Tuesday, July 1, 2014

ADVICE: Affordable Suggestions for Department Chairs

This Department is Under Construction
Fran Bagenal from the University of Colorado started this list of suggestions for improving the department climate and helping with the recruitment of students from underrepresented groups.  Readers* of the “Diversity in Physics and Astronomy” Facebook page made addition contributions.

1 - Once a month or so invite about 4 students for lunch/tea in your office and ask them (i) what's going well, (ii) what could be improved in the department. More than 3 less intimidating, less than 6 allows everyone to speak. Pick specific groups or mix them up. 

2 - Make a study area that is inviting & comfortable. Challenge the students to come up with ideas for wall hangings celebrating scientific achievements from a diverse group of achievers.

3 - Pay senior students to hang around the study area as informal "study buddies" to the junior students. This not only helps the younger students get over the common road bump where they are discouraged by their first challenging physics course - but there's nothing like teaching for mastering the basics.

4 - Host a department meet-and-greet. Not only will the students feel more welcomed by professors, they'll also get to know each other.

5 - Organize once-a-term panel discussions on professional development: how to pick a grad school, non-academic careers, improving your writing skills, tips on giving a talk, etc. Alternatively, create a freshman seminar with similar topics, but with more time to explore the details of each. 

6 - Colloquium speakers: (i) let students submit suggestions; (ii) each year bring in one or two top-class speakers who can present an interesting science issue at a level appropriate for undergraduates; (iii) especially if your faculty has limited diversity, make sure to invite diverse speakers; everyone will benefit, and it is especially important for students from underrepresented groups to see role models that look like them.

7 - Invite graduate students to serve on graduate admissions committees, even if they are not voting members. 

8 - Have students vote for a Department Community Service award, the student who does the most to promote a welcoming and collegial student environment. Also, request from everyone anonymous department culture evaluations/feedback at the end of each year.

9 - Support and recognize public outreach in the community, particularly underserved/low socioeconomic areas. Efforts that create ongoing relationships between faculty and school instructors - continuing visits, running teacher workshops in the summer - have been shown to have good effects.

10 - Highlight student and postdoc research on the department home page (not just faculty).

11 - Let undergrads meet with colloquium speakers on their own to ask questions they might be afraid to ask in front of the faculty.

12 – Set up a student and/or postdoc mentoring program where the more senior people mentor on careers, courses, and all things that are not covered by tutoring.

13 - Facilities - this is really absurd - but it seems that many physics departments are in buildings that were designed when they only expected male occupants. While women may only be 20% of the population they should not need to walk up the stairs, along the corridor, through to the next building, down another flight of stairs and around the corner to find the one pokey converted cupboard that's the woman's room. Sure, they eventually get used to it, but it is not going to make visiting women feel welcome.

14 - Do not hand these responsibilities over to the women in the department or a Women In Science group. Sure, such groups are important and it is great if the women in the department are active in fostering diversity. But the climate rarely improves unless there is real leadership from the top - whatever the gender of the leader.

* Thanks to Adam Burgasser, Caitlin Casey, Johanna Teske, Ilse van Bemmel, Caroline Simpson, and other for suggestions.


Zuleyka Zevallos said...

These are great! Some other examples that might help are to work across universities/research centres to do annual or semi-annual workshops for postgraduate students focused on career issues. This is especially useful for students in smaller universities who might not get a chance to work with other women or minorities from their field. The workshop could include a panel on how to publish; how to write a grant; managing supervisor relationships; and of course a session on diversity. We talked about this on STEM Women with Erin Kane – how do we manage sexual harassment in the field or in a lab? We don’t often get a safe space to discuss these tricky issues, which leaves students especially vulnerable if they don’t know their rights, obligations and sources of support. Additionally, organising online events would be helpful for students studying in rural or remote areas. Google+ Hangouts would be one cost-effective way to extend participation of these students as well as others who may find it difficult to travel long distances, such as disabled students. This enables people to send in questions beforehand as well as during the HOA, and it can be integrated with other social media.

I participated in a two-year interdisciplinary leadership course as a postgrad and it's one of the best things I ever did. The course included an eclectic mix of disciplines. There were around 12 of us in the group, including engineers, medical students, psychologists, neuropsychs, mathematicians, designers, materials scientists and sociologists. The idea was to choose strong students who could be leaders in their fields, but also facilitate cross-disciplinary collaboration. Learning about leadership, team work and communication in this context, with a focus on diversity across STEM, was incredibly useful and it would help my later career working in interdisciplinary research. Even if postgrads stay in one area (like astronomy) they leave their degree with training about team-work, how to engage with different personality types, cross-cultural communication and diversity issues, such as how to be aware about gender, other cultures, sexuality and negotiating with people who think differently about science. The course ended with teams producing research presented to senior scientists who would come in for one session and gave us feedback. It was a heavy time investment by our university, but it was one of the most challenging and most productive ways to learn.

Shawn Deny said...

This not only helps the younger students get over the common road bump where they are discouraged by their first challenging physics course - but there's nothing like teaching for mastering the basics.