As I was getting ready to leave my first ever grown-up academic job for a brand new academic adventure, a dear colleague gave me this piece of advice:
Remember this: You know what you know.
It’s one of the best pieces of advice I was ever given, and I find myself passing it on to young professionals, and many women who, like me at that time, might not yet have enough self confidence.
I’ve turned this around into:
Know what you know.
First, know your stuff. Don’t bluff. Don’t cut corners. Do the work. And then, remember and trust that you know it. Have confidence in yourself and what you know.
What is some very good advice that you were given early in your career?
This is a guest post by Eileen Hegel of Higher Ways. I met Eileen when we overlapped on the Clemson faculty for a brief period of time. We got into a conversation on Facebook about the power of words in a diversity context.. and I asked her for a guest post. Here it is.
Words have power. We have all said or heard the words fat, ugly, skinny, beautiful or perhaps gay. The impact of words, even just one, should not be overlooked as they can speak hope or hatred.
Without a doubt, words can inspire us to forge ahead or instigate failure. I am positive we can all think of words that have ignited our heart. In the same fashion, I am sure we can reflect upon words that have fueled a fight. Hence, the British writer, Rudyard Kipling noted, “Words are the most powerful drug used by mankind.”
Recently, I had an opportunity to become reacquainted with the power of my words. Herein, I said something that sparked a mini-wildfire in a person. Shortly thereafter, another word, this time a missing one, caused me some challenges with the same person. I knew that I had set off the fire alarm once again!
In both instances, one word triggered a set of emotions. Words have an interesting way of doing this. The trigger may go beyond what we see on the surface. In fact, words often do.
Whether two people know each other or they don’t, words can be like a match. Words have the power to either kindle the fire of friendship or scorch a relationship. How we handle words may be the difference between saving a soul or in some cases, sending the relationship into ashes.
Although I can think of times when my words have blackened some bridges, maturity has for the most part, taught me to pay attention to what I say. Even with care in the use of my words, they will always have a transactional effect. Hence, words make for an interesting fuel between two people.
In fact, I will never forget the time my words truly stoked a spirit. While teaching a group of alternative students, I let 13 year old, Jeff, know I enjoyed him in my class. He told me, “No teacher has ever told me that!” I secretly understood why, but nevertheless, I meant what I said.
The next day, my boss let me know she had received a call from Jeff’s psychologist. The psychologist wanted her to know that in his 20 years of counseling, he had never seen a kid turn around so fast. He wanted to know what the school and his teacher were doing. Unbeknownst to me, Jeff had been suicidal before he came to my room. That day, I knew, that the power of words were, indeed, the power of life!
I do not claim to understand the entire context or meaning of this quote, but here is what I take it to signify: When you witness injustice, you do harm by not saying anything.
My friends and I have been talking about this a lot. There are situations at work when people say mildly (or even acutely) offensive things, ranging from “hi, girls!” (to a group of female faculty members or staff) to stronger displays of who is in power, who is allowed to speak, and who is too low on the hierarchy to be right.
We all recognize that when things like this happens, it is wrong to let them go. We should say something. We should speak up, cry foul, use the opportunity to educate and raise awareness of how to communicate in an inclusive workplace.
But how do you do this when the people you are talking to are your colleagues (which translates to superiors, if you are not tenured), and when you are a woman, and this means you risk being labeled as “bitchy” as soon as you say something that’s perceived as unpleasant.
I’ve read a blog post from a woman in a tech company that recommended replying like a man would do, humorously, with something along the lines of: “dude, not cool.” I don’t think that would work in academia.
I know from research in communication that the solution is to provide training to recognize these situations and to teach people specific lines they can use when they are flustered and shocked and can’t think of anything to say. I wish I could post here a collection of such lines, but I do not know of any.
Do you have links to any resources that can help, or any experiences we can learn from?
[Guest posting this on our college’s dean’s blog]
I came across this story about the brilliantly hilarious criticism that BiC, the pen company, encountered upon launching a line of pastel-colored pens “for her.”
The product has almost 500 reviews on amazon.com, and I’ll let them speak for themselves by sampling a couple:
“I picked up these pens to fill out a job application as a research scientist, but the only thing they would write on were the subscription cards for Good Housekeeping and Cosmo in the lobby (but not Newsweek or Time- which at first I thought was weird, but after looking at the pen for a minute, I realized I was better off without those dense, hard topics). I eventually got one to work on an application for a nanny, so thank you Bic for giving me proper direction in my career!”
“Before I purchase such graceful, dainty, gender appropriate pens I want to be completely confident that I will still think math is hard. My role model, Barbie, used to say that she thought math is hard and I don’t want to stray from her guidance. What has been your experience?”
The story is amusing, but also very interesting because it points out society’s response to a strategy I like to call “pinkification.” I am sometimes worried that our college’s diversity efforts may fall into the pinkification trap.
Why are people (men and women alike) so upset with some cheap plastic pens? Because they reinforce stereotypical gender roles. We are fortunate to live in a society where individuals are free to become who they want, rather than follow cultural prescriptions of gender-appropriate roles and jobs. We have excellent airplane pilots who are women and men who dream of becoming flight attendants. And it’s about time we stop marveling at the “weirdness” of it all – this is the new normal.
Without claiming that genders are identical, I beg that we be wary of “pinkification” as a strategy for increasing diversity in our college. Ideas such as:
– offering “easy” classes because women don’t like the “technical” ones;
– changing the curriculum because women care about making a difference in society (what, men don’t? not the students I encounter… when I ask them what they want to be when they grow up, most of them say that, in one way or another, they want to help people);
– putting Hello Kitty posters on the walls or the interior decor equivalent;
… are all troublesome because they manifest stereotypes and biases about gender roles and preferences. Rather than defining gender roles, why not create a kind, respectful and encouraging environment where everyone can feel free to manifest their full personality and potential?
So, what can we do instead? I, of course, do not have the solution to such a complex problem. But I can make some suggestions, and hope you can add to them in the comments below.
Maybe we can start becoming aware of our own deep-seated ideas and biases (we all have them). As we notice our mind producing thoughts such as, “women typically don’t do well in this subject” (let’s call them women, not girls nor ladies), or “this woman is successful because of political alliances or luck” – maybe we can stop and consider where the idea comes from; what is the root of the problem; and how this opinion manifests in subtle verbal and non-verbal behaviors that actually influence women’s performance. What if we try to play around with the thought that “all students who work hard can excel in this subject, regardless of biological sex or cultural gender” – and let that idea transpire through our subtle verbal and non-verbal behaviors?
Maybe we can begin to consider how the toys we give children teach them about what they are supposed to like and be good at; that little girls are taught to want to be princesses in pink tutus. There are many subtle and not so subtle behaviors that communicate to young, impressionable people what we expect of them – and contribute to shaping their sense of self.
Maybe becoming aware of our own beliefs, of how they manifest through behavior, and how these subtle behaviors influence students’ sense of who they should be is one little step towards creating change from within.
What other ideas do you have?
I’ve written before my advice on how to be a successful graduate student. But to even get to be a graduate student in the first place, you may need a graduate teaching or research assistantship – especially if you’re an international student not eligible for loans in the U.S.
I get it, I understand how important an assistantship is to you (the ticket to graduate education in the U.S.!) and how much you need it. I’ve been an international graduate student myself. Granted, I didn’t have to ask for assistantships – I always got them, maybe because I was lucky, maybe because my file spoke for itself.
But here you are, you got admitted to Purdue (congratulations!) yet you don’t have funding. What do you do??
The first thing NOT to do is to type (or copy from some website) a letter along the lines of the one below and send it to ALL professors in several departments:
I’ve been admitted to Purdue… I’ve read about your research and I’m very interested… I am highly qualified in… (areas usually not related to the professor’s research). My resume is attached… Will you please consider me for a research assistantship?”
You know what happens to these emails? DELETE. Most of us don’t even bother to answer. Hey, you didn’t bother to look up my research interests – or even spell my name in the opening of the email.
Whoever advised you that you get ahead in life by sending template letters to lots of people was WRONG.
If you want to get my attention and have a chance at being considered for funding, here’s how to go about it:
- Write a clear, specific subject line that refers to something I do or I’ve worked on (I=me, the professor, not you). This will get my attention and will tell me the email is relevant to me personally.
- Use my name in the opening of the email. Copy and paste it from my website, to make sure you spell it correctly.
- DO actually read about my research interests, peruse my list of publications, read one or more of them – or at least spend a few minutes reading my blog.
- Convince me you are ACTUALLY interested in the research I do. Be specific about what you’re interested in and why. Show me you’ve done the work to learn about my research. A strong interest in my research is the #1 qualification I look for in students. I can teach you the rest.
- Argue how your skills will actually be applicable to the research I’m doing. Give me some ideas about what you would like to work on.
Yes, this type of letter is more work. You won’t be able to write 500 of them. But the 10 you will be able to write are more likely to get you an assistantship than the other 500.
You should know a few more things about how this process works. If you are admitted as a graduate student in my department, chances are I saw your file. I might have even voted on your admission. If I wanted to offer you an assistantship, I would have done so by now. If you are in another department on campus, I have not seen your file. Although I am more motivated to fund students in my own department, I will consider you if you are a very good fit.
If you’ve applied for admission in my department, don’t send me the form letter above the week before classes start – or ever. If you were REALLY interested in my research, you would have mentioned that on your application to graduate school, and you would have been in touch with me a LONG time ago.
And here’s the last part. Not all my faculty colleagues will work this way, but it may work with me: If you’re just applying to graduate school and you’re VERY interested in working with me, contact me as early as possible – even before you send in your file. Be prepared to explain what about my research you’re interested in and why.
Research is the most valuable skill you need (and will learn) as a graduate student. Show you have potential for it by DOING YOUR RESEARCH before approaching professors and asking them to invest in you.
[Photo credit: http://academicregaliaforpurchase.com]
I asked my TECH621 students to interview 3 professors each and get tips about graduate school success.
A bit late, here are my tips & expectations about being a successful graduate student. They are derived from my experience in grad. school, both as a student and professor:
You don’t have to be in grad school. Your parents may have forced you to get an undergrad degree, but you are in grad school because you want to learn. So, learn.
A successful graduate student doesn’t only “absorb” information. She actively seeks knowledge.
Professors might mention something in passing, and the grad. student goes out to research that topic in depth and learn about it, because he wants to, because he’s curious – because he’s a born researcher (you know who’s a born researcher? Don Bulmer. He has an innate curiosity and the drive to pursue knowledge. Those are characteristics of the ideal grad. student.)
Actually, several other tips follow from the first one:
- work hard. As a grad student, I put at least 4 hours of reading & other work preparing for each 3 hour class I took.
- be conscientious. Grad students don’t miss assignments, don’t turn them in late. They don’t miss class (there was never an attendance policy in my grad. classes, but I didn’t even dream of missing class unless I was very sick).
- be critical. Try to view different points of view. Question. Explore. Ask:
- “does it have to be so?”
- “what/who are we leaving out?”
- “what’s the downside of that?”
- “what are the long-term effects?”
- create knowledge. Most grad. students learn to be researchers. Assume your researcher role and if there’s no easy answer to a question, go ahead and research it – create new knowledge.
Try to learn the culture of academia & to fit in
You can’t succeed in academia without doing good work. But you can do good work and not succeed in academia, because you don’t understand how to present your work in ways that are valued by academic culture. The values vary by field and even by department, but be on the lookout, try to identify and learn things such as:
- the accepted/valued outlets for presenting research (posters, conference papers, or panels, and at what conferences?)
- the accepted/value format and writing style
- and even… the accepted/valued topics. There are certain “hot topics” at any given time, just as there are certain “passe topics.”
A mentor can help you figure these things out – but it doesn’t have to be your academic adviser. Ask faculty members, we love to give advice. You learn a lot just by hanging out with faculty or senior grad students. Create these opportunities. Organize a seminar or a get-together, or ask if you can go to lunch with someone.
Every class you take is a potential job interview. I’ve had several professors approach me and offer me teaching or research assistantships while I was taking their course, or as soon as the course was over. In fact, many classes ARE job interviews.
Maybe today’s class or assignment is boring, or seems irrelevant. It doesn’t matter. Try to do your best anyway. Keep in mind that 2 or 4 years down the road, you might need to ask that professor for a recommendation letter. The best thing we can write about a student is that she consistently exceeded expectations. Great work is great. Doing great work consistently and repeatedly is even greater.
As always, please add your tips, comments, reactions, comments or… cabbage jokes 😉