Monday, May 27, 2019

Big goals: What would it look like to try?


“You should write a book.”

Over the past year, the frequency with which I’ve been told this has steadily increased. Until recently, my instant response had been “thanks, but I don’t think I’m cut out for that.” I enjoy writing, but pretty much all of that writing is limited to the scope of between 280 characters and a few thousand words…and, I kind of have this day job of being a faculty member.

Yet, every time I heard the words “you should write a book,” something stirred in me at the thought of how cool it would be to do that and the fact that maybe I do have 80,000 words worth of things to say. But, it was such a big goal that I had no idea how to start, and so I just kept dismissing it as impossible. And, as I do with all of these big goals that I don’t think are possible, I continued to give the outward answer of “thanks, but I’m not interested” while simultaneously saying to myself “yes, I definitely want to do that – I just don’t think I can.”

A few weeks ago, I announced on twitter that I’m going to write a book. Yes, I’m still terrified. But, I’m also super excited. So, how did I get from “this feels impossible” to “this is happening”? The answer is: people and planning.

Your big goal may not be to write a book, but chances are that like me, you do have a big goal that you don’t want to admit, but really want to pursue. So, I’m writing this blog post to share my experience and outline what helped me move from dream to action, with the hope that this can help you design a process for tackling your big goal as well. Here goes:

Speaking it into reality. My friend and fellow faculty member Rigoberto Hernandez has talked about the impact it had when a mentor suggested that he should go to MIT and study engineering, two goals that sounded unattainable to him as a high school student, but “that simple statement opened my mind to think it was possible.” As I’ve ventured into my journey to learn about leadership and mentoring, I have always looked up to the authors of the books I am reading, and perhaps I had a nascent thought of how cool it would be to also write a book myself. But, the idea never really crystallized for me until about a year ago when Shayla Shorter, a postdoc in our lab, started saying “Jen, you should write a book.” And then, every time I dismissed the idea as something I wouldn’t be good at or didn’t have time for, she said “Okay, maybe you’re not writing it right now, but you are going to eventually. I can tell.” Maybe you already know what your big goal is. But, if you don’t, maybe you need to find a colleague, friend, or mentor who knows you well, and ask them to help you figure it out and speak it into reality for you.

“What would it look like to try?” In the first several months that I started considering this idea, I still viewed it as completely impossible. I was stuck staring at an extremely daunting goal, and not even knowing how or where to start. I was also stuck thinking about all of the reasons why it wasn’t possible. Primarily, my job already keeps me so busy that I have very little margin. When would I find time to write a book?!? The key turning point was to stop thinking “I could never do this” and start asking “what would it look like to try?” Not making a commitment to do anything. Just thinking about what it would take on a practical level to give it a try. For me, a key realization is that I do have more control over my schedule than I thought. I recognized that I travel a ton. This was necessary pre-tenure, and also this year as I consider going up for full professor in the somewhat foreseeable future. But, I don’t have to keep doing this. As I thought about what it might look like to try, I realized that if I could be disciplined enough to cut back from my current 2-3 trips per month to only 1 trip per month, that would free up a couple of days each month that I could instead use to write. I realized that my big goal wasn’t inherently impossible – I just had to ask what it would take to make it possible, and decide if that was something I was willing to do.

Support crew. Up until this point, I had not told a single person that I was actually giving serious consideration to this idea of writing a book. Then, a few glasses of wine into a date night with my husband, I told him about my idea. To say that he was excited for me and supportive of me would be an understatement. I realized that I had been so skeptical of my own abilities and that I was assuming other people would do the same. Thankfully, that was not the case. In fact, as I had thought about the writing time I would gain by maintaining a more reasonable travel schedule, I envisioned sitting on my couch at home (much like I am right now) and typing away. He is the one who said “you could totally disappear to a cabin in the mountains for a couple of days each month to write.” Brilliant! And, since we do have two young kids, this support was key. I slowly started telling a few people in my inner circle about my idea and building the support crew I knew I would need through the ups and downs of tackling this project.

Getting practical. At this point, I had started putting some ideas on the page, but I still didn’t know how to tackle this big of a project. Along came my 1-day personal retreat earlier this year. I had never done this before, but I found an empty day on my calendar, and decided to set it aside to think about what I want for my future and how to get there. I spent the day working on a variety of different activities that I had planned for myself, and thinking broadly about what I want in each aspect of my job – my research program, my teaching, my leadership, etc. I decided that publishing a book was definitely part of the “where I want to be in 5 years” and I had the chance to form a strategy around this. It wasn’t fancy, and I’m sure it will change, but it boiled down to realizing my schedule is crazy until the end of 2019, so all I’m going to commit to is adding ideas to my outline every now and then as I think of things. Then, when my more realistic travel schedule sets in next year, I can commit to taking a couple of days each month to write a chapter or two (a goal that I know is reasonable based on my typical writing speed and the fact that I’ll be starting from a really good outline). This would have me finishing in late 2020 to mid 2021. I could live with that. I had a plan!

Committing. Now that I had a plan, all should have been great, right? Not so. Even with a plan, I still felt hesitant to commit. This is where having the right people around me became important again. A few months after my personal retreat, I was talking with Amanda Shaffer, who is my professional coach, and I said “well, if I do decide to write a book…” She stopped me right there and said something along the lines of “Let’s back up. Is that something that you’re really still deciding? It seems to me you’ve made the decision. You might not have decided when you’ll write your book. But, you’ve decided that you’re going to.” I needed to hear that. Even though I had a plan and I was going along with that plan and making progress, I was still giving myself an “out.” I still didn’t believe I could really do this. I needed to be challenged to commit. I needed to be told that I was ready to commit, and that took someone who could see what I could not.

The insecure part of my brain continues to tell me this is a ridiculous goal that I could never achieve. When this voice speaks up, I fight back with reality – I just sat down and wrote almost 1500 words in this blog post in a couple hours on a Saturday afternoon. I just need to keep doing that and I’ll get there. So, here I am. I’m writing a book!

What’s your big goal? Find the people in your life who can speak it into reality for you and support you in the process. Ask yourself what it would look like to try. Make a plan and commit.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Guilt: The growing gap

Hi friends, hopefully you’ll humor me as I try something new here - I have an idea I’m just beginning to toss around, and would love to open that up to dialogue.

I had never put words to this, but even when things are going well, I can find myself walking around with a gnawing sense of guilt and growing feeling that I’m just kind of failing at life. Anyone else?

Here’s my idea - what if this is caused by the accumulation of all of the gaps we create when we don’t get to do something as well as we wanted?

Let me explain...

We have so many things we’re responsible for, and so even if we work really hard and are getting everything done, we rarely get to spend all of the time we want on any particular thing (including hobbies and family). So, when we submit that manuscript that might have a typo or don’t fully read that committee report before a meeting or cut a workout short because we’re out of time, we create a gap between what we wanted to do and what we actually did. That gap means guilt and failure. That wouldn’t be so bad if it went away once the manuscript is accepted or the committee wraps up for the year or we hit our goal time at a race. But, if you’re like me, you carry these gaps around with you long after the task is complete. They accumulate and create that diffuse, yet palpable sense of dread. Like somehow we’ll pay for it later.

Am I alone in this?

Okay, if that’s the problem, what do we do about it? I wonder if recognizing this growing gap is half the battle. Now that we know we’re carrying all of this around, what if we made it a daily, weekly, or monthly habit to consciously jettison the gap guilt. Or, what if we did that every time we wrap up a task or project?  Manuscript published, time to let go of any worry over whether it could have been better. It’s published, and that’s better than better.

Okay, your turn - tell me what you think! Is this just my crazy way of processing the busyness of academic life? If this is a shared experience, what can we do to overcome it? How can we support each other in banishing the feelings of guilt and failure? What would it look like if we could do that? Comment below or join the conversation on the twitter thread here.

3/10/19 - Addendum
I love word pictures, and this morning I realized a good one to describe the "gap" accumulation - my dry erase board. I frequently use my dry erase board in conversations with lab members and colleagues, and when the conversation is done, I erase what was written to make space for the next conversation. However, using the eraser only gets rid of about 90% of the ink. There is always a faint shadow left. Over time, these accumulate, and it becomes almost impossible to read what is written on the board because there is so much background. I finally give in, pull out the cleaning solution, and...voila! beautiful completely-wiped-clean surface. It's always surprising just how good it feels to look at a perfectly clean dry erase board. An even better example to follow is my friend Troy, who completely cleans the dry erase board in his office after every single meeting so that the next conversation can start with a fresh slate. What if I learned to do this with my guilt?

Monday, February 4, 2019

Career barriers, part 6: Beef soup and solitude

By Patrick Diep

We all face career barriers, and while every situation is unique, we also have much in common. This series of guest posts highlights stories and advice from a diverse group of people who have confronted a wide variety of career barriers. Hopefully this post helps you to feel less alone in your struggle, gives you advice for moving forward, or allows you to help someone around you.

I started graduate school at the University of Toronto (UofT) in September 2017. I have since co-hosted two big house parties where I invited over many friends that I had made since high school. The second party in July 2018 was attended by about a hundred people, which included the grad school friends I had made in the chemical engineering department. A few days prior to this party I finished Solitude, a book by Michael Harris that describes the anti-social nature of social media. It left me in a deep contemplation. The party was, to me, an ode to change. I stopped using Quora and Tumblr the next day. I also deactivated Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. I deleted Snapchat. I didn’t want to learn about the lives of others anymore.

To make a difference, I believe that I need to be different and think differently. My co-supervisors gave me a lot of freedom when I started my Masters degree, so it placed me in a position where I needed to reflect on what I was going to do differently in my field to make an impact. There are a number of philosophies about what motivations a grad student should have when embarking on a research project. Mine was to apply fundamental science to an industrial scenario – something less philosophical and more practical. This made me confront an existential question: I had been trained in fundamental science, but I wanted to be an applied scientist. What am I doing?

In the midst of this dissonance, I started learning how to design experiments to obtain publication-quality results. This required equipment that no one in the department had used before. I reached out to other departments to find this equipment, and scheduled time for training on my own. This was overwhelming because of the troubleshooting time. Hours could be spent preparing my samples the “right” way, only to yield incoherent results. I overcame a number of these issues, but I involuntarily and repeatedly asked myself “what am I doing?” as I breathed.

This inward criticism did not stop when I was with others. My parents and a large majority of my extended family work in factories, so they did not understand that the job I desire so much may not even exist yet. A few of my friends attended grad school for a Masters, but seldom for a PhD. “The economics don’t make sense,” some would say. While those related through blood and marriage asked me what I was going to do in the future, those related by chance made me ask myself why I had chosen this path.

Dark thoughts eventually came. Why am I living? I hate this constant self-questioning and I hate myself. Should I kill myself?

I had suggested this to myself one night in grade six when I was being bullied for being “too nerdy” and unable to fit in. That night, I remember my mom walking into my bedroom, unaware of my adolescent angst, with an aged porcelain bowl of warm rice covered in Campbell’s Chunky beef soup. A pair of chopsticks stuck out from the mountain of food with threads of steam you could see rising from under the potato chunks. While the air around me felt frigid, the warmness of every swallow reminded me of when I had been served this same dish on my first day camping with the 6th Meadowvale Scouting group, hosted by the Buddhist temple my mom frequented. That night, I laid in my bed alone cherishing old memories of playing soccer with neighborhood friends, hiking on Algonquin Provincial Park trails with my cousins, and that time I (accidentally) knocked the Christmas tree down onto my younger brother.

What I realize now is that our lives are filled with little moments that compound in significance over time. My memories are saturated with these moments that return me to a period where the future was uncertain – where I did not know what I was doing and why I chose what I did. So, is what I am feeling right now so unfamiliar? Why had I forgotten what it felt like to be twelve years old?

I think part of the answer ties back to the anti-social aspects of social media. I had been electronically immersed in the lives of other people for over a decade, so an increasingly larger portion of my cognitive capacity was occupied and distracted by endless scrolling through the random thoughts and snippets of my friends’ lives. My aspirations to be different from others were juxtaposed with my needlessly excessive concern about their existence. What I needed was solitude.

Simply put, solitude is when you are by yourself, meaning that you are physically and electronically disconnected from others. While the former can be a frequent experience throughout grad school, the latter is not and was what I personally needed to improve my mental health. I think there is stigma associated with being alone because it is assumed that loneliness will ensue, but anyone who is comfortable with their own thoughts knows this is not quite true. Loneliness is a function of how much social interactions you have relative to what you need. You are lonely if there is an unmatched discrepancy here. Everyone needs different levels of social interactions just as much as everyone needs different levels of no social interactions. 

After the second house party, when I unplugged the metaphorical Ethernet cable, I had space to respire and cherish the little moments that lead me to grad school. Without words, they captured why I chose this path. Current obstacles, failures, and successes, no matter how small, constitute little moments that will remind my future-self how much I have grown. I transformed my Masters work into a PhD project in October 2018, and somewhat transformed parts of myself in the process. I want to learn more about other people again, and I want to tell my friends and family about what my PhD experience is like. Whether it’s twenty failed PCR attempts in a row or earning a scholarship, this is who I am and where I am and if I don’t embrace it, others won’t.

Now finishing this post, I must confess that I have a new Twitter account. I do not abhor social media or think that it is evil; I think it has the potential for good, like this series of blog posts that capture so many different voices and perspectives from our scientific community. Hence, those I have followed tend to have more meaningful and insightful content that helps me think about my graduate experience and the world in funny, smart, and different ways. Moderation and balance are key.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Career barriers, part 5: Cross-racial mentorship in a segregated academy

By an anonymous graduate student

We all face career barriers, and while every situation is unique, we also have much in common. This series of guest posts highlights stories and advice from a diverse group of people who have confronted a wide variety of career barriers. Hopefully this post helps you to feel less alone in your struggle, gives you advice for moving forward, or allows you to help someone around you.

I was a junior in college when I decided that I wanted to be a professor. I was hooked on the thrill of working to solve a fascinating biological problem. I spent nights and weekends at the bench without feeling like I was making a sacrifice. I had found my professional home and would work to earn the intellectual freedom of a faculty position. It would take a decade of perseverance, creativity, luck and a supportive network, but I finally knew what I wanted. At the time, I could not see myself aiming for anything else.

In part due to naiveté, I did not think to look up demographic data on faculty in the biological sciences. Of course, I knew that African-Americans were underrepresented in STEM, but I underestimated the severity of the problem. It was in graduate school that I learned only 0.7% of biology professors nationwide are Black or African-American. Considering the fact that 12% of Americans are Black, it would take a 17-fold increase in the number of Black faculty to reach a number representative of the general population. Surely, diversity officers and enlightened faculty were trying to understand and address this problem? It would take me another year to conclude that, despite paying regular lip service to diversity, faculty and administrators did not seem to consider racial exclusion to be a problem at all.

Academic twitter is full of threads about career barriers based on gender, race and class. STEM faculty, in particular, appear to have woken up to these barriers in recent years. To me, the most revealing aspect of this newfound “wokeness” is the amount of attention given to racial and gender inequities relative to the magnitude of each disparity. Take the life sciences, for instance. Women are underrepresented as PIs, especially at the level of full professors and department chairs. Overall, women make up only 30% of biology professors. This is a serious problem that requires our attention, but it pales in comparison to racial disparities. Progressive-minded faculty who are vocal about gender inequity in STEM are typically silent about race. Most of these faculty likely don't know the numbers, nor are they concerned about not having a single Black or Latinx professor in their departments, professional networks, or seminar series.

While gender inequity in STEM is correctly understood to be an engineered phenomenon that must be actively reversed, racial disparities are seen as part of the natural order, not worth discussing or challenging. From time to time, it becomes necessary to condemn explicit racism like that of James Watson, but good liberal professors who have inherited Watson’s segregated academy must never be asked to look in the mirror. It is acceptable to diversify trainees, but never colleagues. "We don't get qualified minority applicants for job openings," they claim, somehow forgetting that it is their job to help make qualified applicants from all backgrounds.

The structural barriers limiting the educational success of students from marginalized communities, starting as early as pre-school, have been thoroughly documented. Despite these barriers, the near-total absence of Black faculty cannot be explained by unequal representation in the academic pipeline. Underrepresented minorities have made significant gains over the past three decades in earning PhDs in the life sciences. However, this has not translated into a more diverse professoriate. A candid account to explain this phenomenon comes from Dr. MarybethGasman, who stated, “The reason we don’t have more faculty of color among college faculty is that we don’t want them. We simply don’t want them.” The more time I spend around professors, the more I accept Gasman’s assessment. I have come to conclude that White faculty, with rare exceptions, prefer their departments as segregated as their neighborhoods and social circles - not all white mind you (that wouldn’t have the right look), but with just a few “acceptable” minorities, preferably from privileged backgrounds.

Both success and mental health in academia rely heavily on quality of mentorship. The preference for homogenous professional spaces influences mentorship habits, which is where it becomes a problem for aspiring scientists from historically marginalized backgrounds. The literature on mentorship distinguishes between two functions of a mentor: instrumental (skill development, career guidance, etc.) and psychosocial (concern for mentees’ well-being, building confidence, forming relationships, etc.). According to mentorship research, one determinant of an advisor’s investment as a mentor is the degree to which the advisor sees himself or herself in each trainee. This is particularly true with respect to the psychosocial role, which is facilitated by the effortless interpersonal comfort of a homogeneous pair in this deeply segregated society. In the absence of conscious effort to overcome racial biases, faculty help to reproduce the White academy by investing in trainees who look like them, or share other key aspects of their background, while at the same time decrying the dearth of colleagues of color.

The problem I discuss here is enormous and persistent. It will not go away anytime soon. Perhaps that is why so many professors avoid discussing it. Or perhaps avoiding the issue is the easiest way to maintain the status quo. Neither avoidance nor feigning ignorance will lead to a solution. And above all, we need to discard the myth that time will magically heal all inequities. As much as we all love to bash President Trump and James Watson, things have not improved in our corner since the 80’s, and the first step is to acknowledge the possibility that we might not be as innocent as we would like to think. The second step is to figure out how to talk about the problem without instinctively getting defensive. As I have seen in my own university, the few Black PIs out there are in too precarious a position to seriously advocate for racial inclusion, since they have to worry about punishment for offending their White colleagues’ sensibilities. White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo is an excellent resource, especially if you find yourself offended by anything I have said here. As for improving cross-racial mentorship, the concerned reader can begin diving into the literature here and here. Unless those with power take initiative to change their fields, departments, and mentorship habits, “diversity” will remain a code word for tokenism, and Watson’s vision of a segregated academy will persist in my generation.