On overdetermining success, embracing messiness, getting ducks in a row, and changing course

I am chairing a task force for Michigan’s Rackham Graduate School that is focused on graduate student mental health. This is something that I care about a lot and that I really wanted to lead. But, at the same time, it was a very different sort of leadership role than I’d had before. So, as I prepared for this work, I read a variety of books about organizational change and leadership.* Some argued for overdetermining success, while others argued for embracing vulnerability and tough, messy work. I found both sets of arguments convincing.

On the day of the first meeting of the full task, I felt like it was my first day of school, with all the nervousness and excitement that comes along with that. Right before the meeting began, I was talking with Heather Fuchs, the wonderful person from the Rackham Dean’s Office who works with the task force. She asked if I felt ready for the meeting and my reply was something along the lines of, “I don’t know! Half the stuff I read said I need to overdetermine success and the other half said I need to embrace vulnerability and messiness! I’m not sure what I should do!” (Heather joked that maybe I should write a book in the future on meeting in the middle.)

I was joking with Heather, but I really had been feeling unsure of how much to try to come up with a clear, specific plan for the work of the task force versus how much to let things evolve organically. So often, when people set up a choice between A and B, my reaction is: “Why not both?”** But in this case, the suggestions—overdetermine success! embrace messiness!—felt pretty opposite. I definitely didn’t want a hybrid that overdetermined messiness! Still, I decided to try to do both, but had no idea how that was going to work out.

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Changes I made the last time I taught that I think were useful

The last time I taught Intro Bio (in Fall 2017), I felt like things went really well in terms of interacting with students. And, while they’re a flawed metric, my teaching evaluations were notably higher than they’d been in the past. I mentioned that to a friend, who knew I had set goals before the semester about what I was going to do differently, and asked if I could write them out. So I did. And then I forgot I had done that.

In May, I wrote a post on a small change I made to try to make it clearer to students that I really care a lot about their learning. The short version is: before answering a question a student asked in class, I tried to do more to signal that I appreciated them asking the question. In the comments section, someone asked if it improved my teaching evaluations. My answer was “My student evaluations were unusually high after I did this, but I changed a few things so it’s hard to know how much of an effect this had. I wrote out all the changes for a colleague who was curious, and it might be worth turning that into a blog post.”

So, here is a modified version of what I sent my frolleague (friend + colleague = frolleague!):

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Poll: Parental leave and CVs

Back in 2016, I wrote a post about formatting a CV for a faculty job application (aimed especially at folks applying for positions in the US). In that post, I wrote:

One question that came via twitter was how to indicate slow research output due to having babies. I have seen people do this, and I try to take it into account. For example, when going through CVs, I keep track of things in a spreadsheet where I note the year of the PhD; I would add a note there to take into account family leave for birth of a child, eldercare, etc. However, there is no question that there are still a lot of biases against women who have children, and that it could easily trigger implicit (or even explicit) bias. So, I would recommend against it (even though it pains me to type that).

More recently, a few things prompted me to reflect on that advice. One of those things was a blog post by Athene Donald, who argues that people should include leaves on their CVs. Another was 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?

Those are all really interesting and important questions! So, today’s post is a poll (written with Tess) to try to get a sense for what is going on. Most of the questions in this poll are geared towards people who have sat on at least one search or award committee. There are also two questions asking people who did list parental leave or other family leave on their CV about where they listed it, as well as a free response question at the end — those can be answered by anyone, even those without experience on search or award committees. And, finally, if you know of publicly available examples of CVs that list leave, please share them in the comments!

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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.

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.

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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Manuscraps: on partially killing one’s manuscript darlings

If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.

– Arthur Quiller-Couch, “On Style”, 1914

“Murder your darlings” and its variants is common writing advice.* But what do you do if you’re not quite sure you’re ready to part with those darlings? My strategy is the same as Ethan White’s:

I suspect this is a common strategy (certainly the twitter responses suggest it is), though I don’t think it’s one that gets discussed much.

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Why I told a room of 300 people that I see a therapist

Last week, I had the honor of being a plenary speaker at the biology19 conference in Zurich. This is an annual meeting of Swiss organismal biologists, where most of the attendees are Swiss graduate students and postdocs. When I first thought about my talk, I debated whether to use the last part to talk about mental health in academia, especially since I am on sabbatical this year and some of my sabbatical projects relate to student mental health. But, when I prepared my talk, I decided to just stick with my normal research.

On the first day of the meeting, I had several conversations with people that veered towards student mental health, which made me wonder if I should have included mental health in my talk. Then, the afternoon plenary on the first day was given by Virpi Lummaa. She gave a really interesting talk about her research, but pivoted at the end to talk more about the human side of science. It was inspirational. So inspirational that I went back to the hotel and changed the end of my talk to focus on mental health in academia. When I decided to make that change, I made another decision: I would admit to a room full of hundreds of my colleagues that I see a therapist regularly, and that doing that is essential to my ability to do everything I do, including my science.

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When did you realize you work on climate change?

Some ecologists start their careers planning to study climate change, and others make a decision to pivot towards that line of research. But something I find fascinating is that there are ecologists, myself included, who didn’t necessarily set out to study climate change, but who are accidental climate change biologists. To give just one example: if you work on a time series on natural populations, communities, or ecosystems that extends more than a few years, chances are you’ve found that climate change is now a part of what you’re studying.

I’ve thought about this over the years as projects we work on that started out as basic research into host-parasite interactions end up relating to climate change. Some links are obvious—wanting to understand how temperature influences host-parasite interactions leads pretty naturally to thinking about how climate change will influence host-parasite interactions. Some links are less obvious—for example, we wondered whether the light environment might be influencing when and where we saw parasite outbreaks. As I recall, our initial interest in this was not related to climate change. But lakes are getting browner, in part due climate change, so any work we do on how lake light levels influence disease naturally links with climate change. And we now have some data on host-parasite interactions in lakes that spans 1-2 decades. Once you’re into decadal time scales, you have to consider the impact of climate change on what you’re seeing.

I’ve also thought about this in terms of some projects I didn’t work on. When I started grad school, one of the projects I was thinking of working on related to what was going on under the ice in lakes in winter, and how things like snow cover influenced that. So, when I saw news articles about a new study showing that there will be an “extensive loss of lake ice…within the next generation”, I thought back to those grad school plans to work on lake ice & snow cover. My recollection is that my interest in that project was mainly wanting to understand the basic biology of lakes, but clearly it would have ended up being a study of climate change if I’d pursued it.

Based on conversations with colleagues, I know I’m not alone in coming to realize that I am an accidental climate change biologist.

So, I’m curious: for my fellow accidental climate change scientists, when did you realize you were studying climate change?