Alternatively academic

Danielle is another excellent scientist that I’m happy to count as a friend. She’s smart, funny, interesting, and gives excellent advice on a wide variety of topics for which she is considered an expert. These topics include (but are not limited to): roller derby officiating, traditional cocktails, bird pheromones, and being a science boss lady. While her role is still very much an academic position, it is not a traditional position. As a result, she was happy to share her thoughts on “alternate academia”. 

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I get a lot of questions about my job, because although I am an established academic at a university, I am not a professor. My official title is Managing Director of the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action, headquartered at Michigan State University. My position is a blend of administration and research.

I am responsible for the operations of a multi-institution, multi-disciplinary NSF Science and Technology Center. We have over 600 members at 5 universities, and it is my job to ensure that all members have access to the resources they need, like cross-disciplinary training, seminars, funding opportunities, collaborators, and our annual conference. I am our primary liaison with our funder, the National Science Foundation. One of my primary responsibilities in that capacity is compiling and submitting our Annual Report, which typically runs well over 200 pages long and documents dozens of research and educational efforts, as well as our collaborations with industrial affiliates and efforts to increase diversity in STEM. I coordinate and run our annual NSF Site Visit, in which we spend a (very) full day presenting our research, education, diversity, and knowledge transfer efforts to a panel of external reviewers, who determine whether we are meeting our goals and decide whether to recommend that our funding be continued for the following year. I organize our annual BEACON Congress, a 3-day conference for our members and other interested visitors. This conference features concurrent tracks with contributed talks, member-organized symposia, workshops, and brainstorming “sandbox” sessions where people can discuss new ideas and collaborations.

These administrative activities account for about 70% of my work efforts. Most of my remaining time is spent on research. I maintain an active research program in evolutionary biology and animal behavior. I study chemical communication in songbirds, which involves both field and lab work and collaborations with chemists, microbiologists, and other evolutionary biologists. I supervise a postdoctoral researcher, and I have also served as the external member of two doctoral dissertation committees. Finally, I also do a fairly significant amount of service to the field, reviewing journal manuscripts and grant proposals and serving on NSF review panels.

How did I get here? Well, to be honest, I was initially interested in a more typical tenure-track career. I applied to well over 100 tenure-track positions over a couple of years, was invited to a handful of campus interviews, and received one job offer that did not suit my needs. After the last round of interviews, I had begun to sense that the realities of a tenure-track position did not match the career I had envisioned, and started to consider alternative paths. I was a postdoc at Indiana University at the time, and started looking around at the other researchers I admired there. I realized there were quite a few people involved in running research centers who appeared to have the perfect job, in my opinion anyway. I started thinking about looking for these kinds of opportunities, but I didn’t really know where to start.

Lucky for me, just a few weeks later, a job ad was posted on the Evol Dir listserve that seemed to be exactly what I was looking for – a brand new NSF-funded center was hiring a Managing Director. They wanted a person who was an active researcher in evolutionary biology, not a pure administrator, so that the person in this position could understand and communicate the science done at this center. I had no idea whether they would consider me even remotely qualified, but I worked harder on that job application than I ever had on any tenure-track application. I was invited to interview, and shortly afterwards they offered me the job.

It’s difficult to give advice to someone who is interested in a similar career, because there is no defined path, and there is no central resource to find jobs like mine. Often, these “alt-ac” jobs are what you make of them. I tell people to keep your eyes open and network as much as you can. If you are looking to make a career change, make sure people know about it. Graduate students are often afraid to admit that they don’t want a tenure-track job, for fear of “disappointing” their advisor. In my experience, most advisors just want their students to be successful, on whatever path they follow! Jobs like this are often not advertised as openly as mine was. If people know that you are looking for an opportunity, they will mention your name when they hear about such things. Things don’t always work out the way you think they will, and that can be for the best.

The down side of my position is that it has an end date. NSF STC funding lasts for a maximum of 10 years. We are currently in the second half of year 8. Where do I go from here? It’s too soon to know for sure, but there are a number of possibilities that interest me. At the top of my list is working for the National Science Foundation. I’ve learned a lot about how NSF works in my time here, and also through experience serving on proposal review panels. I am particularly interested in the STC program itself, as their model of facilitating collaborative “team science” is inspiring – and it’s working!

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Working deeply towards a more balanced life in academia

Sara Wilbur is a second-year master’s student studying hibernation physiology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In her previous life, she toured the country as a violinist with a folk orchestra called Patchy Sanders. Sara recently returned to her hometown of Fairbanks to be with family and to unlock the mysteries of telomere dynamics in arctic ground squirrels. She also enjoys delicious beer, knitting, and skijoring with her husky mutt.

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Deep Work by Cal Newport was introduced to me by Dr. Kevin Winker, curator of birds at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Museum of the North. I took a course from him in spring 2017 called Advanced Explorations in Genomics. In our last class of the semester, Kevin recommended the book to us nine graduate students and I followed his suggestion. The central message of the book is that focused, undistracted effort devoted to mastering difficult concepts efficiently produces work of true quality and value. In it, Newport discusses the social media time sink, busyness as a mask for true productivity, and how the ability to work deeply is a valuable skill in today’s economy.

I felt so inspired by Deep Work that I interviewed Kevin late July 2017 to discuss Newport’s ideas. Kevin is a kind, thoughtful person who provides an invigorating balance of support and challenge in conversation; talking with him was a pleasure. I left our chat feeling inspired to continue honing my focused working habits.

Sara Wilbur: Can you paraphrase Cal Newport’s definition of deep work? 

Kevin Winker: Scheduled periods of intense focus on a topic of interest. [Newport] is certainly not the first to recognize the importance of regular scheduling of intense focus to achieve a refined product when tackling complex mental tasks.

SW: If he’s not the first to describe this sort of work, why now write an entire book about it? 

KW: With increased electronic access to things like social media, computers, Google, etc., our lives and our attention spans have become much more fractured and there is a cost to be paid for that. We are constantly distracted and we are always interested in the next shiny object that passes by. Those environmental effects and that fracturing cause us to lose the ability to focus intensely on a single topic. And our brains love to be distracted, they love instant gratification, and that is something that has to be fought against to enhance quantity and quality of product.

SW: On your note that we’re predisposed to distraction, what I think, and what Newport describes, is that society actually encourages distraction via the importance placed on social media, instant email responses, etc. 

KW: Absolutely. You have to have the ability to control your immersion in it. It is difficult to control how much time you spend with those distracting things. Twitter is a fantastic tool for science and for social aspects. However, there is only so much time in a day, and how, in our business, are you going to be successful in producing the product that brings that success? Rigorously holding back those distractions becomes a critical skill. And it’s really hard.

SW: Newport has a section detailing how you can fit deep work into your life no matter what your schedule, lifestyle, or career. He thinks that no matter what your obligations are there is a way to regularly fit in periods of deep work.

KW: Yes. Schedule your time and follow through. It can be tough, especially with so many distractions. One of my career’s most important papers took nearly ten years to complete because it was an incredibly complicated problem. Simply beating my head against for years wasn’t necessarily solving it. That’s a nice thing I like about multitasking projects. Having Task “A” percolating in your brain when you switch to Task “B” can be quite helpful because it’s just sitting there, stewing, and sometimes new insights can just pop into your head.

SW: Yes. Newport is a big advocate for focusing singularly on a project. However, some complex problems get solved in your unconscious. You can pop it in back there and trust that your unconscious is going to work on it even after you’ve shifted your conscious focus to another project.

One thing I really like about the book is that Newport convinces us that deep work produces work of value.

KW: Yes, and quality of work is higher. You can still produce things of value in a fractured existence. I tend to reserve things like making tables and figures for times when my brain isn’t at its best. You can also create product of quality in a more fractured existence, but not product of complex quality.

Speaking of a more fractured existence, email is potentially a bottomless sink of potentially important and unimportant communication. I try to look at it just a few times a day.

SW: That can be hard to do. You have to turn off all the little dings that let you know when something new comes in.

KW: Never use them. Never use those. Ever! The first thing you do when you pick up a new piece of software is figure out how to prevent it from badgering you.

SW: I think email is a perfect example of what Newport calls “busyness as a proxy for productivity.” I could be sending high-quality, well-written emails all day. I would be making progress in terms of my communication with colleagues, but I wouldn’t be making progress with the nuts and bolts of my research.

KW: Right. Critical to recognize that.

I’m still learning how to be more productive, and how to be a better writer. I remember sitting down, talking with Terry Chapin [Professor Emeritus, University of Alaska Fairbanks], and I said, Terry, how are you so productive? He said, well, I keep a list. I said, gee, I keep a list too! [Pulls list out of pocket]. And I said, but how do you get so many papers done? And Terry said, I always keep something of mine at the top.

And that emphasized the fact that we can be so accommodating to others that we bump our own priorities in favor of satisfying someone else’s request. Terry’s key words there are that your projects have just as much priority as anyone else’s. Since then, I’ve been unembarrassed about my priorities being equal to anyone else’s.

SW: I was recently listening to a podcast interview with Newport and he said he doesn’t let his mood affect how he works. He doesn’t let how he’s feeling compromise his preplanned work schedule. I was curious what you thought about that, and to what level this is realistic and how one can find a healthy work-life balance.

KW: I agree with him. Deep work and productivity of the kind we’ve been talking about require a very strong commitment. That time you’ve set for yourself to work on things of high priority is so precious and you can’t bump it around. Didn’t he talk about training yourself to do this kind of work?

SW: Yes, he calls it deliberate practice, [where] you’re consistently, every day, training your mind to avoid distractions and to become comfortable with boredom.

KW: I love that. I’ve become a big fan of boredom. What I do when I am in a boring situation is bring out the series of questions in my mind that I’ve been waiting to work through and use that time to solve complex problems. I now look forward to boring times!

When you schedule that time that you know is precious, and that you know enriches your life and your life’s success, and you enjoy spending it, yeah, maybe it doesn’t give you the instant gratification that Twitter and Facebook and the internet would give you, but you know it gives you long-term gratification. So, buckle up and do it. Part of that discipline, that deliberate practice, part of making that work is doing it every day. Even with one hour every day, you can move a mountain with a teaspoon. You just have to go at that thing every day, with your teaspoon. You’ll feel so good with your progress and with the amount of material you can move.

My interview with Kevin was engaging and insightful. Our discussion further convinced me that to produce work of real value, I need to dedicate regular periods of intense, focused work on tasks that will advance meaningful progress. However, I left the conversation still curious about how effective work leads to fulfillment that seeps into your non-working life. Since starting my masters in 2016, I’ve been an advocate for working smarter, rather than harder. Some part of me knew that it was possible to make progress while still having a happy life outside of the lab. However, I felt surrounded by supervisors and peers who practice unsustainable work habits. How could I be sure that it was acceptable to allow myself consistent free time in the evenings and on weekends?

I found my answer in Deep Work. Newport advocates focused, intelligent work in the office. He suggests laying your work to rest at a reasonable hour and picking it up the next morning with a fresh, relaxed mind. Interestingly, however, Kevin does not seem to heed this bit of Newport’s philosophy. I asked him if deep work constrained between 9 am and 5 pm improved his overall quality of life, and he neatly sidestepped my question before moving on to another subject. Although he values smart work while on the job, he works very long hours, works at home, and works on the weekends. Perhaps his immense time investment in his work is fulfilling in and of itself. For me, I prefer and seek a balance, and found support for this personal conviction in Deep Work.

I didn’t really understand how unjust the academic system was for career advancement for women until I had children  

In an exceptional piece over at Scientific American, Rebecca Calisi talks about the difficulty of not only being a woman in the science work place, but of being a mother.

I have pulled out some of the interesting passages below, but you really should stop what you’re doing and go read the whole piece.

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“I never used to notice these things. Of course, I was keenly aware of various other challenges women faced in the workplace, having both seen and experienced sexual harassment and gender bias on many occasions. I was also aware of the gut-wrenching statistics that revealed how having a baby negatively impacts career advancement for women. In an attempt to combat and overcome such things, I took a proactive approach: I attended women-in-science meetings and workshops, served on multiple committees to address women-in-science issues and participated in various outreach programs to support girls in science.

But I didn’t really understand how unjust the academic system was for career advancement for women until I had children.

From the moment we enter the beginning stages of starting a family, many of us are forced to do battle with various health issues, including nausea, nerve and lower back pain, dehydration, anemia and flat-out exhaustion. In the U.S., however, we are met with little to no prepartum assistance in the workplace. The time afforded to us for maternity leave, paid or unpaid, is hugely insufficient, and the severe lack of postpartum medical care for mothers in our country is unconscionable. Despite a mountain of research findings emphasizing the importance of maternal physical and mental health for both mother and child, our policies to support women during this time—or lack thereof—are illogical and shortsighted.

Concerning my own experiences, I could talk about how the only medical care I received postpartum involved a quick physical checkup, followed by a mental health questionnaire that alerted my doctor to my level of “baby blues.” But this only led to recommendations like, “try to get some more sleep,” “don’t forget to drink lots of water” and “maybe try talking to a therapist?”

I could tell you about how women who deign to pursue a career and have a family are often sentenced to the expectations that we must work as if family did not exist—and parent as if work did not exist.

Being a woman, a scientist and now a mother in a system created for and by white men with stay-at-home partners obviously has its problems. Many of us are either pushed out or decide to set sail for smoother waters. Sometimes when I hear exclamations of “we need to inspire more women to pursue the sciences!” I think: We’re here! We want to do science! But how can we when, to advance, we’re forced to run at double the speed of our male colleagues on a career track clouded by bias and covered in LEGOs?

Sometimes people ask me why I bother to stay in a career so hostile to women. I remind them the culture is changing, more quickly in some places than others. I also remind them it is not just science or academia in general that harbors this sex-biased hostility. My friends in law, business and entertainment have horrified me with unjust tales from their workplaces. And yet many of us stay the course, determined to both overcome and overturn obstacles in our paths to pursue our goals and passions. We do so by standing on the shoulders of fierce women who came before us, our forward momentum toward a destination made visible by their efforts, a hand hopefully extended behind us to pull up those even less privileged.

That’s when it occurred to me. The conference organizers wanted to support the needs of their nursing attendees—or at minimum avoid negative attention. They just didn’t know how. I got to work on listing all of the ways conferences could make their events more family-friendly, especially for working mothers, and why this benefits everyone.

Realizing my suggestions were born out of my own experiences and viewpoints, I called upon the power of diversity to help solve this childcare-conference conundrum. I organized a working group of 45 fellow mothers-in-science, composed of postdocs, assistant and tenured professors, scientists working in industry, National Academy of Science members, science journal editors, and an MD. In addition, approximately a forth of us were members of underrepresented groups in science in the U.S.. I uploaded my manuscript draft to a shared cloud drive and witnessed edits, suggestions, and revisions pour in from my co-authors in real time.”

 

 

Competition for the “best” REU applicants is outrageous

“Do you have a a high quality REU program? Do you know that your mentorship and research opportunities can put your REU students on a path towards success in STEM? Then how about you stop fighting with other REU programs over the students with the most amazing applications, and instead invest your time and effort into students who might not have another opportunity? Know that you’re actually making a difference.”

In another awesome piece at Small Pond Science, Terry McGlynn writes about the pressure for Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) programs to get the “best” students. Getting an REU is not the same as getting an early career grant, but it does put on you the path to future success. And I agree, looking for the most competitive students might be further disadvantaging under represented students.

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Science editors wanted to debate #scicomm. But they attacked the messenger instead.

This is a signal boost post. Read the original medium post here, but the full letter is replicated below.

500 Women Scientists’ Leadership team sent the following Letter to the Editor to Science magazine following their recent Working Life column “Why I don’t use Instagram for outreach.”

Dear Science Editorial Board,

We’re writing to express our disappointment at poor judgment that led to the publication of publishing “Why I don’t use Instagram for outreach,” which singled out and criticized a successful woman science communicator for her Instagram presence promoting and celebrating science. Science is one of the most highly esteemed journals, yet this article reads like a smear piece worthy of a tabloid. The job of an editor is to ensure the best possible argument comes through, and there is certainly an argument to be made here. For instance, women and underrepresented minorities take on a great deal of science communication, mentorship, and outreach work without recognition or professional reward from their institutions. Though there’s an increasing institutional pressure to communicate about science — whether to increase a university’s public profile or meet NSF’s Broader Impact requirements — many institutions expect that work to be done on personal time without compensation or additional resources. While the piece hinted at these systemic issues, those arguments were undermined when the work of another woman was criticized with an unabashed tone of condescension and without an opportunity to respond.

Rather than address the roadblocks facing women and underrepresented groups in STEM or grapple with the author’s personal misgivings around science communication, the piece was framed as an attack. The tone implied that anything beyond basic research is a frivolous waste of time, belittling meaningful approaches to science communication and public engagement. It offered a false choice between an authentic and relatable social media presence and effective advocacy for institutional change. The kindest interpretation for running this article is a lack of thoughtfulness on the editor’s part. At worst, Science made the choice to run an inflammatory article for the sake of increased website traffic.

The pages of Science are meant to mark advances in scientific discovery. But pinning one woman scientist against another is destructive, irresponsible, and perpetuates unreasonable standards for women and underrepresented groups in STEM. It is antithetical to the open, accessible, and inclusive future that we at 500 Women Scientists envision for the future of science.

— 500 Women Scientists Leadership Team

Trying to Fix the Gender Imbalance in Science Press

Women in science face a gauntlet of well-documented systemic biases. They face long-standing stereotypes about their intelligence and scientific acumenThey need better college grades to get the same prestige as equally skilled men, they receive less mentoring, they’re rated as less competent and less employable than equally qualified men, they’re less likely to be invited to give talks, they earn less than their male peers, and they have to deal with significant levels of harassment and abuse.

Additionally, women are literally being written out of science stories.

Read about Ed Yong’s desire to combat this pattern, and what he learned in the process, here.

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