Hi My name is Jennifer Nemhauser and this is Srsly?Srsly.
In this first episode I want to give a little background on the who, what and why of this series of audio reflections on lab culture.
I am a Professor in the Biology department at University of Washington in Seattle. I started as an Assistant Professor in 2006. One of the reasons I became a faculty member, particularly at a large, public university is that I had a traumatic experience in graduate school that left me with wounds that I am still working to heal.
I realized early on that intentional, malicious white male supremacist bullshit played a part in my pain. But perhaps even more of a problem was a culture that didn’t value self-reflection and where things were often done because “that’s how it always has been done”. So, from around 1995 to 2006, I plotted and planned and researched on how I could do things differently in my own lab and in my own department.
Then, I became a faculty member and began to enact this plan. Some of my ideas worked better than I imagined, others were naive, unworkable, or still infused with unrecognized supremacist ideologies. Only in the last few years have I found others who are talking publicly about these issues in the context of a biology research-intensive lab. I made a lot of mistakes that I probably could have avoided with some advice from someone who had lived it before me.
I spend a lot of time talking to people about what I have learned or am still learning in this space, and I hope that by making recordings, maybe more people, even those who don’t know me, might find some useful nugget here that will save them and their mentees a bit of pain. I want to emphasize that I am a work in progress as a mentor and as an activist and institutional reformer. I offer my thoughts here not as the end of a conversation but as an invitation to forage at will—take with you what you find useful, adapt or adjust to your own needs and situation, and feel free leave behind what doesn’t feel useful or right for you.
In my experience, mentoring work starts with recognizing one’s own point of view—the things I see most easily because they resonate with my own life experiences and the things I may struggle to understand because they are unfamiliar. To paraphrase the Delphic maxim from Ancient Greece, Mentor—Know Thyself. As an aside, the other two maxims: "nothing to excess" and "surety brings ruin” are also useful and will show up in later episodes.
So, I want to start this project by sharing some of my identities.
So, that is a little bit of the who. The what is really simple—Srsly?Srsly will be a series of short audio reflections posted on my website, along with lists of resources for further reading or listening. I don’t know how many episodes there will be or over what period of time I will complete them. The intended audience is whomever finds them useful, but in my mind, I am speaking to 2006 Jennifer when she/I was first starting up a lab. Intentionality is a bit of a buzzword, but it is an absolute truth that if you never reflect and plan before you act, the more likely you will act with bias and cause harm.
I want to finish with a bit more about the why of this project. I have spent many hours working to understand the trauma of my particular training experiences and the greater trauma of the academy. I have spent many hours making space for graduate students and postdocs to process their own traumatic experiences with their PIs, teachers or committee members. One thing has popped out in high relief from this work. There is a cycle of abuse and neglect that exists in labs that is mirrors the cycle of intergenerational abuse and neglect seen in many families. PIs who create dangerous situations for their mentees often do so because all of their intuition and automatic reactions have been shaped by their own problematic treatment at the hands of their PhD and postdoc advisors. In her book Revolution from Within, Gloria Steinem list three common errors in childrearing: Giving our children what we wanted and didn’t have; Using children to live out our unlived adult lives; and justifying and normalizing our own childhoods by doing to our children what was done to us. She goes on to say that in all of these cases, the unrecognized needy child inside the parent is dominating a child of today.
I would like to also extend this analogy to the prevailing social programming that elevates family autonomy and privacy over the welfare of the abused. This same school of thought props up an academic culture that insulates labs from scrutiny and intervention by colleagues and chairs and deans. This “privacy over advocacy” dynamic is even harder to counteract if the abused holds identities that are disempowered and discounted in academia and/or if the abuser is a straight White cis-man. It is well-documented that the pain of White men is consistently taken more seriously in clinical settings than that of anybody else, with Black women receiving the least palliative care. I have witnessed first-hand this same disproportionate weighting of pain in academic settings when the mentee is a person of color and the PI is White. Pain of BIPOC folk of any gender, pain of women of any race or ethnicity, pain of gender non-conforming people is too often misclassified as hysteria, over-reaction, over-sensitivity or, I hate to even use this phrase but, cancel culture.
The people who survive to run their own labs often carry either the instincts of the abuser or the fear, anxiety and insecurities of the abused, or some mix of both, into their own futures, whether in academia or elsewhere. If we intervene early with ourselves or with our colleagues, with compassion and patience and a clear path to improvement, we could prevent so much damage and loss.
In A Moon for the Misbegotten, Eugene O’Neill writes: There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now. The only way out of this Groundhog Day of inflicting harm and, for many of us, feeling overwhelmed and ashamed, is to acknowledge the past harm, and work intentionally to create a new way of doing the work of faculty members and PIs. If we work towards seeing the truth about ourselves and others, and building a path to acting with intention, we can make our professional communities places where all mentees have an equal chance to thrive and to find meaningful work; and where the joys of creativity, discovery, collaboration and learning are accessible to all—even to us as the mentors.
Thanks for listening. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your thoughts.
Hi, this is Jennifer Nemhauser with a new episode of SRSLY?SRSLY. Today, I want to dig deep into my first piece of advice for mentorship: Ask questions. In the first episode, I mentioned the Delphic maxim: Know Thyself. Today’s topic is linked to a second maxim: "surety brings ruin” or the playground version “assume makes an ass of you and me”.
Prof. Beronda Montgomery is a brilliant scientist who has written several foundational essays about mentorship that have had enormous influence on me. In one of her talks, which you can find on YouTube, she explains that if we want to be a good mentor, we first have to define what we mean by mentorship. She goes on to say that one of the big obstacles in this process is that many people confuse mentorship with imprinting—the way little ducklings follow their mom or whomever feeds them upon hatching. In mentoring, this looks like training people to become mini versions of ourselves.
So, to avoid imprinting, I work to see my mentees as individuals with their own inner life, goals, and aspirations. A critical part of this is listening to my mentees more and talking less—and I say this knowing it is one of the hardest lessons for me, and one I have to continuously recommit myself to doing.
It is simple, maybe even ridiculously so, to say that you cannot help someone achieve their goals if you don’t know what those goals are. Too many of us make assumptions that everyone wants our same job or that whatever someone said during their interview for grad school hasn’t changed in the years since. Overall message here is: Assumptions, Bad. Questions, Good. Questions asked in a structured, safe, focused environment, Best.
An example of what I mean is using an Individual Development Plan or IDP. I started this practice in 2006 when I didn’t know they had a name, and called them annual reviews because that was a term I knew from the business world of my parents and my brother. The form I use now has evolved from that time, and if you would like a copy, please send me an email.
How I use the IDP: I ask all of the full-time people in my lab (postbacs, techs, grads, postdocs) to spend at least one hour, once per year, reviewing their form from last year and updating their answers to reflect their new short and long term goals. We schedule an hour-long meeting where we are not allowed to talk about data or experiments, but only topics relating to professional development and our mentoring relationship. I ask everyone who is working with an undergraduate intern to do a version of the same IDP process with their mentee. During the 1:1 meetings, I emphasize that we can talk about any of these topics at any time, but that I want to make sure that we spend at least one hour a year dedicated to their professional advancement and mentoring needs.
The purpose of an IDP is two-fold:
I commit an enormous amount of time and energy and attention to each mentee. Part of the IDP process is to make sure that they are matching my intensity with their own work to find and articulate their vision of success. This is the only way that we can both be paddling in the same direction and that my efforts are reducing their load rather than adding to it! My goal is to uncover how I can be of greatest service to each mentee, and this can vary enormously for each person and across the time they are in the lab.
In addition to asking about what the mentee has achieved in the last year in terms of presentations, manuscripts, education/outreach and equity-engaged work, other questions include things like: What were your objectives in joining the Nemhauser Lab? Have your objectives changed? If so, how? What lab-related accomplishment are you most proud of? Please describe your top three goals for the next year and your specific plans for achieving these goals (e.g., courses, an identified mentor/advisor). What can Jennifer do to facilitate your success in achieving these goals? Any suggestions for making the Nemhauser Lab a better place to work?
I have also incorporated the use of a great scheme of competencies developed by Verderame and colleagues published in eLife 31 May 2018. Use of this rubric provides a framework that helps mentees measure areas that they are achieving at advanced levels and areas where they may need to focus more energy. It is human nature to want to spend time doing things that come easily to us and to avoid things that are slow or frustrating for us. A common rubric helps the folks that are insecure feel more confident, and the folks that are a bit overconfident find some realism. It also gives me and my mentees a common vocabulary which is enormously helpful.
I often frame discussions around goals in terms of what do you as the mentee see as obstacles keeping you from fulfilling your full potential. This can lead to practical conversations about time management strategies or more personal discussions where I encourage seeking mental health support or even providing an opportunity to emphasize how proud I am for the ways that a mentee is growing and stretching themselves and my confidence that they are doing great.
In IDP meetings, as well as in every other meeting with a mentee, I explicitly frame the conversation as being about helping the mentee achieve their goals. It is important for me to clarify that I do not see my job solely as a coach or cheerleader. During our meetings, especially early on, I share my own expectations for my mentees and our collective responsibilities to taxpayers, for example who fund our work and should expect that, at a minimum, we share our results. For PhD students, I emphasize that publishing a first, first author paper is a requirement for graduation, and that the experience will likely transform the way they think about doing research, so I want them to cross that bridge sooner rather than later. I ask that before that paper is submitted, they take on supportive rather than leadership roles in educational or outreach or activist activities. Once the paper is submitted, the door opens to taking on larger roles outside of the lab.
This ‘get your first paper out first’ philosophy is not because I don’t see the roles of educator, organizer, activist, or public communicator as part of their science, but, rather because I want them to build their portfolio of skills from a place of confidence. Publishing your first paper in grad school confers a success metric that is recognized by the system. This accumulation of a ‘coin of the realm’ so to speak provides a degree of freedom—you as a grad student can now act from a position of power in determining your future, including how soon you want to graduate or if you want to leave with a Master’s to pursue something else.
I will come back to expand on the portfolio metaphor in a later episode. The point I want to make here is that if my mentees know about my mentoring philosophy and don’t agree, they are free to seek out other advisors. And several students that have rotated in my lab have done just that. This arrangement is only fair if I am clear of my own expectations and I share them. I want to underline with a big bold line that one of the most important things you can do as a mentor is to be transparent about your own motivations and expectations.
Beyond the practical reasons for bringing structure to your conversations with mentees, there are other benefits. This brings us back to Mentor-Know Thyself. Even, or especially, when I am wearing my mentoring hat, I am not a blank slate. All of the identities I mentioned in the first episode, in addition to so many others, influence all of my interactions with other humans, including with my mentees. It is easy to confuse familiarity with merit. Faculty like many other humans are often quite egotistical—the people who remind us of ourselves just seem to have a special shine about them. This kind of unearned intimacy with a subset of our mentees is deeply problematic. For example, I often find it easier to forge a connection with folks who are queer and/or female-identified and/or are sarcastic and/or love vegan food etc. etc. because these are characteristics that I share. This may lead me to feel more comfortable leaning on my own life experiences to fuel my intuition on what a mentee with these same characteristics might need. There are at least two enormous problems with this. First if I only value people who are like me in some way or another, I limit my pool of potential mentees to a vanishingly small circle, or worse show obvious favorites within my group—one of the most corrosive mistakes a mentor can make for lab culture.
I want to put another big thick underline here to emphasize that bending over backwards to respect the confidentiality of your mentees is the absolute baseline criteria for not being a super creep. You do not know what a mentee considers private information. Period. Their story is not yours to share. There is no faster way to destroy a lab’s culture than to complain about one mentee to another. Or even to introduce the possibility that you might be doing such a thing. This does not mean that you refuse to talk about inter-lab conflicts with the parties involved. It means that you tread extremely carefully, and that you always center the needs of your mentees, not your need to blow off steam or score ‘cool’ points.
Second, I probably am not doing the person who I think is just like me any favors. When I assume someone is having my same experience because they share some aspect of my identity, I run the real risk of harming them by not really seeing them and their story and their needs. Eve Sedgwick writes about how the categories that we so often use to classify people—race, ethnicity, religion, disability status, gender, etc.—these are only a mere handful of influences on how a person experiences the world. These categories we often use as a shorthand for a person’s identity do serve an important purpose for organizations and institutions, because they represent groups that have been historically and are currently marginalized and discriminated against, and by collecting information with these categories, we can evaluate progress towards full representation or the lack thereof. But we should not confuse these human-invented categories—including some like Latine that many argue are at least as problematic as they are useful—for actually knowing someone or for thinking we know what kind of future they envision for themselves or what kind of help they need.
So, bottom line: talk to your people.
Also, I think a part of mentorship is explaining to your mentees why having these conversations are so important. After all, most of your mentees are mentors themselves—with undergraduates in classes or in the lab, in outreach efforts, and with peers in the lab and beyond.
Lab retreats are a great idea, even if they are only a one-day local event. They can be a place for everyone to practice being curious rather than making assumptions. We have had several retreats over the years where we have brought in a facilitator to guide conversations about different styles for handling conflict. In a mindfulness practice, one of the goals is to find a way to beginner’s mind—the state of mind where you make no assumptions, withhold judgement and are open, excited and curious. In mentorship, we are always beginners, in each conversation.
Thanks for listening, and please feel free to send me your thoughts at email@example.com.
Hi. This is Jennifer Nemhauser with another episode of SRSLY?SRSLY. In this episode, I want to talk about personal values, setting your goals for your career, and building a lab group’s culture.
I’m not sure where exactly to start this discussion, but I know that there are two important themes that emerge when I reflect on my own path. First is a lesson I feel like I have had to learn over and over and over again. It is imperative that you set your goals first, and then and only then can you design a process that will lead to the goals. You will never get to your goals, especially if they radically depart from those of your institution, if you spend your time tweaking existing protocols or methods, and expect those efforts to get you to your desired endpoint. Another way of saying this is that if exclusion of certain people was part of the original goal for a process, like say the general exam for graduate students, you will never get to an inclusive end by making minor changes to the process. You may help get your students to pass, but you will not keep them from being shamed or bullied or otherwise harmed. This example brings up another point that I will talk more about in a later episode. As a faculty member, I have to continuously navigate between the strategies of preparing mentees for the World As It Is and partnering with them to remake the World As It Should Be. Suffice it to say for now, you need to decide what your goals are for your mentees, work with them to articulate their own goals, and then design a process that will get you both there.
In a speech titled Learning from the 60s, Audre Lorde explains this power of clarity in setting goals in language that raises the hair on my arms. She said: (W)e must move against not only those forces which dehumanize us from the outside, but also against those oppressive values which we have been forced to take into ourselves. Through examining the combination of our triumphs and errors, we can examine the dangers of an incomplete vision. Not to condemn that vision but to alter it, construct templates for possible futures, and focus our rage for change upon our enemies rather than upon each other….But any future vision which can encompass all of us, by definition, must be complex and expanding, not easy to achieve. The answer to cold is heat, the answer to hunger is food. But there is no simple monolithic solution to racism, to sexism, to homophobia. There is only the conscious focusing within each of my days to move against them, wherever I come up against these particular manifestations of the same disease….As a Black lesbian mother in an interracial marriage, there was usually some part of me guaranteed to offend everybody’s comfortable prejudices of who I should be. That is how I learned that if I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive. My poetry, my life, my work, my energies for struggle were not acceptable unless I pretended to match somebody else’s norm. I learned that not only couldn’t I succeed at that game, but the energy needed for that masquerade would be lost to my work.
The second important theme is that we cannot access our full creative powers from inside our comfort zones. This is true for life at the bench and it is true for life in the PI’s office. Being a PI should mean being uncomfortable, and not just because it is a hard job. It should be uncomfortable because the work of remaking the Academy into a place for every curious person is never over—there is always new literature to read, more experts to listen to, more techniques to try, more layers of our own bias to uncover and counteract. Learning is hard. We ask it from each person in our classes and anyone who joins our lab. A wise colleague of mine imparted a gem of teaching wisdom to me shortly after I arrived at University of Washington: Whoever is doing the work is doing the learning. In a classroom that translates into you as the instructor spending more time figuring out how to get your students to explore and struggle productively with the material than you do making fancy powerpoint slides or looking up the coolest latest examples in the literature. In mentoring, it means that the burden is divided equally between you as the mentor doing the work of learning how to mentor most effectively, specifically for an individual mentee and generally for all mentees; and your mentee doing the work of learning what they need and being willing to try different strategies to meet that need.
As I mentioned in the first episode, I am a GenXer, so it is perhaps not surprising that when I re-discovered a flyer made by the band Bikini Kill from around 1990, I felt a deep resonance with its message. This flyer is titled The Revolution Starts Here + Now Within Each One of Us. A partial list of the goals for this revolution that particularly resonate with my mentorship goals are:
What do I want mentees to get out of their time in my lab? In my heart of hearts, my goal is for mentees to leave my lab feeling more whole, more healed, more skilled at being change agents in a hostile world. Bottom line, I took a job at an R1 university because I was compelled to try to fix graduate education. Remembering the naive optimism I brought to that goal makes my chest feel tight and gives me a bit of a headache, if I am being honest. After 15 years, I think more about being fully present in my work, being transparent about my methods and objectives, being an advocate and a confidante, helping in public ways to call out problematic or abusive behavior, and working in secret to help trainees make an escape plan that preserves their career prospects when that is what is asked of me.
I also love plants and signaling networks so deeply that it sometimes embarrasses me. I have often said that I prefer plants to people, and I am happy to debate the relative merits of each with anyone who wants to. Actually, I would rather just sit in a sunny patch and try to imagine what the grass is experiencing beneath my fingers. I want to share with my mentees my delight in plants and molecules and abstraction and logic and puzzles. I want them to experience the profound sense of empathy that comes from trying to understand a completely different way of being in the world.
I also have more pragmatic goals. I want to provide an environment that fosters high-level scientific achievement, while also emphasizing training in the full breadth of skills needed for a mentee to achieve their career goals. As I have said before, I am committed to facilitating success for trainees, while centering their own definitions of success. To achieve all of these goals, I work together with my mentees on competencies laid out in the paper I mentioned previously that was published by Verderame and colleagues in eLife in 2018.
These competencies include:
I encourage you to look up the Verderame paper because in its supplementary materials you can find detailed breakdowns of each of these competencies and benchmarks for career stages including Beginning PhD student, Advanced PhD student, PhD Graduate, Early Career Scientist, and Science Professional. And these serve as the basis of the detailed plans I make with my mentees during their IDP meetings. My mentoring philosophy, which is available on my website, has more details about what my supportive actions look like in practice.
I also want to add here another resource I have found useful in articulating the goals for myself and my mentees. In 2018, the World Economic Forum Young Scientists community published a detailed Code of Ethics. It is a thoughtful and thought-provoking read. In it, they make a persuasive case for expanding our conception of responsible conduct of research beyond the traditional bounds of not faking data or the need to share published resources in a timely manner. In their introduction they explain:
As academia is largely a self-regulated community, codes of ethics provide scientists with the support they need to safeguard high standards of behavior and to make explicit those social norms that allow individuals to operate independently….Being an international group of diverse scientists, be it in terms of research area or cultural background, the authors of this Code of Ethics are thus proposing a much-needed framework for ethical research, to not only shape the behavior of individuals but also the processes of the scientific institutions that are to facilitate this cultural shift.
Their list of seven principles are:
Discussing these principles with 1st year PhD students has opened up great conversations and helped me re-shape my own conception of ethical behavior.
I want to finish this episode with a few thoughts about finding the right people to invite into your lab, and how to help foster continuity of positive aspects of lab culture.
I will start with a brief exercise that came from a workshop I attended with Prof. Kimberly Griffin from the University of Maryland. Dr. Griffin is among the few people in the world studying mentorship of graduate students and postdocs, and I highly recommend you check out her work. Ok, if you are willing, please get a pen and paper.
Step 1: Brainstorm 7-10 ideal qualities you would like to see in a graduate student. Please put me on pause while you do that.
Step 2: What 3 can you NOT live without? Circle those.
Step 3: What 3 can you live without? Cross those out.
This exercise is part of the Mentor-Know Thyself inventory. You need to know what you value, and to envision a real person who has areas of existing strength, areas that can be developed easily and areas that may take considerable investment to develop—on your part and on the part of your mentee. Set them up for success by knowing which of these areas are driving this hiring right now.
In addition, ask yourself these questions, and make yourself write down the answer (advice I give often and rarely follow, but know that I should!):
What is motivating you to recruit a new trainee?
Why a graduate student or postdoc or technician specifically?
What is your bandwidth?
Recognize that your answers will likely change: over your career; depending on the type and extent of current funding; the size and make-up of your current lab. The goal is to make sure you are bringing in someone who has the best chance of being successful.
It is a hard truth that many people who belong to groups currently and historically marginalized in STEM will come to our labs with less developed skillsets that result from unequal opportunities leading up to this point, and potentially, more psychological barriers to success. They will certainly face more obstacles in their path, as they will almost certainly be subjected to micro or macroagressions and violent rejection by large swaths of our broader society.
If we as PIs have not done our own work around racism and other forms of bias, and do not have the bandwidth to put in the time needed to center and serve the needs of that incoming mentee, we are doing no one any favors by recruiting them to our labs. I’m NOT saying that you shouldn’t recruit a diverse lab. I am saying that we will never make things better if guilt or good intentions or whatever it is leads to faculty to bring folks into the Academy, and then not support them or worse reinforce the idea that they somehow don’t belong. And just because you are a member of a group that faces bias, you are not automatically going to be great at mentoring anyone who shares that identity.
Right now I am a full professor with substantial grant support. I prioritize recruiting folks whose awesomeness may not be as visible on an application. I also limit the size of my lab, and constantly adjust the steady-state number to match what I think I have to give in time and attention. I am certain I have not and do not always get it right. But these reflections are about setting intentions and being accountable when you get things wrong—not about being perfect.
Ok, so how to you identify people that might be a good fit for your mentorship style and your goals in mentorship. As I mentioned in the first part of this episode—design a process that serves your goal. I like using an approach called behavioral interviews, where you try to ask questions that let the interviewee give you a good sense of their specific skills or approaches. In this approach, you would design questions that ask about relevant situations and how they did or would respond. You try to ask them things they are unlikely to have been rehearsed—this is often achieved by asking them to do something with you. The biggest piece of advice (and also something I find really hard) is to listen more than talk. I would also urge you to listen to your instincts and to those of a few trusted colleagues.
An example of some interview questions I have used in the past:
Once someone has joined the lab, I have a few steps I take to try to bring them into the group. First, I partner them with a person or team that has a project that is heating up and needing extra hands. Enlightened self-interest can be a powerful force for good. Someone is way more likely to feel comfortable asking questions if they know that the person they are asking will benefit from their success. For example, I have the PCRs done for your project, can you help me figure out where to run and image the gel? I also try to write a review together with a new mentee or ask them to run a journal club on a topic they want to learn about. This helps us get to know each other in a less intense way, since it is not about their work specifically, and helps them get oriented to a new field. I also learn how they think, and what things are more challenging for them. Another great way to build a sense of belonging is to pair them with an undergraduate intern. Feeling like you have someone to stumble around with a bit can bring humor and fun to what can otherwise feel alienating or intimidating.
The last thing I want to say about lab culture is that change is good, necessary and healthy. I feel like my lab has had distinct eras, reflecting the people in the lab at those moments. As long as your core values are continuing to be reflected in the interactions in the group, it is great to be flexible. Sometimes people want to go to Renaissance Fairs for lab functions and get to laugh for days about you as the PI being forced onto the stage. Other times, it will be all about hummus. Sometimes folks will want you as the PI to come to everything, and sometimes they will prefer to hang out without you. The most important thing is that you find ways to get feedback, and figure out how to adjust as soon as possible if intervention is needed. In my lab, we are #TeamNemling, and I always say that it is a lifetime membership. Undergrads, grads, postdocs, technicians stay in touch with me, and with each other. When they find each other at meetings, they feel like they know they are meeting someone they can trust. Sometimes working on the culture of only one lab feels like such a small and insufficient contribution. Other times, I think where else could you start but from here.
Thanks again for listening. As always, please send your reflections and thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hi. Welcome to Srsly?Srsly, a series of audio reflections on lab culture and mentorship. I’m Jennifer Nemhauser, and this episode’s topic is building a team.
An important part of lab culture is establishing a sense of team spirit and camaraderie. Members of research teams are increasingly diverse in both their life experience and their disciplinary expertise, and frequently interact with stakeholders outside academia during the course of their work. I believe these characteristics of contemporary research foster more innovative science and lead to the transfer of better and more ethical products into the marketplace. However, to retain the most creative and productive researchers, everyone must be trained to collaborate equitably and effectively. Part of this reason I am making these audio reflections is to think through strategies to build smart teams that achieve true synergy and maximize contributions of all members. Someone once told me you want to make sure that you are not putting together a team that is precisely equal to the sum of its parts.
In 2017, Prof. KerryAnn O’Meara and colleagues published a study called Sense of belonging and its contributing factors in graduate education in the International Journal of Doctoral Studies. They defined sense of belonging as “the feeling that a person is connected to and matters to others in an organization.” In surveying over 1500 STEM graduate students across four universities, they found that: “professional relationships matter most to graduate student sense of belonging. Professional relationships influenced graduate student sense of belonging more than reported microaggressions and microaffirmations, though they also played a role.” They go on to make the case that: “(F)ostering graduate student sense of belonging could be a tool for improving pathways to the professoriate for groups that are typically underrepresented in academia.” This change would then set up a positive feed forward process where a more diverse Academy is better able to support URM students’ sense of belonging.
One aspect of the sense of belonging is where you draw the line about who ‘counts’ as being in your group. On a recent episode of the brilliant Taproot podcast, Prof. Aman (Ai-mun) Husbands described his desire to build a sense in his lab that we are all in this together. I love that.
I have tried to use the model of a cooperative organization, where expertise is valued and one’s age or job title does not confer different levels of status. Undergraduates who have been in the lab for enough time to become experts at certain techniques are asked to teach those techniques to new grads or postdocs or other undergrads. Historically, everyone presents at lab meeting every quarter, although that has been tweaked during COVID. Before COVID made the lab off-limits for undergrads, I had a policy that any undergrad who expressed interest in my lab, and had at least one year left before graduation, could work with us for a trial quarter, as long as one of the techs or grads or postdocs had time to act as a research mentor. During the trial period, the undergrad intern was expected to volunteer for 10 hours a week. The trial period allows for both the undergrad and the other members of the lab to get a sense of whether this experience is likely to work well. I tell the interns that we want to know if they are reliable and respectful. Whether they are able to honor our culture of community and inclusivity. I ask the interns to pay attention to how this extra load on their time is impacting their studies.
After the first trial quarter, if both the lab and the interns are agreeable, we make a commitment to working together for at least 2 additional quarters, and that they will present in the annual undergraduate research symposium. For these quarters, students can opt to receive credit or to be paid, UW rules prevent both. In this Summer Quarter, most students are paid, although sometimes there is a split between credits and paid work, depending on what an individual undergrad needs. The intern, their direct research mentor and me also work together to help them apply for scholarship funds and awards at the department, university and larger community levels.
I mention all of this here, in part to talk about mentoring ladders and making sure we are training grads and postdocs how to be effective and inclusive mentors, as well as to highlight how I have structured a process for recruiting undergraduates into the lab that underlines my values. I believe that everyone with a curious mind and desire to prioritize lab learning experiences should have a chance to do so. I do not think it should be restricted to the students with the best grades or with prior experience. I have seen over and over again that students that are on the bubble—wavering between a love of science and a sense of alienation, between commitment to their studies and frustration with old-fashioned weeder classes—these are the students for whom an opportunity to join a lab can be transformative. Hands-on work often dovetails and makes sense of classes that may not be taught in inclusive ways. An invitation to join a vibrant community of diverse scientists who are committed to each others’ success is often their first feeling of belonging, and frequently opens up incredible potential and the chance to envision themselves in a future career path they had never before seriously considered.
The experience of mentoring someone going through this evolution changes the mentor, too. In a lot of equity work, I have heard that it is hard to dream about something that you have never experienced or seen. The undergraduate experience, in addition to the broader scientific community, can often feel like a never-ending competition for supremacy. Being part of a collaborative, cooperative environment gives all of us a chance to know in a concrete way that it doesn’t have to be that way.
Other strategies I have found to be particular useful in building a sense of a culture based on the principles of mutual aid and cooperativity:
It is probably worth mentioning here that big emotions will often come up in these meetings. I think that nearly every graduate student or postdoc that has worked in my group has teared up in my office, and many have cried on multiple occasions. Crying really freaks some people out—if they are the mentee or the mentor, I have found that this is especially true for mentors who are socialized as men. I feel strongly that emotion is a normal, natural part of who we are as humans, and that when we feel something intensely, we often cry. I always have tissues available, and tell my mentees that I am completely comfortable with tears. That they are a sign of being human and being committed to their work. They are in charge of what happens next. I am happy to keep talking, and I am also happy to pause our meeting until they are ready to continue. Most of the time, people choose to stay, and by relieving the shame they might be feeling about crying, they are able to build skills of compassion for themselves and others. If you are met with anger, which has never happened to me, but I can easily imagine happening, use your judgement about how to proceed, keeping in mind your own right to be safe. A suggestion to pause for a cooling off period might be a better way to respond to anger than allowing things to escalate.
This is a problem I particularly faced as a junior faculty member. I often thought of projects only in terms of what I did as a postdoc or what I most needed for a grant or paper. I try to remember that my mentees are not me, and I am not trying to turn them into mini-mes. They are their own individuals, and they need to find their own pace. While the ultimate goal is for everyone to be a self-driven learner, guided by their own curiosity, and to be self-reflective and ask for what they need, this level of meta-cognition is not what most of our education system prepares people to be. And depending on the additional obstacles the world has placed in their path, these may be brand new skills for your mentee. I try to remember that I am looking for the delta not clearing a preset bar of achievement.
While we are on the subject of mutual aid, I have to also highly recommend a book by that title written by the brilliant activist and Seattle University law professor Dean Spade. While the University as it is, is clearly not a Mutual Aid organization—there is way too much hierarchy—I found common cause and real inspiration in some of the books nitty gritty practical advice about how to work with others to build a functional group, what Prof. Spade calls Working Together on Purpose. He writes: “Groups are more effective and efficient when participants know how to raise concerns, how to propose ideas, when a decision has been made and by whom, and how to put that decision into practice.” In another section on how to prevent and address overwork and burnout, there are suggestions like: “Make sure new people are welcomed and trained to co-lead”; “Establish mechanisms to address the workload and scale back”; and “Build a culture of connection.” The motto of an organization called Mutual Aid Disaster Relief is “No Masters, No Flakes.” Prof. Spade writes “This simultaneous rejection of hierarchies inside the organization, and commitment to build accountability based on shared values, asks participants to keep showing up and working together not because a boss is making you but because you are working together on something that matters.“ What would lab groups look like with those principles at the forefront?
Another tool for building a sense of belonging is lab social activities. It feels great to celebrate every success. There are so many hard times in science, I love to make a big deal about every good thing. It is also a chance for me to make sure I tell my mentees when I am happy and proud. It can be so easy to make it seem like science is just one long joyless trudge. That is not a great way to retain people in the field! Celebrations are also a great way to model sharing credit, and finding fulfillment in the successes of your teammates. But, here is where I remind us of the third Delphic maxim: "nothing to excess”.
When planning lab social events, I try to strike a balance between making sure everyone participates and not being overly demanding of people’s time. I also think it is critical to remember that you need to maintain a clear line between mentor and friend or buddy. This is especially hard when you are starting a lab and the postdocs in your group are the same age as you or even older. It is also hard when you find you just really like the people in your group, though I have to say, what a great problem to have! I try to remind myself that this is not your social outlet—this is part of my job as a mentor.
My solution to these challenges has been to sponsor a few defined lab activities per year—always during normal work hours. A lot of socializing and networking events I have attended as a scientist have been centered on alcohol. There are a lot of problems that come with this, and I have made a conscious choice in recent years to change that part of my lab’s culture. I don’t hesitate to have wine or beer available at a lab function in a modest quantity, but the event is not centered around alcohol—no happy hours or wine-tasting or jello shots. I also make sure that there are plenty of fun non-alcoholic options. I also make sure to leave on the early side unless the party is at my house. This signals that it is OK for people who have other obligations to leave if they need to, and lets the folks who remain relax with one another and bond.
I also make at least one lab function per year open to friends, significant others and kids. It is great for everyone to feel that they are fully appreciated for the person that they are. This can be a bit challenging if you are trying to stay within working hours, but I usually try to start things in the late afternoon, and let people decide whether they want to stay into the early evening. I also encourage lab members to plan other social outings, but I usually don’t go to make sure that it is clear that they are not compulsory.
I try to always schedule the main lab events so that my partner can attend. He is a fantastic role model of a deeply supportive faculty spouse, and his being consistently around lab events has led to some important conversations with partners of grads and postdocs in my lab, as they struggle with some of the challenges of supporting someone with a high stress and often unpredictable job. It has also been lovely to see people bring people as friends that eventually are introduced as significant others, as people realize that it is safe to do so. I make it a point to meet every friend or significant other or child that comes, and to make sure they know how much I appreciate having them in our community. Some of my most gratifying moments as a mentor are seeing people’s partners or kids in the lab after hours or on the weekends when their person has a bit of time-sensitive work to do. This is a sign that my mentees know that their full self is accepted and part of the team.
While many of our celebrations are potlucks—almost always vegetarian—if we do go to a restaurant or activity, I always pay. I appreciate that faculty are often facing their own serious financial obligations, and this advice might be hard to take. However, if there is even one person in your group who cannot attend an event because they cannot pay, you are doing incredible damage to lab culture. I set aside what I consider a reasonable level of expense I can afford, and only suggest lunches out, for example, when I am able to cover everyone’s bill. On this same topic, I make it a habit to never complain about money to my lab members. To many of them, I seem like I am living the high life. And compared to their situations, I very well may be. It is fine to complain about money to your peers, but I make it a rule never to complain about money to anyone who is getting paid less than I am!
Another topic around money is lab going away-gifts. I try to set the total amount at a pretty consistent price point—it may increase when the lab size gets a little bigger, and decrease when it gets smaller—but it shouldn’t vary widely within the same few year window. People take notice if it does—another place where you or others in the group may seem to be playing favorites. I also structure suggested donations to pay for the lab gift in a way that recognizes differences in wages (I pay 4X, postdocs pay 2X, grads 1X, and undergrads 1/2x). I put an envelope in a public place for a designated amount of time, and let people put whatever they want to in the envelope, and they can choose a time when no one is watching. I used to have a checkoff of names to make sure everyone had put their share in, until I realized that for some people anything outside their planned budget was an enormous stressor and might even keep them from paying for their own food or rent or other bills. Now, I make it clear that the amounts are only suggestions, and that it is completely anonymous.
I guess the main message here is that there is never a moment when you can just do whatever if you want to build a strong, collaborative, intentional lab culture. Your choices, even when they seem small to you, can make an enormous impact on your mentees. They are watching, so make sure your actions are beyond reproach and centered on what would serve them best.
Thank you very much for listening. If you want to share your thoughts or reflections, please email me at email@example.com.
Hi This is Jennifer Nemhauser. Welcome to another episode of SRSLY?SRSLY, a series of audio reflection about mentorship and lab culture. This episode and the next one will focus on the personal costs of being an intentional, engaged leader and mentor, and some of the ways you might mitigate them.
When I was in the last year of my postdoc, I suddenly stopped sleeping. Not entirely. I would fall asleep like normal but then pop into full wakefulness 3 or 4 hours later. Every night. For weeks on end. To my everlasting wonder and gratitude, around the time that I was starting to despair that I would ever sleep a full night again, an email went out to the Salk Institute community inviting us to participate in a highly subsidized 10 week long course called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. At this point in my life, I had rejected therapy as useless (after going to a single session at the end of graduate school) and thought meditation was just about the goofiest thing I could imagine. I would never have taken this class except that I was desperate and it wasn’t going to cost me very much.
At an informational meeting before the first class, a faculty member who had just gotten tenure started the session by explaining that it was her initiative that brought this class to us. She credited MBSR with being able to stay in academia. Then our instructor, Steve Alpers, explained that MBSR was a fully secular, research-validated toolkit that offered us a chance to gain the power of consciously deciding how we choose to respond to difficult or stressful situations. It was developed at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in the 1970s by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn as a way to help patients with chronic pain. The textbook for this course at the Salk was Jon Kabat-Zinn’s doorstop of a book called Full Catastrophe Living.
I cannot fully convey how skeptical this audience of scientists was to everything being said, myself included. There were endless questions, many dripping with doubt and worry that this was some kind of woo-woo cult. Mr. Alpers was amazing. He primarily worked with medical and scientific professionals—he had heard all of this before and was serene and patient, answering everybody for over an hour. He finished by challenging us to be skeptics and experimentalists—to give MBSR an honest try and to see what happened. I decided that I would try.
This is not a story of miracles. I began my meditation practice in that class in 2005, and I struggled so hard to survive sitting still for 5 minutes. By the end of 10 weeks, my insomnia was markedly better—I could often stay in bed until I fell back asleep—much better than wandering the neighborhood in the middle of the night trying to wear myself out and stop my racing mind. Since then, I have taken a refresher course and my practice has ebbed and flowed. After the 2016 election—the same year I had several personal hardships as well—I reverted to my absolute beginner state and went nearly three years before I could mindfully sit for more than 5 minutes at a time on my best day. Meditating is a time when I see into my mind and my heart, and I often avoid that experience because there is a lot of hard stuff there. I almost never cried from the time I started graduate school until the end of my postdoc. Then, all of a sudden, I had tears streaming down my face every time I meditated. It was extremely disconcerting. I also had a number of blow up arguments with my partner, that we eventually worked out were caused by the fact that I was increasingly staying calm and patient during our disagreements, rather than instantly going to intensity 11. He had to totally recalibrate how to hear what I was saying and how serious I was about something without the drama and volume acting as his cues to pay attention.
There is a saying in meditation circles that if we imagine that our minds are like the storm-agitated surface of a lake, meditation is like a calming of the storm. Unfortunately, you can now see everything below the surface with crystal clarity—and it is not all very pretty—we all probably have a few rusty cans and old tires moldering down there. But, as I said in the first episode—Mentor, Know Thyself. That garbage is in there whether you know it or not, and once you see it, you might be able to find ways to clear it out. You need to know what things might come up that could push you to lose your intentionality and send you back into automatic reactivity. Automatic reactivity is a huge problem for mentors and mentees. These are the moments where we likely cause the most damage.
And no matter what I do, I will screw up sometimes. Everybody has bad moments, days when I am bombarded by bad news, or lack of sleep, or a deadline that has arrived way too soon, or a migraine coming on. It is also true that if I am not making mistakes, I am almost certainly not getting it right either. There is no perfect. It is always a work in progress.
Perhaps my most public mistake is that I invited BethAnn McLaughlin the founder of #MeTooSTEM to give a talk on my campus and endorsed her work in an article I published as part of the American Society of Plant Biology’s newsletter. The facts as I know them are this: Dr. McLaughlin witnessed horrible abuse by a colleague. Her employer Vanderbilt University handled the situation abysmally (as do nearly all universities when members of their communities are faced with harassment or assault). The MeTooSTEM organization that came out of this experience supported some targets of abuse in the vacuum of other options.
Unfortunately, what I didn’t know is that Dr. McLaughlin is an abuser herself. I won’t go into all of the details here, as they can be found by a quick Google search, but I have had many sleepless nights over my endorsement of Dr. McLaughlin. In the end, I had to accept that I did the best I could with the information that I had. I had to accept that my mission was to support targets of abuse, who remain grossly underserved by TitleIX offices and university administrators. Better to stick my neck out and get it wrong sometimes, than stay silent and pretend that problems didn’t exist.
It is good for faculty to practice apologizing. I have found that the best apologies are simple, clearly take responsibility for a poor response or action (not one of these I am sorry you felt offended by what I said), and happen as soon as possible after the problematic event. It is also important to ask ‘what can I do to make this right?’. I have also learned a few things specifically around being called in or called out for biased behavior. These pointers have also been relevant for guiding my actions after violent events that target a non-majoritarian group. My pain is not of much use to the most affected communities. It doesn't mean that I shouldn't feel it, but I have to be intentional about how I express it. Being in communion with someone is different from seeking approval or comfort for myself. I watch for any drift towards centering myself in my response. I have talked in a previous episode about the power of normalizing crying for mentees. It is also OK for mentors to cry but there are some important limits on this, especially if you are a member of a majoritarian group like I am. Two clear warning signs that you are displaying emotion in an inappropriate way:
I think it means a lot to the people in my group when I make it clear that I hold myself to a high level of civility and respect in my interactions. If I am curt or irritable, I apologize. In the same vein, I strive to be gracious when my lab members apologize for being late or misunderstanding something or for breaking a piece of equipment. If I find that I need a moment to get my emotions under control so that I can respond with the care they deserve, I excuse myself and take a walk around the block or meditate for a few minutes. My stress is not their problem just because they depend on me. They should never be my means of blowing off steam. I also want to make the point here that not all apologies have to be accepted. Lab members do not owe PIs unquestioning loyalty or respect or to agree with our evaluation of how big a deal something is. If an offense is perceived as big enough by the person who is harmed that an apology is insufficient, a mediator may be needed to help work out a plan to repair the damage. Many schools have ombud offices that can be one option to consider. This same advice is relevant for disputes between lab members.
Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist monk, has a book called When Things Fall Apart. There is a lot of wisdom there, and I recommend reading it and listening to her lectures of the same name. I want to mention one piece of that wisdom here that is particularly relevant to mentorship. In Buddhism, she explains there are 4 pairs of worldly states: pain and pleasure; fame and disgrace; gain and loss; praise and blame. The place of peace is the middle way, neither grasping at one state nor fleeing from another. To be an intentional mentor, we need to find a way to thread the needle in the midst of a very hard job. We need to be aware of when we are acting from ego and when we are acting from fear, and be able to adjust our strategies—even if it means interrupting a meeting with a phony excuse so that we can work through our stuff before discussing a plan with our students.
Many activists use the phrase: working as it is designed to. Academia is working as it is designed to. It is not broken. It is supremacist. I do not know anyone who finds being a faculty member easy, and, for those of us who are also trying to be change agents, the system will hand out pain and doubt and exhaustion and heartache over and over again. I worked with a coach last year who asked me to define health. After hemming and hawing, I came up with this: health is being well enough to be of service to others. If you are going to take on this work, I plead with you to figure out how to know your limits and to find a way to fill yourself back up when you find yourself dangerously drained. MBSR might be your thing. Or maybe you will build combat robots or quilt or bake wedding cakes. Whatever it is, do it for yourself, and also do it for your mentees.
Thanks very much for listening. As always, please send your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hello, and welcome to SRSLY?SRSLY. My name is Jennifer Nemhauser and this episode will focus on building your network as a PI to support best practices in mentorship and also touch a bit on what to do with peers who impede or work against your efforts.
When I was a graduate student, going through some really tough times and facing some hard truths about the Academy, one of the only things that got me through it was organizing with other grads to do for ourselves. Finding solidarity with one another—whether it took the form of a study group, a journal club or a simple sharing of information—was powerful. We use to gather in a tiny room with shared department computers, and vent and strategize and comfort one another. Towards the end of graduate school, I served one of the faculty members in my department with the accusation that for women who were grad students it seemed that there were only two choices: Having people be nice to you because they considered you not quite up to snuff intellectually and worthy of pity, or having people never say a kind word to you because they considered you a serious contender as a scientist and therefore a bitch who could take whatever crap they dealt out. I will never forget the faculty members blank stare and credulous response—not that they didn’t know this to be true but that they could not imagine any other way for it to be.
It was my classmates, along with some of the more senior grads in the department and postdocs, who were the ones whose actions told me that I belonged in graduate school, occasionally had a great idea, and, at least some of them, made me feel like my feelings of vulnerability and anger didn’t mean that I was somehow not fit for this career path. When I got my faculty position, one of my classmates from grad school who is now a member of my family of choice, promised me that he would send emails to my lab members periodically to survey them about my behavior, and make sure I had not, in his words, become an asshole. To me, I can think of no better example of accountability with love.
When I decided to do a postdoc, largely as a last ditch chance to see if there was any path for me in science that wouldn’t make me feel like I was burning with incandescent rage all of the time, I continued to try to build peer support networks. I had the good fortune of being in a lab with dozens of other postdocs, and many of us formed formal journal clubs and informal coffee hours to discuss science. One of my colleagues asked me to work through a statistics text together, and it was among the best learning experiences of my life. I also regularly went running on the beach with various folks, while we tried to figure out how to navigate the high stakes world we found ourselves in where doing the most impactful research sometimes seemed to come in conflict with other parts of our identities.
One of the most important people from my early days as a postdoc was Dr. Dana Schroeder. She was one of my running partners, and one of the most laid back, generous and funny people I have ever met. Dana was Canadian, and knew she wanted to go back and run a small lab with modest ambitions that just let her and her team enjoy figuring out cool biochemistry together. It was not an easy path, but she achieved her dream, and also married her girlfriend, the love of her life, and they got to be parents to a daughter Dana loved to brag about. Dana died this past year after a long and terrible bout with cancer. It was a horrible loss, in a year with so many losses, and impossible to mourn properly. One thing I kept coming back to in thinking about Dana was her clear vision of who she wanted to be, and her unwavering tacking towards a professional life that served those goals. I also remembered that Dana would always be honest with me—whether it was telling me about a flaw in my experimental plan or calling me in if had the wrong end of the stick in an argument or had acted in away that wasn’t kind or thoughtful.
Having professional peers—that I could trust, that had no power over my professional advancement, and would call me in when my actions needed correcting—is perhaps the single most important source of any success I have had as a scientist and as a mentor. I was incredibly, unbelievably lucky to easily find my peer mentors as an Assistant Professor. There were a group of us hired around the same time, with my friend Ben arriving 6 months before me, and my friend Janneke arriving 6 months later. Our early walks to get coffee, quickly transitioned into a more formal support network. We started a grant writing accountability group, since all of us were struggling to get our first grants submitted—we called ourselves KickAssGrants, I think, but then we turned to writing our first papers together and became KickAssPapers or KAPS and that name has stuck for the last dozen or so years even though we have long since branched out into every part of our professional lives. Janneke recently moved to Switzerland, so we now hold weekly International KAPS meetings where we use each other as sounding boards, cheerleaders, a brain trust and accountability partners on a whole host of issues related to data analysis, mentorship support, and strategies for institutional reform. More senior faculty members used to run into us meeting in a conference room or out at a coffee shop and say things like in jest like, ‘Should we be worried now?’ Or ‘Are you three plotting to overthrow the department?’, and I used to always think to myself: Yes, yes you should be and yes, yes, we are.
Beyond being a source of confidential problem solving, practical advice, outside readers for grants and other pragmatic help, great peer mentors can also offer praise and consolation. They can share in your part of the triumphs that you want your mentees to take sole credit for. You can be petty and needy with these folks—ask them to tell you that you totally deserved that award or grant more than so-and-so (even if they don’t even know who so-and-so is).
To quote the great Prof. Beronda Montgomery again: Effective mentors SHOW UP healed and are able to mentor from affirmation not for affirmation.
That does not mean that you do not need affirmation. It means that you recognize that this affirmation should not come from your mentees, and that you re-wire your brain to send an alert if you are feeling particularly vulnerable and make sure that you don’t show up to meetings with mentees in that mindset. It is so easy to fall into the trap of wishing that your mentees would just show a little gratitude or to be annoyed that you are not being lavishly praised on social media for being an awesome mentor or publicly awarded for your excellent mentorship. I am not knocking anyone who receives this kind of praise, but I do want to be clear that you can be an outstanding mentor and not have any of that happen. I would argue that the highest level of mentorship is when your mentees see their successes as their own—maybe without even recognizing all of the small and large ways you helped them get there. I do not want to cultivate a sense of obligation in my mentees—I already have a ton more power and status. I am not sure I will ever be healed, but I know it is my work to do.
Peer mentors can also be a means of building political clout in your department—you can talk through issues and help support each other’s passion projects. You can sing each other’s praises in situations where tooting your own horn would be uncomfortable or in poor taste. You can also pool information—which can be incredibly powerful. In my department, a merit and tenure committee meets annually with each faculty member eligible for advancement. For Assistant and Associate Professors, these committees are normally comprised of two full professors, but which particular faculty you meet with changes every year. Every year after we met with our committees, Ben, Janneke and I would compare notes. There were often big differences in what we were being told—both in terms of how we were doing in relation to expectations and in terms of advice. It was enormously helpful for me to have this more holistic picture of how senior faculty were thinking, and to be able to advocate for myself from a stronger position when there were inequities.
As I said before, I got lucky with finding my people right in house in a very organic way. If that is not the case for you, don’t despair. There are a lot of ways to connect with people and ask them if they want to meet up regularly to compare notes. Social media works for a lot of folks, as do many professional societies like the American Society of Plant Biology or the American Society of Cell Biology or the Society for Developmental Biology. At many annual meetings for your organism or area of interest, there are likely to be opportunities for informal gatherings with people at your same career stage. There are also often efforts by campus organizations like ADVANCE to put together peer mentorship groups across departments. I also find that if you read someone’s work and really like the way they think or how they approached something, they LOVE to receive an email saying so. That is also a way to begin a conversation. For years, I asked every seminar visitor to our department about their advice for mentorship, lab management and recruiting strategies. It was a great way to learn about things to try and also to figure out what would not work for me. One very successful visitor—a scientist I have a lot of respect for—told me that his strategy was to ask about the relationship the potential mentee had with their father. Since he as the PI was often inhabiting a Dad-like space for his trainees, he had found that a good relationship between the mentee and their father was highly predictive of smooth sailing in their future relationship. This seemed to have worked very well for him. But this approach would never work for me—because I am a woman, and Moms and Dads are not viewed the same, because I am often accused of not being feminine or nurturing so being a Lab Mom would probably not be in my wheelhouse anyway, and because many of the queer folk in my lab have complicated relationships at best with their parents. Hearing from many people with diverse life experiences and perspectives helped me find my own mentoring style, and also gave me great insights into the incredible range of experiences my mentees might be having before or after their time in my group.
Another way of saying this is that I am a big believer in finding ways to not re-invent the wheel. In the same way that I would never start an experiment without reading up a bit in the literature for what is known and what approaches work best, I have become an avid consumer of literature and talks about mentorship. For example, in 2019, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine came out with a phenomenal report called The Science of Effective Mentoring in STEMM. Some of the giants in this field—people like Prof. Angela Byars-Winston, Prof. Erin Dolan, Prof. Christine Pfund, and Prof. Sylvia Hurtado—all contributed to this compendium of best practices. There are practical suggestions for mentors and also targeted recommendations for institutions that will lead to more evidence-based and accountable mentorship. If the whole 300 page report feels imposing, there is a 5 page Executive Summary and they have recently launched a podcast. There are also blogs like Small Pond Science that often feature posts on inclusive mentoring practices. The world of Biology Education Research is also rich with gems of wisdom that can be readily translated from the classroom to the lab group. SABER (The Society for the Advancement of Biology Education Research) has hosted great virtual talks on equity over this past year, and these are viewable on their website.
Before I finish up this topic, I also want to talk about the ways that colleagues can be impediments. I have a quote from Chris Hayes in my email signature that was from a Tweet he posted during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. It reads: “To those with power and privilege, accountability and equality is often experienced as loss, injustice and persecution.” I love this quote because it helps me remember that bad behavior is rarely personal. It helps me find compassion for the colleagues that lash out at me—to remember that they have likely had a life of experiences leading up to our encounter that have trapped them into whatever mind space they are in. And that space doesn’t look like much fun—it often seems painful and confusing, sometimes I can even see the grief in their eyes while they are on the attack or in the moments where they find me afterwards to try to smooth things over. I try to remind myself that much of their behavior is not even really about me at all or even about what I said or the change I was proposing. Rather, their rage bubbles out of the million things that happened to that person earlier that day, that week, that year, that lifetime. The things that make them feel like they are losing something that they were promised, introducing a quiet voice in their head that whispers that maybe they aren’t quite as praiseworthy as they have always been told, that maybe the future will require more from them.
Some of my fellow faculty members—here at UW and elsewhere—are deeply invested in the status quo, and think that any discussion of institutional reform means a watering down of standards, or, somehow even worse, a loss of fun. I am not going to make a counter argument here. There is no evidence or logical case that will change their minds anyway. What I will say is that as an institutional reformer and mentee advocate, I have faced resentment, suspicion or outright opposition from my colleagues, even from ones I thought I had a great relationships with. Faculty of any career stage can be hostile and undermining, publicly or privately. I have also been the target of anger and frustration from other reformers in my community, especially grads and postdocs. Sometimes being an advocate also means being the safest person to unload on, and it can be brutal if understandable.
I have had to find ways to deal with being on the receiving end of vitriol, without giving up my voice. My partner, who is a White cis-man, can walk away from an encounter where someone has been hostile to him or his ideas and almost immediately move on and proceed with whatever is next on his To Do list. I know women who also have this super power. I am not one of them. Some of the stress-reduction strategies mentioned in a previous episode are critical for my own mental health. I also rely on my peer network for comfort and strategic advice. Just one example of tapping into this source of support was partnering with my colleague Prof. Brian Buchwitz to join me in hosting a Department Climate and Culture journal club and office hour once a week, open to anyone who wanted to join us. Brian was head of the department’s Diversity and Equity Committee while I as Chair of the Grad and Postdoc Committee. Sometimes, it was just him and me sitting together and thinking about how we could enact best practices in our department; sometimes there was a sizable group; sometimes we talked a lot about the video or article that we had proposed as a starting place, and sometimes there was someone in the room who wanted to work through a specific situation they were experiencing and troubled by. When it came time to put together an educational program to honor #ShutDownSTEM in June 2020, we had a wealth of resources to draw on—including topics like seeing inequities in STEM, faculty hiring, outreach, classroom teaching, and mentorship—and a solid core of people who were already deep into this work.
But these approaches do not put an end to the bad behavior of others. Even worse, I have often found myself in situations where the hostility I am talking about is not directed at me, but was instead directed at my mentees or other people’s mentees at department seminars or in thesis committee meetings or general exams. In this cases, I feel compelled to use my voice and status to protect others, or all of the rest of the work I do in building people up can be devalued or erased.
One of the ways you can think about counteracting harassing behavior is to practice bystander intervention strategies. Hollaback and the Green Dot Initiative developed a shorthand of five D’s in Bystander Intervention. I am going to discuss them here in terms of a faculty meeting, but they could be used just as readily at a joint lab meeting or a department event or a general exam—whenever you see someone with less power being harassed or targeted with unprofessional intensity.
The first D is Distract—Your goal here is interruption of the dyadic interaction, breaking of momentum and the “locked-on” quality that sometimes arises. Ask a question that will change the subject or redirect the attention to someone else in the room.
The second D is Delegate—Talk to the Chair or other senior people and ask them to intervene if the hostile dynamic starts to emerge. You can even set up subtle signals like tugging your ear with allies ahead of time to indicate that someone in the room needs help. You can train your mentees to signal this way to you, if they need your support in a committee meeting or other potentially stressful event where they are interacting with other faculty members.
The third D is Document—Send the Chair and the target of the harassment an email describing how what you observed was troubling and should not be tolerated.
The fourth D is Delay—Check in with the target of the concerning action afterwards. Ask them if they are OK and if there is any way you can support them. Tell them that you are sorry that this happened to them, and that you find the behavior unprofessional and unacceptable.
Finally, the fifth D is Direct—This is perhaps the hardest but often the most effective. In this mode, you directly call out the problematic behavior, saying something like “That is inappropriate” or “You are being unprofessional” or “That comment is uninformed and not constructive” or “That joke is offensive”. You do not want to add gasoline to the fire here, if you can avoid it, because it may lead to further harm of the person you are trying to protect. Say your piece succinctly, and then refuse to engage further unless the harassing behavior continues.
We are fortunate at University of Washington to have an outstanding Bystander Intervention Training program funded as part of a past negotiation with the graduate student union. We have featured the training at departmental retreats and during orientation week for new graduate students. I have participated in five versions of it at this point, and learn new things every time. I think it is slowly changing the ways people react—perhaps not always in the moment, but certainly afterwards in thinking about how to move forward with intention.
Thanks so much for listening. As always, I would love to hear your thoughts or reflections. You can reach me at email@example.com.
Hi This is Jennifer Nemhauser. Welcome to another episode of SRSLY?SRSLY, a series of audio reflections about mentorship and lab culture. This series has roughly followed an organizational scheme that started with the mentor, moved next to the mentee-mentor dyad, expanded out to the lab group and then to the departmental colleagues and the broader departmental or disciplinary community of the mentor. This episode is the last in the series, and I want to end with a few thoughts about the Academy as a whole.
In activist circles it is often said that the system is working as it was designed to. I try to remember this when I feel like I am working really really really hard and yet have very little to show for it. One of the questions that used to plague me in the years leading up to tenure was: how will I know whether the institution is changing me more than I am changing the institution? I took a job at a major research university for many reasons, but, as I said in the first episode, among the most important was that I wanted to change graduate education. Beyond my own traumatic experiences as a graduate student, I had seen first-hand many mechanisms by which the Academy was gate-keeping—pushing out talented, creative, original thinkers. I hoped that maybe I could work on changing those things from the inside.
But as you get closer to an institution, become part of its inner workings, of course you are also changed by that experience. I was on the Executive Committee of my department—how could sitting with that power and authority and still not being able to figure out how to stop vulnerable people from being hurt—how could that not change me? Institutions with any staying power are incredibly good at finding strategies to envelop “problems” and turn them to their own ends—maintaining the status quo while looking like they are changing. My response is to question assumptions about all of the ways things are done now, as well as to scrutinize with my most skeptical eye any proposed solutions coming from the folks in power for repairing historic harm or preventing it from continuing. It is my responsibility to build trust with the most vulnerable members of my communities, so that when I ask what they need, they can be honest. I have also made it a core part of my life as a tenured full professor to do what is asked—either as a leader or advocate or more often as a follower doing the grunt work without expecting attribution or gratitude.
In Elizabeth Minnich’s foundational text Transforming Knowledge, she articulates the multiple, profound problems of the Academy and connects them to its origins. She argues: “The root problem…is, simply, that while the majority of humankind was excluded from education and the making of what has been called knowledge, the dominant few not only defined themselves as the inclusive kind of human but also as the norm and the ideal. A few privileged men defined themselves as constituting mankind/humankind. . . Thus, they created root definitions of what it means to be human that, with the concepts and theories that flowed from and reinforced those definitions, made it difficult to think well about, or in the mode of, anyone other than themselves, just as they made it difficult to think honestly about the defining few.” To change education, she argues the goal is “to think ourselves free, to free our own thinking.”
While the system is the problem, we are part of the system and we must hold ourselves accountable for our choices—both when we choose to act and when we choose not to act. I could write a whole separate set of reflections on ways that institutions are failing and actions that require Deans, Provosts, Presidents and Boards of Regents. We can both acknowledge that the problems of anti-Blackness, transphobia, ableism, sexism, etc. are systemic AND see our own culpability and obligation for learning, reflection, planning, acting and receiving feedback we use to do better.
The performance artist Andrea Fraser wrote the following in her essay From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique: “Every time we speak of the “institution” as other than “us,” we disavow our role in the creation and perpetuation of its conditions. We avoid responsibility for, or action against, the everyday complicities, compromises, and censorship—above all, self-censorship—which are driven by our own interests in the field and the benefits we derive from it…. It’s not a question of being against the institution: We are the institution. It’s a question of what kind of institution we are, what kind of values we institutionalize, what forms of practice we reward, and what kinds of rewards we aspire to….”
When I started as an Assistant Professor, I thought the path to equity in STEM would come through explicit sharing of the unwritten rules, and helping marginalized folks strategize ways to navigate the existing paths or find ways to subvert them. I was all about being a secret agent, making copies of the keys I had used to unlock the gate and handing them out so that everyone could make it through to the other side. There is some merit to this thinking—it helped many of the students I taught and mentored learn how to write highly competitive grants, mentor their mentors into acceptably functional relationships, and pass their general exams with less anxiety. In recent years, however, I have come to see the unintentional harm I was doing right alongside my “let me let you in on a secret” work—I was telling these students and mentees that they needed to fundamentally change or to at least partially assimilate in order to be successful. They were not OK as they were. What I forgot to tell them or didn’t say often or explicitly enough is that I thought a lot of these obstacles they were facing were bullshit, and that I was working to change them but clearly not fast enough.
Lately, I have been trying to think about these two strategies—building tools to succeed in the Academy As It Is and working hard to make the Academy As It Should Be—as not a binary choice, but instead acting as the endpapers of my portfolio with a full spectrum of efforts spanning between them. I am working to speak up and articulate which of these strategies I am deploying with my mentees, and honor what they tell me they need from me at different moments. I think this portfolio analogy is also useful for early career researchers. My advice is be strategic and strive for a balance—between your mentorship work, your activism, and the other aspects of your job. If you do not get tenure, the system will keep rolling along as it is, and we will be worse for it! In conversations with some Millenial and GenY mentees and colleagues, I have heard the critique of this kind of bet hedging as insincere or inauthentic. They see real harm being done right now and want to burn the system down. I completely respect that position, and certainly have days or weeks when I feel the same way. I wish I knew the right answer. But I really don’t. Instead, I intend to keep listening and reading and reflecting and adjusting my strategies as I can, centering what is asked of me by my mentees and particularly by those who are in the most vulnerable and disenfranchised positions within the Academy.
In the NASEM report on sexual assault and gender harassment in the Academy, they identify several structural factors that contribute to the persistence of this malignant harm. As in the military and the Catholic Church—both of which have their own sexual violence epidemics—three factors stand out. First, there is a strict hierarchy, and interpersonal relationships with a direct supervisor are closely tied with career advancement. Second, there is a sense that the job is not just a job but an identity. Subsuming oneself into the mission is the highest achievement and is expected to trump any pain or suffering. Third, these organizations are dominated by cis-males, and this makes intuition by leadership— about whether there is a problem, how to address the problem, and how to repair harm done to a target or survivor—highly error-prone. These same issues make most of us mentors pretty terrible at responding to harassment based on race, ethnicity, religion, class, immigration status, sexual orientation, gender performance and disabilities in our lab groups and departments. Until the Professoriate is different, it is unlikely many of the structural factors propping up the status quo will fundamentally change.
I want to close with a passage from Ijeoma Oluo’s recent book Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America. There is a plethora of wisdom in that work, but in one particularly relevant chapter for this series, she writes about the history of antisemitism, racism and sexism in higher education. She ends that chapter with the following invitation that made me sit up and feel called to get back to work. I hope it might do the same for you.
She writes: “I am not defending higher education because I love, or even like, the institution. I am defending it because without it, we are lost. And because I have seen, in my own academic history and in the countless hours I’ve spent on campuses across the country, what higher education could be. It could truly be the place that angry white men hate and fear if we put in the effort. It could be a place that dares to believe that the world does not revolve around white men. It could be a place that promotes the idea that people who aren’t white men have just as much right and ability to shape our future in their image as white men have. It could be a place where we learn to respect consent and pronouns, where we learn about intersectionality, where we learn the truth about our corrupt systems and begin to demand change, where we learn to respect and appreciate people who are different from us, where we start demanding justice for the oppressed, where we investigate our histories of bias and bigotry. Higher education could be all of that, and the world would be better for it.”
I arrived at graduate school with a sigh of relief—the feeling of soaking into a hot bath—finally my quirky, weird, never-quite-right, never-quite-enough self would be OK, because I was entering a world where a talent for deep attention and finding connections, and a joy in wrestling with natural puzzles, were all that mattered. We were all equal and equally committed to the goal of figuring things out—petty jealousies and confusing social conventions and just the general incomprehensibility and disappointment of people would fall away before the majesty of a group of cells finding their way to make a flower. That dream was quickly dashed—or at least shoved way down deep inside me—once I experienced the real nature of the Academy—suffused with the same poisonous insecurities and malice that you find with any enterprise involving people. Academic science is not a meritocracy, it is not a crucible where a utopian world is boiling up. But could it be?
I will finish here with my realization that I am recording these reflections to make public what is feels like to wrestle with a flawed institution that you love, that you are not ready or willing to walk away from. And to hope that by day-lighting my experience, it might give someone else a head start in their own journey.
Thank you very much for listening. This is the last of my episodes, at least for now. If you have a thought or reflection on anything you’ve heard so far, or ideas about what you might want to hear about next, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hi. My name is Jennifer Nemhauser and this is Srsly?Srsly. In the next few episodes, I am going to be talking about the General Exam, and why I think it is a deeply problematic but potentially redeemable part of a PhD program. I want to start off by sharing my own General Exam story.
I was the first person in my graduate cohort to take my General Exam. I would never describe myself as brave or a risk-taker. But I have always hated the feeling of anticipation, especially of something unpleasant. I think my natural adrenaline set-point is pretty high, and it only takes a little jostling to make my nerves feel uncomfortably jangly. Of course, it all depends on how much control I feel like I have—acting and singing and dancing on stage were always a joy. But those things had rehearsals, and I could practice on my own until I knew that I would be OK. Improv and karaoke are among my nightmares.
The General Exam seemed like the worst Improv exercise ever devised. And the combination of waiting and my anxiety spiraling ever-upwards, feeding off of my own worse thoughts and those of my cohort—well, that was just not sustainable for very long. So, I took the leap on the 5th of May 1997, towards the end of my second year of graduate school. I dressed in my only suit, bought for me by my grandmother, in a very fashionable black nubbly fabric with a white and black striped satin lining. I remember running into a professor who wasn’t on my committee in the hallway just before the whole thing started. I am not sure if he actually whistled or just looked me over head to toe with a wolfish grin. He told me that he would definitely pass me, looking the way I did. I remember feeling ashamed, like I had screwed up another unwritten academic rule and wore the wrong thing. How could I keep forgetting that giving any sign that I cared, especially any sign that I was a woman who might be feeling a bit vulnerable, was blood in the water? I remember desperately wanting to get out of the interaction, and have a few unmolested moments alone to pull myself together.
During my exam, where I was supposed to supply food and drinks for my committee members, the faculty smiled and laughed with one another. On the table was a letter from my advisor, who wasn’t allowed to be in the room, but was able to share her assessment of my progress and suitability for continuing in the program. I don’t remember whether they read it before or after I answered questions. The way our General Exams were supposed to work was that we had to pick something like five out of eight subject areas as our foci: things like Development, Biochemistry, Physiology, Molecular Biology, etc. Each faculty had one of these areas as their portfolio. They were supposed to work with me ahead of time to come up with a reading list that I would use to prepare for the exam. Some assigned an entire textbook, others a more reasonable set of papers. During the exam, several of my committee members decided to go completely off-script and ask me about areas that we had explicitly agreed would not be part of my reading. One of them decided to ask me questions from an entirely different area of focus, because they thought I really should know it. And they all smiled indulgently at me as I struggled my way through my answers, as if they were watching a toddler make their way through an obstacle course. Afterwards, one of the professors told me that they knew I was a great student and would have all of the answers for what we agreed I should study, so where was the fun in that?
I passed. I felt relief but also rage. During the exam, I felt humiliated and small. As my cohort went through their exams one by one, they reported a range of humiliations small and large. Many cried. And many were told by faculty that they didn’t feel as if the exam was being done right unless the student cried. It was hazing. It was cruel. I could not understand how it had anything to do with learning or thinking or improving myself in any way. It felt like bullying intended to make me into a bully. I think it was around that time that I started a rant about the evils of graduate school that many people in my life had to listen to more than once. The final, in my mind devastating, conclusion of the rant was a statement spit out with utter contempt: the faculty in this department have no coherent philosophy of graduate education.
When I remember this now, I smile because what I though was an accusation that would leave my perceived enemies flayed and full of remorse, instead was, and for the most part still is, a central truth of STEM graduate education everywhere. And it wasn’t really a secret. And it was not an inadvertent flaw in the system. It was the system working the way it was supposed to.
I had been angry already many times since starting graduate school, felt like my humiliation was viewed not just as a byproduct but the actual point of some of my interactions with faculty. But the moment I walked out of the General Exam, something shifted inside me, and this shift left a hollow structure where my belief in a science meritocracy had once stood. And this shift made space for a rage that fueled my ambition to succeed, to show the tormentors that they could not get rid of me so easily. This rage did in fact power me through the rest of my training, and into a great faculty position and even into tenure. But I found my rage to be both powerful and destructive. I believe that it literally ate at my insides for more than a decade, and eventually landed me in the hospital. As part of my path back to healing, I re-traced my rage back to the moment when it started taking up so much space in my body. As Pema Chödrön wrote in her book “Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living”: If someone comes along and shoots an arrow into your heart, it’s fruitless to stand there and yell at the person. It would be much better to turn your attention to the fact that there’s an arrow in your heart. The biggest or at least one of the earliest arrows in my heart was my General Exam experience. Yelling at my committee members would be neither fulfilling for me nor likely to make much of a difference to any one else. Eve Sedgewick challenged me to convert the rage I felt from being shamed into the work of repair. And so that is what I tried, and am still trying, to do.
Thank you for listening. Please email me at email@example.com to share your thoughts.
Hi. Welcome back to Srsly?Srsly. My name is Jennifer Nemhauser, and this episode is about my philosophy for approaching systemic change within graduate programs, and specifically about changing the General Exam.Back in Episode 3, I shared a hard-earned lesson that I find myself having to learn over and over again: before I undertake anything important, I have to figure out what my objectives or goals are for myself and for anyone else who will be involved. Only when I have my head straight about the hoped-for end-point can I design a process that has any chance of getting me (and my fellow travelers) from here to there. It may not surprise you, kind listener, but it truly shocked me that, by and large, no one seemed to be following this advice in designing pretty much any part of graduate or postdoctoral education or training.
When I started my job at University of Washington, I had the amazing good fortune to join a department with a group of lecturers that were at the forefront of the emerging discipline of Biology Education Research. People like Dr. Scott Freeman, Dr. Mary Pat Wenderoth and Dr. Alison Crowe—and later many other fantastic additions to our community—were using their classrooms as laboratories, trying to understand how students learn, and implementing cutting edge techniques that centered equity and metacognition: activating students to understand and begin to take charge of *their own* learning process. The group started a weekly meet-up, where papers were presented and the group provided feedback on planned research projects. Everyone was welcome to attend, even a very naive Assistant Professor whose only teaching experience was TA-ing two semesters in graduate school. Looking back, I can honestly say that those meetings, and the informal conversations with these folks over the years, provided the catalyst that crystallized my thinking about mentorship, which is after all, just a more informal and personalized version of classroom teaching, and helped me figure out the actions that could center it all in the pursuit of greater equity and accessibility.
In one of these early meetings, I was introduced to the concept of Backward Curriculum Design. When I just now looked it up in Wikipedia to make sure I assigned credit properly, Dr. Ralph Tyler, “the father of educational evaluation and assessment” is given credit for first articulating this philosophy in the late 1940s. I am more familiar with a book published in 1998 called Understanding by Design by Dr. Grant Wiggins and Dr. Jay McTighe that brought the idea into wide circulation among educators.
The basic idea is beautifully simple. When thinking about a class, don’t start by filling out the schedule with topics to cover. Instead, go backwards in these three steps:
Sublimely simple, yet I have personally witnessed countless conversations with students and faculty about dissatisfaction with the General Exam, and countless modifications and variations to its format, without every hearing anyone ask: what exactly is our learning goal? And is there any connection between that goal, the exam itself, and the activities that proceed it?
Several years ago now, the UW Biology Graduate and Postdoc Committee, of which I was a member, was having exactly this sort of conversation about what to do with the General Exam. The GPC Chair and my good friend, Dr. Ben Kerr, was deeply distressed by watching far too many students suffer terribly in the time leading up to the exam and during the 3+ hours our departmental exams often ran. I shared his concerns, and I have to admit that I was also extremely frustrated that despite all of the emotional turmoil suffered by the students (and by me as a witness and partial cause of their distress), too many of the exams were superficial and deeply unsatisfying for both students and faculty. Rather than a proud moment of intellectual achievement and a milestone recognizing scholarly maturity, the exam felt like a hoop to jump through where no one wanted to hold the hoop or do the jumping.
On a walk to work one day, I experienced one of those moments where you realize something, and after you realize it, you cannot imagine how you could ever have not known this thing. The thing in this case was that we needed to expand our vision beyond the General Exam. Instead of focusing on that exam in isolation, what if we were to think about the General Exam as an assessment that measured the learning activities for the entire first two years of our graduate program? Well then, to do this properly, we needed to start by writing out our objectives, and work backwards from there.
I decided to start with my own view of what a PhD from our department should mean. I decided that the following seven area were the key arenas of expertise every graduate from our program should possess:
While the thesis project itself would help with many of these areas, we had long recognized that there were significant differences in the approach and investment in many of the non-discipline-specific areas. Starting in 2007, I and my colleague Prof. Janneke Hille Ris Lambers had begun the development and implementation of a number of skills-based courses to make sure all students had the opportunity to get formal training in these areas. We have been joined in developing these courses by a small number of our colleagues, including Ben Kerr, who I mentioned before. To date, our department has offered the following classes in addition to a non-graded Introduction to Graduate School for first quarter students:
Some of these are offered every year, some, like Science Communication have only been offered rarely.
But the General Exam as it was being used did not fit well into this scheme. It was a poor assessment, and there were no structured learning events to prepare a student for success.
A brief digression here. One solution to the problems the General Exam is to get rid of it all together. Even if I could sweep away the considerable obstacles to doing just that, I don’t think I would. My reasoning is as follows. First, I believe that graduate school like any school experience should be about learning, and, for most people some kind of assessment step is needed to provide direction and feedback, as well as an opportunity for self-reflection. Most of us have a stack of papers, virtual or otherwise, that we have been meaning to read for weeks, months or even years. Providing a defined window of time, an agreed upon bibliography to cover, and a connection to something important like a thesis project establishes the conditions that incentivize studying and work against procrastination and the ever-present tug of too many other obligations. Second, the General Exam can provide the structure and the push to get students talking to more faculty members. When the General Exam process works well, graduate students form deep intellectual bonds and mentoring relationships with faculty who are not their primary advisor. This can be incredibly rewarding, building a sense of community, and sometimes even leading to conceptual breakthroughs and collaborations. It can also work against the isolation that can hide abuse. If a committee is working, students will turn to members for support if something their advisor is saying or doing doesn’t feel right. Yes, this might happen for many students without the exam, but I have seen far too many students who are too shy or feel like they are imposing, and never initiate a conversation with a faculty member. Finally, the General Exam is an opportunity to celebrate the transition of a student from primarily a consumer of other people’s ideas and results into someone who is joining the messy, chaotic, and often joyful conversation with their own ideas and results. We need these celebrations in our lives—moments when people can see you and your hard work and say ‘great job’ and ‘I am so glad I get to be on this journey with you.’
OK, so back to the main story: I brought my epiphany to the Graduate & Postdoc Committee along with some specific suggestions for changes, and I was really grateful that this all got folded into our discussion. I will not get into the details of the deliberations of our committee or specifics of who proposed what, as that would violate the essential agreement among committee members that discussions need to remain confidential to facilitate honest exchange of ideas. I believe it is also important that the outcome is a product of collective action, not strong-arming by an individual. The voices of grads and postdocs, as well as a diverse set faculty at different career stages and any staff who manage grads or postdoc programs, are critical. I believe that this is true whatever policy we are discussing—representation and true power-sharing improve outcomes.
What I will expand on in the next episode is what we, as committee, ultimately put to a successful faculty vote in 2018.
Thank you as always for listening. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your thoughts.
Hi. I’m Jennifer Nemhauser, and I would like to welcome you back to Srsly?Srsly.
Before I start this episode, a disclaimer: I am going to be describing the changes we made to our graduate program in a lot of detail, very possibly much more detail than you, my kind listener, may find of interest. I am doing this because the Jennifer I was in 2006 really craved a detailed template that she could use to spark her own ideas and also that she could show to her colleagues as something that was already working someplace else. If this description doesn’t sound like you, please skip this episode with no regrets.
The details, as promised: The new policies adopted by my department in 2018 affected three major areas: the General Exam itself; information flow to students taking the exam and back to the department about how exams were going; and opportunities for students to get practice with the skills the exam was assessing.
The format is not that different from many that are used in other programs—a short student presentation on their proposed thesis project, one round of questions that are related to that project, a short break, followed by a second round of questions on broader topics. One step that is bit different is that at the end of the exam, the student and the advisor leave the room, and an initial decision is made by the remaining committee members. Only when that discussion is completed is the advisor let back into the room to comment on the preliminary decision. This step was added to prevent senior faculty members from bullying their junior colleagues into specific outcomes. If you are interested in more details, please send me an email.
The major differences from other programs are the way the exam is implemented. For example, we put a high value on students having a very clear idea of what will happen during the exam. Towards this end, the exam format is now much more explicitly outlined and must be followed by every committee. This is in sharp contrast to the large degree of latitude given to committee members in previous incarnations of the exam. The old format centered the faculty experience—their comfort, their enjoyment and a spontaneity that often reflected a lack of preparation. This emphasis is yet another example where centralizing discretionary power in one or few people has led to biased outcomes. Spreading power over a much larger group, in this case the entire faculty and the Grad & Postdoc Committee members, supports a more consistently equitable educational experience.
Beyond sharing a detailed exam format in the official Graduate Student Guidelines, we increased uniformity among exams by having a faculty member of the Grad &Postdoc Committee serve as Chairs for every exam. The Exam Chair is usually not a member of the student’s committee, and so they do not ask any questions, but instead they open the exam with a reminder about format and goals, and then act as a time-keeper. This has helped tremendously with faculty that may not remember (or like) the new format and on committees with faculty from other departments, which is very common.
A second major change that I think is subtle but critical is that exams are now limited to two hours. Among many good reasons for this change, our committee collectively decided that endurance was not one of the skills the exam was supposed to be assessing. We also wanted the exam to be a culminating event in a series of conversations between grads and faculty members. This means that the committee shouldn’t need as much time for assessment. I will talk later about approaches we took to help facilitate the 1-on-1 conversations between grads and committee members leading up to the exam.
Another significant concern was that not everyone was getting the same information and coaching to prepare for their exam. To help close this gap, we created Exam Support Committees assigned to each second-year graduate student. These committees are made up of one faculty member and one grad member from the Grad & Postdoc Committee. The faculty member is the same person who will serve as the student’s Exam Chair. The Exam Support Committees would each meet with the student at least six weeks ahead of their exam—sometimes all together and sometimes in two separate meetings (one with the faculty member and one with the grad).
The Exam Chair is tasked with discussing: the purpose and goals of the General Exam; the detailed General Exam format; the role of the Exam Chair, the student’s advisor and the Graduate School Representative (someone who is an unbiased observer meant to insure that the Exam is ‘fair’); remind the student that they are not allowed to bring food/drinks; that the appropriate attire is ‘business casual’ and to answer questions about what that means; to remind them to send reminders to committee members about the day/time/location of the exam; to emphasize that the student should meet with every committee member at least two times before the exam to establish expectations and to have a conversation about some of what they are studying for that faculty member. Perhaps most importantly, the faculty member’s job is to try to support the student in managing stress. This includes emphasizing that the Exam is not the end-all-be-all judgement of their worth or even their knowledge, that re-examination is ok, and that they will not be asked to leave the program after the first exam no matter what happens. They also emphasize that committee members are required to let the student know what material they intend to cover in the exam.
The Student Liaison is tasked with discussing: the importance of scheduling the exam early and using a doodle/whenisgood poll to efficiently gather information; to share personal experience with managing studying and stress; to emphasize the importance of a mock exam and offer to help them organize one. The Grad Student Liaison was also tasked with meeting with the student a few weeks after the exam to check-in and get feedback about what worked/didn’t work for them in the process. This part of the program was inspired by the success of a program a former grad of mine started where current grads were connected to incoming grads once they accepted a position in our program. The so-called Big Grads reach out to their mentees to offer support about getting an apartment, farmers’ markets, and all of the other minutiae of moving and starting grad school. This was something done informally by some labs but not at all by others, so this helped make sure everyone felt like someone was looking out for them. That feeling of belonging and mattering to your community was something we really wanted to emphasize again at the major milestone of the General Exam.
Every year, the Grad & Postdoc Committee spends a meeting sharing our experiences and the feedback we received from students and faculty members. This input is used to modify the pre-meetings with the student and develop strategies for improving the exam (like realizing that for a 2 hour exam to work, committees really needed to be kept small. We now recommend a minimum committee size for the exam and adding additional members after that milestone as needed).
Perhaps the biggest change—and the most in line with the philosophy of Backward Design—is that we decided that if we were positing that the General Exam should feel like a continuation of previous conversations and a meeting of colleagues, then there needed to be many opportunities to practice the relevant skills. To fill this gap, we created tutorials where a small number of students meet with a faculty member to go over literature covering a specific topic of deep interest to all parties. Every student in our program is required to have at least three and no more than four of these experiences. They are graded, and can be stand-alone experiences or imbedded within a rotation where practical experience is layered on to the tutorial.
The goals of tutorials are: (1) to support a student’s transition into graduate school and our department, including nucleating a mentoring network, (2) to foster the building of a learning community, (3) to develop a student’s skills, including: scientific communication (reading, writing, presenting), quantitative analysis and critical thinking, (4) to hone a student’s research interests toward launching a dissertation project, and (5) to establish a baseline for recognizing and pursuing high caliber research.
The final piece of the practice puzzle is something we called the First Year Conversation. In this loosely-structured 90 minutes, the faculty tutors and the student all sit together and discuss the topics covered over the year. The student starts with a very brief overview, and then there is a low-stakes, collegial discussion. At the end, the student writes up a summary of areas they want to dig deeper into before their General Exam and what actions they plan to take to do that work. The tutors then weigh in on this plan. There is no grading, no passing or not passing. This is simply a chance to do something sort of like a General Exam, and get through it, and hopefully begin to feel like you as a student are working with these senior colleagues to construct your PhD journey with as strong of a foundation as possible.
One of my graduate students referred to her thesis committee as her Jedi Council, providing her with wisdom and opportunities to challenge herself, supplying abundant confidence in her potential even when her own faltered, celebrating her successes and comforting her when the path got twisty. Why do these qualities have to wait until after the General Exam? We know that the first years of Graduate School are where we are most likely to lose students who are not white, those who are first generation college students or from economically precarious backgrounds, those who are deaf or disabled. If we can build into the very fabric of our graduate programs, a growth mindset and a well-articulated path to achievement, perhaps we would also push the wedge of diversity and inclusion further into the STEM enterprise. While I am still on the fence as to whether there is any hope of rooting out supremacy in academia, I firmly believe that the only chance we have is for the current trickle of non-white, gender-expansive, disabled professors to become a torrential flood. I think a moratorium on hazing in any form is a critical place to start.
It is clearly not enough to change the General Exam, or even the first two years of a graduate program, but it is also clear to me that if we don’t face this obstacle head on, we will never get the Academy as It Should Be. In the next segment, I will be joined by Prof. Ben Kerr, my friend and departmental colleague. Ben was the Chair of the Grad & Postdoc Committee when these changes to the first two years of our program were devised and voted in by the faculty. He then continued to serve as a member for the Grad & Postdoc Committee when I took over as Chair and began the implementation of this new way of doing things. We will be discussing what we think the impacts of the changes were, how students and faculty reacted (spoiler alert: not with parades and roses), and where we think the next big changes need to be made.
Thank you as always for your time and interest. My email address is email@example.com, and I would love to hear your thoughts.
Jennifer Nemhauser She/Her (JN)
Hi. Welcome back to Srsly?Srsly. My name is Jennifer Nemhauser, and today I am joined by my friend and departmental colleague Prof. Ben Kerr. There are many wonderful things I could say about Ben, and I strongly encourage you to read his papers on experimental evolution and ecology—which show off his prodigious intellect; love of language, especially opportunities for word play; and the way he applies his incredible design sense to scientific and mathematical communication.
But for today, I am going to keep my introduction short, so we can get to the topic at hand: the work Ben and I have collaborated on, with other members of the UW Biology Graduate & Postdoc Committee, to re-imagine the first two years of graduate school leading up to a new version of the General Exam.
Welcome to Srsly?Srsly, Ben!
Benjamin Kerr He/Him (BK)
Jen, it is such a pleasure to be here with you. Thank you so much for having me.
Well, I really, really appreciate you joining me for this.
I’m going to start by saying that in a previous episode in this series I described my impressions of your reasons for wanting to rethink the general exam, and I want to give you a chance here to explain, in your own words, why you decided that this was such an important undertaking.
Well, actually, frankly, you did it so well! I do want to say that many of the motivating factors that you expressed so eloquently were actually the the core drivers. And I also did want to (I am going to answer the question) but I did want to thank you because your presence on our committee, and how passionately engaged you were with all the new structural elements of the grad program that came to be—tutorials rotations and the new exam format—made such a critical difference in enacting very real change. So thank you so much.
But to answer your question, in discussing your own anxiety surrounding your own general exam, you had mentioned the lack of nerves when you danced, acted and sung onstage when you were younger, in contrast to your experience taking your general.
I also found an analogy to activities in my own youth useful here. When I was young, I was a gymnast, and any skill that one would perform—whether it’s a high bar, pommel horse, or vault—would have been practiced quite a lot, and first, this would be done in a foam pit. And then you would have super thick mats below you. And then you’d have a spotter. You would do this, many, many times, until it was etched into your muscle memory. The competition was just an exhibition of the skills that you had practiced countless times in the gym previously. What you would never expect a gymnast to do, would be to try out some new dangerous skill for the first time in a competition.
But I think the equivalent of such an ask or an experience was happening in some of the general exams. Students were routinely being asked questions that were well outside of their their training. Sometimes areas of their training were being intentionally ignored.
There certainly is a place for synthetic thinking inside an exam. In order for that synthesis to be productive, the foundational elements really need to be familiar and well-practiced. In some cases, the way this was working in exams seemed unfair, counterproductive, and, even in few cases, actually cruel.
To me, the exam was a moment to exhibit the training that should be going on at all times—before the event itself, and after the event—much like the gymnastics meets of my youth.
So, I was very interested in shifting towards this purpose. And the presence of yourself and other invested faculty members on on the committee, made it possible to move forward.
You mentioned that you didn’t suffer anxiety when performing on stage. In stark contrast, I suffered tremendous anxiety before my competitions in gymnastics. I know that many of our students also go through intense bouts of apprehension (you mentioned that you did as well) before and during the exam. I was extremely motivated to find ways to lessen that uneasiness. So, increasing the contact between faculty and students through tutorials and rotations, and putting this low-stakes First Year Conversation into the program—which enabled an exam-like presentation and questions without evaluation hanging over the process—and then working to make the exact structure of the exam really crystal clear: these were all meant to ameliorate the nervous state that so many of our students were feeling.
So, those are some of the things going on in my mind as we were actively talking about about shifting the exam format.
Great. It’s always hard in this online world…. I was nodding my head throughout everything you said being like ‘yes, yes, yes’, but that’s obviously something that our listeners can’t see. I think that was great, and I love the gymnastics analogy for how you build up skills. And that idea of [the time before the exam] being an opportunity to build up skills, and then getting a chance to exhibit—both for yourself, to feel like you have something you’re working towards—and to have that moment where you get to have other people see things that maybe you don’t see. Like, why is it that you’re having trouble landing a certain skill or a certain move? I don’t know, I’m not a gymnast, so I’m not using the right vocabulary, but having experts able to sort of see and say: ‘this is an area where you could really grow’, ‘go ahead and keep working in this way, and it could be awesome’. That’s actually a moment of real opportunity for growth, if it’s done in a constructive way.
I couldn’t agree more.
So, I think the next question is: Since we passed this new version of the general exam, I know both of us have had a chance to be a committee members, both as dissertation advisors and also as other parts of committees, since the change happened. In fact, both of us were involved in testing out the early versions of the new exam format with our students, with their permission.
I wondered what have you noticed? How has it been for you to be a committee member since the change in policy.
Really interesting question. As you mentioned, we both have played multiple roles: as an exam chair, as a committee member, and as the student’s dissertation advisor. I don’t know about you, but I found each was a slightly different experience, but all very useful in thinking about the General Exam structure and evaluating the changes that we’ve made. As an exam chair, I think I was most aware of some of the resistance from some of our faculty….
[Laughter] Yes, and I want to talk more about that in a minute….
[Laughter] Yes, change is hard. Change is hard. [More laughter]
Change is hard, and I have some sympathy. But I think you run right against that as exam chair, because you’re responsible for holding up the structure of the exam, keeping faculty to it. Simultaneously, you’re most able to observe. I felt I was most able to observe how the structure of the exam was promoting a more productive, and definitely a more humane experience, for the student.
And some of this was due to the fact that as exam chair I was talking to the students about the exam structure beforehand, often in great detail, and was able to see some of their anxiety dissipate as the event became more concrete for the student. Also, some of this was due to seeing how something that might have been a harmful elements within an exam of old, for instance, when one committee member would dominate and absorb most of the time with an unnecessarily esoteric series of questions, how we were able to avoid that. That [behavior] might start, but then get derailed by the structure of the exam.
So those were experiences that I noted, as an exam chair.
As a committee member, the exam seemed to flow much more smoothly. Having the exam chair moderate, having a clear schedule, having set time allotments, just seemed to elicit more preparation and greater attention by all committee members. I think that made the exam a better experience for everybody involved, frankly.
It is true that that some things are being sacrificed for that. For instance, the relaxation and freedom that some faculty felt inside an unstructured and variable time exam format was being sacrificed. But I think, for a more targeted and better balanced exam, and for one that was more able to meet the our stated learning goals and also simultaneously treated the student more compassionately—that is a trade off I found as a committee member that I was very, very happy to make.
And finally, I guess, as an advisor of a student taking their exam, I have noticed that my own discomfort about the exam has decreased a bit. I absolutely hate watching students I care about go through an emotional ringer.
Preparing for and taking their General Exam can really be just so much stress for some students. For my own students—I’m guessing for your students as well—you feel very protective, and you worry about what you know that this exam experience is doing to them.
With the new policy in place, and especially during the exam itself, I actually felt that we were genuinely trying to look out for their welfare—both educational and emotional welfare of our students. Especially when it’s your own students that are going through it, I felt very good that they were being looked after in this way.
So, those are some of the different perspectives. Largely it’s been positive for me.
I totally agree. It was great the way you broke it down with our different roles. I did not think about it that way, but I completely agree with what you said.
I think there’s a lot of emphasis in Biology and (at least in the departments I’ve been in, the groups I’ve moved through) this emphasis on informality… both in our attire and more generally the idea that we’re the opposite of Business or something. There’s this really strong ethos of informality. I’ve been thinking a lot about the impact of that in different contexts.
We will talk in a minute about what the reactions of others have been, but I definitely think that who that informality works for and who it doesn’t work for, who it advantages and who it disadvantages, has become much more stark for me. And I realized how important it is for our students, to give them the formality of a structure that we stick to, acknowledging that it’s an exam, and having people have really clearly designated roles and times and all of those aspects—they really do decrease anxiety.
I know for me, as someone who often feels weirdly like both part of and not part of a lot of science culture, I definitely I echo what you said: I feel more comfortable in the room when I know how to prepare better for the exams as somebody who’s asking questions, and I feel like I also know how to mentor the people whose committees I’m on. When it’s my student who is having the exam, I feel like I am much better able to prepare people for that experience, because we have the structure. So I totally agree.
I also wanted to say that I think it’s really interesting, I’ve been surprised at how much we still are able to get to that spot where students are pushing the edge of their knowledge, the edge of their comfort zone, a little bit like having that moment, where they show that, where they kind of can show themselves that they can have new ideas, and be able to go through a pretty intense dig into a topic and, like hang in there with that conversation.
At the same time, we no longer have what I often saw in like the past, like when you got out beyond, like much beyond the two hour mark, there was often this horrible drawn-out phase where students were totally exhausted, but they had to keep answering questions and often this was also when the faculty questions kind of were like spinning out into—like exactly what you talked about—a little more esoteric space, sometimes really off topic. I think the loss of that is excellent.
I’m so happy that you don’t have to sit there as a committee member trying to figure out how to tell your colleague, ‘I really think this has gone on way long enough’. Yeah the relief of that pressure is also something I really appreciate.
Absolutely. I so much agree with so much of what you’re saying.
My experience has actually been that this new format doesn’t end up sacrificing depth where it counts. That actually, by paying greater attention because time now is a limited resource, there’s motivation to use it in very specific ways, to listen and build off of your colleagues in interesting ways, which, in at least in a few cases, has led to a very rich and productive General Exam experience. And a few students have told me as much, which is wonderful to hear.
Faculty often get very used to sort-of doing things on the spot, whether it’s in their classroom or in their mentoring. And exams are no different.
But fundamentally what’s missing in the way the old format was being run was, I think, just, empathy for the student. That your own sort of looseness and flexibility to go wherever you wanted to go and to not necessarily always prepare was really taking a deep and negative toll on the student.
I think one really nice thing that the new format does is it just makes everyone a lot more aware that there’s a human being on the other side of this. And yes, there are stated learning goals for this, but there’s also no need at all to be anything but decent to that human being.
I think also this idea that you have supposedly built a relationship with this person, a mentoring relationship over time. If you still are in this space of unable to be clear, unable to ask a question that anyone in the room understands what you’re getting at, or what the answer might be, it puts a lot more of that…I guess I don’t want to say ‘blame’…but accountability [on the faculty member].
I think that the line of who’s accountable in that room is maybe positioned more in an equal place rather than how it used to be, where I felt like all the accountability fell on the student, which was completely unfair and often resulted in some really bad situations. Even in good situations, [the free-wheeling format] often resulted in moments where you were just surviving through, where one of the faculty in the room being really not prepared and doing a pretty terrible job. In the new structure it’s amazing how much more the faculty end up feeling embarrassed if they’re not prepared. It shows up on their side a little bit more clearly, there’s more clarity on who’s responsible for those moments. To my mind, that’s really a gain.
I guess the converse side of that is some of our colleagues [laughter] don’t really appreciate that shift as much.
So I guess that’s another question I wanted to ask you, was to talk a little bit about the responses of students and faculty to these changes.
I will just start by saying before I toss it to you to see your response, that this experience has really emphasized how much I’m asking people how they feel about things.
Figuring out how to do assessments on this kind of change is quite challenging. We know for active learning interventions in the classroom, there is mountains of evidence that it results in substantial gains in learning and equity, yet, in many cases, students hate it. And teaching evaluations just take a huge dive.
I feel like some of that comes through the General Exam where i’s hard for us to figure out how to actually evaluate whether we’re getting better learning outcomes, especially because grad student numbers are so small and there are so many different committee members that are involved in any one year. And the kind of learning objectives are harder to assess, I think, then some of what we see in our undergraduate classrooms.
From my observations, my anecdotal evidence is saying that the most vulnerable students are where we’re probably getting the greatest gains—the ones that were most likely suffering with the old version of the exam. But, of course, for every individual student, they only have their own [singular] exam experience, and so that also makes it kind of hard to know how to assess their reactions.
So, with that caveat in place—that reactions may or may not be useful as an assessment tool—I was curious what you’ve heard.
I think that the everything you just said makes this process challenging, but so worth considering your question.
I have reactions, and so I certainly can share some, while protecting everyone’s identities of course, and some of the kinds of feedback that I’ve got from both faculty and students.
First, for students, I would say it’s been largely positive. Actually, I think, almost exclusively positive for the students that I’ve interacted with about the general exam. For students that were experiencing severe anxiety about the exam, mostly the reaction to this format, and to the exam itself, was tremendous relief. Tremendous relief that this was how the exam was going to run. And then, once they’ve taken the exam, that this was what indeed what they had prepared for. For students that were less anxious, the reaction had a bit more range to it: from contentment, to (again) relief, to a form of what I would maybe call ‘positive disappointment’, which is that they… [laughter] I don’t know if that’s a good term or not…
I love it.
…that they weren’t able to exhibit more of their knowledge, that it didn’t go to all the places that they were excited to go—which, in my mind, is not at all a problem.
In all cases, when I asked students very explicitly about whether the exam met the learning objectives and structural organization that we had shared with them before the event itself, the answers have been uniformly, ‘yes’. And I understand that, in my role, I may be getting somewhat biased answers—but some of those were emphatic ‘yeses’ which … I believe [laughter].
To me, the most telling reaction on the student side is what’s not occurring. What I do not see occurring is a sense that this exam is a hazing exercise, or that they’re shocked and surprised by the structure and content of the exams, or feelings of demoralization or anger or personal failure.
Although this is a bit anecdotal (because it’s limited to the number of new policy exams I’ve attended) I haven’t yet been a part of an exam committee where the student has experienced an emotional collapse. This sadly did occur before the new policy. It’s my deepest hope that the new policy moves things in a direction away from devastating emotional experiences, not just stress, but other emotions that can be extremely painful for the student—and instead make this one more (of hopefully many experiences) that contribute to the development of a burgeoning scientist.
On the faculty side, the reactions which you sort of anticipated [laughter], have been … a bit more mixed. There’s been both positive and negative feedback there. I have received negative feedback about the structure, including from faculty whose opinion I really respect. The reasons range from a concern that the depth and rigor of the exam has been weakened, to notions that the experience itself is no longer an enjoyable one. I see some of these critiques as well-intentioned and raising legitimate trade-offs that are that are intrinsic to putting a new policy like this into place. While other critiques I see as somewhat off-base and even somewhat myopic.
In some cases I’ve tried to engage with the critical faculty member, just getting into a conversation with them about the general exam, and trying to communicate that what might be an enjoyable and productive experience for them (something we just talked about) might actually be a terrifying and unproductive experience for the student. What might seem to be a much more thorough examination to them might involve monopolizing the exam, leading to an imbalance for the student and the rest of the committee.
Interestingly, in a few cases, where some of the most critical feedback was given during the exam deliberation portion (this is not with the student present but with the committee all present), in which the faculty member, making the critique, often issued sweeping statements that this was a uniformly bad experience for the entire committee, I ironically received positive feedback via email from other committee members. They were often silent during the negative feedback but then would write me later, saying that actually they thought this exam format was was quite successful and they liked how it was done. They they found the structure promoted greater fairness, especially in terms of time for questions from different faculty members. They could see positive effects that the structure was having on students. I even had one faculty member say that they look forward to biology exams now because of the thoughtful structure of our exams, which was extremely heartwarming.
So it’s been more of a mix there, but I think, as you mentioned earlier, this is really to be expected if you’re going to make changes, that there’s going to be resistance to those changes. And, indeed, there has been.
I think it is super interesting, all of what you just said. I think that this ‘positive disappointment’ from the part of the students, I’ve also experienced some of that. Where students basically feel like, ‘Oh, but I prepared so much more, there was so much I didn’t get to talk about’—and, actually, that’s been kind of fun because it opens up a chance to have a conversation. ‘Well, who were you studying for? What was the objective here?’, helping to reinforce the idea that: that knowledge and those gains, those are for you, those are for you and your research. And also: this conversation doesn’t stop here. These are people who have signed on to be your intellectual and professional support during your graduate work. So, if you had other topics that you got excited about, and you didn’t get to talk about them in your general exam, make an appointment and talk to your committee member! I’m sure they’ll be thrilled. I think that’s been a really positive way to navigate that.
I think there’s been more senior grads—like the ones who serve as the graduate liaison for the graduate students taking the exam—many of them have expressed a lot of envy or a little bit … it maybe unearthed a little bit of resentment about some of what happened during their [own] exams, what they didn’t have, and so I think that’s also a place to talk about how you can recognize problems and obstacles, and turn it into a positive form of change. I mean, that doesn’t always work. That’s a kind of pollyanna way I just said it. But I think that there is the opportunity to have some really good conversations with students.
I agree the faculty side is is harder. I think part of it is because, what’s really happening when you put more power into the hands of students? Of course, where does that power come? From the people who had it before. [laughter]
So [the faculty] experience this reduction in control and power, and that’s not pleasant. And I think if you’re not really thinking hard about why this is happening and what the objectives are—or if you [are a faculty member that doesn’t] share some of these objectives, like diversifying the demography of people in biology research—it can be hard, it can be it particularly difficult for those folks.
I had one faculty member, again during an exam, during this time when the student was out of the room, just lay into the fact that this exam isn’t any fun anymore, and, of course, blaming me because I was Chair of the [Graduate and Postdoc] Committee at that point. So it was this whole thing about how we’re trying to take the fun out of things. And my response was: ‘More fun for you? Or more fun for the students? Whose fun are we talking about?’ This person doubled down on the idea that the best exams are like great conversations among colleagues. I just loved that phrase because I thought: Exactly! Who do you think feels entitled, as a second-year graduate student, to converse with a professor as a peer? Who is in that category? It is certainly not everyone. It certainly isn’t the people who are, in those moments, still deeply engaged in trying to figure out whether they belong in the community in the first place.
And so I think the filter part of the general exam, and who feels good in the room, who’s enjoying themselves, what that enjoyment looks like—all these things …. I think every time you change format like we did, you certainly don’t get to perfection, but you have a chance to shift the lens. Suddenly things you just didn’t see before, the unseen things, become visible. I think that’s, in and of itself, extremely valuable.
So, I think I’ve learned a lot about my colleagues. You know, especially this idea: ‘I want to just roll into that room, never having had a conversation with this person ahead of time, and just ask them whatever I want to talk about. Whatever I just read that morning, or the day before in Science, I just want to talk to them—whether it’s about the cosmos or about, you know, poison dart frogs, [laughter] or whatever is exciting me at that moment, that’s what I want to bring into this room, and they should be able to go with it.’ What is that?
What do we gain and what do we lose from that perspective? Because I want to say that none of these people are all bad or all good, that’s not human nature, but I think there’s definitely some unexamined assumptions built into the way we do things. And shaking them up, even without all of the great intention that we put into this particular structuring and format, I think, even just the change itself has real value in unearthing some of that. I also think, who loved three-and-a-half hour exams?! [laughter]
I agree with everything you’re saying here. It’s very easy to lose one’s perspective and to become disconnected from the experience of others. Largely, in a lot of these comments … I’m actually very curious what the response was when you engaged with with faculty about who was this fun for. I think there is a missing connection here and and I don’t think, again, that the the intent is malicious. But the effects can be devastating, of that disconnection, and one of the things that structure does is it tries to rewire those connections to some extent.
It’s a process where the changes in format or policy need to be paired with communication about why you’re doing it. What are the learning objectives here again, and what parts of this experience are serving those learning objectives? And that your experience of this may be night and day different from a student’s experience. Those are extremely useful reminders. Again, this sort of empathetic shock to the system that, to some extent, I think that everybody needs. And structure, I believe, helps with that.
Totally. One hundred percent. I think this idea that what the students are experiencing, what your colleagues are experiencing—there’s just a lot of assumptions that people have that are … Right, that’s like one of my other episodes: ‘assumptions, that’s making an ass of you and me.’ There’s a lot of danger that lies there.
I also just wanted to say, I sort of alluded at the end of the last episode that our reception wasn’t all, you know, parades and roses, and I think we’ve talked about that here. That there were some hard conversations and definitely some criticisms that both you and I had to navigate in our roles [as Graduate and Postdoc Committee Chairs], I think it’s good to be prepared for that.
I guess that’s also one of those things that may be useful for people who want to change things. What I have found over and over again, is, as you move anything towards a more equitable place, you can feel like it’s absolutely the right thing to do, and you will find really strong, often quite negative responses to that change, and they can be from very unpredictable, unexpected places. People have a lot of emotion tied up in the way things are, the way they’ve experienced things, the way they think things should be.
It can be really challenging, and I felt really lucky that I had you as a colleague who was also the chair of the committee at the time where we were building this, and then on the committee as a member when I was working on enacting it. Having someone, having a group of people who I knew were trusted colleagues who could give that reality check and be like, ‘Did I really screw up or is this actually just supremacy pushing back?’ I think it’s really important, because you feel like you’re doing something that is so important, and so important for the students, and so important for the institution, and so important for the future of science—and that people are pissed at you and saying often really not nice things.
I mean, yes, we can talk about fragility, and of course we’re faculty and we should be tough and all that, but when you’re in a faculty meeting and someone says something really nasty, it can feel quite devastating, I think especially when you’re not prepared that that might happen. When I was a more junior [faculty member], I think I would have been even more turned inside out if that kind of thing had happened.
So, I just really appreciated so much having you as an ally and as a confidante.
Likewise Jen. I mean, to be honest, without your presence on the committee I don’t know if this would have happened. So what you’re saying, I think, is so important for individuals that really want to make meaningful changes. That there are certain realities to prepare for. I think part of the strategy that you’re outlining is seeking interaction and support and collaboration with other individuals who you both respect, who have your back, and who have some of the same overarching goals at least. I think that, again, the composition of the committee at that point really made a difference.
I think in terms of what you described, these painful experiences of getting sometimes really devastating feedback, to me it’s a microcosm of the same thing we were talking about in the context of the General Exam, right? I think often people just are not aware of the power that they have to really do damage to others through their words. Which is sad.
And also, I think that there’s a real strong impulse to veer away from the unfamiliar. If what you’re selling is unfamiliar to them, what you’re trying to communicate is unfamiliar, that sets that sort of instinctive response right into motion. So yeah, I think I just want to say I wholly endorse the sort of approach that you’re elaborating here.
Thanks, Ben. I think that also just brings up the point, I think it’s really important to find a way to get people to agree to try something out for long enough, until some of that newness factor wears off. What that long enough means can look really different, I think, depending on what the intervention is, but I think the desire to always go back to the “way it was” is, as you said, it is very, very strong. So I think you have to try something new long enough that that part has receded a bit, and then you can be better at assessing whether you need to tweak or radically shift again what you’ve done.
But also, I see way too many programs that are just a perpetual change machine for a lot of things, on a treadmill of change, and then it’s very hard to figure out whether anything you’re doing is even moving you closer to the goals that you have.
I agree, on multiple accounts. You need to give some time for the unfamiliar to become familiar and then also, you need to have some time to really assess the feedback that you’re getting and to make well-justified modifications. And that can also be frustrating, given that there’s so much change out there that would be valuable, not being able to do it all, or as quickly, seems like a very frustrating situation. But given the sort of inherent structural aspects of departments like ours, and many departments out there, there are certain realities of how to navigate this. I think that this more gradual approach is something that can, in the longer term, lead to actually meaningful and sticky change.
I sure hope so. I think trying to find out what that in-between is, that you know what’s fast enough that you are really making a difference for the most vulnerable people in your community, and also doing it in a way that you don’t just get instantly slapped down…. I mean, because you have to get faculty ultimately to buy in and do these things, without having much other than peer pressure as a way to force them to comply. And so yeah, there are real constraints.
And also, of course, we’re human. We make mistakes. We’re often doing these things without a template. I mean, that’s partially why, obviously, I’m making these episodes—to give people something [concrete] to wrestle with themselves. Because, obviously, I don’t think we…. We didn’t come to the perfect answer. We came to an answer that we hope is better than what we had before, and that we think, as we’re watching what it looks like, it is indeed better. But obviously there are other iterations, other versions that could be equally good or even better. I think trying to navigate that is quite challenging.
I guess on that topic, of trying to let this particular set of changes kind of simmer for a little bit, and see how we think it’s going, it seems like a good time to also think about what else might be the targets of reform, or change, getting rid of all together or totally re-envisioning in graduate education. Neither of us are in a position (both of us have been on sabbatical this year), neither of us is currently on the grad and postdoc committee—but, when you look either from the perspective of your own lab or from the department, what do you think are some areas that are really ripe for being reexamined?
That’s a great question. Certainly I would start by saying my hope is, indeed, that some substantial improvements have occurred during the first two years [of graduate school] through some of these additions: through the mentoring experiences, tutorials, and rotations through this first year conversation, and the more structured experience surrounding the general exam, both leading up to it and the exam itself.
I would really love to see some additions to these core skills courses that we offer, in addition to (and I know you mentioned some of these), in addition to courses on grant writing and manuscript writing and teaching and quantitative skills. I could see some useful additions, including courses in things like critical thinking, and experimental design, and philosophy of science, and, actually, history of science, including some of the very problematic historical aspects of science. I would love to see a science communication course more regularly offered—it’s been sort of spotty—which would include not only presentations at meetings, but creating networks, and even potentially how social media might be optimally used in a professional way. Courses in job preparation, both inside and outside academia. Even courses, perhaps, in impactful outreach. [These] would all be things I would love to see.
An ideal scenario, and I think one that we we talked about some time ago, would be that each faculty member, either singly or as a pair, could offer one such course—something in an area that they were passionate about. For instance, I would... right now, as you know, I run the quantitative course with another faculty member… I would love to dive deeper into programming, and statistical analysis, and model building skills, for instance, to have more time to do that would be fun.
So, rounding out some of those core skills courses would be one thing.
Another thing would be, after the exam, I would love to see opportunities for graduate students to practice key professional skills of various kinds. I would love to see forums to discuss how to establish fruitful research directions and how to evaluate when research may be worth worth letting go, abandoning. I would love to see places to practice talks for conferences and job applications, with feedback from faculty. That now, I think, can occur, given the regularly (weekly now) seminars for grads and postdocs that were initiated by a few graduate students in our program.
I would love to see opportunities for sustained mentorship pairings between postdocs and grads, or senior and junior grads. We already have elements of that in place, and I think that could be built upon further. I would love to see seminars or panels to discuss scientific ethics and virtues, and discuss how to navigate difficult relationships, especially when there can be power imbalances of the kind that we were talking about earlier.
So, I would love to see ways for graduate students to practice these key professional core skills that make for a healthy functioning scientist and, hopefully, beyond. Those are some of the things that I would like to see built upon.
I really love that. I think that trying to approach graduate curriculum from the standpoint of, on the one hand, very focused and scientific conversations like in these tutorial frameworks where you are really diving deep into specific scientific approaches, very particular methods and approaches and concepts that are very much designed with a small number of students in mind—paired with skills-based classes, which are taking those core competencies and skills that we hope are developed and not leaving them at the whims or capacity or interest of individual faculty mentors, but saying, as a department, as a community, ‘We take that on as our responsibility. We want to make sure that everyone gets some of that information to build on, and that these are the things that you can take into whatever science career you’re going into. These are not just academic science kind of skills, these are very broad based.’
I think that’s really an interesting cool new way of thinking about graduate school, and I don’t see a lot of people doing that. I think it’s been slow going for us, but I think there’s a lot of potential. That could really be a new way of thinking about graduate school that much more meets our students where they are and with what they want. It is very exciting.
I agree entirely, of course, and I think some of the stated learning objectives of the exam were meant to be more transcending. These are not just things that we want students to have at this exam point, but more generally.
You know, everybody is very focused on the content side of things and becoming proficient and well-versed in your area of focus, but these core skills are so critical to being able to navigate this environment successfully – and, as you said, I think, navigating many environments successfully. So I agree. The future potential for that, in terms of future graduate education, I think, is pretty serious.
I would just say also: one of the the lessons, for me, as Chair of the Grad Program Committee, is indeed that marginal change can actually be deeply meaningful. So, all of these things that I just listed don’t all need to happen at the same time to be deeply meaningful to a student that you know would benefit from any one of them. As we’ve said, there’s going to be resistance. But, despite resistance, working hard to introduce well-motivated changes can have serious impacts for students, and the health of a program generally, which can feed back to it in positive ways for the students.
There’s definitely huge amounts of work to do. I mean, I can speak from my experience with our own program. But I also think current change can facilitate future change, especially if it’s done, again, paired with a lot of communication. So yeah, I’m really hopeful that this isn’t just a pie in the sky list, but that there are real directions we can continue to move our program in a positive direction. This only occurs by continuing to discuss and trying out new things. So, at least, I feel optimistic about about the possibilities.
Yeah, that’s awesome. I think also the other part of it is, making sure that we’re providing coaching and training opportunities for mentors who may need to retool some of the ways they’re thinking about things and need to keep them fresh, in the same way that if you want to keep making contributions to science research, you learn new tools (or at least recruit people who know how to do things that you don’t know how to do and work with them and support them). [laughter]
Also, we really need to make sure that [faculty members] can get out of that place of fear-based reaction, to a sense of buy-in and engagement and excitement at the idea that we could be better—that we could do better, more creative, more interesting science with groups of people that felt fulfilled and excited and engaged.
I mean, it’s kind of wonderful when things are really amazing in a lab group, I know I have felt that. When people feel like they’re really excited and fulfilled and seen as individuals and also are able to collaborate effectively and, you know, all that stuff. And are learning. All of us are learning. It’s kind of the best possible feeling in the world.
I wish that for more of my colleagues, some of whom I feel like maybe have responded to change by feeling a bit trapped or isolated. I think that’s in many ways their choice, and I would love to see ways that maybe we could pair our changes that we’re making in the experience for students, to also help, maybe, our colleagues also retool and rethink how they approach these things, and get them excited and engaged as well.
And if they’re not going to be, if they continue to be problematic (you have the people who just maybe don’t know how and then you have the people who are actively problematic), I think also having ways to get rid of those people, or get them out of the stream…. Not get rid of, I don’t mean in a permanent sense [laughter], but get them out of the stream of mentorship, get it so that they’re not in a position of working with students. I think that’s the last resort, you know, ‘if you’re not going to get on board, then you have to stop doing this work.’
Because the damage, as I think you’ve said throughout, is so incredible and I really feel like we need to start looking at the quality of a scientist, like how excellent is a scientist, not just in terms of what they have contributed, but also in terms of who they’ve helped and who they’ve hurt. If you are hurting and turning away and burning through huge numbers of potentially amazing scientists, because you’re not really good at what you’re doing, or actively harmful in it…. I mean, you just can’t be considered an excellent scientist in my view.
I agree, and I think this sets an atmosphere for a department, for a program, as to what you value. To me, these are values of a functional group, a functional department. I think that the place to always start is to assume that certain things… So what marks different sorts of these wonderful times that groups can experience? I think, often, it’s that there is really active communication happening and all individuals are aware of what others are doing and cheering them on. They take genuine happiness in each other’s successes.
I think sometimes where things fall off the rails is when you don’t communicate. Which is why I think, with regards to any changes that one is contemplating, if you’re in a position to make such change—being really clear about the motivations, this is not sufficient, of course, but I believe it’s necessary. At least it improves the chances that things will go as smoothly as they can. To be in constant communication with people about motivations….
I think one of the things that you shared in earlier episodes is that you had these fireside chats [at faculty meetings] where were you gave a sort of a ‘state of the grad program’ report to the faculty [Editor’s note: When JN was Chair of the Grad and Postdoc Committee, she would present for 5-15 minutes in the public portion of the faculty meeting on topics ranging from the mental health crises among grad students/mental health resources on campus, the new format of the General Exam, Tips for navigating difficult conversations between mentors and mentees, how to most effectively use an IDP, etc. These became known as JN’s Fireside Chats]. That kind of regular communication communicates where your intentions are, lets people know where you’re going. It makes things that could seem, not only unfamiliar but even sinister, like there’s ulterior motives or something, much less.
So those are all ways I think to potentially get to that extremely wonderful collaborative endpoint at a larger scale. I see that a critical component—done so wonderfully by you!
And also, no accident that you’re making this incredible resource which is this podcast, which serves some of the same purpose, which is to take that communication to a much broader scale. So anyway, I think, to me, that seems like one of the necessary elements.
As you well know, Ben, I could talk to you forever, and have spent many lovely hours during so, and would love to keep going. But for today, I think I’m going to call us to an end, and just thank you again so much for taking the time to come and have this conversation. I really, really appreciate it. I appreciate your partnership with me in all of this work, and I just really appreciate you.
I also cannot tell you how much I appreciate your friendship and sage advice, but also, I really again genuinely want to thank you for spending your time to put together what I think is just years of wisdom in the form of this podcast. It is an incredible resource, so thank you. Seriously, thank you.
[Laughter] Thank you also to our listeners.
You can find Ben on Twitter @evokerr. And if you have thoughts that you would like to share with me, I would love to hear from you. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.