Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Survey Your Society to Gather Demographic Data

If you have been to a scientific conference and looked around a bit you see students, postdocs, faculty and other professionals. We care mostly about the scientific abilities of these folks - how well they present their findings, the significance of their work, the ambition of the young, and the impact of the senior members. But we should also care about the demographic make-up of the members of these academic societies. (If I have to explain why diversity is good stop reading here.) Each society should know: What is the ratio of the sexes: 50/50? How may folks are internationals/locals? Are there members with disabilities? What about the make-up of different races and ethnicities? Does your academic society look like the general population? Does it even look like your academic institution?

I would like each member of a society to ask their governing body to send out a simple demographic survey to all its members to gather these data anonymously. The survey below is crude and oversimplified and based on the one from the National Science Foundation, but it is better than nothing. Keeping this anonymous ensures that no members should feel uncomfortable revealing this information. The results of the survey should be presented as simple pie charts of the metadata presented on a groups public website.

So why do this survey? For starters you can learn how well your society is doing recruiting and retaining a diverse membership? You won't know without a baseline survey. Doing the survey annually will tell you if you have a problem with retention and recruiting. It can help you improve your groups diversity. Does your society have few female members - have you thought about having more female members as part of the governing body, balancing the gender ratio of invited speakers, and perhaps having some parental care options for young parents attending your conferences? Does your society have few African Americans - have you thought of sending some members to recruit and visit at HBCUs?

I hope that every scientific society starts keeping track of this kind of information. We can compare across groups that way. Those comparisons will help us know if there is a general problem across academic societies, or if it is just an issue in some sub-disciplines.

As the Chair of Diversity Committee in my college I know we try to get a diverse pool of candidates to apply to open positions in my university. Part of the way we do that is by contacting groups with a diverse membership. If your scientific society lacks a diverse membership, you won't be helping with our goal. A simple survey like the one below can help you identify potential issues and help you begin the process of trying to solve them.

Please try to convince your academic societies that this survey of membership demographics is important.

send out an email to members and then send out an anonymous survey monkey questionnaire.

Dear XXXX Members,
We want to collect diversity data from our membership.  You will get an invitation to participate in a survey monkey questionaire from
Please complete the survey by xx/xx/xx.

As a society we want to be aware of our ability to recruit a diverse group of scholars from different backgrounds, this survey will help us better understand how well we reflect the general population and compare to other scientific and academic societies and organizations. Please help by taking a few minutes to fill out this survey.

ETHNICITY (choose one)

_____Hispanic or Latino

_____Not Hispanic or Latino

_____Do not wish to Provide

RACE (choose one or more)

_____American Indian or Alaskan Native


_____Black or African Amerian

_____Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islanders

_____Other (describe)

_____Do not wish to Provide

DIABILITY (choose one or more)

_____Hearing Impairment

_____Visual Impairment

_____Mobility/Orthopedic Impairment

_____Other (describe)


_____Do not wish to Provide

GENDER IDENTITY(choose one or more)*
_____Other (describe)
_____Do not wish to provide

And then adding

SEXUAL ORIENTATION (choose one or more)*
_____Other (describe)
_____Do not wish to provide

*UPDATED - thanks to Jeremy Yoder (@JBYoder) and Allison Mattheis for providing these categories from their Queer in STEM survey

Monday, March 2, 2015

So you want a recommendation letter…

‘Tis the season for writing recommendation letters for medical and dental school applicants. Many of these requests are from undergraduates who took my large (nearly 100 student) Evolution course. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to interview all of the students individually, and I usually only get to know a handful of students well enough to write a proper letter. I typically reply to a request for a letter with a request for more information. I ask the students for the following:

(1) What is your overall GPA?
(2) Why do you want to go to Dental/Med School?
(3) Where did you grow up?
(4) What were the topics of your assignments in my class? 
(5) What was your final grade (numerical) in the class?
(6) Why did you choose LSU?
(7) What volunteer opportunities have you taken advantage of as an undergrad?
(8) Do you have research/internship experience?
(9) Please send along a CV/resume if you have one.
(10) Please provide any additional information you think would help me write your letter…

Once I get the answers to those 10 questions/inquiries I usually have plenty of information to write a more personal and useful recommendation.  Question 1, overall GPA, usually gives me a clue what the chances are that this student will actually get into medical or dental school. Q2, tells me why they want to go to one of these schools – if they don’t have a good answer to why they want to be a doctor - they are unlikely to become one. Questions 3-6 basically tell me (a) are they truthful (because I already know their grades and assignment scores) and (b) their level of ambition and undergrad background. Question 7 and 8 tell me if they are just trying to do well in classes or if they actually tried to accomplish something outside of class. Why would you come to an R1 (Research 1) university and not try to work in one of your professor’s labs? If you haven’t done any research or volunteer work then all you have are your grades, and that isn’t enough. Those students with lots of volunteer hours or research experience have taken advantage of their time as a student and are the most likely to succeed. Q9 and Q10 help me round out the letter and make it as personal as possible.
            Not only do these questions make me write the best letter possible for the students, it also helps me write the letter more easily. Rather than struggling to remember how the student stood out in my class, I can have more direct answers that tell me what kind of person they are and how they compare to my other students (because they all answered the same questions). Also with these answers I can plug in big chunks of text into a letter already formatted for medical and dental school applications. Most professors are modifying the same letter over and over again (we often get dozens of requests a year), at least with these questions I can still make my “standard" letter pretty specific to the individual student.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

On Academic Peaks

I like to use the metaphor of peaking when talking about highly productive times at different stages of your academic career. Think of these peaks as the high-water marks (i.e., year your most high profile papers came out any you get a new grant). These peaks are preceded by periods of high data gathering and much writing; and followed by periods of transition, where new methods are being learned, and the finishing touches are put on loose ends of major projects. I think these peaks should come every three to five years and they are important milestones in your academic career. The first major peak should be around the 3rd year of your PhD program, another sometime during your postdoc, and your highest peak should be during the midpoint of your time as an assistant professor (3rd year pre-tenure or so). There are other peaks (e.g. just before going up for associate and full professor) but let’s talk about the three majors ones in more detail.
            When you are starting off in grad school (let’s assume a PhD program), you want to be a sponge learning new techniques and gathering data over the first couple of years. As you learn to write during these years it usually takes until at least your 3rd year until the publications from those early works start coming out. That’s a good thing because that’s usually the time you go up for your qualifying exams (to be a PhD candidate in good standing). The students that have some pubs coming around this time are usually on the fast track. Those pubs will be some thesis chapters, but also collaborative side projects with others. Once you reach this peak, the thesis committee usually is okay with passing you for these qualifying exams making you a PhD candidate. After that peak, students typically focus on the meatier sections of their thesis and getting them ready for publication.
            Another peak should come at some point during a postdoc. You’ve learned some new skills as a graduate student, and those techniques will make you marketable to others. After you get a postdoc, you won’t need to worry about the constraints you had in graduate school like classes, or friendships (just kidding here, but usually postdocs are kind of in limbo in their new short-term work environment, so friends are harder to come by for sure). Without these constraints you should hit the ground running and publish like mad, collaborating with your new lab, finishing up old projects, getting your last thesis chapters published. This peak should push you out onto the job market.
            So you got a job, time to finish your own personal Mount Everest climb of academic peaks. As you get your new desk tidy, turn on your new computer for the first time, and figure out how to order everything from pens to major lab equipment, you should also be setting yourself up for big peak around the midpoint of your time before you go up for tenure (again around the 3rd year). Your pubs from your postdoc should be coming out (always include your new and old address on these pubs) but also the new cool things you started on at your new position; those things you always wanted to try but didn’t have the independence to attempt. It is all those ideas you put together for your “future plans” slides in your job talk that are coming to fruition. During your first and second year of your job you should have a good bit of start-up to spend and hopefully you have been applying for grants at this time. If you get that grant before your start-up runs out you are in good shape. This time should be the most productive period of your career, you still have postdoc skills, but you also have your own lab, and those people are being productive as well feeding off your ideas and plans.
            These peaks aren’t set in stone at these different time periods but I like to think of them as goals you are trying to reach. Of course you can have a brilliant career peaking at very different times but you don’t want to have your highest peak as a postdoc, or in grad school and Peter out at your new job. And of course these recommendations are just based on personal observations of people’s work and career paths that I’ve generalized here. Sometimes new graduate students get impatient and discouraged about the pace at which publications are coming out, so I always tell them it is important to be patient and that it really isn’t until their 3rd year that we expect them to really be getting those pubs coming out at a regular clip. Likewise, a postdoc with no pubs for a few years certainly isn’t peaking, and almost certainly isn’t getting a tenure-track job anytime soon. A new faculty member in his/her 4th year without a grant and with few pubs might have quite a few things come out in Year 5 but by then the voting faculty will already be thinking of that person with whispers of them not having the stuff to get tenure. That person might still get tenure with the last minute drive but that late peek will be remembered and sometimes considered a negative (e.g. they might say, "This person couldn’t get their stuff together in time for their 3rd year pre-tenure review. Will they be a good scientist with tenure?"). So yes these peaks are generalizations but they are good things to keep in mind as you move up the academic landscape with all its peaks and valleys.