Friday, August 18, 2017

DonorsChoose challenge to support social sciences and tolerance in the classroom

So many friends and colleagues have been posting on social media about how they feel that the world is spinning out of control, and that the basic principles of human decency, mutual respect, and acceptance are being trampled.

Inspired by blogger DrugMonkey's challenges to fund as many school projects as possible via DonorsChoose, I decided to set up a new challenge. DonorsChoose is a fantastic charity portal where teachers can post funding requests for specific school projects and donors choose which ones to fund. I selected a group of projects focused on current events, social studies and history, and teaching about diversity and immigration. The goal is that with the new school year starting we want kids to learn what is going on around their communities and around the world. We want to inspire a new generation of citizens and leaders.

So here it goes: click on the projects and donate whatever you can. Even the equivalent of a daily latte at $5 can make a difference and some projects have other donors matching donations 100%. You will help kids and teachers develop strategies for a better world.

Mrs. Gaines (NC): Love, Tolerance, Acceptance and Diversity ($257 total - 100% match) FUNDED
Mr. M (CA): Help my refugee students ($828 total - 100% match) FUNDED
Mrs.VanderKamp (MI): Cooperation in the classroom and around the globe ($582 total - 100% match) FUNDED
Ms. Cunningham (TX): Tolerance and compassion begin early ($240 total - 100% match) FUNDED
Mrs. Froning (NC): It's all about the TIMES ($175 total - 100% match) FUNDED
Ms. Hepburn (FL): "Time" to be tolerant ($833 total - 100% match) FUNDED
Mr. Gaspard (IN): Everything you need to ace American history in 1 notebook ($155 total) FUNDED

Ms. Clemons (DC): America: Home of the beautiful ($483 total - 100% match)

I will strike out projects as they get funded and add new ones. Maybe we will get DrugMonkey out of retirement...

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Fighting loneliness on the tenure track

My emergency contact is moving away. One of the friends who convinced me to move where I am was fired earlier this year for not having an R01 grant. She found a new (much better) job, was awarded a large foundation grant and will likely get her R01 in the next month or so. She's heading to be awesome somewhere else. The other good friend I had made after moving to "New PI town" moved away a few months ago also for a job opportunity closer to her family and boyfriend. So, who should be my emergency contact now? Likely someone in my family in Europe, since I don't have close friends nearby.

What I'm really asking is: how much loneliness is one supposed to put up with for the sake of their job? Many jobs may push you to move around for career advancement, but I do not know any other one where getting a new job takes 1-3 years and will most likely mean you have to move somewhere else. Being on the tenure track adds a level of restraint where you may not be able to be completely honest with senior or junior colleagues. In addition, being the boss is a lonely job, as you can be friendly and caring, but not the one to share your deepest fears and doubts. Not being in a relationship makes things more lonely, but relationships can complicate things. Some people move to less than ideal situations to follow their significant other. Other couples are stuck living in different cities because two academic positions in the same place are hard to find. Last but not least, studies have shown that it becomes harder and harder to form close friendships after a certain age,

Children's voyage (Wikimedia Commons)
This sounds dire. What is an academic to do? When deep ties built during graduate school and postdoc years are severed and friends are scattered all over, conferences and seminars become as much about science as about getting together and catching up. I never really appreciated how critical this is for my well-being until I started as an Assistant Professor. Other networks are also available to get support and develop a sense of belonging. Twitter provides a broad and supportive scientific community, though trolls and the constant barrage of news and opinions sometimes require taking a step back every now and then. Nonetheless, friendships can be forged on the site. The New PI Slack (no relations to me) is a supportive community for early stage investigators which is now hosting more than 300 academics in constant discussions about running a lab, writing grants, training, teaching and many other topics. What matters is that there are A LOT of other people out there going through the same things and having the same problems I have. Science in academia doesn't have to be so lonely.

I will miss my friends terribly, but everyone has gotta do what they gotta do. Old friends are still an email, a phone-call or a flight away. And I am glad there are all these other groups available. I am still not convinced that you cannot develop new strong friendship after 30 or 40, in real life and online.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Hiring is hard, but firing is harder...

Letting people go is one of the hardest decisions I had to make as an academic. Not only because it came with the feeling that I had failed as a mentor, but also because of the overall HR stress associated with it.

As a student and postdoc I often observed situations where principle investigators (PIs) would not fire an unproductive and disruptive element for years, leading to infighting in a tense and unwelcoming workplace and tens of thousands of grant money lost. In many cases, these were large laboratories where the PI was aware and upset about the situation, but mostly ignored it and let it play its course. When this happens in a small lab things can get much worse. There is nowhere to hide and the $40-60K in salary lost in keeping someone who does not do their jobs can mean reduced resources for the lab, less support for other people, and delays in getting grants and papers threatening the long term survival of the entire group.

I'm not talking about when someone is struggling and needs coaching or a different communication approach, but when after multiple discussions and interventions someone is unable or refuses to follow instructions or reach objectives. When everyone else in the lab has decided that they do not want to interact with the person, or when the person has shown no respect for other people's work or animal welfare.  In general, managers take longer than they should to fire employees because it is uncomfortable and this can take even longer in science. As an educator, I consider everyone in the lab, including the technicians, as a trainee. They have to do a job, but it is my job to train them and help them succeed. So, everyone I had to let go felt like a personal failure. I mostly think that the lab is a better environment because of it, but part of me always feels that I could have done more as a boss and as a mentor to find the one thing that could have motivated and inspired them. I'll never know. The additional damage they could have done to our progress and finances could have been catastrophic and I couldn't take the risk to let the situation progress any longer.

In some cases the decision will be mutual and the situation so uncomfortable for both parties that the employee decides to leave, but sometimes you will have to have the dreaded discussion. It is critical to have the entire process mapped out by HR and know exactly what you can and cannot say. HR does not take these situations lightly and has a lot of rules. Many of these rules are in place to protect the institution and you. There are some good primers out there, but the bottom line is that the interaction is all about the employee and easing them through the transition. "Your feelings are irrelevant" and you need to prepare (a helpful list of questions from Monster). An HR representative will likely want to be there with you and they can coach you through the interaction and the exact words to use. Since research staff positions are attached to grants, poorly performing individuals can be let go when grants end and lab salaries need to be reshuffled. In this instance, performance should not be included in the termination narrative at any time and the only explanation given should be about funding. Otherwise, an employee can request a performance improvement plan (PIP) or sue the university for wrongful termination.

It's not easy and it shouldn't be, but ample warning, a clearly defined course of action, and a steady demeanor can make this incredibly stressful event go smoothly.