didn’t do well on the exam on the first day of school. But then my friends told me what a cool book it was, so when I had the chance, before starting college, I read it. It blew me away, in a couple different dimensions. The protagonist (Nicholas Urfe) gets his mind messed with by a bizarre, kind-of-conspiracy, and so does the reader along for the ride. I felt sorry for Nicholas and felt like I related with him in some way.

Last year, I re-read the same book, more than 20 years later. It still was an amazing book, but wow, was I myopic the first time I read it! Nicholas is self-centered, small-minded and overestimates his own understanding of the world. While he didn’t necessarily create his problems, he was a partner in their making. On this re-read, l still felt sorry for the guy, not because of what he experienced but because of who he was. I was sorry for Nicholas because he was a pretentious womanizing oaf and didn’t know how to not be one.

Back then, I was oblivious. I don’t think the me-of-then would have appreciated hearing about being so fundamentally wrong about Nicholas’s character. (Maybe the me-of-the-future will think that the me-of-now is wrong.)

Here’s the second example: I was also required to read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. This book has over a thousand pages of transparent characters and inane plot, designed as a vehicle for Ayn Rand’s infantile “philosophy.” (Why is it that a high school requires this book is whole other issue. As I learned at my high school reunion, my class did end up producing a gaggle of Paul Ryanesque economic predators.)

This is how messed up the me-of-then was: I didn’t think that Atlas Shrugged book was a massive piece of shit. Moreover, I read the whole thing! Any reasonable person would give up within a few hundred pages, because the book drones on about the same selfishness-is-good pablum over and over and over and that’s pretty much it. I haven’t re-read that book since then, but I remember how monotonous it was. With hindsight I see that a variety of young men of that age have a flirtation with Ayn Rand, so at least I wasn’t alone.

I don’t judge my students for any foolishness they might harbor with respect to Ayn Rand, though the topic is unlikely to emerge in the classes that I’m teaching. However, if one of my students manages to say something unwise in any other aspect, I can remember a time when I was fool, and be open to the prospect that I might be one at this moment.

If I liked Atlas Shrugged, and didn’t realize Nicholas Urfe was a pretentious prat, then I was a straight-up misanthropic fool. Or maybe I was just immature. Or maybe the two are the same.

Regardless, as a professional in the classroom, I need to give everyone the same respect that the me-of-then felt that he deserved. It is foolish to publicly complain about dealing with the occasionally foolish actions of our students, when being unwise on occasion is par for the course for anybody. If someone is going to learn a lesson from a poor decision, that lesson won’t be received any better when spiced with negativity and judgment. If a student does something slightly foolish, such as emailing their teaching assistant a simple question that could be answered by reading syllabus, that student still deserves respectful treatment of the instructors of the course.

It’s our job as college instructors to work with college students. They are adults. We need to expect them to act like adults and treat them as adults.

Keep in mind, though, that plenty of well-seasoned adults have ridiculous expectations, bizarre biases and are outrageously self-centered. If an undergraduate acts this way, it’s not because they’re an undergraduate, but because they are human beings.

If our students act toward us in a way that isn’t professional, then we need to respond with tolerance and establish an environment that minimizes the negative aspects of these interactions. It is nonproductive to assign blame to people who make poor choices.

In short, we need to treat the undergraduates in our courses with the same professionalism and respect that we show to our colleagues.

In case you’re wondering, this post is a rebuttal to something that I read last week.