Work-life balance: the unicorn that is the 40 hour academic work week

In the first installment of the work-life balance discussion, I discussed the different levels of employment for university faculty and gave general information on the different functions they performed on a daily basis.  I also talked about how many of them work longer than 40 hours a week, including nights and weekends, and may even work summers without compensation.  For example, in a 1994 report, the American Association of University Professors reported that professors worked 48-52 hours per week, and this had increased to  53 hours by 2005.  Other sources over the past five years have reported more: 57 hours per week at a Canadian research institution, 50-60 hours per week in the UK.  But like with anything, work quantity does not equate to quality.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy

For one thing, working long hours without sufficient weekly time off, or vacations, can significantly increase stress.  And this stress can lead to all sorts of different mental and physical problems.  Working long hours can interfere with our normal circadian rhythm– it can disrupt our sleep cycles, throw off our eating times and appetite, and make it difficult to exercise regularly.  Longer hours have been directly correlated with incidence of hypertension and other cardiovascular problems (also reviewed here).

Moreover, long work hours and work stress can negatively impact mental health (12, 3, 4), and increase the use of legal and illegal substances (reviewed here).  A study of work hours on over 330,000 participants in 61 countries found that working more than 48 hours a week was associated with heavy drinking in both men and women.  Stress, lack of sleep, and a subsequent difficulty paying attention can also increase the frequency of injury at work, and this injury rate directly relates to the increase in hours.  Jobs with overtime hours have been associated with as much as 61% more work-related injuries than those without.  In fact, there is so much research on stress, health, and occupation, that there are numerous journals solely dedicated to reporting on those findings: The International Journal of Stress Management, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, The Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, just to name a few.

 

Having a life makes us better employees

But for all that personal sacrifice, mounting evidence shows that a reduction in work hours is what promotes productivity, not a 24-hour work day.  Reducing weekly hours increased productivity as employees were less likely to be absent from work due to poor health (reviewed here).  Taking scheduled breaks instead of skipping them was also responsible for improving cognitive function in students.  Even brief diversions were shown to improve focus and cognitive function. Besides giving us a rest from our current task, or engaging our attention with something novel, taking a break allows us to daydream.  While this may seem like a waste of time, letting our minds wander activates different parts of our brain- including those involved in problem solving and creative thinking.  If you’ve ever come up with a brilliant solution while doing mundane tasks, then you’ve experienced this.  For my part, I tend to think of great ideas when I’m washing dishes or biking home.  Daydreaming, or taking a break, also helps release dopamine, a chemical neurotransmitter involved in movement, emotions, motivation, and rewards.  It’s very helpful in the creative process, as explained in a discussion of creativity in the shower.  Restful thinking also seems to be involved with promoting divergent thinking, emotional connectivity, and reading comprehension.

Going on regular annual vacations was correlated with a lower risk for coronary heart disease: not only are vacations great for reducing stress, but they also provide opportunities for more exercise, mental downtime, and creative outlets.  Mandatory time-off during nights and weekends for consultants resulted in a reported increase job performance, mental health, and attitude, though many said it was a struggle to enforce “time outs” from work in the beginning because they felt guilty about not working during their personal time.  This was seen again in a study of Staples managers who did not take scheduled breaks out of guilt.

It’s this persistent feeling that you should be working at home, and that you could be doing more, which is largely reported by “driven” employees and workaholics.  This feeling has lately been coined “tele-pressure“.  It’s particularly invasive these days as you have access to work emails and other communications via smart phones, laptops, or tablets.  In fact, by syncing many of these devices, your attention is compelled by multiple simultaneous electronic signals and vibrations whenever someone contacts you.  It’s no wonder we can’t shut off at the end of the day. (And for the record, I wrote this on a Sunday evening.)

More important than knowing that taking regular breaks and vacations will help manage your stress and improve your productivity, is remembering that you are entitled to it.  We have labor laws for a reason, and you are entitled to your nights, weekends, and your X number of weeks a year.  You are entitled to stay home when you are sick, or whenever you feel like it.  It’s your personal time, take it.

So, if you’re in academia, what do you do to unwind?  Leave me some comments!

 

Photo courtesy of Lee Warren.

Conference Proceedings

Scientific conferences are a great place to get your name out there, discuss research with colleagues, and meet other researchers with whom you might one day collaborate.  It can be difficult to get noticed as a graduate student or post-doctoral researcher, especially if it’s your first time at a certain conference, if your poster time conflicts with more interesting events, or if you find yourself way at the back of a 1,000 poster hall.  You need to be ready to introduce yourself and get your point across, and to do it in a memorable and concise way.  There may be hundreds or even thousands of people in attendance, so you need to make a fast impression.

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Too much info on your card? A black background is slimming.

Though a bit outdated these days, I find business cards really handy.  Not only can you quickly hand out all your information, but you can write notes on the back about what you discussed with someone so you can follow up with them later.  It’s easy to leave a bag of them at your poster for people to take, too.

Not only is your poster or presentation’s content important, its visual appeal will help draw in people who are “browsing”.  Make sure your font is large enough to read from 5-8 ft away, and that you have some color, but not enough to make text illegible.  Bolding or bulleting take-home messages can also be really helpful.  Make sure you can describe your poster in a variety of ways: in under 60 seconds to the person with a mild passing interest, and in-depth with the person that is curious about your methods or your other projects.

The most important thing to prepare, though, is yourself.  You are representing yourself, your institution, and your science.  Cleanliness, organization, and confidence make a huge difference when meeting new people, and will make you more approachable.  Make eye contact, try to avoid filler words, and smile!  I have watched posters get overwhelmingly passed by because the presenter was on their phone, or looked bored or annoyed.  Making eye contact and saying hello to someone as they walk by is often enough to get them to slow down and ask you about your work.

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If nothing else, a brightly colored shirt will attract attention to you and your poster.

When asking questions at other presentations, be sure to be polite; being demanding or rude is guaranteed to be met with disapproval from the rest of the audience.  And go ahead and introduce yourself to other researchers, just be sure to keep it brief and don’t interrupt another meeting.

One more thing to consider at a conference is your behavior outside of your presentation.  You are at a gathering of intellectuals who may one day be your boss, your colleague, your grant reviewer, or otherwise influential in your career.  They may remember that they saw you talking loudly to a friend during a presentation, or that you got too drunk at the opening session.  Conferences are often used as an excuse to take a concurrent vacation, especially for those in academia who generally can’t take a week off during the semester.  But you should remember why you are there and act professionally, especially as a graduate student or post-doc, because you never know who’ll remember you in the future.

What I do for a living Part 1: DNA

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Mr. DNA, Jurassic Park (1993)

Microbiome studies do not usually employ culturing techniques, and many microorganisms are too recalcitrant to grow in the laboratory. Instead, presumptive identification is made using gene sequence comparisons to known species. The ribosome is an organelle found in all living cells (they are ubiquitous), and it is responsible for translating RNA into amino acid chains.  The genes in DNA which encode the parts of the ribosome are great targets for identification-based sequencing.  In particular, the small subunit of the ribosome (SSU rRNA) provides a good platform for current molecular methods, although the gene itself does not provide any information about the phenotypic functionality of the organism.

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Prokaryotes, such as bacteria and archaea, have a 16S rRNA gene which is approximately 1,600 nucleotide base pairs in length. Eukaryotes, such as protozoa, fungi, plants, animals, etc., have an 18S rRNA gene which is up to 2,300 base pairs in length, depending on the kingdom. In both cases, the 16 or 18 refers to sedimentation rates, and the S stands for Svedberg Units, all-together it is a relative measure of weight and size. Thus, the 18S is larger than the 16S, and would sink faster in water. In both genes, there exist regions which are conserved (identical or near-identical) across taxa, and nine variable regions (V1-V9) [1]. The variable regions are generally found on the exterior of the ribosome, where they are more exposed and prone to higher evolutionary rates.  Since the outside of the ribosome is not integral to maintaining its structure, the variable regions  are not under functional constraint and may evolve without destroying the ribosome. They provide a means for identification and classification through analysis [2-6]. The conserved areas are targets for primers, as a single primer can bind universally (to all or nearly-all) to its target taxa.  The conserved regions are all on the internal structure of the ribosome, and too much change in the sequence will cause its 3D (tertiary) structure to change, thus it won’t be able to interact with the many components in the cell.  Mutations or changes in the conserved regions often causes a non-functional ribosome and will kill the cell.

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Image: alimetrics.net

In addition to a small subunit, ribosomes also possess a large subunit (LSU rRNA), the 23S rRNA in prokaryotes, and the 28S rRNA in eukaryotes. Eukaryotes have an additional 5.8S subunit which is non-coding, and all small and large units of RNA have associated proteins which aid in structure and function. Taken together, this gives a combined 70S ribosome in prokaryotes, and a combined 80S ribosome rRNA in eukaryotes.

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The ribosome assembles amino acids into protein chains based on the instructions of messenger RNA (mRNA) sequences.  (Image: shmoop.com)

The way to study the rRNA gene is to sequence it.  First, you need to extract the DNA from cells, and then you need to make millions of copies of the gene you want using Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR).  PCR and sequencing technology more or less work the same way as a cell would make copies of DNA for cell processes or division (mitosis). You take template DNA, building block nucleotides, and a polymerase enzyme which is responsible for reading the DNA sequence and making an identical copy, and with hours of troubleshooting get a billion copies!  Many sequencing machines use nucleotides that have colored dyes attached, and when a nucleotide is added, that dye gets cut (cleaved) off, and the camera can catch and interpret that action.  It then records each nucleotide being added to each separate DNA strand, and outputs the sequences for the microorganisms that were in your original sample!

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Image: nature.com

The two main challenges facing high-throughput sequencing are in choosing a target for amplification, and being able to integrate the generated data into an increased understanding of the microbiome of the environment being studied. High-throughput sequencing can currently sequence thousands to millions of reads which are up to 600-1000 bases in length, depending on the platform. This has forced studies to choose which variable regions of the rRNA gene to amplify and sequence, and has opened up an arena for debate on which variable region to choose [2].  And of course, the DNA analysis of all this data you’ve now created is quickly being recognized as the most difficult part- which is what I focused on during my post-doc in the Yeoman Lab.  Stay tuned for a blog post on the wonderful world of bioinformatics!

 

  1. Neefs J-M, Van de Peer Y, Hendriks L, De Wachter R: Compilation of small ribosomal subunit RNA sequences. Nucleic Acids Res 1990, 18:2237–2318.
  2. Kim M, Morrison M, Yu Z: Evaluation of different partial 16S rRNA gene sequence regions for phylogenetic analysis of microbiomes. J Microbiol Methods 2010, 84:81–87.
  3. Doud MS, Light M, Gonzalez G, Narasimhan G, Mathee K: Combination of 16S rRNA variable regions provides a detailed analysis of bacterial community dynamics in the lungs of cystic fibrosis patients. Hum. Genomics 2010, 4:147–169.
  4. Yu Z, Morrison M: Comparisons of different hypervariable regions of rrs genes for use in fingerprinting of microbial communities by PCR-denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis. Appl Env Microbiol 2004, 70:4800–4806.
  5. Lane DJ, Pace B, Olsen GJ, Stahl DA, Sogin ML, Pace NR: Rapid determination of 16S ribosomal RNA sequences for phylogenetic analyses. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 1985, 82:6955–6959.
  6. Yu Z, García-González R, Schanbacher FL, Morrison M: Evaluations of different hypervariable regions of archaeal 16S rRNA genes in profiling of methanogens by archaea-specific PCR and denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis. Appl Env Microbiol 2007, 74:889–893.

Where are the women in STEM?

The “Women in Science” debate has been raging on in a variety of ways, from wondering why there aren’t more of us to whether or not a mixed-gender lab is too distractingly sexy.  The amount of women in science, the pay gap, and career advancement potential varies wildly by country and research field. So does public opinion about whether or not there is an actual problem, what might be causing it, and what we might do about it. In 2011, women only earned about 18% of undergraduate computer science degrees, down from its peak of 37% in 1985. The percentage of women earning graduate-level degrees has been slowly increasing since 1970, with 28% of the masters degrees and 20% of the doctoral degrees (Ph.D ,s) being earned by women in 2011. Women make up roughly 41% of total STEM doctoral degrees earned; however, women only fill 24% of STEM jobs in the US, and only 25% of STEM managers are female. Universities are only slightly better, with 28% of tenure-track faculty positions being held by women in the US, but only 12% worldwide.

This debate isn’t just specific to science in academia, but a lack of diversity in the educational system can have interesting effects.  First, a lack of female (or other demographic) role models means that female children are less likely to go into that field: if they don’t see anyone paving the way, then the idea that they might also become a physicist doesn’t occur to them or doesn’t sound like an attractive career.  While boys and girls are taking math and science in equal numbers in grade school, this doesn’t translate into the same number of men and women in math or science undergraduate fields, where women only earn 18% of undergraduate  computer science degrees, down from 37% in 1985, and only 11.5% of software developers are female.  Part of this is the perception that men are better than women at math and science, even though women have been shown to be better at writing computer code than men, but only when reviewers did not know the coder was female.  Science faculty, regardless of their own gender, were more likely to hire a male applicant over an identical female applicant, and offered them several thousand dollars more starting salary for the same position. The male applicant was perceived as more competent, more hirable, and more in need of mentoring than the identical female applicant.

Another problem is that women are less likely to have people sponsoring or advocating for them in the work place (available here and discussed here).  People with sponsors were 30% more likely to be promoted or given raises.  As of 2014, only 23% of Americans polled preferred a female boss, which is and has always been lower than the number of respondents preferring a male boss, which may account for the lack of support women find in climbing the ladder.  Surprisingly, women were 13% more likely to want a male boss, which may be a reaction to fierce competition to become the “token woman” at a company or working group, as women or other minorities who advocate hiring another woman or minority are rated poorly.  There is also the perception among women that a female boss is less likely to promote you over herself, as she doesn’t want competition, known as Queen Bee Syndrome.  This too, has been refuted, as women are shown to be more likely to mentor and develop female employees lower down on the ladder (discussed here).

Finally, one of the reasons that women are not found in some fields or levels of management, which no one really wants to discuss, is the disparaging levels of sexism and harassment we may face.  For female graduate students, post-docs, or new professionals, sexual harassment at work can increase attrition rates.  Due to the close nature of the working relationship of graduates/post-docs with their advisors, many students feel they can’t report inappropriate behavior (of any nature) for fear of losing their position in the program.  As a student, you need your advisor to approve everything, from the courses you have taken to manuscripts before publishing, and a poor relationship with your advisor can make it nearly impossible for you to complete your work.  Tenured faculty who have been accused of harassment also seem to be acting with impunity, as it can be difficult, time-consuming, and costly to fire a tenure professor (in the absence of proven criminal activity).  In field situations, sexual harassment can take on a more sinister tone, as you may be the only female in a group and depending on your abuser to keep you alive.

So what can we do about this?  Because this isn’t just a woman’s issue.  That’s what I discussed here because I have some expertise with being a woman, but in general, diversity in society is a hotly contested issue.  It really shouldn’t be, increasing the diversity in a group can increase performance and improve decision making (discussed here).  Having a diverse group of people (in terms of gender, race, sexuality, education, economic status, birth order, pets owned, places lived, live experiences learned from..) gives the group a wider range of previous experience to lean upon when solving problems.  It’s why we evolved into a social society in the first place- it was better for survival.

The first step to solving our diversity issues is to let go of preconceived notions about yourself or others.  Stop thinking about life-related obstacles to your career trajectory, such as whether you want kids or having to relocate your family, and stop assuming that others might be better or worse at their job because they have chosen a certain family dynamic.  Stop thinking you might not get a job because of what the employer might thinking about women as bioinformaticians, and in turn stop stereotyping applicants based on your ideas of who they are and of what they are capable.

The second step is to be a role model, and to actively engage the next generations of computer scientists, astronauts, microbial ecologists, astrophysicists, and educators.  As a woman in science, it’s important to me to encourage other women and girls in science, because I would not be here today without the positive female role models I have had.  It’s important to support programs that encourage different minorities to achieve in fields where they are underrepresented, because it benefits all of us.

And the third step, perhaps the most difficult. is to have an open conversation about the difficulties and prejudices facing women, or anyone, in different science fields.  Often people can fall back on stereotypes or be sexist or racist without realizing it, and it’s important to speak up and have a conversation with them to come to a better understanding of how to get along.  When someone’s words or actions are creating a hostile work environment, tell them directly, as well as their supervisor or relevant reporting agency as needed.  If we don’t address the problem on an individual basis, then individuals will never amend their actions.  In addition, it’s important to validate the feelings of and listen to someone who has been the victim of harassment or a crime (of any nature), because it’s important to make them feel safe and believed.  Often, victims of sexual harassment state that not having their reports believed or treating seriously by supervisors was worse than the harassment itself.  And personally, I have plenty to do on a daily basis without having to deal with casual or institutional sexism.  Working women are simply too busy quietly doing well at ours jobs to deal with men’s feelings about us.

 

 

 

I Accepted a New Position in Soil Microbiology and Agroeconomy!

As my current post-doctoral position winds down in the Yeoman Lab in the Department of Animal and Range Sciences, I am pleased to announce that I have accepted a post-doctoral position in the Menalled Lab in the Land Resources and Environmental Sciences Department! Dr. Menalled’s work focuses on agricultural weed ecology and management, particularly with respect to plant-plant interactions, changing climate (water and temperature changes), and now plant-microbe interactions!

I’ll primarily be working on a new two-year project that recently got funded through the USDA, entitled “Assessing the vulnerability and resiliency of integrated crop-livestock organic systems in water-limited environments under current and predicted climate scenarios”, but I’ll also be working collaboratively on several other similar projects in the lab.

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A little pre-job job training: I’m helping to make structures to keep rain out (rain-out shelters) of plots to simulate drier climate conditions.  Photo: Tim Seipel

My new responsibilities will include comparing agronomic performance and weed-crop-pathogen interactions between organic-tilled and organic-grazed systems, evaluating the impact of management and biophysical variables on soil microbial communities, and collaborating in modeling the long-term consequences of these interactions under current and predicted climate scenarios.  It’ll mean a lot more field work, and a lot of new skills to learn!  In fact, to help me study for my new job working with agricultural plants, my mentee and her friend made me flash cards:

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My mentee made my study cards so I could learn to identify common crop and weed species.

In addition to my new skills, I’ll be integrating my background in microbial ecology and bioinformatics, in order to study agricultural ecosystems more holistically and measure plant-microbe interactions.  In the same way that humans eat probiotics to promote a healthy gut microbiome, plants foster good relationships with specific soil microorganisms. The most exciting part is that I will act as an interdisciplinary bridge between the agroecology of the Menalled lab and the microbial ecology of the Yeoman lab, which will allow for more effective collaborations!

 

 

Improving a child’s life is as easy as wearing a paper turkey-hat.

Encouraging girls to go into STEM fields is really important; studies show that female STEM high-school teachers and even online mentors increase the probability of female students following a STEM education.  Moreover, any child benefits academically and psychologically from having positive role models in their life, especially when they were role models that they interacted with as opposed to celebrity role models.  And the benefits don’t just extend to children, adults benefit from positive role models, too.  Certainly I have benefited from strong female role models in my life, from high school art teachers, to undergraduate lecturers, to family (happy birthday, Mom!).

This past fall I started putting my money where my mouth was- I started mentoring an elementary school-aged girl in Bozeman, MT through the Thrive Child Advancement Project (CAP).  So far, we have mostly been making art projects and talking about archaeology.  But we have been talking about trying to learn the Java programming language together!

There are lots of opportunities to mentor kids, either through CAP programs, Big Brother/Big Sister, Girls and Boy Scouts, etc., just a quick internet search brings up dozens of local options.  For less of a time commitment, you can also volunteer for community workshops, like the Girls for a Change summit in Bozeman or the Girls-n-Science in Billings.

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A Lady on the Streets and a Tiger in the Sheets of Paperwork.

Stereotyping is a social adaptation which evolved to help individuals classify stimuli, and to make judgements about new, untested stimuli.  After all, once a crocodile ate your family, it was conducive to your survival to assume that all crocodiles were probably dangerous.  However, social interactions and the human sense of self is so much more nuanced today that stereotyping is no longer a valid social tool.  People make assumptions about others based on just about any aspect of their person, and this has very real repercussions for diversity and interactions in the workplace, though here I am focusing on preconceived notions of women.

Women often face a paradoxical set of rules for their personality and productivity, especially at work.  Sometimes we are perceived as being too talkative and willing to talk over others, yet a recent study showed that men do most of the talking in work meetings, and are much more likely to interrupt a woman and than man.  Women are perceived by men to be worse at problem solving, as being unreliable if they are working mothers, and as being worse team leaders or executives.  This is contrary to other studies which show women to be more effective leaders.  In that study, women were more likely to take charge, undergo professional development, be honest, and were better at communicative and collaborative skills.  Many women who were surveyed attributed their success to having to work much harder than their male counterparts in order to prove their competence.

Women are encouraged to be more feminine from many angles, such as societal norms, or product marketing and advertising, often with the perception that you will be more attractive and better liked if you exhibit predominantly feminine qualities (warmth, nurturing, patience). However, the perception of working women used to be (in 1984) that they were more masculine, and prior to that working women were seen as selfish, unfeminine, and cold.  While in 2014, working women were categorized as equally feminine and masculine, being more “masculine” (self-confident, self-promoting) is shown to increase your chance of promotion.  Women are also often expected to do workplace “chores” or to be altruistic (staying late, helping other employees, etc. at no personal gain) in ways that men are not.

Another problem is the perception of working women and their relation to their family, which has improved in the last century but still lags behind the times. It’s still assumed that women will at some point temporarily or permanently leave work to raise a family, and working mothers are commonly perceived to be unreliable in terms of performance and time spent at work.  There can still be negative attitudes towards women who work instead of staying home to raise children, even though countless studies across the globe have shown that working mothers (who want to be working) have a more positive attitude, act as role models, and reduce gender inequality in future generations (data from here and summarized here).

This also ties into theories about whether or not a woman should earn more that her man (arguments which ignore same-sex couple earning dynamics). However, this leads to the idea that women don’t work to financially support their families, but to feed an ambition, yet why can’t both be true?  Men responded that when jobs are scarce, men have more right to them than women, and were less likely to respond that a job was the best way for a woman to be independent.  Thus, women’s careers are incorrectly perceived as superfluous to supporting a family and leads to the idea that we don’t need to make as much as a man, who may be supporting his family.

I can personally attest to this.  For several years, I was financially supporting my ex-husband during his arduous job search following the 2008 recession.  It didn’t bother me, as I was applying to graduate school and preparing for the financial tables to turn once I transitioned to a student stipend.  However, our financial roles came as a surprise to many people, in that the thought hadn’t occurred to them that I was the prevailing breadwinner.  This was again reflected in people’s perceptions about what we would do after I graduated.  When I announced my interest in finding a post-doctoral position on the opposite US coast or internationally, people were surprised that I would ask my man to give up his job, start over in a new place, and move away from his family.  However, I would have been expected to do the same if our career roles had been reversed.

Luckily, attitudes about female bosses are changing, even if our paychecks aren’t.  Today fewer men responded that they would prefer a male boss to a female boss, and more had no preference, than they did 50 years ago.  Only 23% of Americans polled preferred a woman, which is and has always been lower than the number of respondents preferring a male boss.  Gender preference was also linked to the gender of your current boss, so it likely that people are as unsure of change in hierarchy as they are of specific genders in charge.  Surprisingly, women were 13% more likely to want a male boss, which may be a reaction to fierce competition to become the “token woman” at a company or working group, as women or other minorities who advocate hiring another woman or minority are penalized.  There is also the perception among women that a female boss less likely to promote you over herself, as she doesn’t want competition, known as Queen Bee Syndrome.  This too, has been refuted, as women are shown to be more likely to mentor and develop female employees lower down on the ladder (discussed here).    Interestingly, companies with higher numbers of women in leadership roles consistently do better financially than companies with low number of women in leadership roles.

So how do we act more confidently without being arrogant or dominating, prove that we are great at math and science without being narcissistic, or have a family but not make a big deal of it?  The best way to change public misconceptions is to prove them wrong.  My advice, for women, for everyone: just be yourself.  Be your best self. Be friendly and open, but judiciously say “no” to demands on your time.  Remember who you are, where you want to go, and be comfortable in your skin. Feel free to be feminine, masculine, or whatever (just remember to be professional).  As you work your way through your career, you should remember to be humble; after all, there is always someone out there that knows more than you do, but you also need to remember that you are intelligent, hard working, and you deserve to be where you are.

The Reluctant Interplay of Science and Social Media

Recently, I had another in a long series of conversations with scientists about how they got into science so that they wouldn’t have to use any of their rusty social skills, only to find that social interaction, meetings, and now online communication were a huge part of their daily routine. The myth of the curmudgeon scientist holed up their lab seems to persist despite the current age of social media, perhaps because we scientists don’t seem to understand the appeal of Twitter (how do you include the p-value when you only have 140 characters?!). But in reality, a great deal of our time involves communication, and having practiced social etiquette can make or break you in an interview, at a conference, or at a project pitch meeting.

Many researchers wait until they are hired as assistant professors before they reluctantly make a website, start a blog, or even set up an email account for the lab. How disappointing it must be to wait all those years as a graduate student and a post-doctoral researcher, only to find that a website with your last name has already been taken! And what a hassle to have to generate blog posts, update project and personnel pages, and keep up with social media when you have just landed a professorship and are swamped with grant proposals, manuscripts from old projects that keep hanging around, comparison shopping for equipment to set your lab up, generating coursework for one or several courses, recruiting students…. It’s such a hassle that a friend of mine created an entire business around helping new professors create and manage an online presence: Tenure Chasers.

It really got me thinking, shouldn’t I be starting this?  It’s a little preemptive, after all, I’m a post-doctoral researcher without a lab of my own.  But it makes sense to start it now; for one thing, I have the time to devote to creating the mainframe.  For another, as a new researcher, I sometimes need to prove that I exist.  It seems like a silly thing to think about, but sometimes you need to prove that you are, in fact, a real researcher will real work experience and not just an email scam targeting disused academic email servers (happens quite often).  And hiring someone is a serious consideration, as research funds are limited, indirect costs for personnel make total personnel costs high, you are trusting this person with your research and your career reputation, and you may need to work with this person for several to many years.  It’s a commitment to hire a scientist, and you need to be sure about them.  Thus, having at least one thorough online profile, or better yet- connections to other well-known researchers, can give employers more confidence in you.

Finally, having an online presence improves your communication skills, and shows a commitment to outreach, which is a component in any career level of academia.  It helps to get your work out to other scientists, especially those outside your field whom you wouldn’t run into at a conference or seminar, and more importantly, it disseminates it to the general public.  Graduate school and post-doctoral positions are designed to teach and refine skills, and the skill of communication is no different.  So don’t wait until you really need it, start early and improve the quality of your social media presence, before anyone is paying attention.