In the midst of male-dominated fields that can sometimes deter females from entering, mentorship programs are cultivating interest and opening up opportunities to girls in STEM, EdSurge reports. In fact, when it comes to the percentage of girls who understand the relevance of STEM and the possible jobs within it, there’s a 20% difference between girls who know a woman in STEM (73%) and those who don’t (53%).
Women only make up only 29% of the science and engineering workforce, EdSurge notes, citing data from the National Science Board. And when it comes to computing, Girls Who Code thinks the gender gap is getting bigger — by 2027, they estimate that only 22% of computer scientists will be women, down from 37% in 1995 and 24% in 2017.
It’s similar to a need for more diverse teachers that minority students can look up to — even if girls don’t get encouragement from a teacher, friend or family member, seeing a woman succeeding in STEM can show them that they can do the same. As David Shapiro, the CEO of Mentor, told EdSurge, “Research shows that life experience and human relationships give us a sense of what’s possible and help us navigate to those possibilities.”
Due to the high demand for STEM workers, entering these fields can make for a successful career. But while women make up roughly half of the labor force, they are vastly underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math. And the continued lack of a female presence in these jobs begets a negative cycle — if young girls don’t see women in these occupations, they have fewer role models to look up to and are less likely to visualize themselves in the space in the future.
Getting girls hooked on STEM doesn’t have to wait until high school, either. Elementary and middle school years present promising windows of opportunity to introduce girls to the science disciplines. In elementary school, roughly 66% of girls say they’re interested in science — practically the same percentage as boys — but in middle school, this number drops due to a loss of confidence and interest. By high school, only 15% of girls are likely to pursue a STEM college major or career.
Several organizations, including Million Women Mentors, work to match female STEM figures with young girls who are interested in these fields. The company also provides corporations with information on how they can develop mentoring programs of their own.
School districts can also work to introduce girls to STEM by promoting related activities from an early age and by ensuring they’re getting encouragement from teachers to pursue what they’re good at or interested in. Additionally, hosting expos that introduce girls to women in science — like Peninsula School District in Washington, which holds a yearly Career And Pathways Expo for middle school girls — connect them to female leaders who they can see as sources of inspiration.
Women and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields are more likely to advance professionally, publish more research and secure postdoctoral and faculty positions if their institutional culture is welcoming and sets clear expectations, according to a study of hundreds of Ph.D. students at four top-tier California research universities.
Mark Richards, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the UW.Courtesy photo
University of Washington Provost Mark Richards, the study’s senior author, and a team of researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, UCLA, Stanford and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) sought to understand how gender, race and ethnicity impact graduate students’ success in math, physical sciences, computer sciences and engineering, as measured by publication rates in academic journals.
The findings, published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE, suggest that doctoral scholars in STEM fields are more likely to publish if enrolled in well-structured graduate programs that lay out clear, unbiased expectations for assessing students and supporting their careers.
“Our study strongly indicates that the onus should not fall on minority students to make changes to succeed in STEM settings,” said Aaron Fisher, an assistant professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and lead author of the study. “Institutional changes that make students feel welcome and provide clear guidelines and standards for performance are optimal ways to ensure the success of all students.”
“An important implication of this research, as reflected in several papers our group has published recently, is that essential interventions that promote the success of underrepresented minority and women PhD students in STEM fall mainly in the realm of academic culture, and do not necessarily require the investment of major resources. These interventions benefit all students, along with students who have been traditionally underrepresented in the STEM fields,” said Richards, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of earth and planetary science who became provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the UW in July.
The interventions identified in the study are especially relevant to the success of black graduate students, who are publishing at lower rates than their peers, Fisher said.
While white, Asian and underrepresented minority males and females in STEM fields recruited for the study at the four campuses were found to have published at roughly equivalent rates, black graduate students were nearly three times less likely to have published a paper in an academic journal.
However, when accounting for black students’ perceptions of departmental structure and sense of preparedness and belonging, the statistical model used in the study shows that this racial disparity may be due in large part to negative experiences associated with being a minority in otherwise white settings.
“African Americans have been communicating for decades about the difficulties and discomforts of being black in white-majority settings, and our data represent a clear example of empirical support for that narrative,” Fisher said. “It’s not so much that being black results in fewer publications, but that the experience of being black in a university setting presents challenges and obstacles that white students are either not facing, or facing to a lesser degree.”
Among the new efforts underway under Berkeley’s leadership is the Research Exchange, a national consortium of nine universities made up of the four California Alliance campuses as well as Georgia Tech; Harvard; the University of Michigan; the University of Texas, Austin; and the UW. The Research Exchange facilitates inter-institutional visits for advanced underrepresented graduate students from these nine top-tier institutions to expand their visibility and experience when applying for elite postdoctoral and faculty positions.
The UW has long been committed to increasing the number of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields and was one of the original National Science Foundation ADVANCE grant recipients that developed a host of interventions to make the campus climate more welcoming for both students and faculty from these groups.
“Provost Richards’ commitment to diversifying the STEM study body, faculty, and workforce – and his deep belief that diversity is critical to excellence – was something that last year’s provost search committee saw as an important strength,” said UW President Ana Mari Cauce. “We expect that under his academic leadership the UW will continue to be a leader in this regard.”
The newly published study was conducted through the UC Berkeley-led California Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP), a partnership of UC Berkeley, UCLA, Stanford and Caltech that seeks to boost the ranks of underrepresented minorities in STEM fields among the graduate students, postdocs, and faculty at research universities.
Previous research published by UC Berkeley members of the alliance, which was launched in 2014 with a $2.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, found that underrepresented minorities publish in academic journals at significantly lower rates than their majority counterparts, placing them at a disadvantage in competing for postdoctoral and faculty positions.
“Publishing in academic journals is a key predictor of future success in academia, which is why our research is so concerned with this often-neglected indicator,” Richards said.
In addition to Fisher and Richards, co-authors of the paper are Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, Colette Patt, Ira Young and Andrew Eppig of UC Berkeley; Robin Garrell of UCLA; Douglas Rees of Caltech; and Tenea Nelson of Stanford University.
Having studied conferences for the last 10 years, I have come to find a disparity in the amount of time and resources scientists put into them and the benefits scientists get out of them as far as transmitting and receiving knowledge. My research shows that conference outputs actually form the numerically dominant medium of global scientific communication, but in terms of disseminating our work to audiences who could use it, their cost and lack of “impact” call into question their sustainability, and urge us to consider how we can better utilize our time, effort, and money.
Conferences are popular events for scientists to meet in person and share results and ideas. Over the last couple of decades, the number of meetings has grown at a rate of roughly 10 percent year over year, and they are clearly not going to go away.
My research has found that conference outputs conservatively exceed peer-reviewed journal articles by 110 percent.
The evidence shows that at anything other than small events, we simply cannot engage with all of the presentations we might find beneficial, so we miss lots of what is on offer and typically select some of the first material we encounter. This experience subsequently affects how we view and approach conferences, as well as the way we view and appreciate conference work.
The material presented at conferences is rarely available after the event in its original form, being mainly relegated to abstract or title mentions and often only available to restricted audiences. There is also strong evidence that shows we do not convert our conference papers into peer-reviewed articles as often as we like to think, with rates of 37.3 percentreported for abstracts and presentations, and as low as 1 percent for posters. Therefore, we waste vast amounts of potentially useful knowledge, and relatedly, the significant resources (time, effort, money, environmental resources, etc.) that go into producing it. My research has found that conference outputs conservatively exceed peer-reviewed journal articles by 110 percent, and this means we are not using our most prevalent medium of scientific communication to anywhere near its full potential. The negative monetary cost of this runs to billions of dollars every year—money we really don’t have to spare.
The first conference proceedings actually pre-dates the first journal, and conferences have been well-established aspects of how science is conducted, especially since the 1960s. But why do we continue to invest in meetings when the outputs aren’t readily obvious? Firstly, because everybody else is doing it, so we see it as the status quo. Secondly, regardless of protests to the contrary, we tend to use someone else’s money (whole or in part) to support our conference activities. Paid time to develop conference materials, allowances for “professional development,” internal support for fees, travel, and accommodation, use of research budget funding to “disseminate results to peer audiences,” some of this is private, but ultimately, most of it comes from the taxpayer. We rarely spend no work time on conference preparation, nor do we fund all of our fees and subsistence from our own pockets—we just couldn’t afford to.
Regardless of publication platform, it only makes sense to try to give our work the best chance of being seen, and this also applies to our conference activities.
When I mention the idea of “value” or “return on investment” to academics, there is often an offended refutation that defends conference practices to be of immense value, but the evidence (or rather its lack) suggests otherwise. The idea that conference activities should have some form of measurable benefit may be viewed as being neoliberal, and people often refer to less tangible benefits such as participating in professional networking, accessing “cutting edge research,” getting feedback on projects, learning about career opportunities, etc. However, if we consider the massive economic contributions of the MICE industry (meetings, incentives, conferences, & exhibitions) and the still multi-billion-dollar expenditures of mainly public money we dedicate to attending conferences each year, then it is only practical and right to consider what we get for our investment. Disseminating our work in journals is still “the gold standard” for scientific communication, and high–impact factor publication often has a positive influence on scientists’ careers. Conference presentations are all too readily seen as “lesser publications,” and while most journal papers tend to be cited, depending on discipline, relatively few papers tend to be “highly cited.” However, regardless of publication platform, it only makes sense to try to give our work the best chance of being seen, and this also applies to our conference activities.
I see the way forward as actually an opportunity to develop scientific communication as a whole, and to produce a new “academic currency” that makes our conference outputs and activities as valued as our increasingly questioned staple, the journal article. If we can more reliably centralize, host, disseminate, evaluate, and report this huge body of presumably useful knowledge, then we can employ all sorts of media, auto-translate speech and text (which is definitely better than nothing), and reach truly international and meaningfully large audiences.
I love going to conferences, but the truth is that they are unreliable. In short (and in line with the title of a paper I recently published), they give us “what we want,” but not “what we need.” Overall, we have done very little to change the basic conference format for 50 years, and the findings of my research show fairly conclusively that in terms of fiscal and knowledge economies, and also in terms of the environmental impact caused by our conference travel, our current practices are unsustainable and need immediate development. So, while various individual meetings are making efforts to offer conference information in different available formats, it still remains uncollated and difficult to access. Perhaps we need to adopt the same mindset that we are embracing in the concept of open-access journal publishing, in order to make our conference activities not only beneficial to ourselves, but also beneficial to those who might use our work.
Maria Mitchell, the first woman to become a professional astronomer in the United States, was one; so was materials scientist Mildred Dresselhaus, the ‘Queen of carbon science’. In common with many scientists, they desired to be mentors, guiding the next generation with no expectation of return.
The concept of a mentor, indeed the word itself, can be traced at least as far back as Homer’s Odyssey. In the ancient Greek epic, the wisdom goddess Athena took the form of a man called Mentor to assume the guardianship of the young prince Telemachus while his father, Odysseus, was away fighting the Trojan War. Athena’s Mentor was not only Telemachus’s protector, but also his educator and guide.
Mentoring is one aspect of good research supervision. But it doesn’t always happen, as a 2018 Nature survey on laboratory life showed. A majority of the survey’s respondents wanted more support for mentoring and managing.
The lack of mentoring is also among the reasons for the global rise of organized doctoral-training academies, where PhD candidates learn in groups, and where they can access scholarly experience and expertise in addition to that of their main supervisor.
Some employers recognize mentoring: a number of learned societies have formal schemes that assign mentors to trainees, for example. So do scholarly publishers, through their global trade association, STM.Some hard numbers on science’s leadership problems
Nature gives its own annual awards for excellence in mentoring. These awards, now in its 15th year, are again open for nominations for two prizes: one for a mid-career mentor and the other for a lifetime of achievement in mentoring. Each year, the awards recognize mentors from a different country or region; the 2019 edition invites nominations from India, which produced 24,300 PhD graduates in 2014, the fourth-highest number in the world after the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany. The deadline for applications is 6 October.
There’s no set formula for mentoring, as past winners of Nature’s awards have themselves said. Furthermore, the needs of young researchers are evolving as their environment changes. Many relatively new skills needed in research careers, such as the ability to conform to performance-management systems and run multidisciplinary research groups, would not have been relevant to some mentors earlier in their careers. But there are a number of ways in which researchers can benefit from the experience of mentors.
In addition to being a sounding board, all good mentors should be willing, where they can, to provide learning opportunities — including the chance to learn from failure. Mentors and trainees must both appreciate the value of celebrating success and of constructive criticism. And neither should see the role mainly as a ticket to prestigious speaking invitations, or to boosting publications and impact scores. At all times, the relationship needs to be one of trust and mutual respect, and of open and transparent communication.
That mentors should not expect to benefit makes outside support for mentoring all the more important. Funders and institutions would do well to invest more in mentorship training. Mentoring and mentorship could also be formally recognized as part of researcher evaluation.
For recipients of mentoring, the opportunity to share successes and talk through challenges with an experienced professional can be invaluable. For mentors, it is an opportunity to promote scholarship through the generations.
Acquiring the skills to become a good mentor takes time, an ever more precious commodity in researchers’ lives. But for mentors and would-be mentors, investment in learning will be worth the effort.
In my day job, I’m the chief of corporate development at Summit Consulting, a Washington, D.C.-based data analytics and quantitative consulting firm. We’re about as STEM as you get. We hire statisticians, coders, programmers, economists and data scientists.
Women have consistently been underrepresented in STEM degrees and careers. According to a 2017 Department of Commerce report, women filled 47 percent of all U.S. jobs in 2015 but held only 24 percent of STEM jobs.
At Summit, 38 percent of our staff are women. This wasn’t by accident. In going after the very best talent, we created a corporate culture that attracts and supports many incredible women who in turn grow the careers of other female technical consultants. Here’s some of their top advice on how to work in STEM when you may be the only woman in the room:Don’t be afraid to give and get feedback.
Instead of being offended by feedback, try to understand where the individual is coming from and learn how to grow from it. Even if it is not delivered well. “Don’t limit yourself to giving feedback to your team,” said Tori Puryear, a senior consultant at Summit. “Oftentimes, your leaders are put into new situations or positions they have never been in before and could use your perspective as well. People will respect you if you can give and take thoughtful feedback.”Have confidence to share your opinions
It can be difficult to speak up when you’re the only woman in the room. “It always bothered me when others received opportunities because they were more vocal, even though I believed that I was more informed,” said Katie Lettunich, a senior analyst at Summit. “Gaining confidence to state my opinion, whether it be to a boss, client, or over-confident colleague, has presented me with more opportunities than simply holding back and waiting for my work to be recognized.”
Learning a little about a lot of projects can help you see connections where others don’t. Learning at least cursory skills in multiple technologies makes you in demand when project teams are staffing up and new roles are opened. “Coding in multiple software languages has made me very valuable internally,” said Laura Hoesly, a consultant at Summit. “I can work on lots of different projects and really influence the direction of my career.”Follow the footsteps of other women whose careers you admire
While there may be limited women in leadership to serve as mentors or sponsors, simply observe the career trajectory of women whose career paths you want want to emulate, said senior consultant Natalie Patten, “I use Kaye — a manager — as a template for parts of my career, and I either ask her, observe her or think to myself ‘what would Kaye do’ when I’m trying to advance my career through promotion, place myself well for a new case/project, or handle a tough client or situation.”Look around the corner
And what happens when you’re the only woman in the room? Olivia Hebner, a senior analyst at Summit, advised, “Look outside the room!” You might be the only woman in the current room, but there are absolutely other women just around the corner who are readily available to chat and help me solve problems. Women’s Affinity Groups within your organization are a great place to start. If one doesn’t exist, seek out professional groups in person like Meetups or online through LinkedIn Groups.
In previous letters, we have given advice about launching research labs, giving talks about the research done in those labs, and writing about that research for peers and the broader world. An assumption lurking behind those pieces of advice is that you have the resources to do all that great work. In this letter, we’re addressing that elephant in the room head on: getting funding for your research.
Regardless of your funding history, you probably already have some experience with the basic relevant skills. As a prospective student, you had to persuade a committee that you belonged in a certain training program. For those now in faculty or other principal investigator positions, you had to persuade other committees to hire you into those roles. Funding is not all that different. You are making a pitch to persuade a committee that you are the right person with the right idea at the right place at the right moment in time to execute the project you are proposing, and if awarded the money you will advance knowledge in a manner consistent with its mission.
How do you do that, exactly? Here are five tips to guide the way.
Have a clear, testable, idea and an explanation of why it is important
The first rule of grants is to be clear about what the “big idea” is that you are trying to test and to articulate why it is worth spending money to test that idea. It is not sufficient to say no one has examined that process before; there are plenty of things that have never been studied, many for good reason. Explain why your idea is worthy of investment. Explain the intellectual merits and broader impacts of your research. It’s likely that some of the reviewers or panelists are not experts in your research area, so do not assume they will immediately understand the cosmic significance of your research. If a reviewer gets to the end of the proposal and does not have a sense of why your work matters, the proposal is unlikely to be funded.
The goal is to clearly demonstrate that you can test your specific question and that you have thought through the challenges and alternative hypotheses to your idea—not to demonstrate everything that you know or could do with the project, as Wil was reminded when he submitted a grant to the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). He included a section listing a number of directions for possible exploratory analysis, thinking this would be interpreted as “value added.” But the grant was rejected because reviewers struggled to understand how these details fit into the larger research proposal. He resubmitted the next round deleting that extraneous paragraph and was funded.
If you are unsure about whether your research idea is a good fit for a particular grant or a funding opportunity is worth your time to apply for, some agencies welcome you to schedule a phone call with a program officer to discuss the idea and whether it fits with their priorities. If this isn’t an option, ask your mentors and colleagues for feedback about your ideas and their fit with different funding agencies. Their input will help you determine whether and where to send your proposal, as well as how to tailor it if you do.
Explain the idea in a clear and concise manner
Scientists are notorious for our jargon and dense, convoluted writing, which can make it difficult to understand even the most brilliant of ideas. When writing and revising grant proposals, ask yourself—and even better, a friend—whether there are clearer, more concise ways to convey the central points in the proposal. It is often tempting to use the complex jargon of our sub-sub-discipline, but that can undermine our success. If our reviewers do not understand what we are trying to communicate because it is written in an overly complex manner, then they are unlikely to fund us. Remember that grant panelists often have a large stack of dense grant applications to read. Assume they are tired when reading and make yours as easy to read as possible.
Consider this road sign: “No person shall on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday the day preceding a public holiday, or on a public holiday, drive or cause to be driven between the hours of 6 p.m. and midnight, a motor vehicle which exceeds 10.5 M in length in all main roads.” It conveys an important message, but that message is incredibly difficult to understand. Here is a clearer and more concise way to say the same thing: “No trucks on weekends and holidays.” As William Strunk, Jr. and E. B White advise in their classic guide The Elements of Style, “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences. … This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
Writing concisely also helps you craft a proposal without holes in it. Most grants have hard page limits, and funders and reviewers expect you to cover a lot of ground on those pages. Leah once had an impossible time staying within the page limit for a National Institute of Mental Health R01 grant, so in the eleventh hour she decided to cut a substantial section unpacking an analysis technique. She didn’t get the grant. What red flag did the reviewers raise? They weren’t sure about that analysis technique and whether she was ready to use it. Every single question the reviewers raised was covered in the section that ended up on the cutting room floor. Instead of deleting sections that may be important, make your entire proposal more concise. To avoid eleventh-hour scrambles, build “streamlining time” into your writing schedule.
Know your funders’ priorities and tailor the proposal accordingly
Scientists often get frustrated with funders because we believe our ideas are brilliant—therefore, any funder should just see that brilliance and fund us accordingly. The reality is that every funder has a mission statement that declares the scope of research they are interested in, and many funders have statements about their current priorities. Read. Those. Statements. Carefully. And incorporate them into your proposals.
Your proposal needs to explicitly address how it fits with the funder’s general mission and current priority areas. Those areas often have pots of money earmarked for projects, so you need to persuade the funder that your project is eligible for one or more of those pots. Behind the scenes, program officers look at the proposals that come to them, look at their budgets, and make decisions about which projects are a good fit given the amount of money they have left in that budget cycle. Sometimes they will work together to co-fund proposals, but only if you have made the case that your idea fits with those programs.
Take the perspective of your busy, overworked, and tired reviewers
Grant reviewers are often reviewing grants on top of their already busy schedules of conducting research, teaching, conducting professional service, and managing their lives. Help your exhausted reviewers help you. Write a concise proposal that has clear headlines, is easy to read and visually appealing, has a logical flow from one paragraph to the next, contains visuals that complement the words, and connects to a broad audience in that field. Write a proposal that identifies a specific, concrete problem and a group that this problem affects. Walk them through how the knowledge generated by this research may help solve this problem. Cite the literature this work is building on, but don’t get stuck in the minutiae of that literature—what you plan to do matters more than adding extra noise to a long debate in your field. Show the reviewers that your research team has the expertise to carry out this project, and that when you finish, we will learn something that is worth knowing. In some ways, you are writing a story; it just doesn’t have an ending yet. If they give you the money to do that research, it will. That is the kind of proposal that gets funded—it is the kind of proposal that gets overworked reviewers excited about science.
Page limits make it tempting to cram as much information as possible into each square inch, using every trick to compress information and leave no white space. Grants like this are sometimes impossible to read and are frequently full of acronyms that require a table to translate. Avoid this trap. You don’t want reviewer frustrations to color their perceptions of the grant. The easier it is to read and find the critical information, the happier the reviewers will be. For example, Wil was once on an NSF panel where one of the most highly rated grants only used 13 of the 15 pages allowed. It was clear, compelling, and an idea that needed to be funded. Use what you need, not what you can squeeze in.
Grant proposals, like journal articles and other elements of scientific life, are often rejected on the first attempt. Those rejections should not be interpreted as indictments of your idea; they are opportunities to revise the proposal and resubmit either in the next cycle or to a different funder. With many funding agencies, it is extremely unlikely to get funded on the first round.
Read the reviews you get carefully, and if there are no reviews, ask whether you can speak with a program officer to learn what went wrong. Take the critiques seriously, address them, and move forward with the proposal. That persistence will often pay off.
Neil thanks Dr. Jacinta Beehner at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor for the many insights she shared in her graduate seminar on how to write a grant (and get it funded!) that he took when he was a graduate student. Many of the tips in this letter were inspired by lessons learned in that course.
Researchers who incorporate ideas and techniques from multiple mentors while still forging their own paths are the most likely to succeed in academia, according to a study of 18,865 biomedical researchers published in Nature Communications1.
The authors also suggest that mentoring received during postdoctoral training had a bigger impact than mentoring received during graduate school.
The study analysed data from the Academic Family Tree, an online database of academic relationships that launched in January 2005. The authors identified ‘triplets’ — trios comprised of a scientist, their graduate mentor and their postdoctoral mentor — dating back to 1970.
Professional success was gauged in part by the number of trainees a researcher mentored per decade, and an analysis of terms used in abstracts made it possible to track similarity of scientific approaches.
The results give empirical evidence to support some popular career strategies, says study co-author Stephen David, a neuroscientist at the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. For example, the most successful scientists transferred concepts they learnt in graduate school to their postdoctoral work, suggesting that prospective postdocs should try to join labs that lack their particular skill set.
“You want to be able to offer something new,” David says. That requires stepping beyond the shadow of a graduate mentor without becoming a facsimile of a postdoctoral mentor. “You have to stake out some unique territory, which is always a challenge for postdocs,” he says.
The study found that joining the lab of a prolific mentor — one who has trained many researchers over the years — also increases a scientist’s chance of success. This held true for both graduate and postdoctoral mentors, but a closer look at the data revealed that the qualities of a postdoctoral mentor were especially predictive of success. “You can get a graduate education just about anywhere,” David says. “Postdoc labs are where you establish professional relationships and develop collaborations.”
Researchers should be especially discerning when accepting postdoctoral positions, David says. “You can take a data-driven approach to choosing your mentor.”
The ad was for the first public workshop on a technique used in K-12 classroom settings called the Question Formulation Technique, which had been created by the Right Question Institute. He attended the workshop and saw tremendous potential for the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) in college classrooms, but no one was using it in higher education – yet. Perlman soon adopted the method in his undergraduate courses at Brandeis and he became active with the Right Question Institute.
Five years later, the institute was approached by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to apply for a grant to fund a project that the NSF hoped could result in more impactful questions from researchers seeking funding. Working with his colleagues at the Right Question Institute, Perlman is now principal investigator on a project to systematically introduce the QFT to graduate education – “The Question Improvement Model: A Simple and Scalable Model for Improving the Question Formulation Skills of PhD Students.”
BrandeisNOW asked Perlman, founding director of the Center for Teaching and Learning and professor of biology and environmental studies about this approach to teaching and the reaction of his students.
What is the Question Formulation Technique?
In the QFT, instead of the teacher asking a question, the teacher gives the students a prompt and they then brainstorm questions in response to the prompt in small groups. They don’t stop to discuss the questions; they’re just trying to generate questions. The next step is to think about which questions seemed the most interesting, and work with those to improve the questions.
I use the QFT at the beginning of the semester to shift the focus from me, the professor, to the students, and in so doing I signal that I want to hear from them. This is very beneficial because while they’re developing their question-asking skills, they feel that they are helping to shape the curriculum, rather than having it coming from a teacher who is dumping it onto them.
How does the QFT work?
The QFT uses four rules for producing questions. The Right Question folks spent years honing them, to get these in exactly the form they’re in.
1. Ask as many questions as you can.
2. Do not stop to discuss, judge or answer the questions.
3. Write down every question exactly as it is stated, and
4. Change any statement into a question.
A key part of the QFT is choosing the prompt, such as a phrase or a book title. For my Animal Behavior class, we used a visit to the Franklin Park Zoo as our prompt. We came back to the classroom and students broke into small groups and started asking questions about things they’d observed.
We took all of their questions and sorted them. In the first round of the QFT, students asked questions like, “How do animals know how to behave?” And then the next week, they used the most interesting of their questions as a prompt to generate further questions. In the second week students generated more targeted questions, “Were the animals making noises, and if so, what do these noises mean and how do they differ from noises made in the wild?” Out of this second round came almost all their term paper projects; they came up with really good ideas for studies. For example, after the second round of going through the QFT, one student’s term paper was about the effects of the zoo environment on lemurs, “Vocalizations of Ringtailed Lemurs: Are they affected by captivity?” So we started with the trip to the zoo, went through two rounds of the QFT, and we got term paper projects.
What’s the impact on students?
Students come to the Question Formulation Technique from a variety of backgrounds, and the QFT helps all of them. Students learn to ask broader ranging and deeper questions. And I think even the sharpest students, who are already asking really good questions, get to take it a step further. Students who are only asking very concrete, straightforward, simple questions, learn how to ask better questions through working with a group of their peers.
The QFT is being used in hundreds of thousands of K-12 classrooms, and with undergrads at other universities. Is Brandeis the only place where this new method is being used with graduate students?
As far as I know, our work with PhD students in the Life Sciences at Brandeis was the first such use. Since then we’ve worked with Engineering and Science PhD students at both UMass Lowell and Northeastern University – and well over 100 students have gone through the NSF-funded program.
Do you think it’s been a success?
As educators, we don’t typically teach the skill of asking questions, but I think you can argue that it’s one of the three or four most important skills that a college student, or any student, can learn. The QFT is one very good way to help students develop their question asking skills. We’re encouraged by the early results from the study and we are developing ways to objectively assess students’ progress in question formulation.
Do students get frustrated because the focus is on asking questions and not getting answers?
This came up when I gave a workshop at UMass Lowell, as many of the professors there asked, “Don’t the students want answers?” I told them that you can use the QFT in different ways, some of which put the onus for finding answers on the students. In the case of my Animal Behavior course, the Franklin Park Zoo trip and two rounds of the QFT helped the students create research questions that they were going to attempt to answer through semester-long research papers. So that was perfect. And the better questions they were asking were not something that they could answer right away. It took months and 25 pages to answer them. For PhD students, this is a great way to jump-start their thinking about research questions. As one noted after a training session, “It was remarkable how very unique and unexpected questions can be generated with this process.” In fact, a senior professor who sat in on a training was surprised that the QFT led to a new research question.
Women have played just as pivotal roles in the emergence and development of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) technologies over the last century as men have. It is a great source of shame for the scientific community, and society as a whole, that these contributions were not recognized sooner. However, a silver lining to this has been that, in recent years, many women have finally received recognition and there has been a huge increase in the public awareness of many of these women.
As a result of this, and other general shifts in attitudes, young girls and women are being encouraged to consider STEM subjects as potential future career paths. So far, this has been a successful endeavor around the world, and obviously a worthwhile one. The number of women studying STEM subjects and working in STEM fields is higher than ever before.
So, What’s the Problem?
In the UK, the benefits of this drive to attract more women into STEM fields is overwhelmingly benefiting relatively wealthy white women. Poor women, women of color, and women who lack academic certification, are all still hugely underrepresented in STEM.
There are also regional disparities. Consider a city like Manchester – home to a world class university that has produced some of the most ground-breaking science in the world since the industrial revolution. And yet, there are a great many STEM industries that are focused almost entirely around London. Women from Manchester who aren’t able to afford the move to London after graduating can end up being kept from jobs that they are perfectly suited for.
It is important to remember that just because the number of women in any organization or group of people has increased, that doesn’t necessarily mean that all women are being afforded the same opportunities. There are lots of STEM jobs that require a university degree, but there are plenty that can be taught to people who have few prior skills. For example, learning to code doesn’t require you to know anything else.
We need to do more than just represent women at university events; we should be striving for a STEM industry that is more diverse than the STEM education sector. This requires us to think more creatively, but there are still some simple things that we can do to help the situation.
Engage in Outreach
Ideally, we want to be getting the message out to girls from a young age that they can work towards a career in STEM. As it stands, this advice is often given with the heavy implication that women should be aiming to pursue academic careers in science, maths, or engineering. However, we should also be making them aware that there are STEM careers involving more practical things like coding, or more creative things like design.
This is also important knowledge for older women who already have careers, but would like to transition into STEM. They may be put off from doing so because they think they require a university degree. But let’s take something like cad courses – they offer the opportunity to learn an entirely new and sought-after skill with no degree required. professionals who want to expand their skill set in any field they choose without the need for a degree. This helps reach out to women over the usual barriers and across the divides that have conventionally meant that some women have been able to access better education services than others.
The number of women studying some STEM subjects is now on-par or almost on par with men. However, there is still a significant gender imbalance when it comes to STEM industries. This means that lots of women working in STEM are in male-dominated environments. Women working in these environments sometimes feel apprehensive about asking for help in case they are perceived as less capable.
It is important that women working in STEM have superiors and colleagues who they can approach for support if and when they need it. This will save them the kind of stress and anxiety that many women feel if they have to admit to a gap in their knowledge.
Teaching women how they can help themselves to advance their careers is just as important as helping them to do it. There are lots of steps that women can take on their own initiative in order to improve their career prospects, acquire new skills, and access fresh opportunities. Once women understand that they can do things outside of the classroom to help them access STEM, many people who would otherwise not have considered a STEM career will start taking those steps.
One of the most important things that anyone can do is to take the initiative and enroll on any courses or classes that are available and will teach skills and knowledge relevant to the field they want to go into. Making sure that women are aware of the value of some of these courses can help give them the direction they need to take their first steps towards a new career.
Within the worlds of business and academia, networking is a vital tool for enabling people to connect with others within their chosen field. It’s never too early to start building a professional network. Women who are transitioning into a STEM field from another field should check their current network to see if there’s anyone useful they can bring along for the journey.
Girls and young women who are studying for STEM subjects should try and attend any conferences or other events if they have the opportunity; these are excellent places to meet new people and to get an idea of what the professional landscape is looking like.
The internet is also a great place to network today. There are sites like LinkedIn, which is widely used by professionals operating in a number of different industries. Or there are the myriad online communities dedicated to STEM subjects, and even women in STEM specifically. Anywhere where you can meet people who have relevant experience and advice can help you build your network.
We should be doing all we can to make sure that we focus not just on recruiting women into STEM professions, but on recruiting women from all walks of life. There is such a wide variety of potential career paths available that there should be something that is ideally suited for just about anyone, no matter what their individual ambitions.
It shouldn’t therefore be beyond our capabilities to encourage more women from minority and working-class backgrounds to aim for a career in a STEM field, all they need is the right encouragement. Seeing themselves represented in the profession will certainly mean more women thinking of a STEM subject as a viable choice for their future.
Great strides have been taken in recent times to raise the number of women who are working in STEM professions. While we are definitely moving in the right direction, there is still more that can be done to improve the representation of women in STEM. We need to encourage girls from all backgrounds to consider STEM career paths from the earliest age possible.
The technicalities of good scientific writing are well established1,2 and important, but for your writing to have an impact, you need to resurrect the excitement of research — something that is often lost in day-to-day work. Successfully communicating the impact of your research is crucial for making your work more accessible, and for career progression. Here are the key elements to make your data stand out.
Research tells a story. Your research is a story with an important message — otherwise you would not be writing a manuscript. It is essential that you have clarity in your mind around your overarching storyline; without this, it is impossible to write clearly. Do not simply present the experiments and results in chronological order, instead consider how each piece of information fits with the unfolding story. Ask yourself why the research is important and clearly share that point with your audience. A good technique is to think how your research story could make your results something that people might be excited to share with their neighbours at a dinner party.
Learn when to write and when to use a figure. Consider how people read a paper. After a quick glance over the abstract, they often move to the data and figures. Cryptically presented data do not speak for themselves. Data collected over months or years deserve beautiful figures. Learn to use a vector program, such as Adobe Illustrator or Sketch, and make figures that you are proud to display both in print and on a screen.
Know your audience. Colleagues in your immediate field are the people most likely to be interested in your work, but also think about how to reach a wider audience. Some of the most exciting research is on the borders of multiple fields. Make your writing as clear as possible so it can be easily understood by readers from various fields. Ask colleagues outside your specific area of research to review your work to make sure it is understandable and interesting to your target audience.
Stay clean and clear. Research is international and, although using rich language is important, make sure that the message is clear to readers whose first language is not English. Write as simply as possible. Ask someone to review the language in your manuscript. The Elements of Style (Pearson, 1999) and The Economist Style Guide (Economist Books, 2015) are both English-language style guides that focus on developing a clear message, and I have found them useful for improving my writing.
Ask an English speaker to review your writing. Although peer reviewers forgive minor language errors if English is not your first language, such mistakes are not going to help your chances of a favourable review. The manuscript will eventually need an English-language edit anyway, so have it reviewed by a native English speaker before you submit the manuscript.
Try to highlight a link to a current topic. Editors want their journal to contribute to current issues in academia or the popular press. For example, last year a colleague and I reported finding elevated levels of lead in the blood of a person who ate meat from animals he had shot with lead bullets3. In the cover letter and manuscript, we highlighted the 2017 reversal of a ban of lead ammunition on certain US federal lands. We linked that policy change to the increased risk of lead exposure to hunters and their families through eating wild game shot with lead bullets. The cover letter is a way for you to sell your manuscript to the editor, so take the opportunity to pique their interest in your work.
Review and cut words. Space and time are always at a premium, so the shorter the manuscript, the better your chances of acceptance — and the more likely people are to read the published article.
The abstract is the most important section.Editors will use the abstract to decide whether the topic is of interest to their journal, and reviewers will use it to decide whether they are suitable to review the manuscript. Most people will only ever read this section. Make the abstract captivating.
There is no rule to say that science cannot be entertaining. Editors want their journal to be pleasurable and enlightening reading. Enjoy the writing process — your research effort deserves brilliant writing.