Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Walking on Eggshells

Today's guest post is by Bekki Dawson, a graduate student in the Astronomy Department at
Harvard University. Her research focuses on the dynamics of planetary systems.

The battle for gender equity is sometimes waged at picnic tables, during the sliver of Boston summer weather pleasant enough for someone to bother rounding up a few of us to eat outside. The table gradually fills as people emerge from the building with their microwaved Tupperware. One colleague pauses as he approaches the table. "I hope I'm not interrupting a Women in Science Meeting."

I hadn't noticed until now that all four of us seated at the picnic table are women. For a moment, no one says anything and I should definitely say something, but not just anything, and I don't know how to respond, only how not to. My list of How Not to Respond goes like:

  1. For goodness sake, don't “overreact”.
  2. But whatever you do, don't just pretend like nothing happened! This is exactly that sort of remark that can subtly cause women to feel like they don't belong in our field. Go on, champion some gender equity!
  3. Also, don't spend the rest of the lunch distractedly dissecting your sandwich as you try to put yourself in his shoes. You'll find it hard to empathize, because your own experiences with skewed gender ratios are off by a couple orders of magnitude: like at the packed physics seminar, when you look around and see only one other woman in the audience and realize, with a mixture of unease and glee, that you're Not Supposed to Be Here. "I hope I'm not interrupting a Men in Science Meeting."

Maybe, despite my attempts at adherence to How Not to Respond #1, I am overreacting. Maybe this is just like if all four folks at the picnic table were wearing khakis. Someone wearing corduroys might feel awkward.

If one little innocent joke can unnerve me for hours, it's no wonder that some astronomers feel like they're walking on eggshells. They're kind and well-meaning people full of hearty good humor unbounded by political correctness; they find themselves unable, despite their excellent intentions, to comply with whims and dictates of the sensitive and easily-offended.

I have a message for anyone who thinks that women in astronomy advocates are often overreacting: I hear you. The feeling that you're walking on eggshells, that people are taking offense at what you say and do with your best intentions, is legitimate. But any advocate for overturning the status quo is by definition “overreacting”.

When I first came to the Center for Astrophysics, I got lost a lot; a century of remodeling has produced a network of buildings with unexpected dead ends and floor numberings that don't line up. Even as an Nth year graduate student, I still get lost on occasion, and it rattles me to be somewhere so comfortable and familiar and then suddenly, disorientatingly have no idea where I am. When you've endeavored to be a good person all your life and then find yourself inadvertently offending people, I imagine it's sort of like getting lost in your own astronomy department.

But sometimes you have to embrace getting lost. Getting lost makes me realize that though I think I know the Center for Astrophysics well, all I actually know is just my own flawed, inaccurate perception of it, that doesn't include a second entrance to the library or a neglected corridor on the first floor. If you -- reader who struggles to walk on eggshells -- can embrace the idea that sexism and unconscious bias sometimes make the astronomical community a disheartening place for women and others from underrepresented groups, perhaps you'll recognize that those eggshells you find yourself walking on don't represent fragile, shoulder-chipped egos primed for a fight but a delicate, budding sense of belonging, a feeling of Not Being Not Supposed to Be Here, something that is worth taking care not to crush.

Let's turn now to the related situation in which you wish -- with the best of intentions -- to discuss something related to underrepresentation in astronomy, but you're worried about offending someone. What to do? Here are some of my suggestions, and I hope that others will share their own suggestions in the comments:

  1. Listen as much as possible. In the case of women of astronomy, many have experienced not being able to get a word in edgewise -- or of speaking but not being heard -- so it would be particularly frustrating to have that happen in a conversation about women in astronomy.
  2. Instead of soliciting an opinion on a sensitive topic in front of a group, forcing someone to serve as a spokesperson for an underrepresented group, consider having a conversation one-on-one.
  3. Demonstrate your trustworthiness by keeping personal stories confidential unless the person you're speaking with gives you explicit permission to share. But see what they would prefer -- maybe they would like to spread the story to raise awareness.
  4. Even if your first reaction is skepticism (for example, to someone's claims of discrimination) try to be open-minded. All you have to judge by are your own perceptions and experiences, and there may be parts of the building that you've never discovered.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Paid Parental Leave for Graduate Students

For my first post to the Women in Astronomy Blog, I would like to describe some activities that the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy is undertaking with regard to parental leave policies for graduate students.

When I joined the CSWA last year, I jumped at the chance to move this issue forward. Of course the entire topic of paid parental leave for employees in the US is enormous and perhaps baffling to our colleagues in any of the 178 other countries that have national laws guaranteeing some form of paid leave for new mothers (50 of these also guarantee paid leave for new fathers). While the US Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 does mandate up to 12 weeks of (potentially unpaid) leave for workers, many students are not considered employees and hence it isn't even clear if the FMLA applies. And besides, one might ask, aren't leave policies at a University the purview of the upper administration (in discussion with the various funding agencies), and thus the desires of the relatively small pool of astronomers students a modest consideration?

Well, I would like to make the case that there is good reason to think that we are going to see some rather interesting developments on this question over the next few years.  At the start of 2012, I mailed a letter to the chair of each of the 28 departments of astronomy and/or astrophysics that offer the degree of PhD, asking for the details of their parental leave and childcare policies for graduate student parents.  And, I was delighted when fully 100% of these recipients sent me a reply! My first pass at the data indicates that we are in a time of rapid change and the current policies vary tremendously between institutions: A number of universities have recently adopted a paid leave policy for all graduate student parents, while others offer no paid leave but do allow students to retain benefits such as health care and students housing; some do not even have an official policy. I also learned that solutions needn't be University wide: The Department of Astronomy at the University Wisconsin Madison has recently implemented a paid family and medical leave policy that is entirely home grown. Way to go Badgers!

My own university could surely do much better, and I point you to the excellent article by two former Harvard graduate students of astronomy, Sarah Ballard (now a Sagan fellow at the University of Washington) and Gurtina Besla (now a Hubble fellow at Columbia University), which was definitely an inspiration to me on this topic both here at Harvard and nationwide.

I do think we need to shift this discussion from one in which the students and postdocs advocate for their own needs to one in which senior faculty, department chairs, and deans advocate on their behalf. With that in mind, Laura Trouille (CIERA fellow at Northwestern University) and I will host a Special Session on Family Leave Policies and Childcare for Graduate Students and Postdocs at the upcoming AAS meeting in Long Beach (this blog post addresses only graduate student leave, but the special session will include leave for postdocs).  The speakers will include AAS President David Helfand, Ed Ajhar (Program Director for the the NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral fellowships, as well as the Extragalactic Astronomy and Cosmology Research Grants), Chas Beichman (Executive Director of the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute, and director of the Sagan fellowships program), as well as Natalie Gosnell (graduate student) and Bob Mathieu (Department chair) from the University Wisconsin (who will tell us how they put their plan into action). I will also present the results from my national survey. The session will be Monday, January 7th from 2:00-3:30pm.

While I hope that many graduate students and postdocs will attend, it is essential that the more senior individuals who are in a position to change policy at their respective institutions participate as well.  So, if you are such a person, please consider attending. If you are a student or postdoc, might I suggest you ask your department chair to identify the faculty member who will represent your department? The goal will be both to inform about current practices, and to discuss specific means by which departments and funding agencies can adopt more supportive policies.

I hope to see you in Long Beach!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Job Application Season -- Think Broadly & Take Advantage of Resources!

With the job application season around the corner once again, I thought it might be helpful to share a few relatively new resources spearheaded by astronomers, for astronomers. The AAS Job Register is starting to branch out to advertise more than just academic jobs, but here are additional resources to help you access the broader range of jobs we have the skills to excel in.

AstroBetter advice post on how to organize a Career Panel at your home institution

Facebook Group -- Jobs for Astronomers

LinkedIn Group of 'former astronomers who now work outside of academia'

AstroBetter Career Paths Wiki

Additional resources that have been around for awhile:

AAS Career Resource Page

Academic and non-academic career networks

If you know of additional useful resources, please post them!

Note: Besides serving on the CSWA, I am the liaison with the AAS Employment Committee (EC). Thanks to Kelle Cruz, new chair of the AAS EC, for sharing these!

Monday, August 20, 2012


I’ll admit it – I’m an Olympics junkie. During these 17 days every two years, I stay up way too late to watch events I never think twice about otherwise. This summer they included synchronized diving, rowing, weightlifting, badminton, swimming – you name it, I’ve probably watched it. I’m addicted to watching thrills of victory and agonies of defeat, none closer to my heart this year than our local girl, Jordyn Wieber, who, though the 2011 World Champion in the All Around for gymnastics, failed to qualify for the same in the Olympics. My sister was a competitive gymnast, so I know her life, and my heart broke for Jordyn. However, as I watched her rebound during the team competition and witnessed the anxiety – and then the elation – of the close-knit teammates as they awaited the final score to post for the Team competition, I couldn’t help but think how much graduate school is like a gymnastics event. In fact, academia is very much like the Olympics in general.  You don’t believe me?  Let me explain… but forgive me if I stretch the analogies or flip-flop between ideas. 

Entering graduate school is like mounting a gymnastics apparatus – for a comparison, let’s just call it the beam, on which we have to balance the many aspects of our life as a graduate student. As we take courses, collect data, write programs, or build instruments, we are performing routines that get evaluated by judging advisors and reviewers.  Eventually, we dismount, graduating with a brain full of knowledge and a diploma in hand.  Sometimes we stick the landing, and sometimes we don’t. The anxieties and pressures are similar, and along the way, we might have to re-evaluate our progress and our goals, much as a gymnast must after a fall or an extra step. What is the new level we wish to achieve?  Or do we leave altogether?  Our team of friends, families, or advisors, who motivates us and cheers us on, despite extra steps and balance checks, helps us with those decisions.

To draw some uneven parallels, I think teaching is much like competing in the heptathlon, a collection of Track and Field events in which athletes compete in the 100-meter hurdles, the 200-meter sprint, the 800-meter run, the long jump, the javelin, the high jump, and the shotput. Since I try to expose my students to the whole Universe in just 15 weeks, I regularly sprint among topics and constantly answer questions that students throw at me.  Sometimes the hurdles of requisite math skills and expectations are easily overcome, but sometimes it’s a long leap for students to make the connections. Round and round I go with some of them! Honestly, when I’m finished teaching non-science majors about all things astronomy, I’m out of breath!

Research could be described as any kind of water event – smooth sailing, rough waters, or anything in between.  A team of colleagues analyzes the data and writes up the results, considering every stroke of the keyboard; sometimes it’s a crew of two, sometimes four, sometimes more.  We shoot the rapids as we discuss data and reviewer comments. Sometimes we go overboard, and sometimes not everyone has an oar in the water!

Though it is in meetings where we hone leadership skills, a professor’s greatest opponent has to be committee service and administrative work in general. Committees wrestle with policy, pin down curriculum modifications, or try to lift the institution and/or department to higher standards.  Weighty issues such as recruiting and retaining students and faculty are heavy responsibilities, but ones that need to be addressed.

Interspersed among all of these activities are the 100-meter dashes – short time-dependent events that need immediate attention.  For example, twice each semester, I’m reminded that the week of student advising is approaching and that I need to post a schedule (now) and notify my advisees (now) that it’s time to sign up for a meeting. Hallway (or doorway) conversations with my Department Chair take time, too, and refocus my attention from research to departmental issues, “for just a minute”.  Students stop in to ask about homework, have me sign a form, or just chat.  These events don’t take very long, but they draw my attention away and cause me to revisit the starting blocks of whatever I was doing before.

Academics aside, perhaps STEM in general could learn something from the 2012 Olympics. For the first time in history, Team USA had more women than men on it and the US women would rank #3 in gold medals (29/46), if they were ranked as a nation.  At the end of all competitions, women from all countries won more medals than men overall (60%), and more gold medals, too!

While the summer Olympics comes around just once every four years, the responsibilities of a faculty member never end.  As we compete in the academic arena, we have to remember to pace ourselves and remember that our presence as female participants is important.  Win lose, or draw, we, too, can inspire a generation!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Anonymous Comments Now Welcome

Dear CSWA blog readers,

A major goal for this blog is for it to be as useful a resource as possible. One way we can improve its impact is by increasing the participation in the 'comments/discussion' section after each post. For example, when I read FemaleScienceProfessor, oftentimes I get as much from the reader comments as I do from the post itself. I would love for our CSWA blog to similarly benefit from all the knowledge and thoughtful ideas of our readers.

One change to the blog we thought might help is to once again allow anonymous posts. We disabled the feature because of the abundance of spam we had to reject, but we've decided to give it a new try. We want you to feel as comfortable as possible sharing your opinions, and so now you have the option to post under your own name or anonymously.

If you have other thoughts on how to increase reader interaction with the blog, please let us know.

If you have other favorite science or women in science blogs that you'd recommend we try to cross-post with (to increase visibility, impact, and readership), please let us know.

Thanks and happy reading!

AASWomen for August 17, 2012

AAS Committee on the Status of Women
Issue of August 17, 2012
eds. eds. Caroline Simpson, Michele Montgomery, Daryl Haggard, and Nick Murphy

This week's issues:

1. Changes to the Women in Astronomy Blog

2. Ntampaka and Sampath selected as 2012 Blewett Fellows

3. L'Oreal USA Announces Recipients of 2012 For Women In Science Fellowships

4. Website for non-academic job searches for Ph.D.s

5. Fall 2012 APS Gazette is now available online

6. The Interstellar Medium in High Redshift Galaxies Comes of Age

7. Job Opportunities

8. How to Submit to the AASWomen Newsletter

9. How to Subscribe or Unsubscribe to the AASWomen Newsletter

10. Access to Past Issues of the AASWomen Newsletter

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Dual-career academic couples

There's an interesting report out by the Clayman Institute for Gender Research entitled "Dual-Career Academic Couples: What Universities Need to Know" (Schiebinger, Hernderson, & Gilmartin). The report is rather lengthy, but the authors examine data on academics and their partners, examining differences in academic positions based on gender, minorities status, sexual orientaion, occupation of the partner, and more.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, women faculty are more likely than men to be single, or to have an academic partner. On the other hand, men are much more likely to have a stay-at-home partner. However, the report also notes that many of these men are part of the older generation, having completed their graduate in the 1970s or earlier.

The demographics of faculty are changing, so it's important for universities to acknowledge that in their hiring practices, particularly in regard to dual career couples. Universities stand to lose valuable talent, particularly among under-repsresented groups, by being inflexible with regrad to couple hiring. The report makes a number of recommendations, including:

  • Develop a dual-career academic couple hiring protocol
  • Think of the university as an intellectual and corporate whole
  • Use dual hiring to increase gender equality
  • Budget funds for dual hiring
  • Communicate with faculty
  • Make the partner issue easier to raise
  • Interview potential partner hires
  • Negotiate partner positions fully up front
  • Develop dual-career programs
  • Collaborate with neighboring institutions
  • Evaluate dual-career programs

(hat tip: Socialogical Images)

Monday, August 13, 2012

Who are we?

I wanted to take this opportunity to introduce myself to this community.  My name is Jessica Kirkpatrick.  I am one of the new members of the CSWA.  As part of my membership commitment, I will be regularly blogging on the Women in Astronomy Blog.

I will find it very helpful in this new role to understand more about the audience of this blog and what topics people are interested exploring here.

There are "women in science" topics that have regularly been blogged about (i.e. two-body problems, work-life balance, mentoring, sexual harassment, unconscious bias).  I am interested in not only continuing to explore these topics, but also branch out into other areas.  I would love your suggestions of topics.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, please comment below to let me know who you are, and what you are interested in reading about here.  If you don't feel comfortable posting a comment below, you can also email me (berkeleyjess at gmail).

I am very excited to contribute to this community!
Jessica Kirkpatrick

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Staying competitive after family leave


The following is a condensed version of a piece written by Andrew Hopkins (Head of AAT Science, Australian Astronomical Observatory) related to ways of staying competitive after taking family leave.  It was in response to a CSWA Newsletter article:
"Proposal Writing After Family Leave : Request for Advice"

I have mentored women who have dealt successfully with the issue of winning proposals after taking family leave.  My basic advice boils down to:
1. Count how much of your time has been "research active" (i.e., equivalent full time research), and

2. Present your productivity relative to the time you've *actually* had for doing research. This will always make your case substantially stronger: E.g., if you've been employed in a research-only position for 3 years, then had 12 months to have a baby, then returned to a position where you were doing an 80% admin/teaching load for 2 years, then had a 50/50 research/support position for 2 years, you've been "doing research" for 8 years, but you've actually only had 4.4 years of research time.
You can make a strong case for your research productivity and impact by looking at your citation metrics, such as the "h-index", but also importantly the "m-index" (Hirsch, 2005, PNAS, 102, 16569). Hirsch defined the m-index as the h-index divided by the number of years since the first publication. This makes the implicit assumption that the researcher is publishing continuously over that period. Redefining the m-index to be h divided by the number of "research-active" years gives a much more representative metric for people who have not been in full-time research positions. Be sure to explain that this is what you've done, and why you've done it so that the readers don't mistakenly assume you're just misstating or erroneously inflating your statistics.

I would strongly recommend that this approach be taken by all researchers, regardless of what official requirement is requested in the application materials. If the official requirements in the application specify performance over the most recent 5 year period, and this has not been your most productive time, feel free to add extra information detailing your most productive 5 years, and qualify why this has been added by stating explicitly that the recent period is not representative because of the interruptions to research time.

On top of that, many people who move into more senior research positions find that they spend time mentoring students and junior researchers, who end up as first author of the resulting publications, even though a lot of the initiative and direction for the research has been done by the supervisor.  One approach here is to ensure you are named as second or third author systematically on publications for which you are the driving force. You can then state explicitly in fellowship applications that papers where you are named as second/third author are those on which you have led or directed more junior colleagues or students. This allows you to retain the recognition for projects you have initiated and directed, while the students/postdocs still get appropriate credit for leading the work. Moreover, this can be sold as evidence for research leadership/management, which is an important aspect you need to cultivate to keep moving up in the research hierarchy.

These are only a selection of strategies that you might consider implementing. I'm sure others will have alternative, or additional, suggestions that will be equally well worth considering. In the end, if you have a career that includes time spent doing things other than research, you need to be comfortable in presenting that in an honest way that gives a sufficient minimum of detail to allow the assessors to rank your productivity given the time you've had available to do research.

Monday, August 6, 2012


A wonderful series of posts on self-mentoring recently appeared at the AWIS group on LinkedIn, pointing to sciencementor's blog. The author is a scientist who balances biofuels research at a national lab with project management. She has made a virtue of her own difficulty finding a mentor who can effectively guide both research and career development, by discovering and sharing means for self-education and career mentoring. Her approach resonates with me and I agree with her summary that "it is vital for science professionals at all levels to take responsibility for their own self-mentoring."

The author begins with the important first step of self-examination as to one's strengths and weaknesses, career goals and interests. One of my first recommendations to graduate students, postdocs and faculty (even department chairs) is that they read or re-read Managing Oneself by Peter Drucker, published in the Harvard Business Review in 1999 and reprinted in January, 2005. (Search for a pdf version online.) The article is 10 pages and packed with the kinds of insights and questions a good mentor will provide.

Although sciencementor does not (as of this date) discuss the importance and difficulty of learning good time management skills, that is second on my self-mentoring checklist. At the very least, one should know the difference between important and urgent. I recommend that mentees adopt some of the strategies in time-management classics like "Getting Things Done" by David Allen; in particular, email inbox and calendar management are essential for most professionals. My favorite synthesis of self-management is "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" by Stephen R. Covey. These resources are not just for business school graduates; I believe that all professionals will be more effective and experience less stress if they learn the skills portrayed in these books.

The self-mentoring blog next describes the formation of an Individual Development Plan: a structured outline of career objectives and action steps to achieve these objectives. My institution, like many others, has adopted a postdoctoral review process that involves the formation and annual review of such a plan; sciencementor provides several excellent templates. These plans also provide the key elements of the postdoctoral mentoring plan now required for NSF grants.

The second section of sciencementor's self-mentoring guide concerns building a professional network. The approaches used here are somewhat field-dependent; in academia, conference attendance and travel to give seminars and colloquiua are more important than career fairs. However, the latter are a good idea too when approaching critical transitions where having alternatives can be helpful. Sciencementor also mentions LinkedIn; while I don't believe it is currently widely used in academic astronomy, the connections available therein can be very helpful in general. LinkedIn is how I learned about sciencementor's self-mentoring blog in the first place!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Management Restructuring

As mentioned in last week's AASWOMEN, the time has come for me to step down from the CSWA and make room for new blood.

I'd say I'm doing it to "spend more time with my family" but that's not really true. (Why this phrase is a euphemism for "I was fired" merits it's own discussion, but not here!) It's simply that the end of my second three-year term has come up, and I'm become too busy in other areas of my life to give the attention to the CSWA that it deserves.

I started this blog back in 2008 as a way for the CSWA to reach a wider audience. It grew out of my own efforts at keeping a personal blog, which was fun and rewarding, at least at the time. Fast forward to 2012, and I'm not finding the time to blog anymore. Part of that is simply being busy, but I've always been busy. Part of it is also that I have more to blog about when I'm feeling dissatisfied, and now that I have a tenure-track job, I am a lot more happy with life.

Stepping down from the CSWA means that I will be stepping down from the Blogger-in-Chief role, although I will still be contributing to the blog regularly. I'll be leaving management of the blog in the capable hands of Laura Trouille. We have plans for a fresh rotation of regular and guest bloggers, whose posts I'm really looking forward to reading. We are still trying out ways to get our message out via new media, such as on Facebook and Twitter. If you have other suggestions on how to reach out to people, do let us know!

I've had a wonderful time serving on the CSWA for the last six years. It's been a great experience. I learned a lot about issues facing women in astronomy, and did my best to educate others about those issues, too. It's been great meeting people at conferences who recognize me for my work on the CSWA. Please keep saying 'hi'!

-Hannah Jang-Condell