Archive for the 'Academia' category

#MeTooSTEM: stories for everyone

If you have been living under a rock and think sexual harrassment doesn't happen in academia, this new blog is for you.

If you think: this only happens in the US, this story is for you.

If you think: men who are accused of committing these acts lose their whole career, then read what the women it has happened to have lost and are still losing.

If you think: these women only come forward hidden behind pseudonym, that is not the case. Although understandably, many are.

If you think: if stuff like this happens, people who see it will speak up, this story is for you.

If you think: I have my own story, these resources are for you. Also, consider sharing your story.

If you think: I want to thank the person who is bringing this to light ánd started a petition to remove sexual harrasers from the National Academy of Sciences, then consider sending @McLNeuro a supportive gif on twitter!

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On credibility and using your title

The other day I was in a training where we talked about how you can influence other people and we revisited Aristotle's pathos, ethos and logos triangle on persuading people (google it if you want to know more). One point of this triangle, the ethos part, is about credibility and trust, and in this training we talked about what that could look like. It made me realize that for some, credibility comes easier than for others, because some people may look more like what society finds credible than others. For example, I've heard people say that I look young, and not much like a scientist, so I guess I need to bring other ways of establishing credibility than someone who does look like your stereotypical scientist. Also, that stereotypical scientist can afford himself the luxury of coming into work in shorts and sandals and still look credible, while his female counterpart has a much narrower definition of what she can wear to be assumed credible.

Another aspect of credibility for scientists is your Dr. title. I've heard many people say that there is no need to use your title, and especially in The Netherlands there is a culture where people tend to be very informal. But if you can't use your title to bring credibility, for example when you're teaching, then how are you supposed to do that when you don't have the stereotypical "credible looks"? And wouldn't a really strong way for white men to be allies to women (or people of color, or anyone else who does not come with the stereotypical credible looks) to start using titles again, even in a society that is informal and scores relatively high on the gender equality lists? Would this be one way we could counter the "gender equality paradox in STEM?"

 

 

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Back when I had a baby and a fellowship rejection in one week

Over four years ago, I came home from the hospital in the evening after a day that started with me thinking I was in labor (and so did the midwives, by the way) but ended with me not being in labor anymore while the baby was still in my uterus. I was exhausted and wanted to go to bed, but just before that I checked my email. Back then, my private email and most of my work email came to the same email address. And there it was: a long awaited email from the EU with the results of whether I was going to get a Marie Curie fellowship to do my own research back in the homecountry. As the EU did back then, the email just said something along the lines of "fellowship results", and then you had to click a link, log into their participant portal, find out that your password has expired, make a new password, log in again to then find a very cryptic message that still did not really say whether you got the money or not. I was exhausted from being in the hospital all day, but my heart was racing at the same time because I wanted to know if I got the fellowship or not.

Fast forward: I did not get the fellowship but I did have the baby 5 days later. And now that I look back at these emails I'm surprised to see that within 2 weeks of giving birth I was emailing with the professor who gave me feedback on this grant on how to rework it into a new grant. I so much wanted to succeed in academia that I kept thinking and working around birthing a baby. But before you get all judgy, I also remember very clearly how this was a way for me to stay connected to my normal world: my world that I was used to and to try and avoid the world I had experienced with my first-born: a world where I felt so alone with a crying baby. I was not - and am still not - someone who can sit still for a long time. I wanted to continue to think about science even though I had just had a baby. I want to take care of a baby and think at the same time.

I was reminded of this when the other day, a journalist tweeted the following:

And of course Twitter had lots of opinions, that Racael Pells summarized for Times Higher Education. But as you can imagine from the story I shared, this could have been me (that is - before you come to the part where she describes that the academic in question was male).

In hindsight, perhaps I wish my work email wouldn't come to my private email address. In hindsight, I wish I wouldn't have checked my email after a long day in the hospital. And in hindsight, I wish I could have been more in the moment with my little baby. I wish I had seen more examples of how people actually do this, as opposed to stories of women who submit manuscripts while in early labor. I wish academia wasn't so much of a linear career path, where I was afraid to take some time to be in the moment with a little baby. But there are many moments in a day. Some moments were spent mindfully bonding with my new baby, and other moments were spent sending emails. That is how it was.

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On finishing papers after leaving the lab

Yesterday Michael Eisen tweeted this. I replied that I had actually finished 2 papers from grad school during my post-doc and 2 post-doc papers in my next job. In all honesty, I also still have an unfinished paper from grad school. So how did I do this and what factors are important in determining whether you'll be able to finish that paper after leaving the lab?

I think what helped me most is to make it non-negotiable with yourself whether those papers are going to be finished. They just have to get finished. Think of it as brushing your teeth: you don't ask yourself each day whether or not to do it, you just to it and that makes it take much less effort than to continuously negotiate with yourself whether to do it or not. And especially during the transition between grad school and post-doc, I just HAD to finish those papers because I knew that getting them published would make me more competitive to obtain a fellowship (my long-time readers may know that I never actually got a fellowship or grant, but still). After transitioning into industry it was a bit different, but in my current job I can still use published papers as a sign that I was productive, collaborative, etc during my post-doc.

What worked best in my experience to finish papers while in another job, was to allocate an hour in the morning to work on the paper and then switch back to my actual job. I would probably do this 1 or 2 days a week so progress was generally slow. Every now and then I took a whole day of, for example to write the discussion, which is really not something I can do in an hour here and there but requires a longer stretch of attention. With the generous amount of vacation days where I am now, this was something I could afford every now and then to get the paper finished. Also, sometimes I would work evenings or weekends on an unfinished paper, but I'd like to keep that to a minimum.

A big determinant in whether or not you are able to finish papers after leaving the lab is whether your co-authors are cooperative and also want this paper published. If they need to play a big part in getting it finished and for some reason don't do their part, this is clearly outside your circle of influence and will make it hard to get it done. So before you start taking days off to finish a paper, it is wise to make sure that everyone is on board and agrees on who does what.

And I want to finish by saying that while I believe it is do-able to finish a paper after leaving the lab, if you are the grad-student or post-doc that leaves, I think it is also okay if you decide not to finish a paper. If getting the paper published is not going to bring you much, and the costs of putting in the effort outweigh the benefits, then just don't. But in that case, I would be clear about that because there are few things I dislike as much as revisiting decisions and keeping half-finished things in the back of my mind and/or harddrive.

What about you? How do you deal with unfinished papers after leaving the lab?

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I'm on the Recovering Academic podcast!

When Cleyde, Amanda and Ian started their Recovering Academic podcast I started listening to it, usually on my runs. I really enjoy their podcast and how they talk about transitioning outside academia and all the feelings and practical issues that come with that move. So when they asked me recently whether I wanted to be interviewed, I immediately said yes. It was almost surreal to be IN a podcast that I usually listen to, but it was mostly a lot of fun and I thought - but I might be biased - a nice conversation.

Now it's out and you can listen to it here! And please share what you thought about it!

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The Brain Prize. Or should we say: The Men's Brain Prize?

Mar 07 2018 Published by under Academia, role models, women in science

Yesterday, the Brain Prize was awarded. No doubt that this year's winners have made a strong contribution to neuroscience, but it was quite painful to see that this was the sixth year in a row that the winners of this prize were men. So far, 2 out of 28 winners have been women.

What we can do to change this, is to nominate more women for this prize, as the Brain Prize twitter account immediately suggested.

What I would hope the Brain Prize and the Lundbeck foundation would do is to make their selection committee more diverse too. And perhaps the members of said selection committee could ask for (is that how you use this in a sentence?) an inclusion rider.

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Prestigious scientist says "Dutch women don't want to work hard"

Yesterday was International Day of Women and Girls in Science and it was great to see all the different faces of women and girls in science on twitter and read their stories. I love the atmosphere of people lifting each other up and cheering each other on. Sadly, my day ended with reading this news article where prominent Dutch cancer researcher Hans Clevers responds to criticism on the newly opened virtual cancer research institute "Oncode". Part of the criticism he received was the gender disbalance in this institute to which he respondes [my translation]:

"The gender balance is indeed a problem. But that problem is caused by women. We see many young women with potential, but when push comes to shove they quit. That's not our (the men's) fault. Dutch women just don't want to work hard."

Later in the article, he nuances this statement a bit by adding that it is not only women who are to blame, but (Dutch) society: that societal pressure to spend time with children on weekdays falls much more on women than on men. And by creating opportunities to work part-time, society has created a pretty narrow mold for women to fit: daycare centers often don't offer 5 days a week of care or advise against taking 5 days and HR people often ask pregnant women how many days they are planning to come back to work to (thereby implying less than 5 days), which is not asked to men. According to Hans Clevers, this causes the leaky pipeline: the fact that men and women perform equally through graduate school and post-doc and then women drop off in dramatic numbers.

Now let's unpack what he is saying here:

  1. Part-time culture. It is true that The Netherlands are the country where most people work part-time and there is a huge gender disparity there (see figure). A likely explanation is that Dutch women were relatively late compared to other countries to join the workforce, and many people of my generation and older have grown up with their mom at home taking care of housework and the kids, which is different than in the US for example where women joined the workforce much earlier. It is important to note that the gender disparity in part-time work is not only due to child care obligations, because also women in their 20s without children work part-time in large numbers. There is no clear data showing why this is: is it the choice for different sectors of employment where part-time work is the norm and it is more difficult to get a permanent contract, are women more inclined to live to work rather than work to live or is it a matter of everyday sexism that favors men for full-time high profile positions? We need to understand this better before we can start pointing fingers. I do agree that the narrow mold for women to fit in terms of how to combine children and a career is problematic, and I hope that when men such as Hans Clevers see this, they do the work to help this, for example by providing high quality childcare at work. The ratio of children to daycare teachers is much higher here than it was for our (expensive!) daycare in the US, which for us was a reason to each work 4 days to only need 3 days of daycare.

    From: https://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2015/05/economist-explains-12

  2. Women don't want to work hard? Let's go back to this first statement from Hans Clevers, even though he later goes back to add more nuance. I would love to see actual data showing that this is true, because I am aware of data showing that women actually have to work harder in order to get equal results, and the other way around: that with equal levels of productivity, women are less likely to get promoted/get grants/get papers in high IF journals. And that is on top of the fact that most of these women will be doing this hard work in a climate that is unsafe and unwelcoming. So we should ask ourselves (and this is somewhat of a rhetoric questions): are women not willing to work hard, or do women - after working equally hard with less recognition while taking on more of the childcare responsibilities - at some point think "f*ck this sh*t" and leave academia?
  3. What it means when someone like Hans Clevers says this. This is the part that really makes me sad: that someone in such a position of power as Hans Clevers makes statements like these that seem unsupported by the data that is out there on gender disparity and general inequality in academia. How many young students who are women, people of color and in particular women of color who have few or even no role models to look up to will read something like this and think "f*ck this sh*t" even sooner?  Also, making such a statement suggests a lack of awareness of Hans Clevers' own bias against women and minorities. If he has the choice between hiring a man or a woman for a position, I'm pretty sure his bias against women ("women don't want to work hard") will likely drive him to choose the man, unless the woman is extraordinarily qualified. And for someone who is likely in numerous committees deciding the future of young scientists, this is highly problematic and demoralizing.

 

26 responses so far

Repost: How much I like my PhD advisor

Jan 22 2018 Published by under Academia, life in the lab, mentoring

After I just got off the phone with my PhD advisor feeling all warm and fuzzy, I suddenly thought of this post from five years ago:

Recently, I realized that I now love my PhD advisor more than ever. Even though during my PhD I have frequently thought otherwise. This graph nicely illustrates how liking my advisor changed over time.

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On the amount of people you interact with to do your job

Yesterday I met with a graduate student to talk to them about my experiences leaving academia. They asked:"What is the biggest difference between working in academia and industry?". Of course there are many differences (and quite some similarities too), some of which I have probably discussed on this blog before. But one of the main differences that I had not expected when making the transition, is the amount of people you (have to) interact with in order to get your job done.
In academia, of course there are many people to interact with: you usually work with your PI (if you're a grad student or post-doc) or with the people in your lab (if you're a PI), and then with collaborators, university staff, colleagues, etc. But the amount of people who are crucial in decision making (for example on which project to pick) is usually limited (please comment if you think I'm wrong!).

In the type of matrix organization that I work in, there are a ton of people to make decisions to move a project forward. I am in R&D, and already within R&D there are different teams that all need to align, and different directors that need to have a say, and then there are the people in other functions that either need to make decisions themselves about the project, or at least need to be managed in order not to protest against a decision.

And another thing that really surprised me at first is the fact that most meetings are not actually meant for decision making. Instead, they are meant to have all the important stakeholders in the room to say yes, while the actual decision-making process has already happened in pre-meetings, or pre-pre-meetings or over coffee or at the water cooler. And so I find myself spending a considerate amount of time talking to people: understanding whether they would support a project and if not, if I can convince them otherwise or what would need to happen for them to change their minds. One of the directors remarked the other day:"the main thing that stands in the way of success in this project are people's emotions. We need to manage those".

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The spark in science

For the first time in over 3 years I opened the folder on my computer that contains the grant and fellowship applications that I submitted during my postdoc, including one that was still work in progress. By the time I left academia, I had submitted 10 applications, none of which got funded. The reason I opened this folder was to share one of them with someone, not necessarily because I wanted to read them again. But as these things go, I found myself going down the rabbit hole of reading my old applications. And something struck me: they lacked the spark of really wanting to discover something in science. They all read a little like: “look I have an okay CV, I can do a whole bunch of things and collaborate with a whole bunch of people. Oh and then I’m going to do this project”.

And I remember a conversation I had with 2 more senior scientists in the process of writing that unfinished application that revived that spark. They asked me what the question was that I really wanted to answer and what it was that got me excited about neuroscience in the first place. But by then I had already made up my mind about wanting to leave academia, so we will never know if rediscovering the spark would have got me funded.

But it did make me realize once again that I got so caught up in chasing funding that I nearly forgot what it is all about: studying something and trying to find answers to questions that fascinate you. And it also made me realize that except for those 2 people, none of my advisors or mentors ever asked me that question: what it is that I really want to study and that really gets me excited to understand further. And more importantly that I forgot to ask myself that question as well.

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