On getting—and giving—well-meaning but bad advice

Listen to other people’s advice, but that doesn’t mean you should follow it.

– Janet Currie, as quoted in Air & Light & Time & Space by Helen Sword

When I was thinking about coming up for promotion to full professor, I asked some senior colleagues whether they thought it would make sense. Two senior colleagues independently said that, while they thought I was definitely deserving of promotion, they were worried that I hadn’t done enough teaching at Michigan; they thought that might cause problems for promotion. I had actually taught somewhat more than I should have, but had had several leaves, including based on having two children at Michigan. These colleagues were concerned that those gaps in my teaching record might cause problems for promotion. I decided to come up for promotion anyway—I felt confident I could write a strong teaching statement. I was promoted…and got a teaching award as part of the process.

I truly think my colleagues had my best interests in mind when they gave the advice—they have been incredibly strong advocates for women in science. (Indeed, they have surely contributed to a climate and culture that has allowed me to be successful.) But, in my case, following their advice would have led to me postponing a promotion, which would have meant postponing the raise & other benefits that come with it. As one example of the latter—I don’t think I would have been able to do some of the things I’ve done this past year related to grad student mental health without being at the full professor rank.

In the past few months, I’ve shared this story a couple of times, using it as an anecdote about how some people mean well but end up giving advice that isn’t in the best interests of the advisee. Now, based on the results of the poll we did on listing parental & other leaves on CVs, I’m realizing that I have probably* been doing the same thing. I have been advising people not to list parental leave on CVs. I didn’t have direct evidence of listing leaves on a CV being used against anyone, but was focusing on the downsides (we know some people doubt whether moms will really be committed to their work) and not on potential upsides (that committee members might productively use that information).

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Poll results: Good news! Listing parental or family leave on your CV seems more likely to help than to hurt. More committees should give applicants opportunities to list major life events.

Recently, we did a poll asking about parental or other family leave and CVs. It was prompted by both a blog post by Athene Donald, who argues that people should include leaves on their CVs and an email from Tess Grainger who asked:

Is there is any evidence of bias related to parental leave, or it a thing of the past? How many people have been on a search committee (recently) in which someone indicated any kind of negative bias associated with a parental leave (or leave for illness, eldercare etc.)? Is this something that still happens, or should I and others not hesitate put these leaves in our records?

Poll results are below, but the brief answer to Tess’s questions seems to be that listing parental leave on a CV is unlikely to have a big impact but, if these poll responses are indicative of the field as a whole, listing leave seems more likely to help than to hurt. In many countries, applicants are already given specific guidance on when/where/how to list leaves on CVs. At the end of this post, I call on North American search committees (especially those in the US, where we are way behind on this front) to start routinely giving applicants the opportunity to list leaves, career interruptions, and major life events.

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Making office hours more accessible: should we be calling them student hours and recording them? What else can we do?

Recently, I’ve been involved in a few discussions related to office hours and how to make them more accessible. There are many instructors, myself included, who would love to have more students come to office hours—I think lots of students would benefit from coming, but most don’t come (and that’s even though we have a relatively good turnout at office hours for a class our size). There are many, complex reasons why students do not come to office hours, but probably some key things are:

  • Not realizing what (or who!) they are for
  • Not feeling safe showing up to them (e.g., out of fear of looking bad in front of the instructor)
  • Not being able to make it to them (e.g., because of work or childcare)

The solution to the first one seemed so obvious once I saw this tweet:

https://twitter.com/amy_nusbaum/status/1100440431500775424

From the twitter reactions, I know I am not alone in wondering how this never occurred to me—it’s a great idea! It, along with having some more information in the syllabus about what student hours are for, starts to address the second point, too. But that point and the following one can’t be fully addressed by a name change. When I was emailing about this with a colleague, she jokingly replied that maybe we should call them “FREE ADDITIONAL INSTRUCTION THAT SOMEONE ALREADY PAID FOR WHY DON’T YOU COME???”, then immediately added: “Just kidding – I never went either. I always had to work and was too shy to ask someone to adjust around my work schedule.”

So, I was really intrigued to learn recently that a colleague of mine at Michigan, John Montgomery, records his office hours (which he calls “Open Discussion”). Michigan has a lecture capture system set up in classrooms. I use this for my lectures, which are all recorded and made available to students via the course website. Recording my lectures helps students review material, plus makes it easier for students who need to miss lecture (e.g., because they are sick) to catch up. It had never occurred to me to recording office hours/student hours, but, imilar to the “student hours” solution, it seems obvious in retrospect.

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Seagulling, ego itching powder, supporting one another, and happiness

A friend recently shared an episode of the 10% Happier podcast with me, in which the podcast host, Dan Harris, interviews Johann Hari about his new book, Lost Connections. When listening to it, I kept being struck by the connections to academia. One of the first connections occurs right at the beginning, when he notes that, when it comes to understanding the reasons for the rise in mental health conditions, we need to focus not just on chemical imbalances but also power imbalances. Indeed!

But the main thing I wanted to focus on in this blog post is about another part of the podcast, where Hari talks about how our society is set up in a way that is basically like ego itching powder—we are constantly encouraged to think about ourselves and whether we’re getting ahead and getting enough attention and stuff. About 25 minutes into the episode, Hari talks about:

go[ing] through the day in this ego-itching-powder mode, which the environment sets us up to do, which is: your gain is my loss, we’re in a race for scarce resources and it’s like we’re rushing out of a burning building and I’ve got to clamber over you, I’ve got to fight for every moment of what I get, and if you get ahead of me that places me in danger.

He’s talking about society in general but, of course, this applies to academia, too—academia definitely pours ego itching powder on us regularly.

Hari also talks about research that was done asking whether people can set out to make themselves happier if they try. (This is about 30 minutes into the episode.) The answer is: not if they live in the US, but yes in several other countries where this has been studied. The reason for the difference is that, in the US, we try to make ourselves happier by doing something for ourselves—maybe we buy ourselves a new pair of shoes or some chocolate or something like that—or worse, as the podcast host Dan Harris suggested: we try to crush our enemies at work. Hari compares this to trying to get your legs out of quicksand by reaching your arms and trying to grab your legs—it just makes things worse.

In contrast, in the other countries that were studied (Russia, Japan, and Taiwan), people were able to make themselves happier. That’s because in those countries, people try to make themselves happier by doing something for someone else—a friend, a family member, their community. Doing things for other people ends up making you feel happier.

Right after listening to this, I had a day where someone seagulled something research-related that I had worked on for years and was proud of—he swooped in, shit all over it, and then flew off to leave me to deal with the mess.* It made me feel bad for the rest of the day. I slept terribly, and I still felt bad the next day.

It turns out, though, that my schedule that day was filled with projects related to graduate student mental health. I was working on two different but related projects that are aimed at better supporting graduate student mental health. I spent the day working hard on them, and, at the end of the day, realized I was feeling good and hadn’t devoted any mental energy to Mr. Seagull since I had started working on the mental health projects. It doesn’t mean that what he did was okay—it wasn’t—but it was interesting to me how little it was bothering me after I’d focused on these other projects.

As I’ve been reflecting on this, I’ve been thinking about Brian’s old post on whether deans are making the same error as hen breeders. We have largely set up a culture in academia where we not only pour ego itching powder all over everyone all the time, but we also often inadvertently select against working collaboratively and trying to boost each other.

I know that I am incredibly fortunate to be in a position where I have a lot of flexibility in terms of what I work on—where I have the flexibility to choose to devote a substantial amount of time to working on projects such as the ones on student mental health. But I think this general idea can apply differently to different people at different career stages.

A year or so ago, I was on a panel with a graduate student, Leslie Decker, who said she wished someone had told her right at the start of grad school that others’ success would not prevent her own. She noted that success is not finite, and the ability of those around you to succeed does not detract from your own progress. She suggested that we should take heart in that fact and support one another.

She’s right.

 

 

* For the birders, yes, I am aware that “seagull” is not a technical term and that some of you will argue with this characterization of gulls. For folks in Britain who are aware of another meaning of the term “seagull”, yes, I am aware of it, too. I do not care about either of these objections to the term.

On listening and responding to students: A small shift I made to be more encouraging to students who ask questions

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently had a piece that focused on “How to Listen”. When I saw the title, I immediately clicked on it because I’ve been thinking a lot about mentoring and how to help people build skills that will allow for better mentoring relationships. Communication skills are clearly important for mentoring, and obviously communication is only effective if someone is listening. But while I clicked on it in that context, what ended up striking me the most was how it relates to a teaching challenge I had faced.

Near the beginning of the piece, the author, David D. Perlmutter, says,

Don’t just listen — show you’re listening. Many people have habits that betray us when we are not paying attention: wandering eyes, fidgeting, tapping fingers, and, everyone’s favorite, cutting off the speaker in midsentence. In administration, almost as important as listening is that people perceive you to be.

Here lies the rub for academic administrators: Most of the concerns brought to us are remarkably limited in variety. Often the answer or solution is evident long before someone has finished explaining the problem. Nevertheless, good listening involves steeling yourself to silence.

Sometimes what we learn from a conversation or a public forum is less a set of facts and figures than a confirmation of emotions and feelings. If you jump in too quickly, you risk coming off as brusque, inattentive, and, yes, a poor listener — even if you deliver the wisdom of Solomon.

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Recommitting to email boundaries

In November 2016, I did a poll and wrote a post about how overwhelming email can be. About a quarter of respondents to the poll said they rarely or never feel overwhelmed by email. I am not one of them. I’m in the majority that are overwhelmed by email at least some of the time. Other notable poll findings were:

  • people with more emails in their inbox were more likely to feel overwhelmed by email, and
  • faculty were more likely than grad students and postdocs to have a lot of work-related emails in their inbox.

At the time I wrote up the results of that poll, one of the main strategies I settled on for trying to be less overwhelmed by email was to batch my inbox, so that my emails only arrived once or twice a day. The idea is to treat email like regular mail – a thing that arrives at a given time and that you deal with in a batch (or, um, toss on the table and leave there for a while).

After that poll, I switched to using batched inbox to batch my mail. (It was free when I signed up, but I don’t think it is now.) It was amazing how much less overwhelming email was! I wasn’t getting distracted by emails as they arrived in my inbox, I found I actually got less email than I thought, and dealing with them in batches really reduced the amount of time and energy I spent on email. (I’m not alone. Arjun Raj has a post about how much email filtering helped his peace of mind.)

So, I was a fan. But then I started “cheating” and checking the folder where the batched emails hang out until they get dumped into the inbox. And, in the years since then, I have gone through cycles where I recommit to batching, think “OMG, why did I ever stop doing this?!?! Dealing with emails in bulk is so much better!!!”, then start sliding and going back to more of a system of dealing with emails as they come in (why? why do I do this?!? I know it’s counterproductive!), then get completely overwhelmed by emails, then at some point remember that batching is supposed to help with that, at which point I recommit to it and once again think “OMG, why did I ever stop doing this?!?!”

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Guest post: Strategies for helping your research reach a wider audience

Note from Meghan:  This is a guest post from Richard B. Primack and Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie; Richard has written guest posts for us before, including one on using a professional editor. This guest post is on a topic that I get asked about regularly when I travel for seminar trips, so I suspect it will be of interest to readers. I’ve added some thoughts of my own throughout the post below.

 

As scientists, we love our research and want to share our findings far and wide. As ecologists and conservation biologists, we especially hope that our findings affect policy, management, or everyday stewardship. And funding agencies remind us that we must ensure our research has broader impacts that benefit society, beyond just publishing scientific papers. But how do we effectively communicate our research? Here, we share some tips about how researchers can communicate research to the media, and reach audiences beyond peer-reviewed journal readers. We use examples from a recent paper of ours published with co-authors.

Make your research exciting—identify your hook. In our recent paper, Phenological mismatch with trees reduces wildflower carbon budgets, published in Ecology Letters, we emphasized that we are building on the observations of Henry David Thoreau; Thoreau was the “hook” that we use to attract much of the interest in our research.

Make the message easy to understand—tell a story. We wrote a press release that told a story about our research and highlighted key points in non-technical language and without jargon. Even though Richard’s academic home of Boston University does not generally issue press releases about scientific papers, our summary helped reporters quickly understand our work, its significance, and potential angles that could interest readers or listeners.

(From Meghan: if you’re having a hard time finding your hook or story, there are some great resources. Randy Olsen’s And, But, Therefore structure is great, and laid out in detail in his book, Houston, We Have a Narrative. The Aurbach et al. “half life” activity (described here) is also a helpful way to find your message.)

Provide informative, high-quality photos. We take many photos to illustrate our research and the key results. Sometimes these photos are carefully staged to illustrate the research process or results. Reporters are more likely to write a story if excellent photos are available.

A man wearing a baseball cap is crouched down in a field. In one hand, he is holding a field notebook. The other hand is reaching out towards a plant with yellow flowers.

Having good photos, such as this carefully arranged shot of Primack working in the field, helps to create media interest.

(From Meghan: these are so important, and often people forget to take them! I agree that carefully staged photos are valuable. Getting videos is very helpful, too, including for reporters to use as “B roll”. I recently shared various short snippets with a reporter—I was glad to have them, but also wished I had more! Another example of how videos can be helpful comes from this recent story by some of my colleagues at Michigan, which went viral because a student on the trip, Maggie Grundler, thought to pull out her phone and capture a quick video of a very cool interaction.)

Reach out to the media and be responsive.  We emailed our press release and eye-catching photos to contacts in the media. One of them liked the story and wrote an article about our work for the Boston Globe. He was writing the article on tight deadline, so we promptly answered his numerous questions.

(From Meghan: A couple of things related to this: first, reporters are often working on much, much tighter deadlines than we are used to—they might need to file the story by the end of the day they contact you. So, you need to be quick about responding to them, but it also helps to give them as much lead time as possible. Second, reporters generally will not share their story with you ahead of time for you to review. It’s very different than working with a university press officer!)

One thing can lead to another. The Boston Globe writer pitched the story to National Public Radio, and he will interview us for a radio program in April.

(From Meghan: One thing can lead to another….or not, or maybe it does but with a big delay. One of the things I didn’t really appreciate when I first started doing more science communication is that you can spend a lot of time talking to a reporter and it can end up going nowhere. [example 1, example 2] It can be really frustrating! If anyone has advice on how to make this less likely, I’d love to hear it!)

Get with social media. Caitlin tweeted about the article, creating buzz in the twittersphere. We wrote a short summary of our paper for our lab blog—essentially a shorter, more conversational version of the press release—with links to a pdf of our article. Our lab blog has been viewed around 100,000 times in 6 years, so we estimate that this will be 500 views of this story, a nice complement to the Twitter buzz.

Publish on-line. To generate publicity within our Boston University community, we wrote an article for BU Research, using the press release as a starting point. This article further widened the audience who will hear about the research, with relatively little additional effort on our part.

Leverage institutional networks.  The other co-authors of our paper reached out to their universities and media contacts, sharing our press release. The paper received added coverage in institutional publications and websites of the University of Maine and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

(From Meghan: another reason this can be useful: one press officer might not be interested or might not have the time, but someone else’s might.)

Send out pdfs.  We emailed a pdf of our paper to 100 colleagues in our field, along with a very short email summarizing the key points of the article, again pulling from the same basic story in the press release and blog and Twitter posts.

Each paper and project are different, but hopefully this post has given you some ideas of things to try.

Other resources:

Compass – https://www.compassscicomm.org

The Op Ed Project – https://www.theopedproject.org/pitching

Cahill Jr, J. F., Lyons, D., & Karst, J. (2011). Finding the “pitch” in ecological writing. The Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America92(2), 196-205.

Merkle, B. G. (2018). Tips for Communicating Your Science with the Press: Approaching Journalists. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America99(4), 1-4.

If your field experiment has few replicates (and it probably does), intersperse your treatments rather than randomizing them

The last experiment I did as a graduate student was one where I wanted to experimentally test the effect of predation on parasitism. To do this, I set up large (5,000 L) whole water column enclosures (more commonly called “bags”) in a local lake. These are really labor intensive, meaning I could only have about 10 experimental units. I decided to use a replicated regression design, with two replicates of each of five predation levels. These were going to be arranged in two spatial blocks (linear “rafts” of bags), each with one replicate of each predation level treatment.

left picture shows two objects in the distance in a lake; the most obvious thing about them is fencing at the surface; the left picture shows a close up of one of them where you can see five individual bag enclosures

Left: two experimental rafts; right: a close up of one of the rafts, showing the five different bag enclosures

As I got ready to set up the experiment, my advisor asked me how I was going to decide how to arrange the bags. I confidently replied that I was going to randomize them within each block. I mean, that’s obviously how you should assign treatments for an experiment, right? My advisor then asked what I would do if I ended up with the two lowest predation treatments at one end and the two highest predation treatments at the other end of the raft. I paused, and then said something like, “Um, I guess I’d re-randomize?”

This taught me an important experimental design lesson: interspersing treatments is more important than randomizing them. This is especially true when there are relatively small numbers of experimental units*, which is often the case for field experiments. In this case, randomly assigning things is likely to lead to clustering of treatments in a way that could be problematic.

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Building confidence, building resilience, and building CVs

When I was at the biology19 meetings recently, someone said something to me that I can’t stop thinking about: a student’s first manuscript should get sent to a journal where it will be accepted without much of a struggle; the second submission should be more of a struggle, but should get accepted at the first journal to which it was submitted; the third should go somewhere where it gets rejected. The person who said this, Hanna Kokko, acknowledged this was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, and that many factors will end up influencing where someone submits a given manuscript; her real approach is to respect the first author’s own wishes, after a discussion of the pros and cons of different options. But her tongue-in-cheek recommendation is motivated by the recognition that rejections can be a huge hit to one’s confidence, especially when someone is just starting out. I’ve seen (and personally experienced) the enormous confidence hit that can come from serial rejections of a manuscript, again, especially when one is just starting out. So, trying to figure out a strategy to reduce the potential for a big ego blow (while learning to deal with rejection too—but not before one has succeeded twice) makes a lot of sense to me.

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In which my ink runs out and I realize there are lots of things that are interesting and important, and I cannot do them all

Last Monday, I faced a post-travel inbox filled with emails that needed replies. Some of them were invitations for things that would take up my time, but that seemed interesting or important or valuable or all three. And, then, of course, there were all the other things I needed to do as part of my job – editing manuscripts, writing letters of recommendation, sending emails to get people access to the lab, analyzing data, etc. And it was also the day where my post on seeing a therapist appeared, which led to lots of interactions on social media, via text, and through email. All of that led me to revisit a question that I am constantly asking myself, and that I surely will never stop asking myself: how should I spend my work time?

I couldn’t get this out of my head, and, as I walked to daycare, I realized that there are three questions I should consider as I evaluate whether to do something:

  • Is it officially part of my job?
  • Am I particularly good at it?
  • Do I enjoy doing it?

I thought about how, ideally, I should try to prioritize things where the answer would be “yes” for all three. And I thought about how I spend a lot of time on things where the answer to all three of those questions is “no”.

When I got to daycare, I knew I wanted to think about this more, and was worried I would forget it. So, I pulled out my notebook in the daycare lobby, propped it on top of the stroller, and drew this:

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