Thinking critically about the ways we help our students

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wskqpFolks can throw around the word “mentoring” rather sloppily. Which can lead students to being told that they’re being mentored, when they’re not.

I’ve seen a bit more of this while reviewing a variety of formal “mentorship plans” (in the context of panel service). A lot of people get what mentorship is about. But a good fraction of the plans weren’t so much about mentorship as they were about supervision — they said what the “mentee” would be doing for the “mentor,” but not specific about how the “mentor” would be supporting the specific needs of the “mentee.”

So what is mentorship and what isn’t? I volunteer an example for your consideration: Continue reading

Accessibility isn’t the key to mentorship

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When I start a new batch of students in my lab, my spiel includes:

Two problems can prevent success. The first is poor communication, and the second is poor data management.

At the moment, I think this is true. As poor data management is a by-product of poor communication, it really just boils down to communication.

Earlier on in my career, I was too quick to attribute communication failures to my lack of approachability, or poor decision-making by my students. I don’t see it this way anymore. Continue reading

Advice for department chairs

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I recently finished up a three-year stint as chair of my department. (At my institution, the role of department chair rotates among the senior members of the department — basically, anyone with tenure — based on seniority. Three years ago, it was my turn to take the mantle, as the next most senior person in line.) It was an interesting experience and I certainly learned a TON from it, but I am also relieved that it’s now someone else’s turn.

Since relinquishing my post, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the experience of being chair. Continue reading

Undergraduate research is many things

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Conversations about “undergraduate research” often involve dispelling misconceptions.

Undergraduate research is not one thing.

What is undergraduate research? It is research that involves undergraduates. That’s all, nothing else. If you want it to mean something else, you might have to spell it out.

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Continue reading

If you have a bad advisor in grad school

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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

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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

Is it harder, or easier, to publish in your field?

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It takes time and effort to publish a paper. After all, if it were really easy, then publications wouldn’t be a workable (albeit flawed) currency in for success in the sciences.

I often have heard about how some labs experience a bigger or smaller MPU (minimum publishable unit) than others, as I’ve worked in biology departments with a lot of academic diversity.

For example, I once knew an immunologist in an undergraduate institution who spent five years of consistently applied effort, to generate a single paper on a smallish-scale project. This wasn’t a problem in the department, as everyone accepted the notion that the amount of work that it took to generate a paper on this topic was greater than what it would take for (say) physiology, vertebrate paleontology, or ecology. Continue reading

Having “The Talk” with students

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Recently, I posted on my regular blog about two separate incidents at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. One was a male allies panel gone horribly awry, and the other (which was all over the news outlets the next day) was a statement from Microsoft’s CEO about how women should trust the system and not ask for raises. Continue reading

Introducing high school students to research

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Like a number of other institutions, my institution offers outreach-y type programs over the summer, aimed at high school students. In the case of my institution, we offer a number of 3-week programs in different disciplines that generally follow the same format: class in the morning, and what we call “guided research” in the afternoon. The purpose is to introduce students to various fields through early research experiences, to give them a taste of college life, and, of course, to convince them to apply to my institution. Continue reading

Conferences need students: make them affordable

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People go to conferences for a variety of reasons. Conferences are used to align future research priorities, and students and postdocs can “network.” Meetings also provide an opportunity to travel to cool places and take a vacation.

When conferences are in fancy places, they might attract more people, but only those who can afford to go. We need to have students and postdocs at conferences, for their own sakes and for the future of the field. At least in my fields, international conferences often are designed to make it very hard for students and postdocs to attend. Continue reading

Huge problems during research are totally normal

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At the moment, I have the great pleasure of working with a bunch of students at my field site in Costa Rica. Which means that I’m really busy — especially during the World Cup too! — but I’m squirreling away a bit of time before lunch to write about this perennial fact that permeates each field season.

We are used to stuff working. When you try to start your car, it turns on. When we set alarms to wake us up, they typically wake us up. You take a class, work hard and study, and earn a decent grade. Usually these things things happen. And when they don’t happen, it’s a malfunction and a sign of something wrong. Continue reading

How much do you let students design projects?

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Now is the time of year when we work with students on designing summer research projects. How do you decide exactly what their project is, and how the experimental design is structured? This is something I struggle with.

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Image by T.McGlynn

In theory, quality mentorship (involving time, patience and skill) can lead a student towards working very independently and still have a successful project. Oftentimes, though, the time constraints involved in a summer project don’t allow for a comprehensive mentoring scheme that facilitates a high level of student independence. Should the goal of a student research project be training of an independently-thinking scientist or the production of publishable research? I think you can have both, but when push comes to shove, which way do you have to lean? I’ve written about this already. (Shorter: without the pubs, my lab would run out of dough and then no students would have any experiences. As is said, your mileage may vary.)

A well-designed project will require a familiarity with prior literature, experimental design, relevant statistical approaches and the ability to anticipate the objections that reviewers will have once the final product goes out for review. Undergraduates are typically lacking in most, if not all, of these traits. Sometimes you just gotta tell the student what will work and what will not, and what is important to the scientific community and what is not. And sometimes you can’t send the student home to read fifteen papers before reconsidering a certain technique or hypothesis.

When students in the lab are particularly excited about a project beyond my mentorable expertise, or beyond the realm of publishability, I don’t hesitate to advise a new course. I let them know what I hope students get out a summer research experience:

  • a diverse social network of biologists from many subfields and universities

  • experience designing and running an experiment

  • a pub

All three of those things take different kinds of effort, but all three are within reach, and I make decisions with an effort to maximize these three things for the students. Which means that, what happens in my lab inhabits the right side of the continuum, sometimes on the edge of the ‘zone of no mentorship’ if I take on too many students.

You might notice one thing is missing from my list: conceive an experiment and develop the hypotheses being tested.

Students can do that in grad school if they want. Or in the lab of a different PI. I would rather have a students design experiments on hypotheses connected to my lab that I am confident can be converted into papers, rather than work on an experiments of the students’ own personal interest. (Most of my students become enamored of their experimental subnets pretty quickly, though.)

This approach is in the interest of myself to maintain a productive lab, but I also think that being handed a menu of hypotheses instead of a blank slate is also in the long-term interest of most students. I’m not keen on mentoring a gaggle of students who design their own projects when these projects are only for their edification, and not for sharing with the scientific community. That kind of thing is wonderful for the curriculum, but not for my research lab.

Other people have other approaches, and that is a Good Thing. We need many kinds of PIs, including those that give students so much latitude that they will have an opportunity to learn from failure. And also those that take on 1-2 students at a time and work with them very carefully. I like the idea of thinking about my approach to avoid falling into a default mode of mentorship. Does this scheme make sense, and if it does, where do you fit in and how have you made your choices? I would imagine the nature of your institution and the nature of your subfield — and how much funding is available — structures these choices.

Don’t go to grad school! and other fairy tales

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The fitness of organisms is measured by their reproduction. Successful scientists make more scientists. Successful professors make more professors, so the story goes.

With some folks, honoring a successful academic pedigree is almost a fetish. And it’s not just something that happens at research institutions, For those of us at teaching-focused institutions, sending students on to PhD programs is a source of pride, and often seen as a sign of successful mentorship.

On a day to day basis working with students, there are two huge facts that overshadow my mentoring relationships:

The first fact is that faculty positions are hard to get. Even if you’re very good, there is a huge amount of luck involved in grabbing the brass ring. Many PhD students and postdocs recommend that undergraduate professors not encourage their students to go to graduate school, because of the state of the academic job market. (Of course, there is no PhD problem, there is just an attitude problem.)

The second fact is that, in the United States, blacks and Latinos are scarce in ecology, and in science as a whole. We really do need to increase the representation of these groups in science. That means we need to send more of these students to grad school. This isn’t just an equity problem, it’s also a crisis for the future of scientific enterprise in the country.

My university student body is 90% minority, according to our newly invested president, if such a thing is mathematically possible. If anybody is in a position to “change the face of biology” as one friend of mine put it, then I’m in that place.

This could be seen as a dilemma: If I am trying to help out the field of ecology by diversifying it, I need to send as many of my talented students as possible to grad school. However, because job prospects in academia are so dim, then I’d be sabotaging the success of my students if I send them to grad school!

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Cross-section of a not-double-edged sword.

I don’t buy into that dilemma. I think what is good collectively for diversity in science also is good for the students of mine who do go on to earn their PhDs. This sword only has one edge, which I realize is not necessarily a common sword. (A katana, I just learned, has only a single edge, as you can see.

I take money from the federal government with the promise that I’ll be a part of the pipeline to grad school. Consequently, I provide cool research opportunities to students and if they want to go to grad school, I think that’s great. But I don’t steer them in that direction, even though I provide a rental car for free.

I’ve been told that I’m doing a bad thing to my students by sending them off to grad school. I’m just tuning those voices out. Because those voices don’t know me, they don’t know my students, and they don’t know what the alternatives are for my students. For every one of my students who has passed through my lab and gone to grad school, I have a high degree of confidence that they are, or will be, better off for having received a PhD. I can understand how in the humanities, going into debt to get a PhD is a silly or stupid proposition. But some of my former students earning their PhDs are making more money from their relatively small graduate stipend than many members of their families are earning by working full-time back home. They aren’t taking out student loans, and they are getting experience with research, teaching, writing and problem-solving that will be useful in a great variety of possible jobs.

Most important for their career prospects, my students are building a social network that will help them find employment after receiving their PhDs. They will have developed practice hobnobbing with people from wealthier social classes. Even if they didn’t have a friggin’ PhD, they still have spent years in a professional milieu which otherwise would have been inaccessible. Of course they have to know that the odds of getting a tenure-track position are small, and they need to have an open mind with respect to their careers.

Our students should also know that they have more and better options with a PhD than without one, considering the social capital at their disposal when starting out on the job market. They shouldn’t be told they won’t get a job, when most people do.

Let’s put the employment options post-PhD into context with data. Nearly all PhD recipients in biology are gainfully employed, and the number of tenure-track faculty, industry and government researchers, and those with other non-research/teaching jobs greatly outnumber those that end up in non-tenure track academic positions. There are too many contingent faculty, and this is a problem for universities, but the existence of adjuncthood as a possible career option doesn’t mean that opting for a PhD is a bad choice. There is a far greater fraction of unemployed lawyers than unemployed Biology PhDs.

Unemployment rates for those that don’t go to grad school are worse for those who do. And the situation is even worse for first generation college students, who lack the social capital to get their first opportunities. So, no, I won’t be telling my students they can’t get a job if they earn a Ph.D. I’ll just tell them that they’ll be lucky if they land a tenure-track position and that they shouldn’t plan on that from the outset.

A mountain of progress still needed for equity in science

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Most senior scientists aren’t from ethnic backgrounds underrepresented in the sciences, and don’t train many scientists from these backgrounds either. The day-to-day issues facing black and Latino students in the US might be on the minds of people in charge, but the people in charge don’t face the same day-to-day challenges.

I haven’t experienced those problems myself (as a tenured white dude), though I do I work in a minority-serving and Hispanic-serving institution. So, it’s my job to understand and to do what I can to provide the best opportunities for my students.

Nonetheless, mentoring students from underrepresented groups doesn’t validate one’s ideas about equity and diversity in science. To illustrate this point, let’s look at the recent comments of Michael Rich, the PhD advisor of Neil deGrasse Tyson (who is arguably the most famous living scientist, and definitely the most famous living black scientist):

I think my colleagues would agree that no overt barriers based on race, gender, etc. remain. (In fact, incoming graduate classes tend to be 50-50 in terms of gender and there are many special programs to help under represented minorities.)

Now, before we decry Dr. Rich for being horribly wrong, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, he might have been on crack, or stoned, or taking psychotropic mediation when he wrote that. It’s also possible that he was jet lagged from space-time travel from an alternate universe and he hadn’t gotten his bearings settled back to our own dimension.

But if he wasn’t on drugs or returning from another reality, then he’s bearing a massive anchor of delusion and seclusion. I guess he hasn’t asked any black men, any women or Latinos about how they feel about overt barriers. I guess he hasn’t chatted much with his famous former PhD student.

Dr. Rich observes a 50:50 ratio of men to women in graduate classes, but he’s not bothering to look at the proportion of women in permanent academic positions. Or how many women are selected to win awards.

Dr. Rich sees special programs for minorities, but he is ignoring the conditions that necessitate these programs. Black Americans comprise more than 12% of our population. So, I’m guessing that the proportion of black students in his program is at least ten percent, right? Are 10% of senior scientists black?

Oh, there’s a helluva lot of work to do. We are nowhere near equity. This is so damn obvious that I feel stupid even writing it.

But I have to write it, because Michael Rich, and those who share his views, aren’t just failing to fix the problem. They are part of the problem we need to fix. Those of us who are pushing up from the grassroots for equity and access need those senior faculty to validate the need for change. Those of us who are training students at the K-12 and undergraduate levels need people in graduate programs to not only recognize, but take concrete steps, to support and recruit minority students starting their science careers.

A lot of senior scientists feel just like Dr. Rich. I’ve heard it far too often. We need to inoculate the current generation of scientists in training against these toxic views of Dr. Rich. It’s probably too late to change Dr. Rich’s mind, as there’s nothing we can say that his famous former graduate student hasn’t already said or embodied. But we can keep pushing to move this mountain shovel by shovel. And we can advocate for heavy equipment that can really move the mountain.

In my undergrad years, my college president was a unicorn. Or, something almost as unique as a unicorn: A black electrical engineer. From Kansas. The story of John Slaughter is mighty amazing. When he recounted his path, from childhood, to grad school, to professor, to university president, I was both inspired and amazed by his tenacity in an environment that was unrelentingly opposed towards his progress in the direction of his choice.

Dr. Slaughter has long been retired. In the emerging generation of STEM leaders, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is yet another unicorn.

If one of my black students ends up being a global ambassador for her discipline, will she be a unicorn?

According to Dr. Rich, those problems have already been fixed. Of course, he’s flat out wrong, though I wish he wasn’t.

After one year as a Visiting Assistant Professor

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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.

The first days of a new tenure-track faculty job

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This is the season when some lucky ones preparing for new jobs in the fall. A few people have asked me what to expect, so I imagine even more are wondering. I’m writing from my own experience (starting 2.5 new faculty jobs), and yours have been different, so please do comment. What can you expect from the start, and what might you want to keep in mind? Here are some observations and some suggestions.

  • It’s more quiet and lonely than you might expect. There is a lot to do, but many tasks are solitary. September is a crazy time for everyone who is recombobulating from summertime adventures. Everybody will be glad to introduce themselves to you, but it won’t take very long before you’re sitting at the desk in your office, alone.

  • It’s busy. If you’re teaching more than you have in the past, be prepared to be overwhelmed. This is normal. It takes a while to figure out how to teach efficiently. At the outset, you can’t afford to not be an effective teacher, so learning how to be efficient is a work in progress, as you learn the acceptable standards in your new environment.

  • Define your boundaries for students at the outset, because your rep will spread quickly. If you want to get to know your students really well outside class, then be sure to leave your office door wide open and chat frequently with students. On the other hand, it’s easy to establish a reputation as a caring, fair and hard-working professor who doesn’t spend much time with students outside of class and office hours, if you set this at the outset. Time spent well with students can be the purpose of the job and the highest pleasure, but some other time spent with students could be a fruitless time sink. Find that line. The range of acceptable positions for that line varies hugely among institutions. So, listen and watch carefully.

  • From day one, decide how you will manage your classroom. The proliferation of communication devices has changed how students spend time in the classroom. Once the digital monster escapes from the box, you can’t put it back in without causing some degree of petulance. However, you can establish a clear pattern of expectations on the first day of class, which will be the structure that you need to help others deal with their addictions. This requires being proactive and isn’t something that you can effectively deal with mid-semester.

  • There is a huge amount of freedom. You have your ID, your email set up, your class schedule, supplies on the way to the lab. And then, you have absolutely nobody telling you what to do. This is, I argue, the most critical moment in your career – how do you spend the limited amount of time that you have? Are you focusing on writing grants, getting projects started, training new students, developing some curriculum, getting new experimental setups running, figuring out which grocery story to shop in, and how to make new friends in a new city? You can’t do all of these things at once, even if they all have to happen at some point. Your priorities will be based on your own circumstances, but don’t fall into a routine or a rut without planning. If you fall into a hole in which 100% of your work time is focused on the classroom, you might never be able to dig your way out. Manage your time at the outset. Of course you’re teaching more your first semesters as you are figuring things out. But it should not be all of the time, even at the start.

  • The most important person in the world can be your departmental admin person. Missing some office furniture? Direct deposit messed up? No book ordered for your course? Copier eating paper? Lab techs are often just as critical, too. Fortunately, I’m blessed with the most spectacular crew ever in my own department. I usually see these people because I need something, and I’m ever so thankful for the help I receive. Be sure to start off on a good foot because at crunch time, having these people in your corner is definitely priceless.

  • It takes years to understand university politics. This stuff affects you, but discussing the prospect for change might not be helpful. Most issues have long histories connected to big personalities, and until you know the stories and the individual players, don’t get involved.

  • If you’re a parent, and particularly if you’re a mom, then you’ve got to make sure that your spouse does his fair share of parenting. Even if you’re not a parent, but if you’re coupled, then you want to make sure that you aren’t doing more than your fair share of the duties at home. Oftentimes, domestic arrangements re-equilibrate with moving. If your career is as important as your spouse’s career, then less pleasant stuff done at home is an equal responsibility, too.

  • Identify senior faculty that you like and can trust, and not necessarily just in your own department. The working conditions and expectations of new faculty are different than those that have been on campus for a while. However, experience sometimes results in wisdom. When you need to learn context, it’s worthwhile to talk with someone who has already been there. Let’s say a couple students in your class are causing problems for you, or you don’t know how to ask the chair about leaving for a week to attend a conference. Or you need to find fresh undergrads to train in your lab, or you want to tap into campus funding for students but don’t know criteria the university-level committee uses when ranking applications. These are topics for your senior faculty mentors.

  • Maintain the time to keep yourself healthy. Make sure you still make the effort to prepare and eat real food, and be physically active however you have in the past. The time you put into exercising doesn’t cut your productivity, but increases it. When you feel good, you’ll work more efficiently and your mind will be more focused.

  • It’s okay to ask for help. You might be anxious about driving people crazy with a variety of minor inquiries, but you’re a newbie and it’s normal to try to figure things out. You were hired because the department already was confident that you’d do a good job, so it’s okay to ask questions that will help you out. Actually, as you make the rounds asking minor questions of people who could be of help, this can be a way to figure out who might evolve to become a trusted mentor.

This was not intended to be a comprehensive list, so additional input would be great, especially from those who have started a new job more recently than I have.

I also like all of the advice of Karen Kelsky about starting out your first year. I wrote this before I saw her piece, and the similarities are more than conincidental.

What kind of faculty job do you want?

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Faculty jobs involve teaching, research, and mentoring. Different kinds of universities expect faculty to conduct these activities in different proportions. What is your ideal balance? Consider the figure to find out where you belong.

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Figure by T McGlynn

For the uninitiated, SLAC indicates “Small Liberal Arts College.”

This figure implies a lot of mechanisms that differentiate institutions, and there are a bunch of reasons why the distribution for a regional comprehensive (where I work currently) fills in the gaps that other institutions don’t occupy.