Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Anonymous Guest-Post: One Small Step

Anonymous guest-post by a mid-career scientist at a large public university. 

As a mid-career scientist at a large public university, I find myself increasingly frustrated with policies and procedures with which I disagree but feel powerless to do anything about. However, recently, I found myself in a position to strike a (teeny, tiny) blow for change -- and I took it.

My academic department has had a very traditional approach to hiring in my 17 years here. We hire in very specific sub-fields, the argument being that we need to reach 'critical mass' in each research group. (I should add I'm in a physics department of about 25, with a few astronomers, of which I am one). The hiring committee is thus invariably chaired by someone in the sub-field in which we are hiring, with two or three others on the committee who are preferably in the same subfield or hopefully a related one. The committee looks over applicant files and presents a ranked list to the department, which rubber-stamps it.  We have had no formal evaluation criteria, but the most important factor is the candidate's research record. Almost nothing else matters. As far as I can tell, the chair's opinion is therefore the one that matters to the committee, and to the department, as the chair is thought to be most knowledgeable about the research area. This means that essentially one person (the committee chair) is choosing the candidate -- again, as far as I can tell.

If one looks at any of the recent research on how to increase faculty excellence and diversity in academia (for example, see http://www.aas.org/cswa/jan12.html), this is described as the worst possible way to hire. I know this, but have had no say in the process in the past.  Because I was the last astronomer hired (17 years ago), I have never been on a hiring committee. Until now. We have a job opening for a physicist in a specific subfield. Because the university wants at least one minority on hiring committees, and since the other female faculty member in our department (who generally has filled that role on other hiring committees because she works in physics rather than astronomy) was unable to be on the committee, I was appointed.

In the past few weeks, as the job ad went out, I have been wondering how to spark a change in our usual deparmental hiring practices. I have the advantage of knowing that our Dean's office has become aware of best practices and is slowly trying to implement them across the College: we have an NSF ADVANCE grant to improve the recruitment and retention of women faculty in STEM. So I feel that I have administrative back-up if necessary, which is comforting.

This week, we were notified that the applicant files were ready. The chair of the hiring committee, Dr. X, sent an email to the committee saying that the applicants' files were in the main office and we should read them, then meet to form our short list. I took a deep breath, and sent a reply saying that I was uncomfortable with this process, and that we should meet BEFORE looking over the files to come up with evaluation criteria that we would all use. Then all files that meet the criteria are put on a 'long short list' -- these people get a short phone interview, from which we then compile a final short list. I stated I would not participate unless we followed this procedure. I attached a copy of the UMich candidate evaluation form (that I have sent to the department in previous years but to no avail), with the note that this was what the Dean's office is suggesting that departments use (which is true).

This felt like a very brave move to me. I was sure Dr. X wouldn't understand why I wanted to do this, and would think I was creating extra work and slowing down the process (moving too slowly has cost us positions in the past). I did figure they couldn't throw me off the committee because I was the only minority though! ;) I fully expected some kind of confrontation (Dr. X can be impatient...) and push-back.

Instead, Dr. X replied to the committee that I had a good point and we should meet as soon as possible to set criteria before looking at the files! My jaw dropped. And I was immensely heartened. Maybe change IS possible! Maybe things CAN get better! Maybe I CAN make a difference!

In some ways this seems like a small thing -- one hiring committee for one position in one department -- but it feels like a turning point. It's been one for me, anyway.

I feel empowered.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Different Opinions on Women Underrepresentation in Physics

I saw an interesting article in BuzzFeed ** about a published study on gender differences in physics and biology.  The paper is titled "Gender Segregation in Elite Academic Science" and is by sociologists E. Ecklund, A. Lincoln and C. Tansey.  The article took a new approach in this field, not just quoting employment or student statistics but surveying 2500 physicists at elite institutions for their opinions.

The survey asked scientists why they felt there is so much more underrepresentation of women in physics than in biology.  The survey was followed up by interviews with 150 respondents.

There were significant differences in the views expressed by men and women, but not between physicists and biologist.  Men tended to not notice inequalities as much.  They also, on average, viewed shortfalls in the advancement of women as due to shortcomings in their background and not discrimination.  Women, on average, viewed discrimination as the primary reason for few women in physics.  They viewed the physics culture as being more inherently discriminatory than that in biology.

It is instructive to see some quotes from the study:

“morphological differences and biological differences [make men better at] hardcore math and physics.” — male assistant professor, genetics

“Physics is more difficult for girls and you need a lot of thinking, and the calculation, and the logic. So that’s maybe hard for girls.” — male grad student, physics

"Women have to make a choice [because] the woman ends up being the primary caregiver if they have children.” — male postdoctoral fellow, biology


“I think women ... want to have more of a sense that what they are doing is helping somebody. ... Maybe there are more women in ... biology [because] you can be like ‘Oh, I am going to go cure cancer.’” — postdoctoral fellow, biology

“Male-dominated departments are really unpleasant for women. [...] Men can be huge jerks in those situations.” — female associate professor, biology

“It’s not going to be solved until we figure out how to help mothers figure out how to do the career and the kid thing.” — female associate professor, physics

One of the conclusions in the studies is that "few men in either discipline emphasized the present discrimination that women in science may face (and that men in physics hold a much larger share of senior faculty positions) suggests that discrimination is not being adequately addressed in physics departments at top research universities."

**  http://www.buzzfeed.com/annanorth/what-male-and-female-scientists-say-about-women-in

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Part-Time Scientist

Today's guest bloggers are Catherine Neish and David Choi.

As funding rates decrease, and the number of PhDs increase, establishing a fully funded career in planetary science and astronomy is going to be increasingly difficult to achieve.  This trend is already obvious in the grant statistics for NASA, the primary funding source for planetary scientists, and a major funding source for astronomers (Figure 1).  So the question becomes: are scientists willing to work part-time, or will this decrease in selection rates force scientists to leave the field?

Figure 1: Selection rates for NASA ROSES programs (solid line) in the Planetary Science Division (PSD) and Astrophysics Division (APD) have been decreasing with time, as the number of proposals increases (dashed line).  Charts from http://science.nasa.gov/researchers/sara/grant-stats/.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Guest Post: Eliza Kempton on Support for a Working Mom with Facebook

Eliza Kempton has recently started a job as an assistant professor of physics at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa.  Her research is on the atmospheres of extrasolar planets, focusing on low-mass planets known as super-Earths.  Eliza is also a new mother of a 6-month-old baby.

A couple of weeks ago, the reality of being a working mom finally hit home.  I started in a tenure track position this fall at a fabulous liberal arts school.  My students are amazing.  My colleagues are friendly and supportive.  The institution provides a million avenues for mentoring, teaching support, and research support.  I’ve never been so busy in my entire life, but I love my new job.  I am also a new mom.  I am lucky to have a rather laid-back daughter... but she is still so little.  She is growing very fast, and if you blink, you miss her taking on a new milestone or doing something funny that we’ve never seen her do before.  I swear, each week she seems like she’s an entirely new person.

Like any working parent, I struggle with balancing work and parenting, but the pressure on women can be so much more severe because of the pressure that society puts on us and the pressure that we put on ourselves to “do it all”.  This really hit home recently, when I faced my first day of not being at home to put my daughter to bed.  We had a dinner at work and a weekend retreat to kick off a grant that we just received to support our intermediate-level science students as they make the bridge from freshman-level courses into the more vigorous upper levels of their majors.  It is something that I am deeply interested in, and I knew I wanted to attend the weekend events.  But on Friday night, as I mulled over the realization walking home that I had not seen my daughter at all that day, and I was going to spend half of Saturday (usually my only real non-work day to hang out with my family) at the retreat, I started feeling sad and guilty.  I knew I wanted to attend the rest of the retreat on Saturday, but I also felt that I should be... no, I *wanted* to be... at home with my daughter!  Ah, the conundrum of trying to have it all.

I did what any social-networking saavy woman in the 21st century would do.  I reached out to my friends on facebook.  My post, and the many supportive responses I received from friends and colleagues, are below:

Monday, October 22, 2012

Yet Another Invitation to Speak at a Career-Family Panel...

For much of the past 6 weeks since the September start of the academic year, my wife has been traveling to Switzerland, Kosovo, New York, and Washington DC for her research on the relationship between the military and health care systems. And I have had trips to Pasadena and Chicago, and tomorrow I'm off to Baltimore. This has certainly made for some challenging logistics on the home front, as we have three young daughters and the timing of these trips coincided not just with the start of the semester, but also of course with the start of public school. It's all going went well (both the research expeditions, and on the home front), but I was recently reminded of a conversation we had at the end of August (and on the eve of that very hectic September).

On that particular evening, after the kids had finally agreed to go to sleep, my wife and I were each checking in on the emails that had poured in during the 5-8pm window. "Another invitation for us to speak about work and family" she said. But then she furrowed her brow and didn't look enthused. "What's up?" I asked.

Over the past couple years, we have participated in many of these opportunities to speak with younger researchers who are on the academic path but wondering about how to navigate it with family. I guess we are a natural fit for such panels: My wife is a double-board-certified MD with a full-time research career, and I am professor of astronomy, and we have young children.

So, what was my wife's worry about the invitation? Our concern is that these invitations are (almost) always from women-in-science groups and the audience is (usually) overwhelmingly women.

(Let me first be clear on a couple issues: First, we love doing this, and are delighted to speak to exactly these audiences, and so please invite us for more! Second, what I'm about to say pertains to hetero couples, but I certainly don't want to imply that this is the only family model!)

OK, so what we would REALLY love is to receive such invitations from groups with a heavy participation from men, particularly given that men are still the significant majority in our field even at the graduate student and postdoc levels. Postdoctoral associations, graduate student associations, a Friday 4pm chat... I don't have an easy answer, but surely there is a way to have these sorts of discussions with our students and postdocs as part of their professional development, just as we hold journal clubs and workshops on grant-writing and speaking, and not leave this to be arranged by women-in-science groups. I would love to be approached by a group of men-in-science who are excited about the future but worried about their ability to balance family and work!

Our feeling (and what we try to convey at such panels) is that in the present climate you really can have both a family and a stimulating research career. The key is that your partner must be exactly that! If you are going to have a partner and the partner is a man, then it is essential that he views this as his issue every bit as much as yours. There are many men out there who have lots of advice, both about the practical issues as well as the broader challenges.  However, until we create a mechanism for these discussions to include most of the junior men in our field (and ultimately instill a sense of co-ownership among men of this issue), we will likely continue to stumble on the same problems that have plagued us in the past.

I would love to read in the comments examples for work-family events that could engage (or have engaged) a larger number of the junior men in our field.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

'Wikithon' Honors Ada Lovelace and Other Women in Science

Today, October 16, is Ada Lovelace Day, an annual observation designed to raise awareness of the contributions of women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines. Groups in the U.S., U.K., Sweden and India are marking the occasion with a 'Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon', creating and improving upon the Wikipedia pages of prominent women in STEM fields. A Wikipedia edit-a-thon seems like a fitting tribute to the woman many consider to be the first computer programmer.

Science writer Maia Weinstock is the organizer of the U.S. Ada Lovelace Day edit-a-thon. She helped compile a list of scientists who should have Wikipedia pages or whose pages need cleaning up. A secondary goal of the project is to encourage more women to edit Wikipedia. Only about 10-15% of regular contributors to Wikipedia are women, which impacts the information provided and the lens through which it is written.

See Evelyn Lamb's post at the Scientific American Blogs for more details and resources.

Also, check out this sweet cartoon about Ada Lovelace from BrainPOP.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Making a Difference

I'm starting my 8th year at my liberal arts (LA) college, which is probably the longest I've ever lived anywhere, except for growing up and my extra-long-undergraduate+first-job stint in Madison.  Each year I learn more and more about the lack of women in STEM fields, but I become more and more comfortable with my place in life. Each year, I am ever more glad that I chose science.  I love my research and I greatly admire my department colleagues. As a professor who teaches a large number of non-science majors every semester, I am more confident in insisting upon rigor in my classes. I also stress to my research students that I expect them to be on-time, organized, well-versed, and prepared for anything.

Recently, my colleagues and I took three undergraduate students (all women) to the annual conference of the Michigan Space Grant Consortium.  Though my college is not an official member, I felt that this was a great venue for our students to present research, and when I asked, the organizers graciously allowed us to participate. All of the students had attended other conferences, but for two of them, it was their first time presenting. For the third, it was the first time she was giving an oral presentation.  Logistics were complicated, so we all drove separately, but all of them arrived on-time (or at least before the opening "welcome"), all were well-dressed, and no one had forgotten their poster or flash drive! Whew.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

On the detection of interstellar boron sulfide: a response

Many of you have probably seen this letter making the rounds on Facebook, or even appearing on AstroBetter. While I can't verify the provenance of the letter, it's dismaying to see the pressure being put on the students in that astronomy department to buy into a workaholic culture. Not all the advice is bad, but there are some real stinkers in there.
So, here's my own letter of advice.
First, at the risk of revealing myself to be an imposter, let me say that I work 40-50 hours on a regular basis, and almost always have. This may change when there's an important proposal deadline looming, but I have never found working 80-100 hours a week to be sustainable. In fact, my productivity generally takes a big nose dive as I increase my hours of work, because I just can't think as clearly when I don't sleep, eat, and exercise regularly.
I don't think my career has suffered as a result. I graduated with a PhD from Harvard, had two named postdoc fellowships, and am now tenure-track faculty at a research university. I even managed to have two kids along the way. Granted, I may not be at the most prestigious university in the country, but quite frankly, if it takes 80-100 hours a week to succeed there, I'll stay right where I am, thank you very much. I am very pleased to be in a department where the typical Monday morning conversations goes something like: "What did you do over the weekend?" "I took my family camping/pumpkin picking/to the zoo. How about you?" "I went hiking/skiing/rafting up in the mountains, want to see pictures?"
Just because you don't spend every waking hour thinking about your research doesn't mean you're a bad scientist. I love that fact that nearly everyone in my department has interests outside astronomy, whether it's enjoying the outdoors, writing novels, performing music, or playing sports. It makes us all well-rounded people and better colleagues. We are all also passionate about our research, too, it's just not the only thing that gets us out of bed in the morning.
Second, the bad news. The job market is definitely worse than it was a decade or two ago. Budget cuts to universities and federal grant agencies have dried up funding for jobs at all levels. It would be disingenuous and a disservice to you to tell you otherwise. I wish I had something encouraging to say about this, except that in my experience, perseverance is key.
Third, faculty should be willing to listen to complaints and criticism from their students, even if it comes across as rude. If the students are pissed off, something has gone awry, and getting in a huff about it won't fix the problem. You know how getting a negative referee report can feel bad at first, but in the end you have to take the feedback like a big girl and address all the comments in a mature fashion? Yeah, this is the same thing.
Also, don't talk down to your students if you really think of them as peers.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Impostor Syndrome

Guest-post by John Johnson, professor of Astronomy in the Caltech Department of Astrophysics. His research is on the detection and characterization of exoplanets. This post is a re-post from his blog. Thank you John for being willing to share this with our community. 

I remember waking up in a cold sweat one night in early 2010, about six months after I joined the faculty at Caltech. I woke up to the terrifying realization that I didn't have a contingency plan for my family for when I would inevitably be either let go or denied tenure. Erin woke up wondering what was wrong with me and I told her that I was sorry, but it was only a matter of time before my colleagues discovered how little I know about astronomy. They were going to discover that they made a mistake in hiring me as a professor.

I remember this event vividly, and I can even recall the feeling that I was thinking critically and purely objectively. It's really amazing that I made this self-evaluation despite my achievements, my publication record, the job offers I had the year before, and the praise that I've received from my community. None of this mattered to me because I had managed to either fool everyone, or I simply worked much harder than my intrinsically talented peers. There were smart people (others), and people (like me) who had to work twice as hard to break even.

Since that time I have received counseling and treatment for acute anxiety, as I have written about previously. I now recognize that I was also suffering from something called the Impostor Syndrome. Many people, including myself, have heard about impostor syndrome, but few understand the symptoms. Further, when suffering from the syndrome, one has a tendency to feel that they alone are judging themselves objectively while everyone else is fooled by a partial picture of reality. While others might suffer while actually being good at their jobs, I'm the true exception. I know I'm not good enough while others are. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

Guest Post: Graduate Student Mom

The below blog post is from guest blogger Hannah Fakhouri, a graduate student in astrophysics at UC Berkeley:

Greetings!  My name is Hannah and I'm guest blogging this week about being a graduate student and a mom:  I am a seventh year PhD student in (astro)physics and I have a three month old son.  

(As an aside, some people say graduate school is a great time to have a baby, but that is highly dependent on other factors in your life.  Not only do I have a supportive advisor, but I am married and my husband has a stable job and a good income.  These considerations make having a baby feasible, though certainly not easy.)

I want to share with you a few lessons that I have learned in my journey thus far; they are things that I have always known, but now know much more fully:

1)  Don't be afraid to ask
At the end of my fifth year of graduate school, I walked into my advisor's office and said, "How about instead of graduating next year I have a baby and tack on an extra easy year?"  (Okay, in truth it was much more awkward and halting than that.)  To my great relief, he said "That sounds great."  (Or something there abouts.)  A few months before that my husband and I had started talking about the possibility of having a baby before I graduated.  I knew that gauging my advisor's support would be critical and although he is friendly and we have a good report, I was very nervous to actually say the words.  My advisor is so supportive, in fact, that I am not taking official maternity leave; he allowed me to stay on as a graduate student with a reduced work load.  (I am sure this is not the case for everyone and I commiserate with you if you find yourself having to choose between a leave of absence or returning to work immediately; there is much to be done to improve maternity leave policies for graduate students.)  In truth I have found much more support from my colleagues than I had expected; so if you're in a similar situation, ask! Your needs and desires are important; they are worth pursing.

2)  Deadlines are motivators
An impending due date is a whole new kind of motivator.  My goal had been to send out a draft of my thesis analysis to my collaborators before going into labor.  The internal review process takes a while in my group, so I was hoping to overlap that with the time I would be least responsive.  About a month before my due date, I didn't have anything written and the analysis was still in flux.  Knowing that contractions could start any day, I became more firm with my colleagues about halting the never-ending investigations and choosing a single result to focus on (a skill that will continue to be useful).  Much to my surprise, I finished the draft and sent it off to my colleagues two days before the contractions started.

3)  Children require sacrifice
I am very thankful to be a mother; but I now know that parenting is not for everyone.  In many ways I knew what to expect, but knowing that you won't get any REM sleep for a month doesn't help when you're staring down the barrel of another sleepless night.  Those weeks do come to an end, and I now have some spare cycles to think about research again.  I'll spend the next while working from home (as the nature of my research allows me to do that) and when my son gets a little older, we'll likely do part time day care while I finish my degree.  I don't know what the future of my career will be; I know I won't have the career I had envisioned in the past, but when I look at my son, I know it is a worthy sacrifice.

In the end, I don't have grand answers to the question of how to balance family life and work as a graduate student.  I've only just started the journey, and all I have is my story.

Friday, October 5, 2012

(Posted on behalf of Michele Montgomery, CSWA member and organizer of the UCF conference)

From January 18-20, six regional Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics will be held at

-California Institute of Technology (http://www.cuwp.caltech.edu)
-Colorado School of Mines (http://cuwip.mines.edu/index.shtml)
-Cornell University (http://www.ncuwp.org)
-University of Central Florida (http://physics.cos.ucf.edu/scuwp)
-University of Illinois (https://publish.illinois.edu/cuwip2013)
-University of Texas (http://www.ph.utexas.edu/conferences/scuwip2013)

The four major goals of the conferences are to * foster a culture in which undergraduate women are encouraged and supported to pursue, and also to succeed in, higher education in physics; * give women the resources, motivation, and confidence to apply to graduate school and successfully complete a Ph.D. program in Physics; * provide information and dispel misconceptions about the application process for graduate school and the diverse employment opportunities in physics and related fields, enabling women to make more informed decisions about their goals and attain them; and * connect female physics students with successful female physicists to whom they can relate and who can act as inspirational role models and mentors.

To obtain more information, please see the APS website


Avoid the tiger

Are you biased? I am. I try not to be, but that is impossible, as social scientists have shown us for decades. Check yourself at Harvard Project Implicit.
Biases can be helpful. They can steer us away from danger – if one sees eyes reflecting a flashlight beam in the jungle at night, natural selection favors those who presume the worst. But biases can also cause harm, for example, by keeping good scientists from advancing in a culture that is biased against outsiders.
Last week, an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says it all in the title: Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students by Moss-Racusin et al from Yale. They used a classic double blind job application test – randomly assigning a male or female name to otherwise identical applications – to show that both male and female faculty members are biased against female applicants for a laboratory manager position. This study confirms the long-standing results of Steinpreis et al (1999) cited by CSWA Chair Joan Schmeltz in her talk at the summer 2010 AAS Meeting.
I that expect nearly all readers of this blog entry will say “I know this and it makes me angry.” In the hopes there are some who feel differently, I invite you to conduct your own experiment. Look for gender bias (or other forms) and see how many examples you can identify in a month. Here is my list:
1. An all-male colloquium committee is embarrassed to find that there are no female speakers this semester.
2. An undergraduate confides to a postdoc that her advisor assumes that because she is struggling in a class, she doesn’t want to become a physicist.
3. I overlook a female colleague when listing the mentors who have guided my journey.
Are you chagrined yet? I am. By the way, women and men science faculty are equally biased against women job applicants, as are biologists and physicists, and young and old faculty.
Awareness is the first step towards salvation. We can’t always see the tigers in the dark, but we can look out for them.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Speaking Up at Meetings

There is an interesting article on the TODAY web site of MSNBC about different behaviors of women and men in meetings, with some unexpected twists and turns.  It is authored by Seattle-area writer Dana Marcario and reports on a study by researchers Chris Karpowitz of BYU and Tali Mendelberg of Princeton published in the American Polical Science Review.  The study finds that women speak up 25% less than their male counterparts in meetings where they are in the minority, which is not the case with men when they are in the minority.

Quoting co-author Tali Mendelberg for Princeton:
“In school boards, governing boards of organizations and firms, and legislative committees, women are often a minority of members, and the group uses majority rule to make its decisions.  These settings will produce a dramatic inequality in women’s floor time and in many other ways. Women are less likely to be viewed and to view themselves as influential in the group and to feel that their ‘voice is heard.’”

However, the situation changes drastically when women form the majority or when a consensus is required.  Not unexpectedly, women speak up when in the majority, but this also happens when they are in the minority but the group needs to reach a unanimous conclusion.

I really like this quote from Ms. Marcario on unexpected things that happen when women do speak up:
"The study’s researchers noted that women not only flourished when the group had to build consensus, but discussions began to take a different tone as well. When women took more active roles, the whole vibe of the group changed. The researchers found those groups to be more positive, more inclusive and have fewer negative interruptions than the male-dominated discussion."

So there is a silver lining to this report.  Yes, women often speak less in meetings to their detriment.  But, in the right situations, they pipe up and change the dynamic of the group for the better.