Path to Grad School: Finding a fit with a future mentor

puzzlephoto by Sarah Frankenberg

The overall objective of the graduate school search in is to settle into a position where you can thrive as a professional and a scientist.  In other posts I have outlined a number of important considerations (LINK) including being careful and picky about the place where you go to graduate school.  For a MS-Thesis option, the program will run 2 years or so and these are two important years in your life so you should take it seriously.  For a PhD, the timeline will normally run 5 years, it can be quite intense at times, and your experience can have a large influence on your future.

In your search for a graduate program, your first consideration is finding a strong fit with a mentor.  Student-mentor sympatico is the single most important factor that will determine your graduate school success.  Here I want to provide some tips that may be helpful

Build a pool of potential mentors

The first step in finding a good graduate program fit is to figure out for yourself a general direction that you want to head in during your career.  The single best way to figure out what you might like to work on as a graduate students is to get involved in undergraduate research, either through an internship program or working with a faculty member on your home campus.

When you begin to search for a graduate program, you do not need to have a project in mind, and in fact, students rarely bring the specific ideas that become their Thesis/Dissertation project with them into the graduate program.  What you probably do need is a sense of the kinds of organisms you might like to work with, the kinds of ecosystems you want to spend time in, and the kinds of questions that you might find exciting. For example, you might have a strong sense that you want to work with plants and stay in the Eastern Deciduous Forest and maybe you had some experience working on ecological invasion in an internship.  If you found these things exciting you might be able to narrow down your focus.

Once you have a general idea, then you can simply search for people using search engines such as Google.  Most scientists have websites that you can peruse.  You also should take a look at peer-reviewed literature published by your potential mentor.  You definitely need to be publishing from your graduate work and if the person you discover has not published anything recently then you might want to think carefully before you join that lab.  Often scientists have a social media account such as Twitter that you can follow to get a sense of their interests.  In a best cast, you might be able to catch a talk by the person or one of their students at a conference.  You may be able to network to that person through a mentor during your undergraduate experience.  Another way to find opportunities is through the ECOLOG List-serve (LINK) and through job boards.  Here is a page where we have accumulated links to various job boards where grad school opportunities are likely to be advertised:  LINK.

First contact

Making contact with a potential future graduate adviser can be a harrowing experience for undergraduates who are looking to launch a career post-graduation.  If your potential mentor has posted an advertisement then you will have instructions that you need to follow to make contact.  If  you have found a person who has not apparently advertised, you can cold email that person to express your interest and inquire as to availability of opportunities in their lab.

If you are going to “cold” email someone, or are following instructions in an AD to email the potential mentor, here are some tips.

Features of a high quality “first contact” email

(a) Make your email relatively short and digestible.  Especially if it is a cold contact, the person receiving the email should not have to “scroll” extensively to read your text.  Keep your text to a couple of short paragraphs.

(b) Be sure that the person you are emailing can tell why you are interested in working with them, in particular.  Faculty with active graduate programs may receive a lot of emails and one of the key indicators of the seriousness of the student is that the email communicates an understanding of the kind of work being done in the lab.  It does not have to be extensive, but you need enough that the reader can tell that you have a reasonable idea of the kinds of questions being asked in the lab, and the organisms and systems the lab focuses on.

(c) Be sure that the email has some pertinent information about your interests and also indicates how you believe you could contribute to the work being done in the lab.  The email should, briefly, highlight the kinds of things you have worked on and what you think you might bring to the lab.  For instance, if you did some undergraduate research, had an internship, or took some specialized courses, you can highlight those experiences.  If you have experience in data analysis (R) or GIS those may also be a good thing to mention.  List your GRE scores if you have them (take the GRE!- LINK)

(d)  Attach a CV to the email.  Here are a few CVs that might help you get ideas of structure and organization (LINK, LINK and LINK).

(e) Be professional.  You need “Dear Dr. YyYyyy” at the top.  In a first contact email, do not address this person by their first name and absolutely never use “Mrs.”  Using “Dr.” in an initial email greeting is a basic courtesy- do not overthink it!  At the conclusion of the email, sign off in a professional way such as “Best wishes,”  or “Sincerely,” and then type your name.

(f) Just send it!  Many undergraduates can get into a kind of fugue state of anxiety related to reaching out in this way, which can delay or prevent first contact.  Be diligent in prepping your email, but then go ahead and hit “send.” Well done!

(g) Once you send the email, do not obsess about it.  Let it go.  You may never get a reply from this person.  That does not mean they are a bad person, or that your materials were inadequate, they might simply be overwhelmed with their work.  That happens.  You might get an email back immediately!  You might get an email back 3 weeks later when the person climbs to the top of the email heap.  Etc.  The point is, you do not know what is going to happen next and it is less stressful if you just send the email, let it go, and move forward with your life.

Here are a few sample emails that might spur your thinking:  LINK, LINK and LINK.

Visit the campus and focus on finding a fit

Finding a fit with a graduate mentor is important for those looking to pursue a Thesis MS and absolutely critical for success during a PhD.

As a way to prepare for this post, I spoke with a student who had a very stressful experience and had to change research labs due to a poor fit with a mentor.  She had a couple of interesting things to say that I want to add here for your consideration:

“Doing a PhD is going to be very difficult under positive circumstances, if the fit with the mentor is poor it becomes practically impossible.”

“If you have to constantly bend your personality and compromise your standards to make things work with your PI, you will end up mentally exhausted and you start to dreading even being in the lab.  This means your project is likely to fail.”

Although email exchanges and phone/skype calls can reveal some of the potential for fit with a mentor, I would urge you to visit the campus.  A campus visit will enable to you to  suss out the features of the lab community and the graduate program and to get a much better idea if your perspective and ambitions match with those of your potential graduate mentor.

Here are some items to look for or ask about while you are visiting:

  • Are there regular lab meetings?
  • Is the PI (mentor) available for consultation and conversation?
  • Does the PI meet with students regularly?
  • How long does it take to get a draft manuscript back with comments?
  • Are there set expectations for students that are communicated to the lab?
  • Are there set expectations for the adviser that are communicated to the lab?
  • What is the level of camaraderie among the students in the lab?
  • What is the level of camaraderie among the lab students and others in the department?
  • Are there adequate supplies and equipment to accomplish your research?
  • When was the last time the students in the lab went to a professional conference?
  • Are there skills-building opportunities in the lab, in the department?
  • Is there positive communication between the PI and existing students?
  • Are current students happy in the lab?  Is there laughter?

If you are interested in diversity in the academy (you | should | be) or want to test whether there are any hidden underlying discriminatory tendencies, one experiment you can do is just use the phrase “women in science”  or “inclusivity” and see what happens.  You can simply say something like:  “One thing I want to do in my career is learn more about inclusivity in science…to help make the field more welcoming to people from a variety of backgrounds.”  If the person says “Ohh, that is interesting, here is something we are working on X” then you can get a feeling for where the lab is headed and whether you like that direction.  If you mention women in science or something similar and the person you are interviewing with starts huffing and puffing, or gives you a snarky reply, or dead silence, then you have useful information that you can take into consideration in your mentor selection process.

Overall, being part of a research lab means being part of a human community.  The features of this human community may play a large role in your success as a graduate student.   No community is perfect, no PI will meet all your needs precisely, and every graduate school experience will likely have both triumph and struggle.

You cannot control all the variables that might influence your grad school experience; however,  if you are careful early in the process, you can minimize the risk of having a poor fit with your mentor and, thus, maximize your probability of success.

 

 


See other posts in the Path to Grad School series here:  LINK

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Path to Grad School: Things to ask your potential new adviser

IMG_20181102_074109

If you want to do a research-focused graduate degree (Thesis MS or PhD), it is critical that you find the mentor and a good situation for your professional development.  Do not start a graduate degree program at an institution out of convenience.  You should be careful and strategic.   In a separate post, I argue that the most important element to your success in graduate school finding a good match with your mentor (LINK).

Here I aim to provide a list of helpful questions.  I would recommend actually having these in a little notebook while on campus on your visit, so that you don’t forget.  Clearly you want to look for a match in your scientific interests and see if you are a good fit for the community and the personality of the mentor (see related post- LINK).  You do not want to START the conversation with these!  Match is the most important issue at hand.  However, you really need answers to these practical questions at some point along the way.  If you are looking for a PhD program, it would be a good idea to talk to both the potential mentor and the “Graduate Chair” and see if you can get good answers to these:

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Questions to ask your potential new graduate mentor

  1. Is there a tuition waiver associated with being a grad. student?
  2. Is there a stipend?  What is the stipend amount?
  3. Who pays for health care? What is the health care like?  Are rates likely to        change soon?
  4. Are there fees besides tuition that are not covered in a waiver?
  5. What is the required course load for graduate students? How many classes do you have to take and what are the required classes?
  6. Are there TA or other duties associated with the position?  Are there other departmental activities that are expected of students beyond what is part of the TA/GA?  What is the hourly load each week?
  7. What is the source of funding to pay for research equipment, supplies and travel?
  8. How much travel funding does the department have?  Will they pay for you to travel to meetings?
  9. How do I contact current students in the lab? From the program?
  10. How do I contact lab alumni? Program alumni?

———————–

Many of these questions are practical and you really should not agree to join a lab as a graduate student until you have the answers.  I would urge you to be really contentious about pursuing the last two.  Talk to current students in the labs that you are interested in. Find out about their experiences.  If you visit campus and there are current students in the lab, and no time is set up to talk to them then you should view this as a potential “red flag.”  Because, why??  And, find students who recently graduated from the labs you are interested in. What are they doing now?  Are they working?  Alumni are a key indicator of how things will work our for you.

 

 


See other posts in the Path to Grad School series here:  LINK

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Path to Grad School: Focus on funding

sdr

If you are interested in going to graduate school in Ecology or other Environmental fields, the first thing to consider is what degree you want to pursue.

Here is a separate post where I argue for pursuing a Masters degree:  LINK.

If you are going to pursue a Masters, then the next major decision is about the type of Masters you might pursue.  There is a major distinction, a fork in the road, that undergraduates should think about when pondering this situation.   That distinction is between a Thesis-oriented degree and a non-Thesis degree.

If you choose a non-Thesis degree then you will have to pay for grad school.

If you choose to pursue a non-Thesis degree then you will most likely have to pay tuition and you will not be paid a stipend.  You are effectively choosing to take more classes.  This is a decision that each student will have to make.  I would urge the student to think very carefully about what, exactly, benefit they believe they will gain from taking this approach instead of pursuing a Thesis option.  Then seek hard evidence that they will, indeed, gain the professional benefits they are seeking.

If you choose a Thesis-oriented MS, then you should get paid to go to grad school

If you are doing a Dissertation-oriented PhD, should get paid to go to grad school

If you are more interested in research and excited to pursue a Thesis or Dissertation focused degree then you should not pay tuition and you should be paid a stipend.

Therefore, if you are interested in a Thesis/Dissertation-focused degree, then the “grad school search” is really about finding SUPPORT for your graduate activities.

To find a good situation you need to dedicate yourself to finding a program where you can pursue your research interests and match up those interests with a faculty member who is looking for a student and has funding available.

In a separate post I outline keys to finding a fit with a future mentor:  LINK

Here I want to focus on the financial particulars:

Sources of support for a Thesis-Dissertation option / Research degree

Teaching Assistantship (TA)

This is the most typical kind of funding for graduate students. Generally you are required to teach undergraduate introductory labs. This job basically involves reading some material from some kind of lab manual and then teaching it to freshman. Around 50% of those students are barely interested. You might get lucky and teach some upper division labs where the students are more focused.  Generally you teach 2 or 3 labs each semester, and that is the justification for the university paying you. Your “real” job during the TA is doing research on your project!

Graduate Assistantship (GA)

These are rare. Sometimes it is simply, you just get paid for doing your research project! Cool, right? Sometimes a GA will have some kind of odd duty, like taking care of the plants in a greenhouse, or working in an animal care facility. Basically, if the department has a job that it needs done by someone who is invested in the process, they can “hire” a grad student via a GA and get that work done on the cheap. It is still a good deal for you, cause doing a GA usually is more flexible than a TA

Research Assistantship

These are nearly at the level of the passenger pigeon now…this is funding directly related to the research project you are working on! This usually comes from grant funding for the project. The faculty member effectively hires you to be a graduate student! If you get one of these, you are very fortunate and can just focus on your “real” job full time.

Financial particulars

Stipends

Rough Range: $12,000 to $27,000.

The level of funding for stipends ranges widely depending on the type of program you are involved in, the location of the university, and the source of funding. At a large Research I university in a major urban area, your stipend can be expected to be considerably higher than those in smaller universities in more rural settings. A “Normal” Stipend is in the range of $18,000/year. That generally includes 9 months, and you might have opportunities for extra money in the summer.

Tuition

Tuition may or may not be lower than the amount that undergraduates are charged…it really depends on the institution. The good news is, though, that if you are on a research project, the tuition should be forgiven through a process called “Tuition Remission.” You should be paying NO TUITION. You MUST get clear on this before you accept a position! If you are expected to pay tuition, that could radically change the financial viability of the support!  See our list of questions to ask advisors in a separate post:  LINK.

Fees

Fees can eat into your meager stipend in a way that is significant. Sometimes grad students are shielded from all fees- sometimes they have to pay some, but not others. Fees are one of the mysterious ways the university gets extra money from undergraduates, but does not have to account for them in the tuition number they publicize- as a graduate student living on a relatively small stipend you do not want to be caught up in this. Ask about fees!

Health Insurance

The university should offer students coverage for free or at very low prices. You might be restricted to health care at the university hospital or through the student health services. Check on this.  If you are in a relationship and might have a child during your PhD you need to find out if their health insurance covers dependents (i.e., your baby).  Note that, in my opinion, it is unethical (and ~despicable) for the school not to cover dependents of graduate students; however, this unethical choice is common.

Travel Funds for Meeting

Going to professional meetings to present your work is a key step for graduate students. It allows you to network and show off what you have done. Most universities have set-aside money to fund grad student travel to meetings. You need to check on this. The cost of attending a meeting is ~ $1200/meeting.  You might find opportunities that are cheaper (for instance, if you dont have to fly to the meeting), but my number is a good one if you want to be realistic, and might be a tad low, actually.   You need to ask about support for meeting travel.

Research Money

You should not spend your own money on your research project. I mean, if you need to buy a box of garbage bags or something, okay, fine. But, generally,you should NOT buy things on your own. Also, think about travel funds for research. If  your project requires a lot of driving, you need to think about, and ask about, how you will get there- are you expected to drive your own car? Is there money for reimbursement? Don’t sweat the details…again, if there is a time or two you fill up your tank, that is one thing. But if you have to drive 300 miles every two weeks for your research and there is no money, this is major problem!

 


See other posts in the Path to Grad School series here:  LINK

 

 

 

 

 

Path to Grad School: McEwanlab series

OsageOsage orange trail, Sugar Creek Metropark, ca 2009

Through my career I have been involved in mentoring and advising many undergraduates.  Of these, a large number have had graduate school aspirations.  In this blog series I outline some of the key issues surrounding the graduate school application process.  I provide some factual information and also opinions based on what I have seen work for students in the past.  Obviously, like all of the posts on the McEwanlab blog page, these are opinion-based and are simply an attempt to provide helpful insights.

 


Path to Grad School:  Take the GRE in October.

dav

LINK

 


Path to Grad School:  Become a Master of Science.

masterofscience

LINK

 


Path to Grad School:  Focus on funding.

sdr

LINK

 


Path to Grad School: Things to ask your potential new adviser

IMG_20181102_074109

LINK

 


Path to Grad School: Finding a fit with a future mentor

puzzle

LINK

 


-rwm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Path to Grad School: Take the GRE in October

dav

Many undergraduates pursuing Bachelors degrees in environmental disciplines may be interested in graduate school.   Students who have had experience in undergraduate research may be interested in pushing forward toward a career in science.  For some students, a graduate degree is an important step in their career even though they are pretty sure they do not want science to be a full-time job. Still others simply want to keep their options open.

One of the steps in admission to graduate school is the Graduate Records Exam or GRE.

Here is information about this exam:  LINK

If you are an undergraduate who thinks you might go to graduate school in the near future then you should take the GRE.

My recommendation is that you plan to take the GRE in October of your senior year, or earlier.  Graduate school opportunities can pop up early in the fall and you do not want an opportunity to slip by because you do not have scores in hand.  Also, if you have scores that you are not happy with then you need time to re-take the test in the fall.

There has been some criticism of the GRE, and some universities are eliminating this requirement; however, the bottom line is that most graduate programs do require it.

Programs differ in both the importance of the GRE scores and the standards for admittance.  In the Department of Biology at the University of Dayton (LINK) we recommend applicants obtain a score of 150 or more in the verbal and quantitative sections and a score of 3.0 or better in the written section.  I believe the UD Biology requirements are comparable to other programs; however, I would encourage you to check the details of the places where you are applying.

Applying to complete a research degree in Ecology and the Environment should involve an effort to connect with an individual mentor with whom you have a good fit (LINK).  During your conversations you can inquire as to the importance of the GRE from their perspective and what (if any) standards they might have.

Although the role of the GRE as a gateway to grad school has been diminishing through time and the test itself is under scrutiny (LINK), there are still many programs which require this test.  Therefore an undergraduate who is graduating in the near future should take this test if they want to have all their options open.  Whether or not the test is an egregious boondoggle, if the program you apply to requires it, they almost certainly will not waive it for you as an individual.   So you need the scores in hand.

What if you want to work for a while before going to graduate school?

You probably should take the GRE anyway because (A) you are better at taking tests right now than you will be if you work for a while and (B) you do not know what your circumstances will be geographically, etc.

GRE scores can be used for 5 years (LINK), so if you take the GRE as an undergraduate you will be set for quite a while.

For example, if after graduation you get an awesome internship in the middle of an amazing forest and spend two years measuring science things and then decide to go to graduate school….you probably will need to have GRE scores for your application… and in that moment it may be a much bigger barrier than it is in the middle of fall semester, senior year.

-You might be 200 miles from the nearest testing center, whereas if you are senior at a University there is probably a testing center in your town, maybe on your campus.

-The $$ it takes to pay the GRE might actually be harder to come by in that moment than it is now, for instance, if your internship stipend is small and you are partly being compensated by room and board.

-Test taking is like any other skill, it will fade with time and it might be a lot harder to get yourself up to speed on test taking later than it is while you are an undergrad.  As a senior undergraduate you take tests all the time, but after two years in the woods the whole idea of taking a bubble test might feel like an impossible nightmare!

In mentoring I try to always prioritize helping students develop options and capacity so that they can pursue their ambitions.  In the case of the GRE, regardless of what I might think about the test itself, it is clear to me that taking it early fall of senior year is a good investment for the graduate-school-interested undergrad.  That student’s future self, working on a grad application after two years in the woods in Maine, will probably agree!

 

 

 


See other posts in the Path to Grad School series here:  LINK

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Issues surrounding Louisville as an ESA Annual Meeting Site

Note: some factual corrections and word changes are occurring due to helpful comments and critique from the ESA Community.

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As Program Chair of the 2019 Ecological Society of America conference, I am alarmed and distraught that the location, Louisville, Ky, has created much negative attention and, indeed, fear among some in the LGBTQ+ community who are interested in attending.

I am aware that the meetings committee more generally is also extremely concerned as is Society leadership.

I am writing now because I want to provide as much information as I can quickly, while continuing to work on the situation.  Views expressed here are my own.

Overview of how sites are selected

The 2019 Ecological Society of America Annual meeting is scheduled to be held in Louisville, Kentucky.   Planning for this meeting has been ongoing for many years and contracts for the meeting have long since been signed.  The Society works many years ahead on selecting the annual meeting location.  Meetings leadership visits with representatives from the city, does site tours and assesses the locations for “fit” with the membership.  At the time it was selected, Louisville fit well with the conditions that the Society was looking for, and also allowed us to venture into a new area of the country.

Kentucky law SB 17 

In 2017 a new law was passed in Kentucky that has serious ramifications for the meeting location.  The law is SB 17 and the full text is here [LINK].  This is effectively a “religious freedom” law; here is a story about the passage of the law [LINK].  Unfortunately, many states across the country have such laws as illustrated by this map from the Indianapolis Star from 2015 [LINK].

From my perspective, the existence of this law and its potential for creating an environment of discrimination toward members of the LGBTQ+ community are extremely troubling.  For this reason, I sought out more information about the law.

To find out more about conditions on the ground in Louisville and how SB 17 might influence ESA members at the annual meeting,  I reached out to the Louisville-based Fairness Campaign in Kentucky [LINK].

According to the director of the Fairness Campaign, the origin of SB 17 was related to Linus’ soliloquy in a public school rendition of Charlie Brown Christmas.  The law is aimed at school groups.  The Fairness Campaign and other groups in Kentucky opposed this law on the grounds that future discrimination may take place as a result of this legislation.  There is careful monitoring by a number of local organizations, but to date, no charges of discrimination have been levied associated with this law.   Importantly, this law was not directed at LGBT issues according to both the director of the Fairness Campaign and public comments from the sponsor of the legislation.

If you are concerned with LGBTQ+ issues in Kentucky and wish to connect with (or contribute to) organizations working on the ground you might consider Fairness Campaign (LINK).

Louisville as a welcoming place for members of the LGBTQ+ community.

I queried the Fairness Campaign director about Louisville as a destination for members of the LGBTQ+ community who may attend our annual meeting.  He shared with me that, in fact, no city in the country has a better rating for LGBTQ+ equity.  I checked and Louisville (perfect score- 100) has a better rating for LGBTQ+ equity than either of the previous two ESA sites (Portland- 88, New Orleans- 89).  I did some research on my own and found support for this ranking including the city’s large gay population and reputation for attracting gay tourists. The Fairness Campaign director told me directly that he felt our Society would find Louisville “incredibly welcoming.”

The travel situation with California.

The State of California has banned travel while on state time or using funds to a set of states, including Kentucky, based on the existence of religious freedom laws.  Here [LINK ] and here [LINK] are stories on this.  We will continue to seek a solution.

Could the meeting be moved?

I have heard many calls for the meeting to be moved.  Here are some of the issues.

Planning meetings as large as our annual meeting takes years, and the contracts are signed well in advance.  These contracts include agreements with the convention center, service providers, hotels, etc.  As I understand it, moving the conference at this late date would be virtually impossible due to the tasks of finding a new site, establishing new contracts, etc.  Further, either moving or cancelling would require ESA to break numerous contracts it has signed which would lead to substantial penalties.  These would be in addition to the absence of an annual meeting revenue if we were to cancel.

Also note that many of the hotels we contract with are part of large chains, the convention centers are, to some degree, networked as are the companies that provide services.  Thus, if we break a contract, it could make establishing future contracts more difficult and more expensive for the Society.

Beyond the fiscal issues, it is core to the essence of the Society to have a meeting each year and communicate science, provide platforms for networking, etc.

All of these considerations are far less important than the safety or well-being of membership.  Which is why I thought it was important to investigate the situation in Louisville closely (see above).

What now?

Here is what I am working on right now to address the issue.

First, I plan to continue conversations with Fairness Campaign to see what steps might be taken locally to make the meeting location more inviting to LGBTQ+ members of our Society.  Again, the reviews of Louisville are excellent; however, I want to dig a bit deeper on this.

Second, I have reached out to the Mayors office in Louisville.  He has been a strong advocate for fairness and I am hoping that he will directly engage our concerns.

Third, I am looking into the California travel ban.  I know that the City of Louisville requested an exemption [LINK]; however, I am not sure of the outcome, etc.  I will be inquiring with the Mayors office and the Louisville Chamber of Commerce to see what information they might have on this issue.

Fourth, I will be looking into ways to increase the virtual content of the meeting.  For anyone who would like to attend but cannot travel, or do not want to put on the carbon footprint, it would be helpful if more content was streaming and/or preserved in a kind of virtual library for ESA members.

Fifth, I met with the members of Inclusive Ecology at the New Orleans meeting and have a set of notes from their ideas that I will be pouring through to glean action items.

Last, I am looking for ESA members who are willing to engage issues of inclusiveness and equity for the upcoming annual meeting and, possibly, beyond.  I am thinking of a working group format.

Beyond all of these measures that I am taking, the Society leadership is also fully engaged and looking for solutions.

I want to thank all the members who have been sharing their ideas and concerns with me directly and via social media.  Your input is greatly appreciated by myself and others involved in planning the annual meeting.

Ryan McEwan

ryan.mcewan@udayton.edu |@mcewanlab | http://www.mcewanlab.org

Women in Science- fundamental issues, resources and action items

wins
 Three women in science, in the McEwan Lab, winning the day.

Over the last several years the McEwan Lab has had a Women-in-Science lab meeting each year.  These meetings have sparked a lot of conversation.  I have condensed our ideas down to five basic issues that surround Women in Science.  In this post I have collected and collated our thoughts and provided some resources.  In some cases we propose solutions.

By no means definitive, this is a **live** post, a work in progress, that will be modified and cultivated as new ideas and information emerge.

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Survival of the Most Cooperative?
Perceptual issues and feminist critique of scientific objectivity.

Observations/Discussion

Let’s start out with the fact that observation is necessarily filtered through the lens of perception which are colored by our experiences, our history, our associations, et cetera.

If we view an object or interaction between organisms we almost certainly will be influenced by our personal experiences, our knowledge base, and our instincts.  Our brains are required to interpret what we are seeing and our brains are pre-conditioned by our experience.  This pre-conditioning is a form of bias –  try as we might, unbiased assessment just isn’t possible.

If we start with the assumption that humans are biased by experience, and add in that pretty much every field of science has been, up to this point in history, either exclusively male, or at least dominated by males, then it is simple to see that our very knowledge of the world as represented by the sum total of scientific discovery may be a gender-biased body of knowledge.  This is one basis for a feminist critique of science.

One thing I have wondered about is how Ecology would have developed as a field if it were not so male dominated.  In particular, as a field we spent many decades focusing on interactions among organisms that were framed as predatory or competitive and, seems to me, quite a lot less on understanding interactions mutualistically.  Evidence of cooperative interactions are abundantly obvious in nature (herds, flocks, pollination) and given what we understand now about the complexity of ecological interaction networks, maybe focusing on one animal eating another has been a distraction. Similarly, we went into the deep end on “allelopathy” as an interaction among plants very early in Ecology (negative, competitive), and relatively recently began unpacking what seems like a vastly more important topic- mutualistic interactions among plants and fungi.  Consider this another of Ryan’s Obviously Unverified Speculations (ROUSs), not a strong claim, but I wonder if the field of ecology had been dominated by female scientists its inception, if we would be working from very different foundations today.

ROUS aside, the antidotes I see are….

Action Items

– Follow best practices to eliminate bias in hiring with the long term goal of increasing overall diversity and arriving at gender balance across the board in every STEM field.

– Bring alternative perspectives to bear on what we think of as foundational ideas in all areas of science.

 

Resources

Feminist critique of science- book chapter from philosopher Helen Longino:  LINK

Bias test from Project Implicit (Harvard): LINK

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Gender bias in publication, grant-winning, hiring and compensation.

Observations/Discussion

Abundant literature supports the contention that gender bias appears in all levels of academia including publishing, grant review, hiring and compensation.  The most egregious recent example that we know of is the Moss-Racusin et al. paper (linked below) that demonstrated that (a) SCIENCE FACULTY exhibited heavy bias towards males when faced with identical CVs with only a male vs. female name attached, and also that (b) women science faculty were no less likely than males to favor the “male” CV.  We have work to do people…not someone else, not some other time…us, right now.

The flip side of this bias is the The Matlida effect (LINK) which proscribes contributions of women to men.  There is some reason, for instance, to believe that the DNA helix was not discovered by Watson and Crick  but by Rosalind Franklin, who did the X-ray work and the chemistry but was mistaken for a “technician.”  Look into that story yourself if you want! The bigger picture is that the historical role of women in science is likely obscured by the fact that they were working in a sexist culture.

Action Items

-Double blind peer review of both grants and publications!  I will post on this in detail later…

-Best practices to eliminate bias in hiring.

-Review and equity adjustments to draw salaries to gender equilibrium (we are looking at you Chairs/Deans/Provosts/Chancellors)

Resources

New York Times- Gender Bias in Academica:  LINK

Letter of Recommendation Gender Bias Calculator: LINK  or LINK

Inside Higher Ed-  Women are less likely to earn tenure:  LINK

Moss-Racusin et al.:  PNAS-  Gender bias among science faculty:  LINK

Five Thirty Eight- Unconscious sexism and the presidential election:  LINK 

American Association of University Women- Gender Pay Gap: LINK

———–

 

 

Maternity timelines and careers in academia/ecology

In this area, we provide an extensive stand alone post:  LINK

Resources:

Slate article on female academics and children:  LINK

Jessica Shortall, TED talk on paid family leave:  LINK

———–

 

 

“Barbie or Granola” the appearance conundrum for women in science

Observations/Discussion

One manifestation of privilege in Science is the fact that men have much lower expectations when it comes of physical appearance.  As is the case in many professions, women face a conundrum where if they dress too flashy they are not taken seriously (#distractinglysexy), while if they dress “down” too much they are also not taken seriously.  Dressing “up” can leave the impression of being too material and potentially “ditsy” while dressing “down” they are sometimes seen as being not serious or a “granola” or even “butch.”  This problem just does not seem to exist for men where the worst outcome of dressing “up” is being seen as very serious, while dressing “down” is a good indication of “efficiency” (all he cares about is his work, a la Zuck).

Action Items

-Do not comment on physical appearances.

-Focus professional interactions on content.

-Check your implicit bias when it comes to evaluating female candidates.  Are you considering how they dressed?

-Consider representation when creating presentations for teaching or scientific communication.

Resources:

Quartz.com:  Focus on efficiency in tech is underlain by gender bias. LINK

FiveThirtyEight: When women run focus on appearance: LINK


 

 

Power hierarchy and sexual harassment & assault.

Observations/Discussion

This is the most depressing and heinous area.  Obviously, the other areas brush up against ethics and morality, whereas this area pushes us into criminal activity.  The sad truth is that many women in science experience some form of harassment or even assault during their career in the workplace.  While science and academia are likely a relatively “safe” place in relation to other types of employment, it remains a fundamental and cardinal challenge for all of us to stomp this completely out of existence.  The first step is talking about it, making it clear that this is not okay, and also making clear that reporting incidents is not only the correct thing to do, but in some cases required.

In some instance, this behavior is simply being an awful human being- injuring and humiliating another person because you can.  In the worst instances, law enforcement intervention is appropriate.

In other grayer cases, one thing that makes this area particularly tricky is the idea of “consent.”  What does consent mean when the structure of the workplace creates an inherent power hierarchy?   I believe this issue can disorient both parties to an interaction.  The classic case is a senior male faculty member  and a young female student/technician- in such cases, if the career progress of the female depends on the males efforts to advance them, consent becomes a highly ambiguous issue.

We will continue accumulating resources, but some of these below are excellent.

Note also we have developed a stand-alone post on inclusivity in the McEwan Lab: LINK.

This includes an anonymous reporting form.  If you experience any form of sexual harassment or discrimination you can report it to Dr. McEwan anonymously here:  LINK.

Resources

University of Dayton: Green Dot: LINK

Dr. Hope Jahren:  NY Times Opinion- Harassment& women in Science:  LINK

Dr. Rebecca Ackerman: Tenure She Wrote- Harassment & women in science:  LINK

New York Times:  Harassment in Science:  LINK

Five Thirty Eight: Chat What Trumps’s brag about sexual assault reveals about this election and our culture:  LINK


 

Ryan’s (banal but, sadly, still needed) rules for not being awful men in Science

  • Never call an adult female “girl.”
  • Never use the salutation “Mrs.”
  • Innuendo and double entendre might sound “hilarious” in your head, but when spoken by you are mostly gross and creepy.
  • Instead of talking over women, create space for them to express their expertise (ie., stop mansplaining).
  • Never comment on a woman’s appearance or body.
  • Never touch female students. Never touch female colleagues without expressed consent.
  • Attempting to “hook up” with students is despicable.

 


 

Some general resources on Women-in-Science

University of Dayton Anti-Discrimination Policy:  LINK

He for She:  LINK

Lean in: LINK

Five Thirty Eight: It matters that women come last in Science: LINK

The Economist: The subtle way discrimination works:  LINK

Book recommendations:

Lab Girl

Women in Science

Headstrong

Hidden Figures

 

——————————————–

-rwm

Path to Grad School: Some good reasons to become a Master of Science (MS)

masterofscience

 

For undergraduate students who want to go to graduate school, there is often a special allure to jumping straight from the BS to a PhD program.

This is sometimes encouraged by potential graduate mentors, partly because they get much more productivity from a PhD student than a MS student.  This can also be encouraged by undergraduate faculty mentors because they themselves have a PhD and a good job (de facto) and so think that skipping to the PhD is going to work well for their bright and talented charge.

And it DOES work well in some cases, but there are some good reasons to consider doing an MS.

For the sake of this post, what I am talking about here are Thesis-based MS programs that have a stipend and tuition waiver associated with them.

There are many such opportunities, funded by TA-lines for instance, and though they often have stipends slightly lower than a PhD stipend, taking this path has some significant positives.

Reasons to become a Master of Science

(1) You will find out whether or not you actually want to do a PhD.

For an academically-focused student, one great thing about a Thesis MS program is that it is like a trial run. Many students discover during the MS that the last thing they want to do is a PhD!

Even folks with all the right credentials, the intelligence, the drive, everything just right, can discover that life as an academic scientist is not their cup of tea.

Graduate school is not just harder undergraduate studies. It is a totally new experience. Field work is great but then there is reading literature, grinding data analysis, sorting samples, reading more literature, grinding more data analysis, writing, writing, writing, oral presentations, writing some more, re-running the analysis, writing some more…etc.

The best undergraduate on Earth may be miserable as a graduate student, and many students who have a marginal experience as undergraduates go on to be fantastic in graduate school.

If you think you want to be an academic, but then during the first 2-3 years of graduate school discover that you really don’t, if you are in a MS program you are finishing up anyway!  No problem.  And the MS fits really nicely on a resume.

On the other hand, getting several years deep into a PhD program and discovering this is not the path you want to be on, could have a negative career impact.

If you leave before the PhD is finished, you will not have a degree in hand for the effort, meaning that you will have a B.S. and then a load of other graduate classes but no way to neatly package them for a potential employer.

If you do grind your way to a finish, but want to get far away from academic science, you could end up overqualified for the kinds of jobs that you actually want.  This is a real thing.  If it turns out that what you really want to do in science is be a technician, or do other hands-on work, not scholarship/academics, a PhD behind your name can be a barrier.

For example, if you finish up a PhD, and end up applying to entry level positions in an agency, you will probably be competing with other folks with a BS degree.  Maybe a BS or MS is the highest degree in the whole organization!  You apply for an entry-level position with a PhD on your resume and your application could end up getting set aside under the heading “what is this?”  I am not saying this is fair or advocating for that position, but I know this happens.

So if there is this risk inherent in starting as a PhD student, why not start as an MS student given that…

…(2) if you decide to do stay in research and do a PhD, having an MS is an advantage anyway because you will ultimately have a better scientific record when you enter the job market.

If you do an MS first it will result in pile of good stuff on your CV for later when you need it. Hopefully this will include publications from your MS- that come out during your during your PhD (a very nice thing!).  You will also have other MS professional develop activities, maybe some conferences, etc.  This means that you will compete better for future jobs.

(3) Students who have done an MS are often better Doctoral students.

It is very often (not always, but often) the case that students with Master’s degrees do better work, get more grants, publish more, and generally excel at a higher rate during  doctoral programs than those who come straight from a B.S.

In my experience, students with an MS are less likely to leave a PhD program.  They are more likely to publish early and often, and go on to success. And, critically, when (not if) the PhD project hits rough water, a person with an MS under their belt generally is better able to navigate.  I know of one lab that graduated many PhDs where there was a trend where PhD students who entered the program with an MS finished the PhD in 4-5 years, where those straight from the BS finished in 6-7 years.  The MS folks often had MS-related pubs when they graduated AND equally or more productive PhD projects.  So as they graduated, the MS-first people were quantitatively much stronger than the BS-only folks.

One line of evidence in support of this is the fact that many PhD programs these days are asking for applicants to have an MS prior to starting.

(4) Your professional network will be vastly expanded.

It is cliche to talk about the importance of networking, banal even, and yet the bottom line is that having a strong network is a huge career advantage.  Doing an MS, and then doing a PhD, especially if you move to a different institution is an amazing network booster.  You will meet a whole set of new faculty AND graduate students AND undergraduates. Yes, some undergraduates you meet will eventually be part of your network!  It allows you to have folks from differing perspectives writing your letters of recommendation (crucial). In the future, people in your network will invite you, and be invited by you, to give seminars.  They might be reviewing your papers, launching collaborations, or writing a support letter for you when you apply for promotion.  Investing in your network is critical to career development and doing an MS can be a part of that strategy.

Arguments for skipping the MS (are mostly weak)

Of course, there are plenty of sensational scientists out there who skipped the MS!   Also, if the undergrad has a rich research experience during the BS a lot of the benefits above are already conferred.

Even so, for academically oriented students, I have yet to encounter a durable argument against doing a funded and Thesis-Based MS.  Here are a few:

-The most common one has to do with timing.  It goes something like this: “If you do an MS you will be two or more years later getting your job!” The problem with this argument is that you will have to compete for jobs when you finish your PhD, and for most desirable positions there will be at least 50-100 applicants, and sometime >150. There is no point in racing to join in this competition unless you are ready to win, and skipping the MS will yield a weaker, not stronger, CV.

-I had a friend once who argued that you can develop your pub record during your postdoc-  just add two more postdoc years and you get better training and are making money.  That makes sense, but there is also competition, sometimes fierce, to get into a postdoc slot to begin with.  And, those slots are increasingly rare.

-Probably the best reason to skip the MS is if someone straight out of the BS finds a great mentor match, but the only option is PhD.  The value of a mentor/student match probably outweighs all of 1-4 above.  Love of a project may conquer all, c’est la vie!

My experience becoming a Master of Science was fun and transformational and continues to positively influence my career > 15 years later.  Students in my lab who have done an MS, I believe, found that experience to be incredibly valuable, whether they continued forward to pursue a PhD or left to do other things.

Overall, if you are considering graduate school and have defaulted to PhD programs, I would recommend at least challenging yourself to logically refute 1-4 above.  You owe it to yourself to at least engage the question and weigh your reasons for skipping.

-rwm


See other posts in the Path to Grad School series here:  LINK