|Effective Time Management: Suzanne Pfeffer|
Why is it so easy to become overwhelmed by all of the projects that face us each day? The world of email was supposed to make life more efficient. It has made communi cation and interaction much easier, but only encourages more communication and in teraction. Below are a few effective ap proaches to time management for the busy researcher.
My work versus their work. An impor tant aspect of time management is prioritization. As a faculty member you will be asked to review manuscripts, serve on grant review panels, and serve on de partmental, university, and extramural committees. As a graduate student or a postdoc, you may be asked to teach others a new tech nique or to guide a junior protegé. All of these activi ties are important, but if you fill your days with this cat egory of work, your own projects will surely suffer. No one gets tenure or a re search grant for excellence in committee service, and original research findings are prerequisite for a Ph.D. or successful postdoc experience.
A useful approach for faculty is to re serve most work days (Monday through Friday, 9-6) for their own work—doing ex periments or helping lab members do them, writing research papers, submitting grants, or preparing lectures for your courses. Of course it is important to review manu scripts—this is an excellent way to keep up with the latest findings since one usu ally reads submitted manuscripts espe cially closely. It is important to serve on grant review panels, but wait until you have earned tenure. These can be rich and wonderful opportunities for scientific in teraction among a diverse set of colleagues, and the success of peer review depends upon our participation. Try to review manuscripts and grant applications in the evenings or on weekends to ensure that work days are reserved for your own work. Of course one has to be flexible about this, but it is essential to remember that most of your day should be devoted to your own work.
Graduate students and postdoctoral fel lows need to remember that their most im portant activities are experi ment planning and data gen eration. A deliberate ap proach is required to keep up with the literature, attend seminars and courses, and oversee the work of others while carrying out your own research project. At the end of each day, have a plan for what you hope to do the next morn ing. Write out your protocols, make up your solutions, and reserve centri fuges/microscopes etc. at least one day before. Then, when you get to the lab in the morning, you will be ready to go and able to make the best use of the day. During incu bations or while gels are run ning, think ahead about the next experiment or use this time to read a re search article or catch up on class assign ments. Evenings and weekends are ideal times to catch up on reading, complete your coursework, and plan ahead for upcoming experiments. The most effec tive students and postdocs take full advantage of their time in the lab and consider themselves professional ex perimentalists. Indeed, most cell biological discoveries are made by students and postdocs, so plan that next ex periment!
Lists can help all of us keep track of com mitments. You may wish to distinguish your own projects from those that you are doing for other people; consider using a wide-tipped, brightly colored felt marker to cross off tasks accomplished as reward ing evidence of efficiency and project completion. When you feel overwhelmed, it is easy to let projects fall through the cracks because realistically, you can only do one project at a time. By writing down what you need to take care of, you will be sure to ac complish more than you might otherwise. Also, some list items require five minutes whereas others may require days. You might wish to keep a column reserved for the small things that you can cross off in between other activities.
Stay on top of the game. People who feel especially overwhelmed often face email overload. Their inboxes grow daily, and their ability to distinguish messages that require immediate action from those that don’t degrades every day. Respond quickly to messages and throw out any thing unessential and you will soon find email to be more manageable. It is also es sential to organize your email using fold ers for different projects. Someone needs a plasmid? File it under collaborators. Fac ulty meeting? File it under department busi ness. Email spam is an ir ritating time-waster and an unfortunate part of our cur rent world. Create a filter and remove your name from mailing lists to protect yourself whenever pos sible. By keeping your inbox list of mes sages short, you will have an easier time finding what you need to complete your own projects and to be able to help others. Make quick work of small requests so you have more time for more important projects.
For those still lucky enough to be able to work at the bench each day, staying on top of the game includes keeping your lab notebook in good order. Many young scientists don’t realize how much time is saved when lab notebooks are maintained in a clear and or ganized manner. It is essential to put the gels/films/counts in the notebook and label and/or graph them out before doing the next experiment. Sometimes you will notice some thing in the data that you wouldn’t have if you didn’t take the time to fully document the experiment. Get the most from each ex periment by keeping pristine records. When it comes time to write up the work for publication, the de tails will be essential and the writing will also be expe dited.
Organize your workspace. Many people think more clearly when their office (or desk area) is clean. Letters and memos can’t get lost un der massive piles. A day spent clearing off the desk and organizing your files is time well spent and will enhance your ability to tackle more. Lab workers often find that it is much easier to work and to generate clean results working at a clean lab bench. As mentioned earlier, keep your desk clean by keeping up with your lab notebook and keeping “idea-lists” in a defined location.
All of us are more efficient on some days than others. It is important to acknowledge this and make progress on more mindless projects (doing the references on a manuscript or grant, for example, or updating your files) on a day when the more creative juices sim ply aren’t flowing. Grad students and postdocs will find that a day spent planning experiments, writing protocols and prepar ing solutions can also be a day well spent. Then there are days that are best reserved for volunteering to defrost the lab freezer or to clean out the tissue culture incubators.
Take care of yourself. No one gets much work done if they haven’t slept well or aren’t feeling well. Work is important, but we all have more energy when we are able to maintain a regular and varied exercise program and we eat regular meals. Some people ride their bikes to the lab, which guarantees that they’ll get exercise every day. If you find it hard to fit exercise into your schedule, use the stairs instead of el evators at work, or park your car at a loca tion that requires you to walk a longer dis tance to get to the lab (if weather and safety issues permit). Also remember that more time at work does not equal more work ac complished. It is essential to get away from the lab or the office so that when you re turn, you feel fresh and ready to tackle all that awaits you. “Burn out” is endemic among biological researchers and educa tors, between grant writing and manuscript revising and lecture preparation and so on. Balance is essential, and will help you ac complish more.
Good time management includes man aging deadlines. Many of us work best under the threat of a deadline. Yet last minute efforts can’t benefit from the input and comments of others, and they exhaust us both emotionally and physically. If you have a major grant to write, set aside a mini mum of two weeks and do nothing else during that time. If the deadline is the first of the month, use the first two weeks of the previous month for your most devoted time allocation. All writing projects benefit from a rest for a few days time. The next time you return to them, you will have a fresh perspective and be able to improve on the ideas and language significantly. Writing deadlines can make one feel like they are being squeezed like a tube of toothpaste; hang in there, and it is likely that the next day or so, the words and ideas will really start to flow.
Know when to say, “no.” It is always an honor to be asked to serve on a committee, review panel, or editorial board, or to be asked to review manuscripts, write review articles, give lectures and so on. If you do a good job, you will be asked to do more. One has to find a balance between helping others and doing your own work. If you are a junior faculty member, wait until you have tenure before agreeing to serve on study sections and grant review panels. Although such service can provide oppor tunities for networking and gaining a na tional reputation, you will be much better served by participating in research confer ences where you are invited to present your own original research. Spend as much time as you can devoted to your research program. The quality of your teaching is important, and your citizenship as dem onstrated by committee service will be noted at the time of your promotion and when salary levels are determined. But don’t overdo it—keep a list of the commit tees that you serve on to remind yourself not to commit to more than you realize. Choose committee assignments that inter est you so that the time you contribute is meaningful to you. At the same time, re member that others can serve in your place and that your own work must come first. This also holds true for students and postdocs. We all benefit from community service, and we should contribute to our communities both locally and nationally/ internationally. But we have the most to con tribute in all of these activities when we de vote most of our time to the science that makes us card-carrying cell biologists.
—Suzanne Pfeffer for the Women in Cell Biology Committee
|The Benefits of Collaboration for Postdocs: Melanie Vigel Sinche and Donita Lynn Robinson|
In 2000, the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP), a joint unit of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine, published a report on enhancing the postdoctoral experience for scientists and engineers. This report highlights the need for improvement in postdoctoral policy at research institutions nationwide. In response, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill developed the UNC postdoctoral initiative.
Formation of the Association and Services
Established in October 2000, the UNC PDA began by surveying the postdoc community to develop the following priorities:
In its first year, volunteers built an effective website, coordinated a daylong symposium on career options for scientists, distributed the survey results to key university administrators and negotiated increased well-child benefits for postdocs.
In its second year the faculty advisor of the PDA approached university administrators to establish a postdoc office and review postdoc salaries and benefits. UNC’s Provost responded by establishing an Office of Postdoctoral Services (OPS).
Mutual Benefits of Collaboration
Communication has been a key to success. The PDA has shared information about the activities of its four committees, Programming, Information, Benefits, and Social, to apprise faculty and administration of postdoc concerns, and to facilitate communication with senior university officials.
The OPS director also serves as a liaison between postdocs and other university departments, as a consultant to postdocs on career issues, and as a financial supporter of PDA programs. The PDA faculty advisor advises postdocs on professional development issues, advocates on behalf of the postdocs for increased benefits, and serves as an informal advisor on grievance issues.
For faculty engaged in any research enterprise, recruiting and retaining top researchers is critical. Information about professional development programs, benefits, and the logistics of working at a particular campus strengthens a faculty member ’s ability to attract—and retain—exceptional candidates.
While many PIs support the growth of their postdocs as professionals, few possess the time, energy and training required to offer career development programs that may benefit their postdocs and enable them to secure more attractive positions. The OPS helps meet those needs.
Offices for postdoc services can also assist faculty by publicizing available postdoc positions. Creating a central listing of all the university’s postdoctoral fellowships creates a sense of cohesion, as well as providing “one-stop shopping” for potential candidates.
Faculty not only contribute program ideas and speaker contacts for postdocs, but also serve on panel discussions and lead professional development seminars. This type of interaction generates opportunities for postdocs to explore interdisciplinary approaches to their own research, as well as opportunities to meet potential mentors outside of their home departments.
Examples of Collaboration
The seminar series, “Beyond the Postdoc: The Science of the Job Search,” included talks on CV/Resume and Cover Letter Writing, Interviewing Skills, Negotiating a Job Offer, and Group Management Techniques. Another series featured talks on Alternative Careers for Scientists in Biotechnology, Intellectual Property Issues, Careers in Patent Law and Technology Transfer, and Self-Assessment and Career Exploration for Scientists.
The most recent event, “Grant Writing for Success,” was a daylong symposium co-sponsored by 11 departments and research centers at UNC, Duke University, and a foundation. It addressed awards for all levels of support with panel discussions by faculty, representatives from funding agencies and foundations. Postdocs facilitated the panels, which culminated with a mock study section. The symposium produced constructive dialogue among postdocs, faculty, administrators and funding agencies and led to alliances that continue to grow.
Collaborating to Develop University Policy
Melanie Vigil Sinche and Donita Lynn Robinson for the Women in Cell Biology Committee.
|Do's and Don'ts of Poster Presentation: Steven M. Block|
This guide offers advice on preparing a good scientific poster. As with all communication, which is an art form, there is no single recipe for success. There are many alternative, creative ways to display and convey scientific information pictorially. Occasionally, breaking with tradition can pay off, but not always. It’s generally best to leave experimentation to the laboratory, and stick with tried-and-true methods for poster presentations. Remember that when it comes to posters, style, format, color, readability, attractiveness and showmanship all count.
DON’T–make your poster up on just one or two large boards. These are a clumsy nuisance to lug around. They put large strains on poster pins and often fall down. They frequently don’t fit well into the poster space provided. They don’t lend themselves well to re-arrangement, alignment or last-minute modifications.
DO–make up your poster in a large number of separate sections, all of comparable size. The handiest method is to mount each standard-sized piece of paper individually on a colored board of its own, of slightly larger dimensions, about 9.5" x 12". This frames each poster segment with a nice border and makes for a versatile poster that can be put up anywhere, yet knocks down easily to fit into a briefcase or backpack for transport.
DON’T–write an overlong title. Save it for your abstract. Titles that use excess jargon are a bore. Titles with colons in them are a bore. Titles that are too cute are even more of a bore.
DO–keep your title short, snappy and on target. The title needs to highlight your subject matter, but need not state all your conclusions. Some good titles simply ask questions. Others answer them.
DON’T–make the title typesize too large or too small.
DO–make your title large enough to be read easily from a considerable distance (25-50 ft.), without exceeding the width of your poster area. It should never occupy more than two lines. If things don’t fit, shorten the title— don’t reduce the typesize! Format your title using title case, which means initial capitals followed by lowercase letters.
DON’T–leave people wondering about who did this work.
DO–put the names of all the authors and institutional affiliations just below (or next to) your title. It’s a nice touch to supply first names, rather than initials. Don’t use the same large type size as you did for the title: use something smaller and more discreet. This is not the cult of personality.
DON’T–use too small a typesize for your poster. This is the single most common error!! Never, ever, use 10or 12-point type. Don’t use it in your text. Don’t use it for captions. Don’t use it for figure legends, annotations, footnotes or subscripts. Don’t use it anywhere. Don’t ever use small type on a poster! Remember, no one ever complained that someone’s poster was too easy to read.
DO–use a typesize that can be read easily at a distance of ~4 feet or better. You do want a large crowd to develop around your poster, don’t you? Think of 14-pt. type as being suitable only for the “fine print” and work your way up (never down) from there. 20-pt. type is about right for text (18pt., if necessary). Not enough space to fit all your text? Shorten your text!
DON’T–pick a font that’s a pain to read. Please, don’t get too creative in your typeface selections: no one wants to struggle through a poster in Gothic or Broadway or Tekton or anything garish. Less obvious is the fact that sans-serif fonts, Helvetica and Arial being the most common offenders, are more difficult to read, and certain letters are ambiguous (l = lower case ‘l’ and I = upper case ‘I’). Serifs help guide the eye along the line, and have been shown in numerous studies to improve both readability and comprehension. Equally hard to read are most monospaced fonts, such as Courier. Generally speaking, it’s better to leave Helvetica to Cell Press, reserving its use in posters for short text items such as titles and graph labels, and reserve monospaced fonts for use in nucleotide sequence alignments.
DO–use a high-quality laser or inkjet printer to print your poster: no dot matrix printers, no typewriters, no handwriting. Select a highly legible font with serifs and a large “x-height.” The x-height of a typeface is a typographer’s term for the relative height of the lowercase ‘x’ compared with an uppercase letter, such as ‘A’, or a lowercase letter with ascenders, such as ‘b’. A large x-height makes for easy reading from a distance. Good ol’ Times Roman (A a B b C c D d E e G g P p Q q X x Y y Z z) and its look-alike clones such as Times New Roman represent the standard choice. But if you seek a different look, consider Baskerville (A a B b C c D d E e G g P p Q q X x Y y Z z), Century Schoolbook (A a B b C c D d E e G g P p Q q Xx Y y Z z), Palatino (A a B b C c D d E e G g P p Q q X x Y y Z z), or anything else with proven legibility. Also, consider adjusting the kerning (the inter-letter spacing) for improved readability. This is particularly helpful when using large font sizes.
DON’T–vary the typesizes and/or typefaces excessively throughout the poster. For example, don’t use something different for every bit of text and graphics.
DO–design your poster as if you were designing the layout for a magazine or newspaper. Select fonts and sizes that work together well. Strive for consistency, uniformity and a clean, readable look.
DON’T–make your reader jump all over the poster area to follow your presentation. Don’t segregate your text, figures, and legends in separate areas.
DO–lay out the poster segments in a logical order, so that reading proceeds in some kind of linear fashion from one segment to the next, moving sequentially in a raster pattern. The best way to set up this pattern is columnar format, so the reader proceeds vertically first, from top to bottom, then left to right. This has the advantage that several people can read your poster at the same time, walking through it from left to right, without having to exchange places. Consider numbering your individual poster pieces (1,2,3, ...) so that the reading sequence is obvious to all. And always make sure that all figure legends are located immediately adjacent to the relevant figures.
DON’T–use gratuitous colors. Colors attract attention, but can also detract from your message when misused. Fluorescent (neon) color borders just don’t cut it for posters. Neither do excessive variations in color (the ‘rainbow look’). Forget paisley, tie-dye, stripes, polka dots, and batique. In graphics, use color with deliberation.
DO–use colors in your poster, but in a way that helps to convey additional meaning. For color borders, select something that draws attention but doesn’t overwhelm. For color artwork, make sure that the colors actually mean something, and serve to make useful distinctions. If pseudocoloring is necessary, give thought to the color scale being used, making sure that it is tasteful, sensible, and above all, intuitive. Also, be mindful of color contrast when choosing colors: never place isoluminous colors in close proximity (dark red on navy blue, chartreuse on light grey, etc.), and remember that a lot of people out there happen to be red/green colorblind. Please remember this advice when you create color slides and transparencies, as well!.
DON’T–write your poster as one long, meandering thread.
DO–break your poster up into sections, much like a scientific article. Label each section with titles. Always start with an abstract, and write it to be easily read and digested, in contrast to the abstracts found in some scientific journals. You should not attempt to include everything possible in 150 words or less. Make sure that your abstract contains a clear statement of your conclusions. Other sections should describe the Strategy, Methods and Results (although you need not call these sections by those names). Display all your graphs, pictures, photos, illustrations, etc. in context. Write clear, short legends for every figure. Follow up with a Conclusions section. You may wish to add an “Executive Summary” at the end: many successful posters provide a bulleted list of conclusions and/or questions answered/ raised.
DON’T–ever expect anyone to spend more than 3-5 minutes at your poster. If you can’t convey your message clearly in less time than this, chances are you haven’t done the job properly.
DO–get right to the heart of the matter, and remember the all-important “KISS Principle”: Keep It Simple, Stupid! In clear, brief, jargon-free terms, your poster must explain (1) the scientific problem in mind (what’s the question?), (2) its significance (why should we care?), (3) how your particular experiment addresses the problem (what’s your strategy?), (4) the experiments performed (what did you actually do?), (5) the results obtained (what did you actually find?), (6) the conclusions (what do you think it all means?), and, optionally, (7) caveats (any reservations?) and/or (8) future prospects (where do you go from here?).
DON’T–write your poster just as if it were a scientific paper. It’s not. Don’t waste lots of precious space on messy experimental details (Materials & Methods should be abbreviated) or on irrelevant minutia. Don’t display every gel, every sequence, every genotype. Don’t ever supply long Tables: no one has the time or inclination to wade through these. And don’t ever lift long sections of text directly from some manuscript and use these as a part of your poster. A poster is not a worked-over manuscript.
DO–recall that a poster should be telegraphic in style, and very accessible. Avoid jargon. Eschew obfuscation. Write plainly, simply, briefly—never cryptically. A little informality can help, but don’t get too cute. Stress experimental strategy, key results, and conclusions. Don’t get bogged down in little stuff. Convey the Big Picture.
DON’T–leave prospective readers hanging, or assume they’re all experts. They’re not, especially at a broad meeting like Cell Biology, where people from different fields will be viewing your poster.
DO–consider adding a helpful tutorial section to your poster. For example, consider one or more of these additions to the ‘standard fare’: (1) a brief, possibly annotated bibliography, (2) a short account describing some special apparatus or technique, (3) a synopsis of the historical background of a particular scientific problem, (4) a pictorial glossary describing some jargon terms (e.g., a definition of “synthetic lethality” with an illustration of alternative ways it can develop), (5) a website for supplementary material, (6) photographs of your setup, or (7) anything else that would help teach your readers what they need to know to understand and appreciate your work. Use graphics! Many of the items above are what an editor would call a ‘sidebar’ to the main story. Sidebars really help to communicate the message. Remember that you are the single best advocate of your own work.
DON’T–leave out the acknowledgments.
DO–remember that it never hurts to give credit where it’s due. Write up a short acknowledgment section, including your sources of financial support and everyone who helped you to get the work done. No one was ever accused of being too generous here.
DON’T–leave out the references.
DO–provide routes into the literature and supply a context for your work. Poster references need not be as extensive as those in papers. If your poster work, or work closely related to it, has already been published, display the citation(s). Footnotes are permissible but not preferable, so if they’re necessary, keep them brief. People hate having to jump around while reading posters. A website for more information is useful.
DON’T–leave everything until the last minute! Avoid resorting to hand-written text (no felt-tipped pens!) or using whiteout. Don’t hold everything together with tape. Be professional.
DO–start putting your poster together early. Get the title, acknowledgments, bibliography and other standard items out of the way first, so you aren’t stuck at the last minute with these particular details. Experiment with layout, type fonts, sizes and colors early. Buy your posterboard, pushpins, etc., early. Pre-cut posterboard pieces. Make any graphics that you know in advance are destined for your poster early. Buy a can of spray mount (artist’s adhesive) so you can dry mount all the poster segments. The best kind to get is the type that allows you to re-position the artwork without damaging it.
DON’T–stand directly in front of your poster at the session, or get too close to it. Don’t become so engrossed in conversation with any single individual that you (or they) accidentally prevent others from viewing your poster.
DO–try to stay close by, but off to the side just a bit, so that passers-by can see things, and so that you don’t block the vision of people already gathered ‘round.
DON’T–be an eager beaver and badger the nice people who come to read your poster.
DO–give them some space. Allow them to drink it all in. If they engage you with a question, that is your opening to offer to take them through the poster or discuss matters of mutual scientific interest. Conversely, don’t ignore people who look interested: you can have a beer with your buddies later.
DON’T–pull a disappearing act.
DO–stick around. It’s your poster, your work! Be there for the full scheduled presentation time. This is especially important at the ASCB meeting where there’s so much going on that interested viewers may be ducking out of other things just to catch the end of your poster presentation.
DON’T–forget ancillary materials.
DO–come prepared to your poster, armed with reprints of any of your own relevant papers that you might have, plus extra copies of any material you may wish to share. Have ready some business cards if you have them, or prepare in advance slips of paper with your coordinates. Bring a pad of paper with a hard back for writing and some pens. Posters are a terrific way to get scientific suggestions and meet like-minded individuals! Don’t forget to bring plenty of push-pins.
DON’T–hesitate to provide supporting materials, if these can help. But don’t over-do it.
DO–consider using some kind of attentiongetting gimmick, but beware that it doesn’t backfire! A video set-up can be ordered through the ASCB, or you can supply your own laptop computer. Some interesting posters provide physical models or various kinds of three-dimensional display. Still others display actual data traces, or computer-based simulations, or something else that makes them stand out from the crowd. But if you do this, be sure your ‘hook’ is legitimate, and that it doesn’t detract from the science, or trivialize it.
—Steven M. Block for the Women in Cell Biology Committee
Based on an article by the author: Biophysical Journal 71: 3527-3529 (1996)
|Making a Difference: the Three R's of Public Science Policy: Lawrence S.B. Goldstein|
Biomedical research and its applications are having an unprecedented impact on our world and society. The issues raised are thought-provoking and controversial, not only among scientists, but even more so to the public who greet each new breakthrough with equal parts wonder, fear, hope, and misunderstanding. How can our non-scientist friends and lawmakers sort through the scientific debates, information, and ideas without specialized training? More important, how can we help them to make wise and informed decisions about how to proceed and where to invest valuable resources?
I believe that a big part of the answer is us. As professional scientists we have a special role to play in educating the public about what we and our colleagues do, and its potential impact and value. While many bemoan the state of scientific understanding at large, we must hold ourselves partially responsible. Who else can, or will, explain what we do, why it has value, and what its possible uses and implications may be?
There are three principles that define why it makes sense for all practicing scientists to devote some personal effort to educating the public and our lawmakers about the science that they conduct. These are the three R’s: Responsibility, Reputation, and Reward.
Responsibility. We each have a responsibility to the scientific community to help the public understand what we do, and to help build and maintain support for scientific research and education. In addition, we have a responsibility to the non-scientific public to explain why what we do has value if we expect them to pay for it either with tax dollars or charitable donations. Finally, we have a responsibility to explain how the results of our research might be used, particularly when controversial discoveries are unleashed on a sometimes unsuspecting public.
Reputation. Each of us, regardless of level of seniority, has a special reputation as an active scientist based on our experience and education. Thus, we all carry an earned respect and the benefit of the doubt on many science issues. For example, many congressional offices have never talked to a scientist and many staffers and members have never met one. I continue, however, to be surprised and gratified by the welcome and respect we receive when we meet with these non-scientists. In addition, each of us helps demonstrate that we are not all mad scientists or Dr. Frankensteins, that we have children and families, lives and pursuits not so dissimilar from our neighbors, and that we approach science with restraint and ethical understanding. Finally, all of us have special expertise, not only about our precise focus area, but also about much of biology in general, which we can use to inform and educate.
Reward. There are many individual rewards to involvement in science policy and public education. First, is the satisfaction of having a personal impact on our lawmakers’ opinions and votes. Second is the realization that our special knowledge and viewpoint can make a difference in society. For example, if you write an op-ed, you will be surprised at your neighbors’ responses. They will appreciate it, you, and your profession. Finally, there is the impact on our own science. My experience has been that preparing myself to discuss issues that are current, e.g., genetically modified organisms, stem cells, etc. has had a positive impact on my own research and teaching. It helps me to stay current with related areas, to think about concerns of the public at large, and to think more broadly about how my basic research could be used to help understand human disease. Such meetings with non-experts have also sharpened my teaching and speaking skills as I have learned how to translate my specialized knowledge into generally accessible concepts.
There are also some persistent myths about advocacy for biomedical research and science public policy. For example, sometimes, when science advocacy comes up in conversation with some of my friends and colleagues, the concern is expressed that advocating for science has a negative impact on other priorities for tax dollars such as education or the environment. But, I think it is a mistake to assume that it is always a zero sum game. Also, you must remember that you have specialized knowledge of scientific programs, but not necessarily about other social programs. These other programs have their own expert advocates. Advocating for science is not advocating against other programs and it is not taken that way. Our representatives are getting input from other sources, and it is their job to try to weigh the relative merits to society of each.
I sometimes hear the statement that scientific advocacy must take a lot of time. But it needn’t. One or two letters per year advocating for a particular position on funding or policy, the periodic thank you letter for supporting sound science policy, or a yearly congressional visit, especially in your home district, doesn’t take that much time. In addition, if you think about how much time it takes to write a grant, doesn’t it make sense to spend a little bit of time helping to make sure that funds continue to be available? Finally, there are 435 congressional districts and 100 senators; each of us has one congressperson and two senators who we can inform and engage as constituents. Thus, if we each do a little, our impact can be broad-based and extensive.
I have also heard concerns on the order of: “I’m not senior enough or famous enough,” or, “I’m only a junior faculty member, a postdoc, a student”. But, we all vote, we all have the right of free speech, and congressional offices are always happy to hear from constituents with special knowledge or experience. A young graduate student generally has more scientific expertise than most congressional staffers or members. It is quite valuable if they talk about what they know in a letter or Congressional visit, why they are excited about what they do, and why it might be useful, even in the long-term. A sense of excitement about science can be infectious—use it!
The other thing to remember is that most congressional offices are small, and that staff have great influence. A comparison to a typical medium-sized lab is not off the mark. Think of the congressperson as a PI, with a staff of eight to ten young, smart, well-educated people comparable in age to graduate students and postdocs. The congressperson sets general policy and direction, vets the final language of bills and statements, but, the staff often write drafts, and have input into final language. When you write or appear, you are data! Your views, even if transmitted first to staff, inform the general policy that the office and member will set. In addition, staff can be incredibly valuable, are easy to establish a long-term relationship with, and are often friendly, bright, knowledgeable people trying to do a good job in wildly chaotic circumstances. Finally, 10-20 letters on one subject from informed constituents are noticed—particularly if they are thoughtful, brief, and to the point.
What if your congressperson is not on one of the “right” committees such as Appropriations? That could be true today, but think long-term. Committee assignments change as members retire or are defeated, or the majority control of committees shifts. My own congressman was not originally on the Appropriations subcommittee that handles the NIH, but he is now, and several years of education by me and my colleagues about the value of biomedical research has paid off. He has gone from thinking that the NIH could possibly be privatized to thinking that it is a valuable government agency.
Finally, people sometimes say ”my congressman is too liberal, too conservative, already supportive,” etc. In fact, Congressional service is a daily process of weighing costs and benefits of different programs and proposed laws. Issues and votes on cloning, stem cells, genetically modified organisms, and funding happen every year, and the fiscal tradeoffs and issues are shifting as well. Reminding your elected representatives that they have many constituents who care about biomedical research and science is always helpful.
How to get the biggest bang for your time? There are many simple and non time-consuming things you can do: join the Congressional Liaison Committee (www.jscpp.org), take personal action and write a letter, write an op-ed, make a phone call or pay a visit when in Washington or at home during a Congressional recess. Don’t be afraid—the road out of the ivory tower is fascinating and rewarding, and your efforts will help all of us.
— Lawrence S.B. Goldstein for the Women in Cell Biology Committee
|How to Read and Respond to a Journal Rejection Letter: Vivian Siegel and Zena Werb|
After putting your best work and thoughts and efforts into a manuscript and sending it off for publication, the day of decision arrives. As you open the letter a wave of anger sweeps through your body. Your paper has been rejected! Or has it?
WAIT 24 HOURS. It is almost impossible to read a rejection letter or critical reviews objectively while still smarting from the rejection. It is important to be (relatively) calm when trying to understand the nature of the rejection.
The paper is not acceptable in its present form: This essentially means that the manuscript is likely to be accepted, subject to satisfactory revisions. Most journals have the pro forma policy to reject manuscripts that require more than cosmetic corrections or shortening. The journal may be interested in your study, but will not commit itself until the editors and reviewers see the added data or corrections. This type of rejection letter will usually say that should you choose to resubmit that the manuscript would need to be received within a reasonable period of time (usually 2-3 months) to be considered as a revision.
The paper did not get a high enough priority: Only a few journals have the policy of publishing all manuscripts that are scientifically sound. Most scientific journals publish a predetermined and limited number of pages annually. As a result they set up priorities, based on the perceived interests of their readership. If the rejection was editorial, then the manuscript was viewed as not being a likely candidate for acceptance even if reviewed favorably. With electronic submission, the editorial rejection can occur within a few hours, and thus allows you to turn it around quickly for another journal.
The study is interesting but too preliminary: Here the editor indicates that the manuscript is interesting, but is not a complete story. This is an opening for a revised manuscript. The main question is whether you actually have the data. Were you saving the data for another manuscript, perhaps with other authors, or is this the first step in a long series of studies? Will the complete story take five more years of work?
The study is interesting but is technically flawed: Here the editor indicates that the reviewers have serious reservations about some of the data. What is perceived as a serious problem may require showing data that you omitted, or a simple experiment. If you can address these issues, the paper may be reconsidered.
The work is more appropriate for a specialized journal: This statement says that the manuscript seems specialized for the journal in question. This also means that a revision is unlikely to be considered.
The reviewers’ comments will help you prepare the manuscript for another journal: This statement implicitly indicates that the journal will not consider a revised manuscript.
The study is descriptive: This is the death knell of reviews. All research by its nature describes observations. When this is used as criticism the reviewers are indicating that the study reads as a collection of data that does not come together into a clear hypothesis-driven study.
The study is incremental: All science builds on the work of others. But how far do you need to go to be publishable? If the study repeats experiments in a slightly different cell type with essentially the same outcome, it may not be of great interest. Did you research the literature thoroughly to find out if your study is an original contribution?
The manuscript lacks important controls: With limitations on manuscript length, control experiments are often left out. If these are critical they should have been part of the manuscript. If it is important to show these controls, they may be supplied as supplemental data for the reviewers and later published on line.
The data are not convincing: You have not provided enough compelling data to convince the reviewer of your conclusions. Did you use several ways to come to the conclusion? Did you do the experiment sufficient times to get statistical validity? Is the quality of the data (gels, photographs, scatter in the data points) good enough to be convincing?
Are the criticisms fair? Poor writing, poor organization of the manuscript, inadequate knowledge of the literature, poor quality or poorly labeled figures and tables, repetition, spelling and grammar errors, inconclusive results and lack of controls are also reasons that the reviewers may not find your study compelling. If the reviewers misread your manuscript or missed a point, chances are that your writing style confused them. If your conclusions go against conventional wisdom, then you need to explain and convince why your view is the valid one.
Contacting the editor: Journals will reconsider rejected manuscripts if you can make compelling arguments. If, after reading the letter and evaluating the reviews, you feel that you can respond in a way that may make the manuscript acceptable, it is a good idea to contact the editor in writing, asking if the journal will reconsider the paper on the grounds that you can respond to the critique, with your rewritten abstract and a brief list of the changes that you intend to make.The Next Time
Did you target the right journal for this study? Often authors choose journals based on their citation index rather than a more rational analysis of suitability. Where are comparable studies in your field published? Is the study of broad interest or more specialized? Be realistic in targeting specific journals.
Did the manuscript conform to the style of the journal to which it had been submitted? Nothing annoys reviewers more than a sloppy manuscript. If you cannot be bothered to make sure you write the manuscript according to the journal style guide, or if you are submitting a manuscript previously rejected by another journal and did not make the effort to change the style to that of the current journal, you are sending a negative message to the reviewers.
Did the title and abstract communicate the major findings accurately? Once a paper has been rejected, it is time to critically evaluate whether you really communicated your enthusiasm for your own study. Your letter of response will often outline the major points of your study better than your original summary. Rewrite the abstract with this in mind.
Did you accurately point out what was novel in your study that makes it a significant advance over previous work? Often in their desire to be comprehensive, authors make it sound as if previous studies have already shown what their study now shows. It takes care in writing to make it clear what is new about your study.
Did you accurately point out controls and shortcomings of the observations? Just as you do not want to understate your study, you do not want to hype it either, especially at the cost of ignoring controls and alternative explanations for the data. The data should never lie. Interpretations may change.
Did you submit the work prematurely? Rushing into publication means that the study may not be complete, or manuscript may not have had the time to pass the “shelf test”. If you can let the manuscript sit for a week or so, a fresh view may reveal flaws that should be changed.
Did you submit a “least publishable unit”? The pressure for productivity (for grant renewal, promotions, etc.) means that you need to publish with reasonable frequency. Cutting studies into multiple manuscripts can be risky. Reviewers still expect each manuscript to be a complete study. Short papers are not necessarily minimal studies.
Did you accurately cite previous literature? Those who do not know the past are doomed to repeat it. You need to cite literature fairly. Exclusive self-citation carries with it the danger that uncited competitors may review your manuscript.
Did you have colleagues and/or a scientific editor read and critique the manuscript? You should send your best effort to journals. The review process should not be an alternative to careful writing and editing of your manuscript.
Did you get a presubmission decision? Journals that can publish only some of the scientifically valid manuscripts that they receive will usually give you an indication if a manuscript is of interest if you send a letter outlining the point of your study and the abstract. Since you can do this while your paper is still in preparation, you can find out if the paper is likely to be viewed as low priority and thus save yourself time.
Did you suggest appropriate reviewers? A recurring complaint of the review process is that the reviewers do not have the expertise to judge the work. One way to help overcome this problem is to suggest two to five scientists who would be appropriate reviewers. Chances are that the editors will use at least one of your suggestions.
Did you assess the value and impact of your research correctly? Did you target the paper to the correct level of journal in your field? If you overvalue your work, it will always be rejected. If you undervalue your work, you may be publishing in less visible journals than you deserve. In between, sometimes you will prevail, but not always.
—Vivian Siegel and Zena Werb for the Women in Cell Biology Committee
|The Misconduct of Others: Prevention Techniques for Researchers: Jane A. Steinberg|
Few people can distinguish between the smell of day-old fish and the paper in which it was wrapped. That’s just how it is with scientific misconduct. The misconduct of those working with you may become yours. In the worst case, your lab is shut for the investigation, your publications are retracted, and your name becomes suspect. Even if you reported the suspected misconduct and the investigation is fair, the accuser and the accused may become intertwined as the investigation proceeds. All too often, the reporter and the reported blame each other, making the investigation protracted and contentious until the allegation is sustained or not.
The good news is that you can protect yourself against the misconduct of others by prevention techniques that mesh well with good supervision.
Exactly what are you trying to prevent? Federal regulations define scientific misconduct as fabrication, falsification, plagiarism, or other practices that seriously deviate from those that are commonly accepted within the scientific community for proposing, conducting, or reporting research.1 It does not include honest error or honest differences in interpretations or judgments of data. Other types of misconduct can occur in the research setting, but these are addressed through other laws and regulations and are not considered scientific misconduct (e.g., theft, harassment, discrimination).
Encourage the immediate entry of all information into notebooks, and double check data entered after a significant delay. Discuss tardy write-ups with the team and determine if the study should be repeated to minimize selective recall or reporting of procedures or results.
Arrange a consultation with your institution’s computer expert to learn about data security options for your lab. Explore marking electronic lab notebook entries with date, time, and user identification stamping. Regularly back-up these and other electronic files, then date and save the historic versions in a separate secure area. These procedures protect you against computer crashes and natural disasters, as well as simultaneously providing a data trail to discourage or document inappropriate changes. Discuss limiting access to certain electronic files so they may be read and used, but not copied or altered. These protections could avoid unauthorized changes and distribution. Similarly, don’t let staff members install idiosyncratic or undocumented security options that could jeopardize your appropriate access. If that team member became incapacitated through illness or accident, you could be locked out of your own files.
Not all labs are ready for electronic notebooks, so the old standby of using notebooks with bound spines or binders with distinctive paper can make the substitution of pages on the sly very onerous. Careful individuals also keep dated copies of these notebooks in a second secure location.
Set a tone of respect for the research protocol. Avoid hyperbole and jokes about getting the results no matter what. Someone could confuse your humor with pressure to generate findings through falsification, skimping on animal or biohazard protections, improper analyses, or misleading interpretations of results.
Inoculate staff against the temptation to find a “better” way to run the study midstream. Let them know you want to hear their ideas for the next study, but that fidelity to the current design is essential. Remind them that the current design is the only one approved by the institution’s animal care and use committee. Explain what an unrecognized or unreported shift in procedures does to the study’s analysis and interpretation. Then watch for individuals who are working too quickly or too well. Most protocols have an average run time—is anyone collecting data at a suspiciously fast rate? If so, find out why. Some people just have the knack, but you may want confirmation.
Learn About Research Integrity
ORI staff use the website to explain investigational techniques, some of which may provide early detection of problems in your lab. For instance, there is a demonstration of statistical forensics using human biases in generating numbers as a telltale sign of fabrication. It turns out it isn’t so easy to make-up convincing data. Also posted is guidance on making an allegation and on protecting yourself against an allegation. Read these suggestions now so you can ensure that your first reaction to an allegation is the best one.
The website also links you to the emerging field of research on understanding scientific misconduct. There are reports on the perceptions of exonerated individuals regarding how they were treated during and after the investigation. Not only are studies reported, but you also can find application guidelines for grants in this area.
Another way to learn about misconduct at arm’s distance is to say “yes” when asked to consult on an investigation. Whether conducted by your institution or another or by the ORI, you will see what is considered suspicious and how such suspicions are handled. You will help decide what is fair to the person under suspicion, the individual making the allegation, and to science.
Promote Research Integrity
Hold lab meetings to explain that some rules are not identical across labs or disciplines (e.g., authorship, ownership of data, and conflicts of interest) and present the rules that your lab follows. These shifting areas all require discussion at the beginning of a collaboration so your new staff members know what to expect for their degree of contribution. Some entering graduate students may never have had such a discussion, resulting in unwarranted expectations about authorship or unlimited use of a data set. By making the meeting a discussion rather than a lecture about your lab’s standards, you can learn about conventions from other labs and can incorporate desirable changes immediately. Such shared expectations avoid misperceptions over breeches in authorship and data access, which, although less serious than allegations of falsification, are much more prevalent and generate plenty of hard feelings.
Documented scientific misconduct is rare, but a little goes a long way. With each finding of misconduct, researchers across science ask if it could happen in their lab. They look for easy tip-offs to wrongdoing, but by the time there is reason to be suspicious, the damage may be done. By the time someone has made an unauthorized copy of your data set, you are in the thick of it. The smart move is to incorporate preventive strategies into your everyday business practices so staff and colleagues know what is expected of them and of you.
—Jane A. Steinberg for the Women in Cell Biology Committee
The author is Director of Extramural Activities and Research Integrity Officer at the National Institute of Mental Health.
This article is modified from one published by the author in the American Psychological Society’s Observer.
1Code of Federal Regulations 42 C.F.R. Part 50 subpart A, section 102
|Responding to the NIH Summary Statement: Sally Ann Amero, Marcia Steinberg|
Responding to the NIH Summary Statement
The seasoned applicant knows that NIH sends letters to Principal Investigators soon after a study section meeting2, usually within two weeks. The letter indicates whether the study section voted to streamline (“unscore”) the application or to assign it a numerical priority score 3, 4 ; if they chose the latter, the priority score and perhaps the percentile ranking will be given.If Your Application Got an Outstanding Priority Score and Percentile Ranking
Congratulations, you stand an excellent chance of receiving a grant award! However, you should not make commitments based on your expectation of funding support, because each Institute or Center has a different funding line and it can change throughout the year. Therefore, you should wait for the summary statement and actual notice of award, and check with your Program Officer before making commitments.
If Your Application Got an Unfavorable Score and Percentile Ranking
It is critical to understand the different responsibilities of review staff and program staff at NIH, and where your application goes within the NIH. The initial phase of receipt and referral is managed by a Referral Officer in the Center for Scientific Review. Referral officers make initial decisions concerning the assignment of the application to an appropriate study section for initial peer review and to an appropriate Institute or Center for funding consideration.
The next phase, peer review by a study section and preparation of the summary statement, is managed by a Scientific Review Administrator (SRA). Most SRA’s and their study sections reside in the Center for Scientific Review (CSR), but some reside in the Institutes and Centers. After the initial peer review, your application is in the hands of a Program Officer, all of whom reside in an Institute or Center.
Questions concerning study section recommendations for a pending grant application, or the likelihood for funding, should be directed to the appropriate Program Officer—the individual listed in the upper left-hand corner of the summary statement and also on the priority score notification letter. After the meeting of the study section the SRA is no longer your point of contact concerning the application, but he or she can discuss matters of general review policy and procedure. It may be tempting to contact a reviewer to find out “the real story” of how your application was discussed. You should not do so. Reviewers understand the need for complete confidentiality regarding the discussions in the study section.
You should not attempt to discuss your application, the manner in which it was reviewed or an appropriate course of action until you have the summary statement in hand and have given it adequate consideration. The summary statement is mailed to the Principal Investigator within six to eight weeks after the study section meeting. The summary statement includes a resume and summary of discussion written by the SRA, the (largely unedited) reviewers’ critiques, a budget recommendation, a meeting roster, and as mentioned above, contact information for the appropriate Program Officer in the assigned Institute or Center.
If Your Application Did Not Make the Funding Line
Scores are often improved in subsequent submissions (for a given project, one can make three submissions within a two-year period). However, changing the application according to the prior study section’s comments does not guarantee funding. Each application is judged on its overall merits, in the context of the other applications reviewed at the meeting, and sometimes the reviewers uncover weaknesses not found during the first review. Therefore, it is not uncommon for even an amended application to not receive a fundable score; it may even score more poorly than did the original.
If you believe that a substantive factual error has been made in the review process, your second option is to initiate a formal appeal by writing a letter to the Program Officer. He or she will send the letter to the Advisory Council or Board of the funding Institute or Center, seeking their recommendation for an appropriate course of action. In order to be effective, an appeal letter should address specific issues or comments in the summary statement that can be documented, rather than differences of scientific opinion. The Advisory Council or Board may uphold the study section’s review or recommend that the review be done over (deferral). NIH operates on a schedule of three review cycles a year, and the Advisory Council or Board meetings occur late in each review cycle. Therefore, a recommendation by Council for re-review is likely to result in deferral of the application for re-review in the next review cycle. Only infrequently does the Advisory Council or Board recommend funding without re-review.
An important difference exists between the two options in the document that is re-reviewed: deferral entails the re-review of the original application without revision, whereas submitting an amended application gives the applicant the opportunity to address the comments of the study section. The review schedule for the two options is often the same.
What’s My Next Move?
As soon as possible after the receipt date, usually within 6 weeks, the PHS will send the Principal Investigator/Program Director and the applicant organization the application’s assignment number; the name, address, and telephone number of the Scientific Review Administrator of the Scientific Review Group (SRG) to which the application has been assigned; and the assigned Institute contact and phone number. If this information is not received within that time, contact the Division of Receipt and Referral, Center for Scientific Review (CSR), National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD 20892-7720 (301-435-0715). If there is a change in the assignment, another notification will be sent.
Most applications submitted to the Public Health System, which includes NIH, are reviewed through a twotier system. The first level of review is performed by the Scientific Review Group (SRG), which is often called the study section or review committee and is managed by the Scientific Review Administrator (SRA). The purpose of the SRG is to evaluate the scientific and technical merit of applications. The SRG does not make funding decisions. The second level of review usually is performed by the Advisory Council or Board of the potential awarding component (Institute, Center, or other unit). Council or Board recommendations are based not only on considerations of scientific merit, as judged by the SRGs, but also on the relevance of the proposed study to an Institute’s programs and priorities. Program Officers, on the other hand, are NIH officials in the various Institutes and Centers responsible for presenting applications to the Advisory Council or Board.
The review of most research applications includes a process called streamlining, in which only those applications deemed to be amongst the top half of those being reviewed are discussed and assigned a priority score. The remainder are generally not discussed and not scored.
Each scored application is assigned a single, global score that reflects the overall impact that the project could have on the field based on consideration of the five review criteria (significance, approach, innovation, investigator, and environment), with the emphasis on each criterion varying from one application to another, depending on the nature of the application and its relative strengths. The best possible priority score is 100 and the worst is 500. Individual reviewers mark scores to two significant figures, e.g., 2.2, and the individual scores are averaged and then multiplied by 100 to yield a single overall score for each scored application, e.g., 220.
—Sally Ann Amero and Marcia Steinberg for the Women in Cell Biology Committee
|The Role of an Editor: A Delicate Balancing Act: Randy Schekman|
Academic and professional journal editors are honest and hard-working people who have busy days and much more important things to do than to hatch plots to suppress the careers of eager, young authors. Why is it, then, that a colleague who on the one hand is a collaborator or friend becomes an opponent to be vanquished when he/she conveys bad tidings of critical referee reports on a manuscript for publication? In fact, in spite of near universal grouchiness, particularly about the most selective journals, the system works quite well to promote the publication of the fruits of our labor.
Perhaps a few words of advice to budding authors, referees, and editorial board members will help smooth some of the wrinkles that add unnecessarily to the burden of publication.
Editorial Advice to the Author
Help guide the editor to the most appropriate members of the editorial board and referees. Do not assume that an editor is familiar with all research areas covered in his/her journal. A short list of expert Board members and referees is an essential part of a good introductory letter. Potential conflicts of interest should be mentioned, but a long list of referees to be excluded (or even all experts from a particular country!) alerts the editor to potential problems with a submission.
Advice to a Monitoring Editor
Referees also have day jobs, and it is the monitoring editor’s role to identify appropriate and responsible reviewers. Most colleagues are honest and fair and can be counted on for a timely return of a constructive critique. Editors will often cultivate groups of such cooperative reviewers who are appropriate for the areas for which the editor is responsible. Unfortunately, some colleagues cannot be counted on for fair and impartial judgments. Typical antisocial behaviors include excessive delays in returning critiques, vague and judgmental decisions, impossible and excessively detailed demands, and even the occasional breach of confidentiality where the referee transmits privileged information to a colleague or student. Referees who display such behavior must be avoided.
Some of the most competitive journals have the unfortunate habit of consulting far too many referees. Whereas two opinions should suffice, three or more are sought by editors who seem unwilling to exercise independent judgment in weighing the merits of two divergent opinions. This has the effect of increasing the burden on responsible reviewers who are deluged with requests, and it increases the prospect that an antisocial referee will be consulted.
When the critiques are in, the monitoring editor must weigh the opinions and make a determination of the prospects for publishing an amended version of the work. Some decisions are clearly positive or negative, but most rely on the editor’s judgment. Many reviewers prioritize their criticisms. The editor must determine if the most serious flaws in a manuscript can be rectified by experiments that are well within the scope of the author’s laboratory. Although some decisions rest on one or more flaws identified by both reviewers, most often this is not the case, and one reviewer may identify a serious issue not considered by the other. For this reason, a conscientious editor will read and weigh the merits of each opinion, and then decide which will form the basis of a final decision. Some difficult decisions are best left to the day after the critiques are first considered. A good rule of thumb is that both referees should be consulted when the revisions take more than three months to complete.
The decision letter is an opportunity for the monitoring editor to place reviewers’ criticisms in the context of a field or the scope of the journal. Conscientious editors will interpret and not merely repeat the bottom line of a referee. Key criticisms should be highlighted and an honest appraisal of the prospects for favorable consideration of an amended manuscript should be spelled out. Authors are not well served by false encouragement. If a manuscript is in principle publishable, but not in the journal under consideration, the editor should suggest an alternative venue.
In a minority of cases, the author chooses to contest the decision of a monitoring editor. These cases can usually be handled by a polite response from the monitoring editor or, in the event of an irreconcilable difference, through the intervention of a senior editor. Experienced authors avoid invective in posing questions to the editor. In some cases the editor may choose to forward comments directly to the reviewer, thus it is wise to avoid questioning the integrity or intelligence of someone whose judgment you wish to challenge. Some authors’ first reaction is to phone the editor to secure some promise of compromise. However, a written record of communications between an author and an editor is an essential element of any successful negotiation.
Authors and editors are often friends and colleagues. A healthy relationship ensures the vigor of our peer review system.
—Randy Schekman for the Women in Cell Biology Committee
|Riding the Roller Coaster of Change: Page S. Morahan|
Most scientific professionals make at least one major transition in their career, and current evidence indicates this will increase to two to five changes over a professional lifespan. These can range from moving to an administrative position within the same institution, a similar position in a new institution, or a completely new career at another organization inside or outside traditional science.
Some scientists complete a carefully thought-out career decision process and make a gradual career change because of lack of career fulfillment or general unhappiness. Others make changes abruptly—either by choice or due to factors outside their control. The following guidelines can help you make career changes on your terms and time frame.
1. Recognize you’re ready for change. Jobs typically involve an initial sharp learning curve, then an up-and-down period as learning continues, and an eventual plateau. This is normal. It’s OK to say, “I’ve been there and done that, and I’m ready to move on.” You do not need to stay because others would like you to stay there! Avoid hanging on indefinitely; you risk burnout and cynicism. Ask yourself: “Is there anything my successor would do that I’ve put off? Does this position continue to provide unique learning opportunities?” If your answer is yes, this is the time to acquire that knowledge and experience—perhaps a scientific or clinical technique, or a management skill like dealing with problem employees. (This is a common answer to, ‘what would my successor do?’)
You might find your present position affords more opportunities than you suspect. Also, factors such as a settled family life, good benefits or a nearing retirement may tilt your decision to stay put. In either case, we all have an innate need to keep learning, or we wouldn’t be in our profession. Perhaps opportunities outside your actual job may provide your needed intellectual stimulation and good experience. If so, you might increase your participation in disciplinary societies, school or hospital committees, or local nonprofit boards—while continuing to perform well at your current job.
2. Identify your professional and personal “passions”. Successful career change requires you to identify your passions. Where do you want to direct your life energy? Some of my favorite reflective exercises are:
3. Investigate job or career ideas generated by these passions.
4. Understanding career transition involves an emotional roller coaster. Even in good changes, expect to go through grieving, anger and depression periods. You are likely to first have uninformed optimism, changing quickly to informed pessimism when the “termites in the woodpile” surface. You need to build in support to help you stay on the emotional roller coaster until you reach hopeful realism and eventually informed realism. It’s a time when you’re likely to disregard proper exercise and sleep, when it’s actually more important than ever to pay attention to your physical, emotional and spiritual health. The one secret is, don’t do it alone! This is the time to nurture yourself, and stay connected with friends.
Finally, never burn bridges! These days, you never know who may be your boss when a merger occurs. Use these guidelines to make the best career transition for yourself—one in which you thrive and position yourself for the next interesting possibility!
—Page S. Morahan for the Women in Cell Biology Committee
Resources for this column come from:
|Recruiting and Retaining Women Faculty: Sue Shafer|
Faculty Many universities are striving to recruit highly qualified women and minority faculty and promote or place them in positions of increasing power and status.
These institutions mandate that search committees include women and minority members, even if they need to be drawn from multiple departments or from the pools of junior faculty. The availability of women and minorities in the candidate pool is considered, to assure that they are well represented in the actual applications received. The department assesses whether women and minorities are underutilized as faculty, and if so, the search committee is advised that this is a problem and that expanded outreach should occur. A written search plan guides the committee’s activities, and selection and deselection reports are required.1
Before job offers are made, a higher level review assures that women and underrepresented minorities were appropriately considered, and that offers are being made to women and minority candidates in a reasonable number of cases.
Academic institutions in high cost-of-living areas face even more severe problems. Relocation bonuses, mortgage assistance programs, and cost-of-living supplements are used to make living in such areas attractive or even possible for new faculty. In situations where public schools are less than ideal, information about alternate schooling for families is part of the recruitment package. Institutions assist dual career couples in finding appropriate jobs for both partners. Finally, many institutions are studying themselves to determine how better to assure that women and minorities are treated equitably and will find their university a desirable place to work.
The candidate is identified and the offer is made. Here the institution communicates clearly and completely. Discussion of the type of appointment, amount of teaching and/or clinical service expected, salary and benefits, start-up package, space, and any special needs is followed by a written agreement. Candidates are informed of departmental and institutional policies regarding external funding, career progression and tenure. Does the institution stop the tenure clock for new parents? Does the institution have a provision for modified duties in such cases? How good is the institution at putting these provisions in place in a realistic way? How often have other faculty used these plans in the recent past? Is it the default that young couples stop the clock, or not?
A welcome wagon packet of helpful documents and websites about all of these topics assists the candidate in evaluating the offer. Candidates are encouraged to have a thoughtful discussion with someone else at the institution who has just been through this transition a few years before.
Once faculty is hired, what next? How can the institution facilitate her entry and her success? Mentoring. Mentoring. Mentoring. One approach to investing in the success of the candidate is to form a committee of mentors, similar to a thesis committee, whose job it is to assist the new faculty member in the transition, in setting up her research program, getting funding, and developing her teaching activities. The committee has a predetermined schedule of topics and activities to be covered and meets regularly. If the first priority is to obtain external research funding, early meetings focus on this. First, a freewheeling discussion of the PI’s proposed research occurs. The second meeting focuses on developing the PI’s specific aims. Subsequent meetings focus on the drafts of the research plan. Working through the development of the research grant application, with plenty of feedback at each stage, produces a highly competitive proposal without last minute crises.
The committee assists in a similar manner as the PI develops her first courses. Other critical career milestones—promotion, tenure, and leadership of larger projects—are guided and facilitated by the committee of mentors.
What other steps can universities take to be women friendly, and also benefit men?
How can a university set its goals for hiring and promoting women and minority faculty, and then assure that these goals are met? Consider the following experience.
An investment firm wanted to increase the number of women and minorities it was hiring from business schools. Since they believed their past failure to hire women and minorities had to do with ‘pipeline’ issues, they reasoned that the more candidates they saw, the greater the chance of identifying good candidates. So the firm increased the number of thirty-minute interviews it held on campus. The change had no impact.
This firm believed that the organization was genderand race-blind and that its recruiting practices were neutral (meaning they affected men and women of different races equivalently) and impartial. This made the recruiting practices virtually incontestable and implied that the candidates themselves were somehow unworthy or insufficiently qualified for the job. That was the widely held meaning of their “failure.”
One member of the firm saw the flaws in this story. He saw that the standard thirtyminute on-campus interview was not long enough for the middle-aged, white male senior managers conducting most of the interviews to connect sufficiently with minority and women candidates and to see beyond first impressions. In recognizing this, the firm implemented several small changes: it changed the length of the first interviews (to forty-five minutes); it changed the questions it asked during the interviews (to emphasize potential contributions versus “deal experience”), and it increased the number of candidates they admitted into the next round of interviews, which allowed for longer, more comfortable conversations.
These small changes worked to produce a very different pool of qualified candidates and resulted in several successful hires.2
Those at a university that is serious about such matters will work diligently to examine their assumptions about how to reach their goals. Sometimes a series of small changes can vastly increase the chances of success.
An assignment: examine your own institution for effective practices. What has worked for you and your colleagues? What have you tried that does not work? Share your thoughts, ideas, and experiences so that the results can be turned into a future article. Contributors are offered either full credit or total anonymity, whichever they prefer. Happy recruiting!
—Sue Shafer for the Women in Cell Biology Committee
1. Paraphrased from the Annual Report, Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on the Status of Women, University of California, San Francisco, 2001, prepared by Ruth W. Greenblatt, Chair.
2. Tempered Radicals: How People Use Difference to Inspire Change at Work. Debra E. Meyerson, Harvard Business School Press, 2001, pp. 114-115.
|Mentoring Faculty for Success in Academic Medicine: Sandra Masur|
In the late 1980’s, women faculty at US medical schools were confronted with the fact that 50% of medical students, graduate students and instructors were women, whereas the percentage of women full professors was less than 15%. Evidence suggested further that this was not a pipeline issue that would resolve on its own. Major issues faced by the women faculty included: a glass ceiling, the absence of women in higher ranks or on “important” committees, lack of familyfriendly policies, and lack of pay equity. Most especially, there was a feeling of isolation and helplessness amongst those junior faculty who wanted to be successful in the traditional academic mode.
Compounding the situation was the fact that, in most departments, there were just a few women. This fed the tendency to assume that the problems faced by an individual woman were unique, and therefore her fault and her responsibility to solve. The role models for success were masculine ones, consisting of people who were apparently classic hard-driving academics with partners whose activities supported the academician’s professional life. Furthermore, many women faculty were sensing that, even if they played by the rules that applied to the majority of men, they would not be successful. In our medical school we joked that, since the only woman with an endowed chair was a Nobel prize winner, we knew the criteria for women, but were less sure what they were for men.
Development of a Mentoring Program
The mentoring program is multi-pronged with both didactic and networking components.
The first component is a monthly formal presentation. The WFG asks experts to provide presentations on topics of concern. Recent topics have included management issues, including conflict resolution; negotiation; leadership training; time management; alternative career pathways; developing a national reputation; how study sections read grants; demystifying the appointments and promotions process, and executive presentation skills. These formal mentoring sessions are widely advertised, and all faculty are welcome. An important feature is that, whenever possible, we invite a local expert to make the presentation. This has a double impact. At the session, the local expert speaker communicates information that is tailored to our community. Furthermore, by publicizing this local expertise, we have identified for our faculty a resource to whom they can turn in the future. This approach is highly successful, as judged by feedback from both speakers and attendees. In addition, the program is extremely well attended. Not surprisingly, the helpfulness of these sessions is welcomed by both women and men; for certain topics we have had an almost equal number of women and men in the audience.
The second part of the program is less formal. The WFG sponsors a monthly session titled “Noon Networking.” WFG hosts a senior woman faculty member who shares her “story” and lunch with 10-20 women. WFG supplies dessert, drinks and a comfortable room. There is a core group of attendees, which is supplemented by some speaker-specific lunchers. Our original goal for the Noon Networking was to elucidate approaches used by women who have been successful in our institution. Several additional benefits have accrued from this program: we have found that each woman’s story is unique; this is an important lesson that is contrary to what appears to be a well-trodden path taken by male colleagues. Furthermore, since this networking lunch is across departmental lines, it helps to decrease individual isolation and has even led to some new research collaborations. One ramification of Noon Networking has been to adapt it for similar WFG members-only lunches with the Dean and the Chairwoman of the Board of Trustees. In another spinoff, a group of eight junior faculty who had come together through the Noon Networking has been meeting bi-weekly with a woman faculty member psychiatrist to deal directly with family-professional conflicts. There is interest in establishing a similar “directed” group for senior faculty who are dealing with issues related to gender.
The third part of the mentoring program is available 24/7. The WFG has developed a website especially helpful for women with family responsibilities. The goal is to provide women faculty with many forms of information. The site is tied to our monthly didactic expert sessions. We post summaries of the information transmitted at those sessions, along with the contact information of faculty who can mentor in specific areas. In addition, the website has information about awards and training programs relating to development of women faculty; URLs that lead to resources such as management tools; relevant books and articles; family matters; etc. Where possible, we have provided real “insider” information. For example, we have summarized the timetable and a strategy to help physician-scientists get elected to the American Society for Clinical Investigation— often a critical step for those who move up the administrative ladder to chair or dean.
Through these various approaches we demystify the process of academic advancement. It turns out that this is very important for clinical faculty who are often more ignorant of the “rules” than their basic science colleagues, the latter having had the opportunity to observe their thesis advisors engage in grant writing, etc.
Partnership with the Administration
Signs of Success
|Dealing with Difficult People and Situations: Caroline M. Kane|
The Women in Cell Biology Committee explored the sticky topic of difficult people and situations during its Annual Evening Program at the Annual Meeting in Washington last month.
Several personal experiences were raised by some of the 200 members of the cell biology community present. The ensuing discussion revealed a significant variation in effective tactics, especially by trial and error. The only clear messages were that there is disagreement about the best route to a winwin situation, and there are no easy answers. Because these dilemmas arise from personto-person interactions, their resolutions are highly dependent on the personalities and circumstances.
Discussing issues, such as contentious colleagues, scientific research ethics, or how to fire disruptive or unproductive lab members, risks leaving an impression that science is rife with such difficulties. Fortunately, a biologist’s career may be no more likely to experience negative situations than many other careers, and most people seem to deal with disagreeable situations only a few times during the course of their careers. Nonetheless, when such a circumstance presents itself, familiarity with strategies to work through the problem can reduce unnecessary anxiety. In addition, it can provide validation and support from colleagues. Following are some points that emerged from the panel and audience that may prove helpful.
The Contentious Personality
What should a junior scientist do if their thesis advisor is writing up questionable data obtained by another student to rush to publish? In such a circumstance, the junior scientist should contact a faculty mentor, Department Graduate Advisor, or Department Chair.
Disruptive or Unproductive Lab Members
Working through difficult situations may be awkward; seeking advice is extremely important. Discussing options allows personal reflection about the optimal approach.
—Caroline Kane, University of California, Berkeley, for the Women in Cell Biology Committee