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2001 WICB / Career Strategy Columns (Archive)

Professional Rejection: Action is the Best Response; Maureen Brandon and Cynthia Hill

Even the most successful scientists face rejection in their professional lives. Are there common actions scientists use to handle rejection? Are some actions more successful than others? Do male and female scientists handle rejection differently and, if so, is this a factor in the lesser advancement of women? To address these questions, sixteen individuals representing several different disciplines were interviewed about their responses to manuscript rejections, unpublished research projects and professional development opportunities. Although the sample size is small, all academic ranks are represented, from assistant professor through associate dean. In addition, approximately equal numbers of men and women of each rank were surveyed. Their responses are summarized below.

Manuscript Rejections
The actions described by the respondents when they were notified of a manuscript rejection fell into two categories. One group of individuals initially expressed emotion, yet put the paper and the reviewers’ comments away for a short period of time, generally one to two weeks after receiving the rejection notice. Once the initial feelings of rejection had subsided, the reviewer’s comments were re-examined with more objectivity, and a plan for addressing the comments was devised. These individuals reported that it still took a significant amount of time to prepare the publication for re-submission. The amount of time varied from six months to four years, depending on whether additional experiments were required. In addition, most of these individuals did not necessarily re-submit the manuscript to the same journal. All were eventually successful in publishing the manuscript.

A second group of scientists did not attempt re-submission of a rejected manuscript; their reasons were varied. The majority of individuals, all of which were male, stated that their work was simply not good enough for publication and/or they agreed with the reviewers’ negative assessment of the manuscript. A small minority of this group, all of which were female, lost confidence and/or interest in the work.

One interesting finding was the action that five men took in response to a publication rejection: they contacted the editor of the journal and systematically rebutted the reviewers’ comments. Moreover, four of the five were successful in getting their papers accepted in that journal. The fifth individual is still waiting for a final response from the editor. None of the female respondents attempted this approach to publication.

Unpublished Research
Projects Most respondents have research projects that have not been published, and some have many unpublished projects. However, the vast majority of these scientists believe that these are simply incomplete projects that are ultimately publishable after additional work. A very small minority feel that their unpublished projects are not good enough for the peer review process and do not plan to attempt publication. This group includes both male and female respondents. Interestingly, the administrators in the survey reported that they have several unpublished projects because they get distracted with other, more interesting projects.

Professional Development
For this survey, professional development was defined as any activity that advanced the individual within a discipline, and included pursuing a department chairmanship or other high visibility position within a department or institution, chairing committees, organizing meetings, advancing to a new position, and volunteering to review papers or be a member of an editorial board. This was the only category in which the responses differed along gender lines.

Men tended to position themselves to prevent rejection in professional development by adjusting their goals to the current environment, presenting an airtight case, or taking political action. For example, after being rejected for a sabbatical, one man presented his case to every member of the sabbatical committee. The next year the sabbatical was awarded.

Women tended to hold themselves back from professional development opportunities, placing greater priority on developing teaching skills and a research program rather than focusing on promoting themselves within a discipline. When rejected, they tended to hide their disappointment and not take action. One woman described how a male mentor rescued her when she was not credited for organizing a scientific meeting. Further, she was the only female respondent who, at a later date, successfully defended herself when confronted with a similar situation. Another woman described the changes she had made in her work environment in order to advance, such as not working with undergraduate students, spending less time preparing lectures, and only accepting service assignments that benefited herself. But she also claimed that since making these changes her job satisfaction had significantly decreased. Gender differences were also apparent in the initial responses to the survey questions. Most of the women described their feelings of sadness and disappointment first and had to be prompted to describe actions taken in response to the rejection. When the men described feelings, these were feelings of anger, although their initial answers were in terms of the actions that they took in response to rejections. This contrast probably reflects basic differences between men and women, since the feelings did not seem to influence how the women acted in response to manuscript rejections.

Rejection is never easy to take and evokes strong emotions. However, it does not have to mean the death of a manuscript or career advancement. The most successful individuals deal with rejection through self-reflection, self-confidence and insistence. Reversals of rejections are obtained by carefully, logically and passionately constructing rebuttals. In our sample, men tended to be better at this than women. For career advancement, action is clearly the best response.

—Maureen Brandon and Cynthia D. Hill, Idaho State University, for the Women in Cell Biology Committee


High Expectations and a Positive Attitude for Women in Cell Biology; Sandra Schmid

In 1990, the Women in Cell Biology (WICB) Committee honored Sandra Schmid with the Junior Career Recognition Award. WICB asked Schmid to reflect on the effect the Award has had on her successful career.

The Junior Career Recognition Award is bestowed during the early stages of an independent career – a time of great uncertainty and apprehension for any young scientist. Although I had had productive undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral periods, these career stages had been guided by strong, capable advisors: Pieter Cullis, Jim Rothman and Ira Mellman. Newly independent scientists are on their own, without the safety net of an established laboratory and the scientific momentum mentors create. In 1990, NIH funding was at an all-time low: fewer than 15% of grant applications were funded, and few new investigators were being supported. Could I survive in this highly competitive world of science? Would I be able to develop my own research program, establish my own rich working environment, and guide students and postdoctoral fellows through productive training periods? Add to these challenges the even greater challenge of motherhood. My son was two years old and I was already pregnant with my second child. Among the successful cell biologists I had known were few examples of how to balance motherhood with a competitive scientific career. There were certainly many examples of successful scientists and mothers, but many of these women had either had children earlier and re-entered their careers, or had postponed childbearing until their careers were already established. With the conferral of the Junior Career Recognition Award, it seemed that the Women in Cell Biology were expecting not only survival, but excellence. Looking back, the high expectations and the challenge conferred by the Award were critical factors in my career development.

Much has been written about the high attrition rate for women in science. While half of all Ph.D’s in biology are granted to women, fewer than 15% of full professors in biology are women. There are many varied and complex reasons for this attrition, including extrinsic factors that are not as easily changed as are intrinsic factors controlled by the individual. How can a woman’s own self-awareness help? Psychologist Barbara Kerr has studied the plight of ‘gifted’ girls, and reports her findings in the book Smart Girls, Gifted Women. Kerr describes that as a schoolgirl in the early 1960s she was selected to join a class of ‘gifted’ children, destined, they were told, to be the next generation of rocket scientists to thwart the Russian foes. At the class’s 10-year reunion, it was evident that the boys had indeed lived up to their potential, while the girls were by-and-large underemployed and undereducated. The women asked Kerr, their fellow student, to “study” them and to find out how they had been derailed. She found that of the under-appreciated but critical factors affecting the ability of women to realize their full potential are the reduced expectations of their family, teachers, peers, mentors and, importantly, themselves, compared to those encountered or felt by their male counterparts. Women can and should be expected to be as successful and as competitive as their male counterparts. They certainly have proven many times over that they can be so.

I have spoken to many women scientists, including colleagues, members of my lab, and other students and postdoctoral fellows about the possible reasons for this attrition. These discussions, and the many articles recently written on the subject, have often focused on the difficulty of balancing the aggressive pursuit of a career in science with the challenges inherent in raising children and maintaining a family. Often cited are how rarely this balance is established, how few women scientists have risen in the academic ranks and how many aspects of the scientific profession are antagonistic to a woman’s chances for successfully combining family and career. While these statistics may be true, they fail to highlight the many women who have achieved this balance to their great satisfaction.

The recent open discussions regarding the unique difficulties, unfair biases and inequalities that face women pursuing careers in the biological sciences are valid and valuable. However, this focus might have the adverse effect of lowering expectations and ‘scaring’ women off. In fact, the greatest attrition of women from science occurs not during the climb up the academic tenure-track ladder, but in deciding whether to pursue a faculty career after postdoctoral training. This most critical stage in any career happens to coincide with a critical period of a woman’s biological clock. Smart, capable, selfaware women are consciously evaluating career choices and, based on available information, making informed decisions. Many, concerned that a competitive scientific career in either academics or industry is incompatible with family and worried about potential gender biases, will move in different directions. These alternate careers can be equally satisfying to the individual, but the scientific community, as a whole, suffers greatly from this disproportionate loss of women scientists from academics. Talented women should expect to successfully pursue their goals to the fullest.

I am frequently asked, “How do you do it?” “Do what?” is my honest first thought. I do nothing exceptional, because I am simply doing what I always expected to do. No one ever warned me it would be difficult. In fact, I received encouragement at every stage of my development. My father was a high school physics teacher. He often brought home chemicals to ‘experiment’ with, or formaldehyde-preserved animals to dissect and explore. He often asked challenging questions that led beyond the initial observation. By my early-teens, I knew I wanted to be a scientist when I grew up. My high school science teachers were encouraging and took for granted that I would pursue a career in science. My mother served as an important role model as she also pursued her own aspirations to the fullest. Both of my parents accepted my own goals as the norm. They were proud of my successes, but there was never any indication that I was walking down a particularly arduous path. Certainly I never felt that way. My husband is also a scientist, so my passion for science seemed natural to him. When we started a family, dividing our career and home responsibilities evenly was straightforward, as neither career took precedence over the other or over our family. Of equal importance were my research mentors and the faculty at each of the institutes where I had trained, who once again expected no less of me than of any of my male colleagues. Finally, one cannot discount serendipity, which is realistically an important component of success in any challenging endeavor.

Can a woman or man have it all? Absolutely not! Will I publish as many papers, give as many seminars, attend as many meetings as my colleagues with fewer domestic responsibilities, or different priorities? Absolutely not! Will I read as avidly, pursue as many hobbies, or attend as many concerts as my colleagues with fewer domestic responsibilities? Absolutely not! These unrealistically high expectations are as harmful as reduced expectations. One cannot have it all. But, when we only choose one dessert from the luscious display on a dessert tray, are we making a sacrifice? Certainly not! We are making choices and setting priorities. Women today are empowered to make these choices, based on their own desires, personal commitments, values and abilities. Can a woman or man have a successful career, fully participate in raising a family, and maintain a healthy balanced attitude? Absolutely!—if you expect nothing less.

Sandra Schmid, The Scripps Research Institute, for the Women in Cell Biology Committee


Making the Most of Your Postdoctoral Experience; Thea D. Tlsty

“Ahhh, when I was a postdoc…” sighs many a senior scientist, dreaming of what they remember as a simpler time. While many have forgotten the pressures and uncertainties, it is true that the time following graduate school can be one of the best times of a scientific career. Ideally, graduate students have learned some of the basic skills of research, and are entering a period of refining those skills and preparing for entry into a career path. While there are many different career paths that trained scientists can enter today, a common set of skills lie at the heart of preparing for most of them. In general, a working knowledge and mastery of scientific process and practices are crucial to careers as diverse as journal editor, teacher, grants administrator, principal investigator/professor, career scientist, scientific reporter and public policy administrator.

The postdoctoral fellowship is an apprenticeship and should be tailored to the specific needs of a particular career. While it is not necessary to know the exact career destination, since many of the skills are applicable to a broad range of opportunities, it is helpful to have a career goal identified so that the postdoctoral experience will be successful and productive.

It is also helpful to identify the areas where additional experience is needed, and arrange for the fellowship to address those areas. This requires an accurate assessment of goals accomplished during graduate study and what additional goals are necessary for the chosen career path. In the best of all worlds, graduate students learn the successful practices of asking a scientific question, designing and executing a set of experiments to obtain the answer, reporting results to the scientific community, and identifying future areas of pursuit. However, if any aspect of this experience is lacking, the postdoctoral fellowship is where this is remedied and refined.

Choosing the proper postdoctoral environment is important for a successful postdoctoral experience. Individuals who work best with a minimal amount of guidance or who prefer a small lab group should find situations that meet those needs. Those whose future plans include teaching should find a setting where that experience can be obtained. In most cases, it is beneficial to change fields and institutions for postgraduate education for exposure to different approaches to science and new groups of people and ideas. Often, advancements in science are made when two previously uncoupled areas come together. Adding new approaches and perspectives to the graduate experience optimizes a new scientist’s abilities to contribute to new areas of research.

A postdoctoral fellow should extend the scientific way of thinking and problem solving learned in graduate school to a new problem and level of involvement. In choosing experimental projects, it is often beneficial to choose two projects, each of which provide different educational experiences. One project may be a continuation of ongoing work in the new laboratory, while the second project extends the work in directions that provide an opportunity for novel creative approaches.

In the first type of project, a new scientist quickly learns the basic techniques in the laboratory and has an opportunity to develop teamwork skills. This “bread and butter” type of project should be designed to generate useful data no matter what the outcome of technically solid, individual experiments. As this work comes to fruition, it provides the opportunity to work with the senior scientists of the group in all aspects of publishing a manuscript, such as choosing the appropriate journal, preparing the draft and final version of the manuscript, communicating with journal editors, responding to reviewers’ critiques, and proofreading final galleys.

In addition to providing experience in scientific writing, this “bread and butter” project also provides opportunities for oral or poster presentations at department, local or national meetings. Lessons in seminar preparation and presentation that were not absorbed as a graduate student can be addressed as a post graduate researcher. Participation in a unit of work that contributes to a larger ongoing study in the laboratory also positions the new scientist to aid in the preparation of grant applications that include this work. Lessons in grantsmanship as a fellow are invaluable for those individuals who plan to develop their own laboratories.

The second type of project should be designed to develop the skills of determining which scientific questions are important, timely and approachable. Not all questions can be addressed with present techniques or contemporary insights. How does one determine when to pursue a line of investigation and when to terminate experiments if they are not producing interpretable data? Developing a “nose” for important questions and novel approaches is a more risky line of experimentation because these scouting efforts can terminate in a dead end. However, scientists who wish to lead an area of investigation rather than simply follow approaches that others have opened must hone these skills for the future. This skill is also essential for scientists in careers other than bench science. For example, journal editors and scientific reporters need to be able to recognize blossoming areas of inquiry, just as the applicant for scientific funding needs to identify new areas of research. This type of project often requires a more extended period of time before it is productive and, therefore, is not optimal for exercising the basic skills obtained in the “bread and butter” project. For those individuals interested in pursuing a career as an independent investigator, tackling this type of project often identifies future areas of expertise and research.

Preparation for the future does not end with addressing the technical aspects of science. As with most careers, the social aspects of a profession are also of great importance. Science is increasingly a team endeavor, requiring the input of many colleagues to accomplish a goal. The postdoctoral fellowship period is a time when many aspects of scientific interactions can be practiced. If graduate work did not offer the opportunity to work with others in the laboratory or teach techniques to others, the fellowship is an excellent time to extend those experiences. In addition to the interactions within the laboratory group, networking with other laboratory groups within and among institutions is important. Discussions and interactions with other groups lay the basis for future letters of recommendation, opportunities, friendships and potential mentors.

Obtaining a graduate degree opens the door to many professions, some of which may not even exist at the present time. Acquiring a basic set of skills as an investigator will position a new scientist for these career opportunities and provide a solid platform to launch an exciting future.

—Thea D. Tlsty, University of California, San Francisco, for the Women in Cell Biology Committee


Women at the Podium; Caroline M. Kane and Sandra Masur

Consider this scenario: one month before the annual meeting of a major scientific society and the symposium organizers suddenly realize that all the invited speakers are women. Won’t attendees find this discriminatory and unusual? And yet, there are meetings that have symposia in which all of the speakers are men, a situation that should be unusual in 2001. How does a program fill with men only when there are so many accomplished women, especially in the biological sciences? In large measure, there is no malice of forethought, no conspiracy against women. Rather, organizers often lament, “I didn’t know names of qualified individuals who were women.” The result is that few women will be invited speakers, few women will be heard, and, therefore, few women will be remembered for both the excellence of their science and their presentations. This senario describes the vicious cycle that is the current state of affairs.

In 1997, the ASCB Women in Cell Biology Committee established The Speaker’s Resource Bureau as a way to increase the number of women at the podium in all scientific venues. The Bureau provides a list of accomplished women scientists who have volunteered to provide advice to meeting organizers and organizations about women who are exquisite in both their science and in the communication of that science. The members of the Bureau can recommend senior and junior women, American and international women, and women from a very large number of specialized areas that go beyond those usually considered in the purview of a cell biologist. The members of the Bureau are not themselves volunteering to be meeting speakers, although many of these women regularly receive invitations to participate in major meetings or to give seminars. Rather, the Bureau members use their knowledge of the career development and presentation prowess of more junior scientists in their disciplines to provide reliable recommendations.

Since the inception of the Bureau, the Web site (through www.ascb.org) has received a disappointing average of fewer than 2000 hits per year. In order to enlighten organizers effectively, the list of Bureau members has been mailed to meeting organizations such as The Keystone Symposia and the Gordon Research Conferences. Announcements of the availability of this Bureau have been sent to cell biology departments nationwide and internationally, to funding agencies and foundations, and to other major scientific societies that sponsor meetings, in addition to the American Society for Cell Biology.

Unfortunately, it appears that the effect of The Speakers Bureau has been limited. Even within the ASCB, the one organization most cognizant of the situation for women scientists, there are several symposia annually that lack women. In lieu of placing ads in personal columns of high impact publications (“Brainy women scientists available for dynamite presentations and high-profile positions. Guaranteed results”), the Bureau organizers are conferring with organizations and search firms that have successfully placed women in significant numbers in non-scientific careers for approaches that might be applied.

We solicit advice and suggestions about how to most effectively ensure the representation of women at major meetings from ASCB members. Please respond This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to the following questions. Other relevant comments are also welcome.

  1. Are you aware of the availability of The Speakers Bureau?
  2. Do you think the reference list is a good approach, or would it be preferable to supply the names of candidate speakers?
  3. When is it most helpful to have such a list?
  4. How and where can the list be publicized it in addition to direct mailings and our website?
  5. Who in your institution/organization should receive the list?

One day we might hear meeting organizers lament that with the remarkable number of outstanding women speakers, they have to remember to include a few good men.

—Caroline M. Kane and Sandra Masur for the Women in Cell Biology Committee


PostDocs Learn To Manage Others; Patricia J. Pukkila, Sharon L. Milgram

For scientists who are hired based on the data they have generated themselves, learning to supervise staff, students and postdoctoral fellows may be overwhelming. How do junior scientists learn to trust someone else’s work as much as their own? How do they stimulate the necessary persistence and long term commitment to the intellectual focus of the lab by their trainees?

Six-hundred postdoctoral fellows were invited to design and post research opportunities for undergraduate students with the expectation that a dramatic expansion of research opportunities for undergraduates, with benefits to the entire research community, would quickly ensue.

Instead, postdoctoral fellows were reluctant to mentor undergraduate students without advance preparation. They had many specific questions about how to get started, and sought advice about issues that were likely to arise as work progressed. They were leery of an open-ended time commitment without assurance that their investment would be beneficial to their work, the goals of their laboratories, and to the undergraduates. To attempt to address these valid concerns, an undergraduate mentoring workshop was designed to which postdoctoral fellows and graduate students in Biology and in the School of Medicine were invited to participate.

Prior to the workshop, participants submitted questions and suggestions. A panel discussion and small group discussions of a scenario were used to provide specific advice and to encourage participants to reflect on their own experiences, comparing their approaches to others. The panel consisted of an Assistant Professor, a postdoctoral fellow, a graduate student, and the meeting organizers, all of whom had successfully supervised undergraduates. The panelists discussed why undergraduate mentoring is an important way to “learn to be the boss”, and the pleasure of watching students succeed. Panelists also addressed the dangers of expecting too much and of tailoring the project to a student’s strengths. For example, it is important to know the student’s class schedule before designing a project that requires daily presence in the lab.

The example senario demonstrates how to get started as a mentor, how to trust an undergraduate student’s data, and how to draw the line between independence and direct supervision. The participants’ answers to the three questions fell into three general categories described below.

1. The mentor should establish a connection with the student and what s/he knows already.

In addition to questions about the student’s background, interest, motivation to seek out a particular research experience, and overall career aspirations that can help shape the relationship, the mentor needs to insure that a common vocabulary exists. A mentor should never ask a question that can be answered with yes or no. Questions should be phrased so that the student has to provide an explanation upon which the mentor can expand. One way to get started is to assign relevant reading from a textbook that the student has already used, discuss the information in light of the goals of the laboratory, and only then suggest additional reading from the primary literature.

2. The mentor should help the student make practical connections to the work.

Clarifying expectations is critical. For example, start by asking students to take notes of all conversations. Give them a tour of the lab, introduce them to co-workers, and explain whom they should consult for advice and under what circumstances. Lab safety measures need to be explained in detail, and lab “habits” surrounding dress, music, food, phone calls should be described. Demonstrate the procedures, explain the importance of any valuable reagents, and insist that the students be supervised the first time they do anything. This is one essential key to trusting someone else’s data. Another essential element is the student’s lab notebook. Take the time to demonstrate good record-keeping, and review the student’s notes frequently, especially at the beginning. Students quickly learn to delight in appropriate controls and data that are easily understandable.

3. The mentor should help the student make lasting intellectual connections to the work.

Workshop participants were split on how to accomplish this. For some, beginning with the broadest implications and working down to the specifics was essential. For others, this resulted in hopeless confusion and intimidation. They suggested that beginning with approaches to small parts of the problem is far more effective. The effectiveness of either approach seems to depend on the student. In order for the mentor to know which approach works best, the student must ask questions. If students are reluctant to ask questions, the mentor can simply require them to do so.

There is an increasing focus on undergraduate research experiences, at research universities and at liberal arts colleges. The number of summer programs in which students are paid to travel to academic or industrial campuses and participate in a research-intensive environment are also numerous. Workshops such as this one will benefit both the mentors and the students. By hearing a variety of responses to the questions that inevitably arise, mentors can more easily develop a consistent style based on conscious choices made in advance, rather than on a series of trial and error judgments made on the spot. In addition, mentors with successful experiences are more likely to supervise additional undergraduate students. Advance planning to guarantee a positive research experience also benefits the undergraduates, for whom a productive research experience can lead to life-altering choices. Finally, faculty can learn from their younger colleagues about these central mentoring issues, since learning to “be the boss” is a rewarding, ongoing process.

For more information about the University of North Carolina Office of Undergraduate Research.

—Patricia J. Pukkila, Director of the Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR) and Sharon L. Milgram, Director of the PostDoctoral Initiative (PDI), University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for the Women in Cell Biology Committee

Chris, a postdoctoral fellow
Terry, a new undergraduate student

The First Day
Chris: Hi Terry, welcome to the Pilgram lab. I was really glad when you responded to my posting in the database. I’m hoping to finish off an analysis of these 300 tetrads that involves a marker we can detect using PCR. Do you know what PCR is? [Answer: Yes or No]

Terry: Yes, we did PCR reactions in my biochemistry lab.

Chris: Great, so this part will be familiar. Why don’t you watch me set up these 20 reactions and then you can get started on the rest. Oh, and here are two papers which you can read that describe this pathway which has made the Pilgram lab famous. Let me know if you have any questions about them.

Terry follows Chris around for the rest of the afternoon. The next day, Terry is the first to arrive at the lab, and waits outside the locked door for Chris. Terry is wearing shorts, running shoes, and listening to a portable CD player. Chris and Terry go over the plan for the day, and Chris explains that Terry needs to spend some time at the microscope that morning. Terry says that’s fine, and remembers what to do. Terry starts to set up 20 PCR reactions, stops to answer a phone call, looks around for the Taq polymerase that Chris used the day before and can’t find it. Terry then decides that another tube labeled super-pricey Taq would probably work just as well.)

The Next Day:
Chris: So Terry, how did the PCR go yesterday? Why don’t you get your notebook so we can discuss your results?

Terry: Oh, the PCR didn’t work, so I’m going to set it up again.

Chris: Well, why don’t you get your notebook so we can troubleshoot together?

Terry: Oh, when I couldn’t see anything on the gel, I threw it away. And I was so upset that I decided to go running instead of writing up the experiment, so I haven’t started my notebook yet.

  1. List 5 things that should be discussed when you first begin to supervise an undergraduate.
  2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of Chris demonstrating the method to Terry and then allowing Terry to do the experiments unobserved?
  3. What things could Chris do to help Terry develop an intellectual involvement in the Pilgram lab and a sustained commitment to the research project?


You Don't Have To Shout To Be Heard; W. Sue Shafer, Richard L. Shafer

How can I get my point across? Everyone confronts this question. Women particularly may worry about being heard. They wonder if they can exert authority or get things accomplished without using macho behavior.

Christiana” suggests a neat new idea to the product development group, only to have it ignored. Later on, when “Frank” suggests it, he gets credit and compliments for it.

Do things like this really happen? Observe and analyze behaviors in meetings you attend, and you’ll agree that it happens too often.

Going to Meetings
Many of us attend one or more recurring meetings, such as a lab meeting, a product development meeting, or a policy meeting. Next time, try to map out the interactions you see, and measure the meeting’s effectiveness. l Is the leader in control of the meeting? Do you like the way the meeting is run?

  • How many participants speak up? Are there a few dominant personalities who hog all the air time?
  • Do people interrupt each other? Do men interrupt more than women do? Women more than men?
  • Does everyone get to contribute? Are ideas freely shared and acknowledged? If you like the way the meeting is working, try to think about why. Who is making it happen and what is she or he doing? Who is effective and why?

If you don’t like the dynamics of the meeting, try to pinpoint the causes. What would you do to change them? How would you do it?

One-time meetings pose another opportunity to analyze and understand the meeting culture around you. As you develop your observing and analyzing skills, you’ll begin more quickly to adjust your style to these one-time events.

Making Meetings Better
These two golden rules will make the meetings you attend more constructive for you: Be courteous and Be substantive:

Be Courteous

  • Make sure you know the name of everyone attending. Ask for a round of introductions if people don’t know each other.
  • Use others’ names when speaking to them or referring to their statements.
  • Be brief. Speak only to add something new. Don’t speak only to be heard.
  • Listen to the person speaking. Don’t be planning your next statement while someone else is talking.
  • Look at the speaker.
  • Speak in friendly terms to others. Never yell at other participants. If someone yells at you, try to reply quietly, in a friendly voice, perhaps with a bit of humor. After a well-run meeting, compliment its leader. Reinforce what you liked about it.

Be Substantive

  • Speak only when you have something to say.
  • Acknowledge the ideas of others, even if you want to build on them instead of use them as-is.
  • If you disagree with an idea, acknowledge it and the person who offered it, while stating your differences.
  • Ask for clarification if you do not understand what someone is suggesting. Be firm in your dealings with those who try to run over you.
  • If someone ‘steals’ your idea, reclaim it.

“That’s just what I was trying to say earlier...you’ve made it much clearer.” If you model these behaviors for others, you might raise the entire meeting’s effectiveness.

Leading Better Meetings If you regularly lead meetings, analyze how your meeting looks to the participants. Ask the same questions as participants might, but answer them from your leader’s perspective.

The same golden rules apply to those who lead meetings: Be courteous and Be substantive:

Be Courteous

  • Prepare in advance by sending out an agenda. If appropriate, send out a roster of attendees, including their first and last names, titles and organizational affiliations. Start and end on time. Keep your meetings to a reasonable and previously agreed upon length. Schedule the time to fit the tasks to be accomplished. Be sure all participants know each others’ names, and if appropriate, areas of expertise. If they don’t, introduce them to one another. Use their names as you speak to them. Look at and listen to speakers. Ask for clarification when needed. Assure that all have a chance to speak, and assure that no one speaks just to be heard. Be sensitive to women and men whose ideas might get lost.

Be Substantive

  • Clarify your own objective(s) before your meeting. Begin the meeting by stating the objective(s) as clearly as you can manage. Highlight and acknowledge any murky areas.
  • Describe the ground rules for how you’ll use the meeting to accomplish its objective. Describe your plans for keeping the meeting on task.
  • Don’t try to accomplish in big meetings things that should be handled privately. For example, telling another scientist that she/he doesn’t fit in the project you are planning is best done in private, even if it first becomes clear to you in the course of your bigger meeting.
  • Use subgroups to accomplish appropriate tasks, when subgroups can do so more efficiently.
  • Encourage participants to speak briefly when adding new ideas or expanding on those already offered.
  • Encourage participants who disagree with one another’s ideas to debate the ideas, without attacking one another personally.
  • End your meetings with a summary of what has been accomplished and a list of action items with due dates. l Thank the participants for their help and contributions.

The Real World I recently interviewed a colleague, “Maria”, about the most difficult situation she had experienced in making herself heard in meetings.

Her difficulty arose with the chair of her department, also the chair of the faculty meetings. Initially her supporter when she did not get tenure her first time through, he became a detractor. Her failure to get tenure made him feel diminished in the eyes of his superiors. In faculty meetings, when she would try to make a point, he would scream at her in explosive anger. Maria stood up for herself, quietly. She kept herself under control, and responded to the substance of the issue time and time again. In essence, she waited him out. Eventually he moved on to other targets, in the process losing credibility with his peers.

“Maria” persisted in quiet, substantive behavior in the face of personal emotional attacks.

Other stories help us understand how difficult it can be to strike the right balance. “Leyla” told me that when she joined a new cancer genetics research group she was really concerned about how her credibility might be perceived in the group, since she has a Ph.D. and not an M.D.

I made sure that I spoke more assertively and perhaps more loudly in the group as it was forming. I worked hard to make sure I was heard. I wanted my contributions to be valued. I was gratified when one of the physicians asked me my opinion of the diagnosis and prognosis of the case being discussed. He took my ideas seriously. Speaking a bit louder paid off for me.

This woman scientist drew strength from her self-confidence, spoke authoritatively, and gained the recognition she deserved from her male physician colleague.

Virginia Valian, in her book Why So Slow?1 summarizes two studies which emphasize the need to be substantive:

People who are knowledgeable in some area make it easier for others to respect them, especially if they convey the knowledge in a friendly fashion….A man will display at least a small amount of deference to his female conversational partner—by looking at her when she is speaking—if she knows more about the topic under discussion than he does.

Other studies suggest that women in business implicitly recognize the value of becoming experts and emphasize the importance of acquiring competence, knowledge, and skill.

Depending on the environment, it can be hard or easy to be heard and to be effective. Your self-confidence, firmness, consideration for others, and clear sense of purpose will make it easier. Your success and effectiveness in being heard will build one more step toward a world where women contribute their talents without hindrance.

—W. Sue Shafer and Richard L. Shafer for the Women in Cell Biology Committee

1. Virginia Valian. Why So Slow?: The Advancement of Women. 1999 MIT Press.


Affirmative Action 2001; Donella Wilson

What has been known for decades as “affirmative action” is being strongly challenged from a variety of directions, and the concept is being perceived in a spirit far different from that which was originally intended. In reality, affirmative action has never been precisely defined. Instead, the principle that connotes equitable treatment and inclusion has evolved as a collection of laws and executive orders over the last 60 years in an attempt to remove barriers to opportunities for minorities and women. Yet today, there are still glass ceilings in universities, hospitals, law firms and other workplaces due to vestiges of deliberate exclusion of underrepresented populations, as well as to thinly-veiled, but no less real, practices of non-inclusion.

Affirmative action becomes a business issue for academia as colleges and universities attempt to create diverse faculties to serve increasingly diverse student populations, and at the same time compete in the global society.

One reason women have been more successful than minorities in bridging the gap legislatively is that their numbers are greater and their pipeline readily developed. As a result of our country’s history, pipelines for minorities need to be built. However, it is not legal to even consider race when providing opportunities in universities. The 1995 case of Hopwood vs. Texas ruled that the University of Texas Law School could not take race into consideration when admitting students unless such action was necessary to remedy past discrimination by the school. Filling fixed minority quotas is no longer an acceptable admissions policy.

In 2001, providing specialized opportunity to underserved/underrepresented populations is still acceptable legally, but may not be for long. In March 2001, a White-owned Colorado business complained that small business bonuses given to contractors who subcontract to minority businesses discriminate against non-minorities (Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Pena). This case will be heard by the Supreme Court this fall. In the meantime, Georgia Power Company (April 2001) faces a potential class action discrimination lawsuit due to lack of fair promotion of AfricanAmericans in their company. Company executives reported that they were unaware that the presence of hangman’s nooses throughout company property was a racial slur against African-Americans.

It is sometimes difficult to be fair and honest. However, the law is not meant to be fair; it is meant to be just. Equal opportunity will never be equal as long as selections and decisions involve human beings who knowingly or unknowingly permit familiar favoritisms to creep into decision-making. For example, honesty is compromised when collegial and/or familial networks (the old boy system), economic status or one’s ability to easily pay, group stereotypes, the way one looks, speaks or walks, or other comfortable familiarities influence the decisionmaking process. We must all deal with this truth, making it incumbent upon us to participate constructively in decision-making and the formation of the law.

The Shape of the River1, a book by William Bowen and Derek Bok, is a good resource for those studying “the long-term consequences of considering race in college and university admissions.” The authors state, “there is a collective concern that we are failing to develop to its fullest, the human potential of the country and a growing realization that our society, with its evermore diverse population, cannot ultimately succeed as a democracy if we fail to close the gaps in opportunity that continue to be associated with race.” These studies conclude that avoiding a short term lack of insight and making provisions to consider underprivileged and diversified populations ultimately strengthen most experiences and persons involved on both sides. That is, it is a positive developmental factor for both Whites and Non-Whites.

Some scientists don’t want to be bothered with all this political “stuff.” They just want to be successful in learning the hows and whys of the experimental world. However, external obstacles may emerge, providing non-objective barriers to success that most scientists have not been adequately trained to handle. Some scientists who are not like the mainstream are faced with special barriers to which the mainstream must become sensitized to even know that such obstacles exist.

Majority scientists who “step out of the box” to promote overall enhancement of creativity and efficiency for the work environment by recognizing and helping to break down barriers for their minority colleagues make a significant contribution to science and technology in America. Carefully crafted programs for the underserved are still needed to develop this country’s quest for excellence and democracy 1-4. However, rather than argue the endless debate on affirmative action, following are some suggested behaviors that anyone can use to raise levels of awareness despite the challenges that biased environments pose:

1. Advocate Diversity
Diversity does not include just women, Blacks and Whites, but a wide variety of differences that we might not readily consider as sources of bias, such as sexual preference and age. It also includes the disabled, regional differences within the U.S., citizen vs. alien, dread-locs vs straight hair, males with one or two earrings, Gentile vs. Jew. Advocate diversity, not so much to right the wrongs of the past, but to ensure our nation’s wordly competitiveness in science. Be serious minded in developing the next generation of talent and leadership pools for the future of our existence. The challenge is to acknowledge diversity as enriched, varied perspectives which increase the value of all, rather than as anti“me” statements. Before the year 2050, over half of the U.S. population will be comprised of persons of color; minorities will become the majority. Shall we ignore this inevitability, try to beat it in court, or adequately prepare for it?

An enriched cultural make-up in the current environment permits several benefits, like seeing a panoramic picture from different angles. In business, as in life, the input of concepts from various sides of the whole scene yields a more complete view of the situation. Increased clarity of the total picture often leads to creative solutions and more rapid advancements.

2. Bring biased incidents to an individual’s attention in a nonconfrontational manner
Barriers can be overcome with healthy discussion about group-sensitive practices in a non-confrontational manner. Some who are oppressors are not even aware of their actions because others do not speak up against it, or think of expressing prejudices as acceptable behavior. Try to analyze the situation from both points of view.

3. Recommend choices that can help individuals grow away from biases
First and foremost, try to constantly be mindful of being inclusive. Often people in majority environments, in an effort to be focused and decisive, do not think about being inclusive because it is not at the top of their immediate priorities. People in these environments often do not take time to see how it would be beneficial. For example, peer review committees are often reminded to be less biased with minority applications just by the presence of a minority reviewer on the committee. Diversity is not a program, it is a process for growth and development of talent for the next century. It may require inhouse awareness training seminars and/or questioning of managers’ practices. Ideally, inclusivity will become an automatic process, something that just “is.”

If an individual’s work environment is not conducive to development of personal goals due to negative biases, the individual has the choice to leave, or to stay and fight. If one leaves with no compromises due to unheard or irreconcilable differences or biases, it may be unfortunate for the entire community. In addition, the institution may ultimately lose by failing to embrace a longterm commitment to listen and ponder carefully the issues and benefits of diversity. Such issues must be brought to a fair resolution to promote a productive work environment.

The American Society for Cell Biology has been assertive and productive in efforts to educate members on the true meaning of diversity by its strong support of the Minorities Affairs and Women in Cell Biology committees, and has even incorporated an inclusive clause for minorities and women in the ASCB Statement of Objectives. And yet more action is needed to grow successfully diverse pools and break glass ceilings.

—Donella Wilson for the Women in Cell Biology Committee

  1. W. Bowen and D. Bok. The Shape of the River (Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1998)
  2. S. Malcom. Science and Diversity: A Compelling National Interest. Science 271:1817-1819, 1996
  3. G. Stephanopoulos and E. Edley Jr. Review of federal Affirmative Action Programs, Report to the President, July 19, 1995.
  4. M. Rossiter. Women Scientists in America: Before Affirmative Action 1940-1972. (Johns Hopkins University Press 1995)


Creative Mentoring Strategies; Christine Block

All sports have a coach who guides the players, not only through the technical aspects of the game, but, more importantly, toward the goal of winning through strategic thinking. Likewise, success in science requires coaching. Early in a scientist’s career, there is extensive formal education, with strong emphasis on didactics, technical skills and critical thinking. During this period, less weight is placed on the strategic aspects of the career. The maturing scientist moves into the next position, perhaps facing a novel requirement, like writing a grant to support their research. Suddenly, the mechanics of being a scientist must be learned in a crash course. Where was I when this was taught in school?, they ask. At this point, the junior scientist may seek out a coach for the specific situation, such as writing that first grant or addressing and rebutting a reviewer’s comments, and the mentor-mentee relationship is born.

Scientists, in general, are naïve in the practice of science as business. They think hypothetically and seek answers through logical reasoning and experimentation. This process isolates them intellectually from the shrewd tactics of politics that pervade the business of science. Obtaining funding for a research project with adequate indirect costs, or learning that a welldesigned research question and hypotheses are not in vogue or fundable, can be perplexing to the neophyte scientist. Skills in grantsmanship, ethics, animal welfare, traditional careers in science and alternative academic positions are rarely considered in graduate school. In addition, with keen competition for limited positions and research funding, and changes in ethical and animal welfare issues, the need for guidance in the business of science is great. Mentors who are wellversed in all of these issues are necessary in the current climate.

In science, the mentor role has been assigned traditionally to the principal investigator of the laboratory. This mentor has vested interest in the junior scientist’s involvement in the research program. Often mentoring is concentrated in technical aspects of the program, while other survival skills necessary for success in science and academia are not on the agenda. The department chair is another traditional mentor, but he or she may be more detached from the junior scientist, or may represent authority that is not comfortably approached, thus not suitable to provide the necessary guidance.

From the mentor’s perspective, mentoring relationships have certain attributes that make them effective. Listening effectively and being able to identify key issues are necessary to provide practical guidance for the junior scientist. Mentormentee relationships do not appear to be gender-specific, although it may be necessary to market them to a greater extent to female scientists since they may be more reluctant to seek guidance and form networks.

As the need for formal mentoring of scientists has become evident, training of faculty in academic survival skills has developed 1. Further, several institutions have begun to incorporate “mentor-like“ positions in research offices, with the purpose of assisting and training faculty in academic skills. For example, at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine, a grants facilitator position in the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs was designed to enhance research funding for the institution. Because an interview strategy was developed to identify specifics of faculty members’ research interests, the position has essentially evolved into an institutional mentor.

An initial interview is conducted between the grants facilitator and the junior investigator. Particulars of the research project are discussed but, more importantly, tangential aspects of the research and academic issues become apparent that might have gone undiscovered in forum that is not one-on-one. For example, advice on how to manage criticism from peers, be critical of one’s own ideas, or adapt ideas to science trends often emerge.

Seminars on topics that are not a regular component of graduate training, like grantsmanship and scientific writing, or are difficult to discuss with a mentor, such as career alternatives, postdoctoral anticipation, or ethics in research, are critical for graduate students.

Academia can be rigid and it can be difficult to modify rules. Instead, one must “think outside the box” and seek advice from someone with more experience. The scientific community offers numerous opportunities for a welltrained scientist to excel, be creative, be satisfied and, most importantly, be balanced. Finding mentors to assist with the process is critical and rewarding.

—Christine H. Block, Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine, for the Women in Cell Biology Committee

1. Teaching Survival Skills and Ethics, Beth A. Fischer and Michael J. Zigmond, University of Pittsburgh, NIMH funded workshop, 2000.


The Unicorn in the Garden or Why Cell Biologists Should Meet the Press; John Fleischman

There is a famous medieval tapestry in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art of a great lady in a fantastical garden holding up a mirror to the unicorn reclining on her lap. Both are fascinated by what they behold. The tapestry is a riot of living things; flowers are intricately woven into her dress and all around the green hammock where they sit are rabbits, foxes, hounds and strange creatures in harmonious co-existence.

That garden came to mind with the publication last month in Nature and Science of the complete human genome revelation that an organism with only 30,000 genes could be as complex as a human being stunned biologists. But scientists, by and large, are delighted by unexpected discoveries: waking up last month as a member of a 30,000-gene species was for many of us like finding a unicorn in the garden. The unexpected makes the cellular garden that much more interesting to explore with new arguments to wage, new reputations to be made, and new fields to open.

However, the public, by and large, is either confused or annoyed. The confusion is understandable but the annoyance is dangerous. It has its roots in a belief that science doesn’t know what it’s talking about and that means it’s out of control.

This dangerous annoyance is affecting cell biology. It can be seen in “hot button” political positions that render complex subjects such as genetically modified organisms or stem cell research into two-dimensional cartoons. Beyond that, there’s an impatience with basic biomedical research where the answer so often turns out only to be the next question. In this view, it’s all tax money down the lab sink or a plot by money-hungry biotechs to sow Frankenfood or experiment on defenseless worms.

As a cell biologist, you can shrug this off and get back to the lab where real people understand what’s at stake. Or can you? Sadly, the more complex, the more powerful, and the more unexpected cell biology becomes, the more dangerous it is to keep it in the garden like a unicorn on a rope. You have to get out there. You have to explain that we all live in the cellular garden and that these are exciting times in research. That means you have to deal with the media.

Unfortunately, much of what scientists believe about general journalistic coverage of science is true. It’s inadequate, sensational and simplistic. Scientists are misquoted, their points distorted, and their work is presented out of context. Conversely, much of what science journalists believe about researchers is untrue: that most scientists are control freaks, personally possessive of what should be public knowledge, and so caught up in specifics that they can offer no context to outsiders.

It can be rough, but as a practicing cell biologist, you need to be out there. The ASCB’s Public Information Committee (PIC) believes that cell biology is too important to leave to cell biologists alone. We must illuminate our science before a wider audience. We must raise the level of biology literacy in the media, in government, and in our schools. We must widen the circle of informed public discussion.

For most researchers, their first professional contact with the news media is when they publish something startling that’s considered news. Often it’s not their most important paper that attracts the press calls but the quirkiest one. They have demonstrated something interesting in mice and the press jumps on the “mice get X” angle, missing the whole point. Or do they? Journalists are constantly looking for an “angle” or a news peg to “sell” a particular story to their editors or producers. An angle can also draw a general reader into a difficult science story. More readers (and editors) know mice than know intracellular signaling. The mice, though, can be reader-bait, at least in the hands of a skilled reporter who understands the real significance of a paper.

Making the reporter understand is your job. You need to be able to tell a reporter or an assignment editor what your paper means in the larger context. That goes against the grain for many scientists. In writing for journals, young scientists are drilled in the professional aesthetic of understatement and minimizing implications. If your lab did stumble onto the fundamental mechanism that causes ALL cancers, the title of your paper to Science is the last place you would mention that.

Still if your work has significance, try “selling” it first to your institution’s public information office with a brief oneor two-paragraph “take away message.” Send it along with the text of your paper and send it as soon as possible after you get an acceptance and a publication date. Public information officers can embargo a paper until publication but they need time to write a press release and distribute it. Convincing your public information officer that your paper has news value is the first step in finding out what you want to say to a journalist or the Rotary Club. Don’t hype a tiny paper to death but good work has implications.

Journalists come in all shapes, abilities and deadline schedules. Even science reporters cover a wide range of topics from day to day so don’t assume that a writer from a big name outfit will have background in your field. Don’t talk down but be prepared to get basic. Get the reporter a copy of your paper to read before the interview. If there’s an up-to-date review of the literature in print, get a copy of that. If your previous papers will help, have them on hand.

Most journalistic organizations have a strong taboo against showing a subject a story before it appears or goes on air. Yet writing about a complicated science subject on a short deadline is difficult and experienced reporters know how easy it is to make mistakes. Believe it or not, they don’t like making mistakes. Help journalists to be accurate without being threatening. Offer to read a draft for factual errors. Offer to listen to the reporter read back quotes or individual paragraphs. Offer to listen to a paraphrase of the story. Offer corrections or further explanations in a calm voice. Remember also that editors and news producers come behind the reporters. Stories will be edited. Film will be cut. If the final result is, in your opinion, a mess, see if you can salvage something, a relationship with the reporter for the next story or an offer from an editor to submit an opinion article to the Editorial page.

Being in the news will help prepare you for your next assignment—shaping the news as a public scientist. You want to become what the PIC calls “an unusually reliable source.” You want to be the name in a reporter’s Rolodex that rings the bell, the expert who’s willing to comment, or the scientist who may not know a specific answer but can steer a journalist to someone who does. You want to contribute to Editorial pages or serve as a “talking head” on Sunday morning. You want to find out if your local newspaper has a science or medical writer (and sound deeply shocked if you are told that they do not). You want to introduce yourself to the editors or TV news producers who coordinate science/ health coverage and convince them that a big amorphous “national” story like the human genome has a local angle and a local face. That face doesn’t have to be your face. Suggest names and numbers.

Talking on science policy questions requires support and the PIC is developing more “issues” materials. The ASCB Website currently has the Society’s statements and backgrounds on such issues as stem cells, fetal tissue and GM foods. The PIC is also trying to expand media contacts beyond the big metro areas to work more closely with the national and international science press.

There’s professional danger here and a fair amount of thankless work. You can be misunderstood. You can be ignored. But there’s an even greater danger in biologists speaking only to other biologists. We can make great and unexpected discoveries in the lab only to discover that the world doesn’t recognize a unicorn when it sees one.

—John Fleischman for the Women in Cell Biology Committee


Breaking into Biotech; Leslie Holsinger and Maureen Brandon

Academia is no longer the only game in town. Frustrated by clogged tenure tracks and neverending grantsmanship, an increasing number of postdocs and mid-career scientists are turning to the biotechnology industry. The pay, the facilities, and the resources are often better. The science can be every bit as cutting edge. There’s also a sense of excitement and focused creativity in biotech companies that newcomers find a welcome relief after the stuffiness of some ivy-covered labs.

How do you make the jump into biotech? You’ve been taught how to shop around for a postdoctoral fellowship or an assistant professorship but how do you make yourself known to biotechs? Leslie Holsinger is a Research Scientist with Sugen Inc., a biotechnology subsidiary of the Pharmacia Corporation, and served as a discussion leader for the Women in Cell Biology Careers Lunch. The WICB asked Holsinger for a few tips on landing a scientistlevel position in the biotechnology industry.

WICB: What qualifications are they looking for in biotech? Do you need to have a biotech internship or postdoctoral experience first?

Holsinger: For a scientistlevel position, most biotech companies want someone with either a PhD or an MD, and at least three years of postdoctoral experience. You don’t need previous experience in industry such as an internship. Some companies do offer postdoctoral positions. This can be a wonderful avenue into a company and can lead to a permanent position as a staff scientist after a few years. However, some companies have specific protocols about permanent hiring of internal postdoctoral fellows. You need to ask about the company’s policies before taking a postdoctoral position.

WICB: When is a good time to apply for jobs in biotech?

Holsinger: Job openings can occur at any time, but many biotech companies do their annual review and budgeting in December. New positions are often created then and hiring begins in January. A few companies also do budgeting in July, with subsequent hiring cycles in the fall.

WICB: How many jobs should a candidate apply for simultaneously?

Holsinger: As many as interest you! It’s important to mount a wide job search that lets you interview at a number of places in parallel within a short period of time. That way, you can compare positions and compare companies. Equally important, biotech companies move fast, much faster than your average university. You can expect a hiring decision within a few weeks. However, if you are offered a position, they’ll expect an acceptance from you within two or three weeks. You need to be prepared to make your decision fairly rapidly. That’s why you want all the offers on the table within a short period of time.

WICB: Where should job candidates send their CVs and applications once they identify a job?

Holsinger: Send them to “HR”—Human Resources. However, personal contacts are extremely important in biotech. So send your CV to HR but send a copy to a contact within the company as well. This could be a personal acquaintance or just a friend of a friend but find a name if you can. Be creative. The important thing is to bring your CV to the attention of the hiring manager, the person you’ll be working for, and nothing helps like a referral from someone already in the company.

WICB: How do you make contacts in the biotech industry?

Holsinger: Conferences are an excellent place to make biotech contacts. Look for poster abstracts and presentations by scientists from particular companies. Approach them with comments and questions, and leave them a CV.

WICB: Where are other good places to look?

Holsinger: Go to the web sites of interesting companies. Most biotech companies put a lot of effort into their sites. They’ll tell you a lot about what the company does plus there will be up-to-date job listings. At the very least, you can get the HR department address. There are also biotech job web sites such as www.biospace.com. Read the ads in scientific journals. If you find a company that interests you that isn’t hiring, it’s still a good idea to send a CV to HR. Biotech is dynamic and new openings can appear at any time.

WICB: Is it true that companies are looking for candidates with highly specialized skills and areas of interest?

Holsinger: To a certain extent. Companies are more focused now, and often look for someone with specific qualifications. If you are a graduate student now but planning on a career in biotech, it might be a good idea to see what specific skills are in demand in biotech and consider widening your skill set. However, the nature of the biotech industry is that things change quickly.

Projects and priorities can be restructured overnight. The best candidate is still a wellrounded scientist with a wide breadth of skills and experiences that can be applied to many problems. You also need to be someone who likes change.

WICB: What’s it like to interview for a biotech job?

Holsinger: Candidates are typically invited to spend a day at a company, usually at the company’s expense. You’ll be asked to give a seminar, and then to meet with the hiring manager for that position. You’ll meet the other researchers with whom you would be working. Be prepared for a long, exhausting day, from early in the morning and on through dinner. You’ll probably meet with someone from Human Resources who will discuss salary and benefits. Salary should not be a focus of an interview, but come prepared with a range for an acceptable salary. This is important. A company wants to know if your expectations are in line with that particular position. Job candidates are only invited back for a second interview if it’s close between candidates.

WICB: How should a candidate prepare for a biotech interview?

Holsinger: There are four components of a successful interview. First: communication. You have to be able to communicate your scientific knowledge and interests. Biotech puts a big emphasis on teamwork and interviewers are looking for someone who communicates effectively within the team. Get a colleague to give you a mock interview and pretend she doesn’t know anything about your work. Prepare and practice clear and concise answers to common interview questions ahead of time, such as “what is the most significant thing you have done in your scientific career?” or “what is the reason you have chosen to look for a career in biotech?” Second: plan a good seminar. Your presentation should be well-prepared and executed but also tailored to your audience. Don’t assume they know your patch of science. Find out from the hiring manager prior to your interview who the audience will be, and try to assess their interests. Make sure you give them a good introduction to your subject and don’t bog down in details or side issues. In addition, try to relate your work to the company’s objectives. This is a different kind of seminar than you might be used to. You are the real subject and your audience wants to know how you and your work relate to them. That’s the third thing: research the company before your interview. Find out who will be at your seminar and look up their publications. Read about the company in the business and scientific press. Find out if they have competitors and research them. Outside the seminar, be prepared to ask questions about the day-today operations of the division where you would be working. Ask about the culture at the company, and whether you will be encouraged to publish your work and attend conferences. In addition, you need to have your career goals in mind. Your interviewers will want to know where you see yourself going at the company. Are you strictly a researcher or does the business or management side of biotech interest you? Fourth: Follow-up. After the interview, send thank you notes to everyone with whom you interviewed. Thank them for having given you the opportunity to speak and for the chance to interview. Good follow-up shows you have it all: communication, planning, research and enthusiasm.


Unwritten Rules for Advancing Your Career; Caroline Kane and Maureen Brandon

The following is based on the highly-successful Women in Cell Biology Committee presentation of “The Unwritten Rules” at the ASCB 40th Annual Meeting in San Francisco in December 2000. Caroline Kane moderated the session which featured Mina Bissell, Frank Solomon, Julie Theriot and Donella Wilson.

Unwritten rules: those tidbits of information that can make or break a first impression or a reputation. How does a cell biologist discover the unwritten rules of an organization and protect and ensure their career advancement by fulfilling unstated expectations? Following are some of the most common unwritten rules and advice on how to address them:

Mentors Are Key Sources of Information
It may seem that the role of mentors as the panacea of a scientist’s career is exaggerated, but they truly are important figures. Most successful people, no matter from what field, can name at least one person senior to themselves who was instrumental in their success and with whom they have had a long-term relationship. But a mentor does not have to be narrowly defined, nor represent an exclusive relationship. Mentors are those individuals in an organization that have the “necessary” knowledge. Seek out colleagues to discuss scientific matters, such as how much unpublished information to reveal to a competitor, as well as more mundane but still important matters, such as how to dress for an invited seminar.

Meeting Expectations
The first unwritten rule is ‘do not expect the written rules to cover everything.’ Young scientists should meet regularly with their supervisors to assess their progress. Ask for constructive criticism and advice. In an academic environment, it may be important to clarify how many publications (and in which types of journals) are necessary for tenure or promotion, or how much time to devote to service at the institutional and national level. In addition, teaching is usually taken seriously, even at institutions with a heavy emphasis on research productivity for promotion.

If the written rules at an institution seem to be in a state of flux, the junior scientist is compelled to be in frequent communication with supervisors and other more senior scientists. Obtain clearly stated guidelines for advancement that can be referenced at promotion time. These should be available in writing as they are indeed the written rules. Get a copy of them.

Promote Yourself
Junior scientists must take steps to promote themselves, or no one else will. However, there are ways to accomplish self-promotion without offending others by being overly aggressive or compromising your own personality. When an opportunity arises for an award, membership on a prestigious committee or even a choice class schedule, approach the individual making the selection with a document delineating your credentials, qualifications and accomplishments that make you an attractive candidate. Mentors can be extremely helpful in this situation by advising a young scientist about what opportunities to pursue and speaking to selection committees on behalf of their protégé.

Never assume that ideas, space or equipment have common ownership. The microcentrifuge in the third floor cold room might belong to the senior research scientist on the fourth floor. The empty shelf in that same cold room may have been cleared by the chair’s graduate students to store precious clinical samples arriving the next day. If a colleague shares unpublished data, ask permission before citing it in your manuscript. Always ask before acting: a reputation as a trusted colleague may depend on it.

Managing Employees and Students
Most scientists are not trained in management techniques, so learning skills to manage students and staff may feel like trial by fire. However, classes and books on general management skills that apply to any work situation are easily available. The most efficient way to learn management skills may be to observe and speak with scientific and business colleagues who appear to have admirable management styles. From these discussions, young scientists need to develop their own standards and expectations for their employees that are then stated and written clearly and reinforced frequently. Be aware that students and staff may not have the same career goals as their supervisors, so their expectations may need to be determined as well. These are essential skills for a scientist, since one’s career advancement is often directly proportional to the productivity of staff and students.

Conflict Resolution
Like management techniques, conflict resolution is an essential skill for which scientists are not trained specifically. Books or workshops on conflict resolution are available, but a few simple rules may be enough to defuse most situations. Use time, space and/or humor to place distance between dissenting individuals. Obtain another perspective of the problem by speaking to someone who is familiar with the individuals. If necessary, bring in a neutral party to help resolve the issue. Young scientists would be wise to choose their battles carefully to avoid being labeled contentious.

Use All Available Resources
Secretaries, administrative assistants and staff members of an organization are often vast storehouses of information. They can often help with questions about the general atmosphere of a department, appropriate dress or behavior, personalities of other organization members, and what senior people can “get away with” while junior people cannot. For questions that are too sensitive to broach with local colleagues, speaking to mentors at other institutions by phone or e-mail is an excellent solution. In addition, the internet may be a quick way to obtain information about management or conflict resolution skills, to name a couple.

Although mastering the unwritten rules of scientific society may seem daunting, the key is identifying the few individuals with the most information. After this, mastering the written rules will seem like a piece of cake!

—Caroline Kane, University of California, Berkeley, and Maureen Brandon, Idaho State University, for the Women in Cell Biology Committee


The Best Practices for the Recruitment and Retention of Couples - Space for Two?; Sue Wick

Opposites may attract, but the reality is that academics often choose other academics as spouses or partners. Faculty positions can be hard enough to come by when an individual is seeking a job, but the challenge can become overwhelming when a pair of people is hunting for positions in the same location. One obvious approach is to concentrate on the big-city markets, where the number and variety of academic jobs available across the area at a given time may be substantial. However, other options are sometimes available. As reality sinks in, administrators at more universities and colleges, including ones not in the major population centers, are realizing that attracting the best person for a job or retaining a valued colleague sometimes means that they need also to attract and employ that person’s spouse or partner.

The point of having equal employment opportunities, rather than relying on the infamous “old boys network” of the past, is to ensure that all potential applicants have information about and opportunity to apply for an available position. Thus, typically, tenure-track and tenured faculty appointments require a national search.

However, perusal of Web sites dealing with human resources and personnel policies of a handful of colleges and universities reveals that at least some academic institutions do permit exceptions for spousal/ partner hires. For example, the University of Minnesota guidelines1 state: “Hiring authorities may hire individuals from outside the University without a search…in cases where the unit desires to hire a highly qualified individual who has been identified as the finalist in a search process and for whom a major condition of their acceptance of the position is the employment of their spouse or partner. A spousal/partner hire might also be considered in retention cases of valued faculty or other academic staff where the employment of a spouse or partner may be a factor in the decision to stay or leave.” The University of Virginia2 allows hiring departments to request an exemption from the national search aspect of faculty recruitment when the “accompanying spouse appointment [is] necessary to recruit a successful candidate of a pre-existing search, or to retain a current faculty member. The business necessity for the exemption and the programmatic needs justifying employment of the accompanying spouse must be [justified].” The University of California, San Francisco policy3 states that “Search waivers should be granted only in exceptional situations and for compelling reasons,” but it is not clear whether spousal hires fall into the exceptional and compelling category.

The View from the Other Side of the Fence
The University of Virginia policy raises the point that, like most stories, the hiring of couples has at least two sides. Whereas the idea of a dual hire may be a dream come true for the pair of academics hired, it can lead to an academically unbalanced department or a department or college that feels its strategic planning for future hires has been compromised. Also, it may not be financially feasible for a department or college to hire the spouse at a given time. Many faculty members would like to believe that dep a r t m e n t heads, deans and higher level administrators have a large pot of discretionary funds that could be drawn upon in such cases. However, if those pots of money do indeed exist, there are nearly always multiple good causes competing for them. Both the programmatic and financial repercussions can be particularly severe in small units and/or units that have experienced a hiring freeze (or even a bad chill!)

Best Practices
An example of a pro-active policy that not only acknowledges the increasing numbers of faculty and academic staff dual-career couples, but also specifically helps a department deal with the financial aspects of hiring the spouse or partner is found at the University of Wisconsin. There, the Office of the Provost has funds to support a Faculty Strategic Hiring Initiative, one component of which is the Dual Career Couple Program. These funds can be used to support, usually for three years, a staff or faculty position for the spouse or partner of a new faculty member. While there is some flexibility in how the funds are used, typically one third of the salary comes from the Strategic Hire Fund, one third comes from the department hiring the first faculty member, and one third comes from the department hiring the spouse/ partner. After the three years are up, the department that hired the spouse/partner has full responsibility for the salary. Results for this program in 1996-97, as posted on the university’s Web site, indicate that funds were used to support seven new hires and to retain three current faculty members, with several cases still pending at the time the results were posted. (Initiative funds were also used for various other programs, such as new diversity hires, minority faculty retention, and women in science.) The average commitment over three years was nearly $100,000. A conversation with a colleague at Wisconsin indicated that all candidates are asked during the interview if a spousal hire would make a difference, should the person be offered the job.

Policy vs. Practice
Even an academic institution with liberal spousal hiring policies will not necessarily be able to respond favorably to all requests. No matter how meritorious a case may be (i.e., no matter how much a department wants a candidate and how wonderful the academic credentials of the candidate’s partner or spouse), the request simply may come at a bad time. For example, numerous other faculty lines may have been used for spousal hires, or the partner’s logical academic home simply cannot accommodate another faculty member in that particular area. In addition, what can be done is not necessarily the same as what will be done by the institution: the policies merely state what is permissible. The most helpful policy in the world is of no use unless someone is willing to invoke it.

So what’s a couple looking for jobs to do?

A good first step might be to get a sense of academic hiring policies at the institution that has just advertised an opening, and that also has a department into which the second person might fit academically. At the institution’s main Web site, try to find a link to a page that deals with human resources, academic personnel, or college/university policies. If policies pertaining to faculty recruitment and hiring are not included as public information (as seems to be the case with several California universities that I tried to survey), call a colleague at the institution, the office of human resources, the provost, or an administrator in charge of academic affairs. The information on whether and with what success rate and frequency spousal hires have occurred may not be available, but, at a minimum, the official policy should be. If a double hire is your specific goal, then it may not be worth the effort it takes to apply to an institution that does not at least have a policy stating that spousal hires without a national search are permissible.

Current faculty at institutions with a policy that permits spousal/partner hires have the responsibility within their own units to see that the policy is used to support the recruitment and hiring of the brightest and best. If your university or college does not yet have such a policy, perhaps it is time to get involved in faculty governance to help create policy that acknowledges that excellent academics can be married to or partnered with other excellent academics. Persuading administrative officers to set aside funds to support these efforts will only better the academic enterprise.

—Sue Wick, University of Minnesota, for the Women in Cell Biology Committee

  1. University of Minnesota Human Resources Policies and Procedures, Guidelines for Recruiting and Appointing Academic Personnel, Appendix C: Hiring an Academic Employee without a Search— Spousal/Partner Hires.
  2. University of Virginia Office of Equal Opportunity Programs, Hiring and Recruiting, Faculty Appointment Procedures Manual, table of contents, appendix E.
  3. UCSF Affirmative Action Summary for Academic Search Committees.
  4. University of Wisconsin-Madison Office of the Provost, Faculty Strategic Hiring Initiative, Dual Career Couple Program.

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