Research published this month found that as women students remain underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses, they are being subjected to an unwelcoming, “chilly” atmosphere in these male‐dominated fields.
In an article titled “Identity, Campus Climate, and Burnout Among Undergraduate Women in STEM Fields,” Purdue University professor Dr. Eric Deemer and Ph.D. student Laura Jensen wrote that respondents often described an unpleasant campus climate “associated with increased emotional exhaustion and cynicism, although not decreased academic efficacy.”
“My goal behind conducting this study was to look at environmental factors that impact women’s retention in STEM,” Jensen wrote in an e-mail to Diverse. Deemer remarked that Jensen “did most of the work. It was really her study.”
Dr. Eric Deemer
Jensen said her goal in developing the study, published in The Career Development Quarterly, was to examine environmental factors affecting female students in STEM. “Often it feels easier to look at internal factors for why women are not pursuing or [are] leaving STEM fields,” she said, “but I think that ignores just how big of an impact our institutions have on students.”
The researchers surveyed 363 female undergraduate STEM students to examine the potential moderating effect of chilly climate on woman–scientist identity interference and academic burnout. Deemer, an associate professor of counseling psychology, told Diverse that the term “woman – scientist identity interference” refers to the extent to which identity as a woman and identity as a scientist are incongruent.
“We found that woman-science identity interference was correlated with emotional exhaustion and cynicism and negatively correlated with academic efficacy,” Deemer said. “In other words, it increased the bad stuff and decreased the good stuff.”
Some highlights of the study:
As women experienced incongruence between their identities as women and as scientists, they felt more emotionally drained, more skeptical of the importance of their work, and less competent as students.
Results highlight the importance of improving the campus climate for female scientists, as well as the need to assist female scientists in identity development.
Future studies can assess perceptions of STEM climate from the perspective of students of different racial identities “because perceptions of predominantly White women do not represent the experiences of all women.”
The authors noted other limitations of the study, including the impact on first-generation college students. “Similarly, data included all students who identified as “female” in one gender category. The experiences of trans women may differ from cisgender women, and students who identify as transgender may experience a more unwelcoming climate in STEM.”
The study stated that educators “can use the results to create academic environments that minimize gender bias and promote attitudes that encourage the entry of women into STEM fields.”
It also noted that results of the research can be used to assist counselors in helping STEM students challenge stereotypes and other challenges as they navigate hostile academic and work environments.
“Awareness is the first step to addressing the chilly climate for women students,” Jensen said. “We won’t be able to retain women until we make a more welcoming environment for them.”
That’s what Sandra (a pseudonym), a transgender woman and professor of chemistry, told researchers when she was asked to describe how she navigates her personal and professional identity. “Many of my colleagues have never even seen me presenting as a woman,” she added.
Sandra is one of 55 STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) workers—including faculty members, students, and staff—who were interviewed for a study about what it’s like to identify as LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) in STEM. Since the study was published last month in the Journal of Homosexuality, the authors have received a slew of responses along the lines of, “Thank you for doing the work, because now I know I’m not alone,” says Allison Mattheis, an associate professor of education at California State University (CSU) in Los Angeles and the lead author of the study.
This Pride Month, Science Careers spoke with Mattheis and her co-authors—Daniel Cruz-Ramírez de Arellano, a senior instructor of chemistry at the University of South Florida in Tampa, and Jeremy Yoder, an assistant professor of biology at CSU in Northridge—about their study and what can be done to better support LGBTQ workers in STEM. This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: What challenges do LGBTQ people in STEM face?
Daniel Cruz-Ramírez de Arellano: In the STEM workplace, there has been this expectation that you should not bring in aspects of your personal life—that it has to be exclusively about the work and about the project you’re working on and nothing else. It’s exhausting for some people to have to separate their work and personal identities in such a way. What we found with our interviews is that if people could bring their whole selves to the workplace, without any sort of reservation, not only were they happier, but they did better work.
Jeremy Yoder: To highlight one example, one gay male astrophysicist said that the reason he was not particularly open about his gay identity at work was because everybody was trying to give the impression that they didn’t have a life outside of work; they thought that talking about their personal life would make them seem less competitive for postdocs and faculty positions. So that sort of work culture effectively put him in the closet, even if he wasn’t explicitly concealing anything.
Cruz-Ramírez de Arellano: We also had participants saying, “If I’m the best in my field, it won’t matter that I’m also gay.” It feels like you have to be the absolute best to counteract the fact that you’re gay. That resonated with me because I went through a stage like that.
Allison Mattheis: Support from departments and advisers is also a major factor. For example, I interviewed two trans students in math who had completely opposite experiences. When one student started to transition, they emailed their adviser and the next week, when they showed up on campus, everyone was using the correct pronouns; there were gender inclusive bathrooms on the same floor. So, the burden wasn’t on the trans person to figure everything out themselves.
But, for the other person it was a struggle. They had to go around and explain their identity to every single person as they started to transition. They didn’t have any senior faculty stand up for them. They once told an adviser that, when teaching in a lecture hall with 500 students, they were laughed at after someone misgendered them. Their adviser gave them a response along the lines of, “I’m here to talk about math. And maybe you’re just not cut out for this because you’re not able to focus on math”—just really cruel things.
That to me was a real example of how someone can be encouraged if they’re provided with some basic support and advocacy—and how hopeless people can feel if they don’t get that because it’s so exhausting trying to get a Ph.D. while also defending your identity for years.
Q: You’re all faculty members who identify as LGBTQ. Is it important for you to be “out” at work and with your students?
Cruz-Ramírez de Arellano: Yes. I’ve decided that being visible is really important to me, particularly after analyzing all of the interview data. So many people said that they’d never seen an out person in their field who was in a more senior position than them.
When I teach, I come out in the first 15 minutes of my first class. I have this slide where I speak about things that I like, for example video games or TV shows. And then I also have a picture of my boyfriend and me, and I say, “This is my boyfriend. His name’s Aaron. We’ve been together for 2 years. And now let’s talk about the syllabus.” I don’t linger on it; I don’t spend 20 minutes talking about how gay I am and how many drag queens I know. But I make it a point to come out explicitly because I might very well be the first gay scientist a lot of my students get to know.
Yoder: I don’t explicitly come out in class. But I have tried to be really deliberate about making sure I introduce myself with my pronouns, which is something that I should be doing regardless of my sexual orientation and gender identity. It signals that I’m someone who is thinking about diversity in the classroom.
I also sometimes wear things that signal my identity. Today, for example, I’m wearing a shirt I got at yesterday’s Pride run. And for years, I wore one of those little silicone rainbow wristbands everywhere, which is not the same as coming out exactly, but it is a signal that registers to people who are looking for it, which is almost as good.
Mattheis: I generally do come out to all my students at the beginning of class, but I have a really different context than Daniel and Jeremy. I teach graduate students who are already working in education or who want to work in education, so they generally are already aware of diversity issues. But because I work at a campus that’s 90% students of color, I always feel like my racial identity is one that I need to address first. If I don’t make it clear that I’m aware of the fact that I’m a white woman and that that really impacts my experience, I’m not going to be able to be a mentor to my queer students—who are mostly people of color—because their race is such a salient part of their identity and something that impacts them every day walking down the street.
Q: How can faculty members become effective allies, even if they’re not LGBTQ themselves?
Yoder: A really straightforward option that’s available on many, many campuses is “Safe Zone” training. That’s something that faculty can take themselves. If they want to go the extra mile, they might also consider making sure that it’s available and encouraged for all members of the lab. For instance, they could tell postdocs and graduate students that they can do the training on the clock—that it’s important for the work in the lab.
Cruz-Ramírez de Arellano: Afterward, you get a little Safe Zone sticker that you can put on your office door, which communicates to the campus community that you have gone through the training and that you are an ally. You can also put diversity statements on your website and in your syllabi, and list your pronouns in your email signature. That makes people feel like they are being included and addressed.
Mattheis: I think it’s also important for professors to model that they are humans. There’s this extreme perfectionism that’s prevalent in STEM, and it’s really hard for young folks. Sharing things that you’ve struggled with or messed up with—those are the things that make students think professors are accessible. And once you’re accessible about some aspect of your identity, students will come with questions about a lot of other things.
The other thing I would say is, don’t just say, “Oh, I found a queer student; let me point them to the one queer person I know across campus.” That’s really awkward. The student needs to have an advocate who also is aligned with their other interests. It’s important to demonstrate that you can be an ally to students who don’t share the same identities as you and that you’re willing to learn from them.
A recent Harvard study concluded that graduate students are over three times more likely than the average American to experience mental health disorders and depression. The study, which surveyed over 500 economics students from eight elite universities, also concluded that one in 10 students experienced suicidal thoughts over a two-week period, a result consistent with other recent reports. While these findings are alarming to some, as a current graduate student myself, I regard them as hardly surprising. But to understand the struggles graduate students face, you have to understand the structure of graduate school itself.
Most people probably lump doctoral students into the same category as undergrads or students in professional schools such as law or medicine. The reality is their lifestyle and the nature of their work are fundamentally different. In the STEM fields where I have personal experience, as well as many other fields, graduate students are really hardly students at all. For most of their programs, which last over six years on average, they aren’t preparing for written exams, taking courses or doing any of the tasks usually associated with student life. Instead they are dedicating often over 60 hours a week towards performing cutting edge research and writing journal articles that will be used to garner millions of dollars in university research funding.
While graduate students are compensated for their work by a supervising professor, their salaries substantially lag what the open job market would offer to people with their qualifications, which often include both master’s and bachelor’s degrees. For example, graduate student salaries are typically around $30,000 a year for those in STEM—and can besubstantially lower for those in other fields.
Further, unlike many professional school students, doctoral students do not leave their program with job security or even optimistic financial prospects. In fact, according to a study in 2016, nearly 40 percent of doctoral students do not have a job lined up at the time of graduation. Even for those who do snag a job, mid-career salaries can be significantly less than those for individuals who graduated from other professional programs.
So if doctoral students are underpaid and overworked, why do over100,000 students—more than the number for dentistry, medical and law schools combined—complete these programs every year?
There are many answers to this question, and they vary from department to department, individual to individual. For some, graduate school is a convenient next step, a way to inch towards adulthood while keeping your career options open and remaining in a familiar university environment. For others, graduate school offers something they simply cannot get elsewhere. These students enter graduate school because they are extremely passionate about their field—passionate enough that they are willing to dedicate over six years to studying off-the-wall research ideas in excruciating detail.
Universities, with a commitment to intellectual freedom, are one of the few environments capable of providing the funding and resources necessary for this type of work. So, we put up with the hours, put up with the pay, and put up with the dwindling career prospects in the hope that we can pursue research we are passionate about—and then we cross our fingers and hope the rest will work out.
Unfortunately, as the study pointed out, it often does not work out. Mistaking casual interest for passion, many students realize halfway through their degree that they aren’t as enthusiastic as they thought about their research. Still several years away from graduating, they have to deliberate between grinding through the remainder of their program or exiting early and entering the job market in an awkward position: underqualified compared to other doctoral graduates and inexperienced compared to others who joined the workforce directly after college.
Even those who are interested in their work have to grapple with seemingly infinitely postponed graduation dates. Unlike other programs, there is no “units threshold” you have to meet in order to graduate—instead your graduation date is overwhelmingly determined by the amount of novel research you perform. No matter how hard you may work, no results will likely mean no degree. Even the best researchers can see years slip by without any significant results as a result of factors completely out of their hands such as faulty equipment, dwindling research budgets or pursuing research ideas that simply just don’t work.
Even for students who are lucky enough to produce results, frustratingly, individual professors have their own standards for what constitutes “enough research” to graduate. Is it four first-author research articles? What about one review paper and a few conference presentations? The answers you hear will vary widely, and ultimately, a student’s supervising professor usually has sole power in determining when a student graduates. At best, this creates a confusing system where students perform substantially different amounts of work for the same degree. At worst, it fosters a perverse power dynamic where students feel powerless to speak out against professors who create toxic working conditions, even resulting in cases of sexual exploitation.
Then there’s always the existential, “what even is my purpose?” mental black hole that many graduate students fall into. Yes, research has historically produced innovations that have revolutionized society. But for every breakthrough there are many other results without any clear social application, and given the slow, painstaking process of research, you may not be able to tell which is which for decades. As a student, it’s can be easy to doubt whether you’re pursuing work that will ever be useful, producing a sense of meaninglessness for some that can facilitate depression.
Clearly, if nearly 10 percent of the graduate population is experiencing suicidal thoughts, something is not working right in the system. Still, progress on these issues has been slow, largely because the people who are most affected—graduate students– are often the ones with the least agency to spur change. As a student, by the time you’ve seen the cracks in the academic infrastructure, you’ll likely only have a few more years until graduation. Do you really want to dedicate time towards fixing a system you’re leaving soon when you could be performing career-vaulting research instead? Are you willing to risk upsetting professors whose recommendation letters will dictate your employment prospects? For many, the answer is no.
Granted, the issues surrounding graduate student mental health are much easier to describe than to solve. But if academia is good at anything, it’s tackling complex, multifaceted problems exactly like these, and there are number of starting points for both students and administrators to push forward. For example, universities could require multiple advisors within a student’s field to evaluate degree timelines, preventing labor exploitation by a single professor with vested interests in prolonging graduation dates.
Departments could also streamline their graduation criteria to reduce disparities in student workload amongst different research groups and to increase transparency of degree requirements. Further, administrators could increase funding for popular student mental health services and subsidized housing that help graduate students offset cost-of-living expenses. Some universities have already adopted these policies in earnest and others only in name, but the point is academic institutions need to be making a concerted effort to improve the graduate student experience. For all the research they have done, graduate students deserve to start seeing some results.
Chris Bolden, a Ph.D. candidate researching drug addiction, was thrilled with the outcome of two Arkansas congressional delegation staff meetings as part of an American Association for the Advancement of Science workshop on the role of science in public policy-making.
The capstone meeting with a staffer for Rep. French Hill (R–AR) resulted in an invite to serve on an Arkansas regional advisory board on the state’s methamphetamine epidemic, a focus of Bolden’s research. At a later meeting with aides to Sen. Tom Cotton (R–AR), Bolden was asked to provide a tour of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences lab where he conducts research. “I said, ‘Yes,’ of course.”
“Scientists in this generation want to increase our advocacy beyond the bench, and the best start is to get involved in policy,” said Bolden, one of 173 upper-class undergraduate and graduate science students who participated in intensive activities over 3 days as part of AAAS’s Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering (CASE) workshop, a crash course for science and public policy-making in the federal arena.
In recent years, the CASE workshop has experienced steady growth that aligns with increasing interest and engagement in policy-making and its impacts on the scientific enterprise among science, technology, engineering, and mathematics students.
Chloe McPherson, an associate in AAAS’s Office of Government Relations and an ambassador to CASE workshop participants, attributes growing workshop participation to the increasing formation of student-run, campus-based public policy and science organizations and outreach networks.
“More science policy groups are forming on campuses around the country, and a lot of graduate and Ph.D. students are looking for different ways to be involved and different options for what to do once they graduate,” said McPherson. “That has been a big factor.”
In 2018, CASE marked the greatest year-over-year jump in attendance when participation shot up to 193 students, the largest group to date, from 93 participants in 2017. In 2014, its inaugural year, CASE drew 64 students. Attendees of this year’s March workshop in Washington, D.C., also came from 28 different states across the country.
The number of scientific societies and universities that support student participation in the workshop also has climbed. Sixty-four institutions and organizations supported student attendance this year, up from 33 sponsors in the workshop’s inaugural year.
CASE has become a go-to workshop for scientists eager to understand science policy-making, particularly in the legislative and executive branches. Speakers addressed forces that transform legislatiion into laws, complex pressures behind annual federal budget proposals and spending decisions, and the operations of federal agencies.
Attendees attribute their interest to the need to expand their professional opportunities and gain knowledge of and participation in public policy-making that favorably impacts scientific research and contributes to public recognition of science’s value to public well-being and economic growth.
“Scientists are displaying a higher interest in learning about public policy because these policies affect our progress at and beyond the bench,” said Bolden. “Policies help influence which public health concerns funding invests in.”
The workshop’s Capitol Hill visits generated extensive enthusiasm among CASE attendees, reactions widely reflected on their Twitter posts with expressions of gratitude for being given platforms to advocate for science, engage in science policy matters, share stories about their research, and make cases for federal scientific support.
Jacy Hyde, a Ph.D. candidate who studies deforestation and energy development in the Brazilian Amazon and a founder of a University of Florida science policy student organization, said her meetings with the staff of Reps. Bill Posey (R–FL), Neal Dunn (R–FL), and Michael Waltz (R–FL) were an important step in building relationships with the state’s delegation, a goal of her university’s student policy organization.
“Both the workshop and my meetings reinforced the idea that simply bringing knowledge is not enough, but that you have to explain why someone should care about your work, and that enthusiasm, passion, and finding common ground really make a difference,” said Hyde.
The workshop also featured CASE alumni. Danielle DaCrema, a Ph.D. candidate in cell biology, now participating in a 12-week science and technology policy fellowship at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, said that the CASE workshop helped jumpstart her science policy work by providing resources and a network of contacts. The program’s federal budget training segments by Matt Hourihan were especially valuable, she said.
In sharing his story with attendees, Drew Story, another CASE alumnus who holds a Ph.D. in chemical and environmental engineering and now serves as a AAAS Science & Technology Policy fellow in the office of Sen. Chris Coons (D–DE), said he got his start by attending a AAAS annual meeting in 2015. Continuing involvement led him to the CASE workshop and now AAAS’s year-long public policy fellowship program. “Anytime I was involved in AAAS my network grew,” Story said.
The CASE workshop was founded in 2014 by the AAAS Office of Government Relations and five other scientific societies and higher-education institutions to answer increasing calls from students to better understand the bridge between science and policy-making and to gain training in science communications.
“Graduate students have taken an increasing interest in policy because, more than in the past, they want science and evidence used to inform and shape federal policies,” said Toby Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities, one of the program’s founding organizations.
Smith, a CASE speaker, underscored the need for effective advocacy from student scientists and praised the establishment on campuses of science policy groups and communications networks to enhance student participation in the public policy arena. Among topics they need to address, he said, are growing pressure on discretionary federal spending that is equivalent to potential cuts for key science agencies and programs, and legislative provisions that can block effective and efficient science.
A proposed tax provision in an early version of the 2018 Tax Reform Act, for instance, would have greatly increased educational costs for graduate students, said Smith. Instead, it served as a wake-up call for them to get more involved in public policy-making and led many to join or establish student-run policy groups. “What they learned from that experience was that if they mobilized, they could make a significant difference in the final outcome of major legislation,” he said.
Throughout the workshop, networking and coalition-building among participants were on full display, as was their energy, enthusiasm, and dedication. As if on cue, the 173 CASE participants quickly stood up at the beginning of each break and launched into conversations with those seated around them.
Staff from the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, Senate and House lawmakers’ offices, congressional science committees and NASA, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation shared executive and legislative branch perspectives.
In workshop remarks, Sam Love, an aide to Sen. Cory Gardner (R–CO), advised the community to help lawmakers stay informed about science. Samantha Warren, an aide to Rep. Bill Foster (D–IL), said of policy-making, “If you’re not part of the conversation… not there to be influencing it, it will happen to you, rather than with you, so you might as well get engaged.”
Teresa Davies, a National Science Foundation senior adviser, rallied CASE participants to leverage their value as the nation’s new generation of scientists. “You are critically important. I am hoping that when you get outreach opportunities, you take full advantage.”
Also addressing the workshop were Rush Holt, AAAS chief executive officer, and Shirley Malcom, AAAS senior adviser and director of SEA Change, a program designed to help academic institutions attract, retain, and advance underrepresented minority groups in science. “Laws let things happen. People have to make things happen,” Malcom said.
Showing CASE participants how to be a scientist and engaged in public policy, Holt traced his career as a Ph.D. physicist, college professor, federal employee, assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, 16-year member of New Jersey’s delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives, and now AAAS’s chief executive officer and executive publisher of the Sciencefamily of journals.
Graduate students, Holt said, need to stop science from being ignored, seek out evidence, and connect with audiences by telling “the story of the evidence. Evidence-based thinking leads to more reliable knowledge and that reliable knowledge is what you should base your further research on and any public policy decision-making that you’re going to be doing.”
Andrea Korte and Tiffany Lohwater contributed to this story.
Last month, David Mobley took an “emotionally difficult” step: The associate professor of chemistry at the University of California, Irvine, sent an online survey to his research group, asking for anonymous feedback on his mentoring. He was inspired to figure out ways to improve after reading posts on Twitter that discussed the importance of good mentoring. “If you want to get better at something, the best way to start is to find out where you’re doing it badly,” he says. “Here I am 10 years into my faculty career and I haven’t ever done that.”
So far, only three members of his lab—out of 18 total—have filled it out. But the responses have already helped him start to zero in on things he can do to improve his mentoring. For instance, a few trainees said they’d prefer to be offered regular face-to-face meetings, instead of meeting on an as-needed basis—which is how Mobley currently schedules meetings with those who haven’t asked to meet regularly. Mobley also learned that some trainees would like him to enforce firmer deadlines for completing data analyses, manuscripts, and other tasks. The feedback has helped him see that “I need to not have a one-size-fits-all management style,” Mobley says. “I need to figure out what people need and make sure that they get that.”
Mobley is one of a handful of faculty members adopting this type of approach. Jen Heemstra, an associate professor of chemistry at Emory University in Atlanta, started to ask her research group for feedback in 2015, around the time she went up for tenure. Up to that point, she’d thought that “if I know what sort of culture I want in my lab, if I know what kind of mentor I want to be, I can just lead from that notion and everything will work out,” she says. (Heemstra’s Twitter feed was Mobley’s main source of inspiration in his quest to become a better mentor. She’s “the queen of the mentoring Twitterverse,” he says.)
After 5 years as a faculty member—at a point when Heemstra’s research group had grown and become more established—she had gained enough experience to realize that setting out to be a good mentor “helps, but that only gets you so far,” she says. To become a truly great mentor, “it really takes a lot more intentionality; it takes a lot of intentional learning and growth and things like critical feedback.” So she sent out an online survey, asking the members of her lab for constructive ideas about how she could become a more effective mentor.
Some of the responses had easy fixes. For instance, she learned that trainees sometimes became frustrated when they weren’t aware of her travel schedule. So she set up a group Google Calendar, where everyone in the research group now logs their travel and vacation time.
Other feedback was tougher to confront. Trainees told her: “We’ll be in a meeting and you’ll suggest that we try this experiment … and then we’ll be back in a meeting a few weeks later, reporting out on what happened, and you will say, ‘Well, I don’t know why you did it that way,’” she recalls. Her lab members phrased it nicely, but she translated their comments to mean “I have a terrible memory.” The feedback prompted Heemstra to acknowledge to her group that she was “incredibly guilty of this”—but she also told group members that, with 15 or so lab members and various other responsibilities, she would never remember every detail of every conversation. Instead, she pledged to alter her approach in situations where she has questions about a trainee’s methodology, first asking why they did an experiment a certain way. She also asked her trainees to respond honestly, to tell her when something was her idea in the first place, even if the experiment went awry.
“It’s been so useful,” she wrote in a tweet about soliciting anonymous feedback. “The first time was definitely the toughest, and now I really look forward to the feedback, even when it’s critical.”
This approach can be useful beyond the lab, too, as Courtney Sobers, an assistant teaching professor at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, has found. A year after Sobers became a faculty member in 2017, she started to ask for anonymous feedback from graduate students and undergraduates who served as teaching assistants (TAs) under her supervision, distributing pen-and-paper surveys to roughly 30 TAs at the end of each semester. Her goal was to find out how she could be a better leader and manager.
“You don’t get taught management in grad school,” she says. “You have maybe an undergrad or two you’re responsible for, but even that’s different because at the end of the day they report to your adviser, not you.”
So, she thought, implementing an anonymous survey “is a good way to check myself while I’m still early in my career,” she says. “I need to know how they really feel so I can make changes that mean something, as opposed to me just going ‘OK I’m doing everything fine’ and secretly they’re all complaining about me behind my back.”
Sobers has been surprised by the survey responses. TAs often bring up things that she didn’t realize were a problem—that she spent less time observing their teaching and giving them feedback this past semester, for instance—and they’ll fail to mention things that Sobers agonized over. “There are always things where I’ll cringe, and they’ll hover over me,” she says. She once criticized a first-time TA in front of other TAs—a decision that haunted her for weeks, even though she apologized to the TA afterward. But after reading the surveys, she realized that the TAs weren’t bothered by her critique; in fact, they appreciated that she was willing to give them feedback.
TAs also frequently tell Sobers that she shouldn’t talk so fast. She now makes a concerted effort to slow down when giving instructions to her TAs, many of whom are international students—though she’s not always successful. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to talk slower; that’s a personality trait,” she says. But the feedback “reminds me to be patient with my TAs [when they don’t understand something] because it may be that they didn’t keep up with me, not that they weren’t paying attention.”
Heemstra hopes that more faculty members will take steps to get feedback from students and postdocs under their supervision. “One of the biggest challenges we have in academia is this incredibly intense power structure,” so a lot of trainees are hesitant to criticize their adviser. Opening yourself up to criticism and offering opportunities to give anonymous feedback, Heemstra says, can help create a healthy workplace. “Anything we [professors] can do to model vulnerability and be authentic and be human—that’s incredibly helpful for the culture.”
When Mobley posted on Twitter about his survey, responses from current and former graduate students were overwhelmingly positive. “I wish my mentors would have done this along the way,” wrote one scientist. “Low-key jealous of your group for having a mentor open to constructive criticism,” wrote another.
Seeking feedback isn’t just a selfless act, Mobley notes. Professors also stand to benefit from taking steps to become better mentors. Take recruiting, for example: Prospective trainees don’t want to work in a place that “chews you up and spits you out,” he says. “If you do a better job mentoring people, I think in the long run that’s going to result in more strong people coming to you wanting to join.”
How to do it
There’s no one correct way to seek anonymous feedback from people under your supervision, but here are a few tips based on things that worked—or didn’t work—for the professors ScienceCareers spoke with.
Online survey tools, such as SurveyMonkey, make it easy to generate and distribute surveys. Trainees may feel less confident in their anonymity if they’re asked to fill out a paper survey.
If you have a small lab group, trainees may be nervous that it’ll be obvious which comments came from them. Including recent alumni in the survey can help beef up the number of potential respondents; alumni may also feel more comfortable sharing constructive feedback. You can also include undergraduate lab members, in addition to grad students, postdocs, and staff scientists. If your group is still too small, Mobley notes that a similar survey could be administered at a departmental level, with feedback provided to faculty on the whole.
Potential questions include: What’s working well? What am I doing (or not doing) that’s hindering my ability to be an effective leader and mentor in our group? Do you feel like you get enough of my time and attention? Do you spend much time stuck (if so, why)? Anything else you’d like to comment on?
After the survey is complete, Heemstra recommends presenting the feedback to the entire group. She shares excerpts from the survey responses and gives her honest take on what she thinks can—or cannot—be done to solve a given issue. “If there’s something that I don’t feel I should have to address, I talk about that too,” Heemstra says.
It’s helpful to repeat the survey on an annual or biannual basis. Heemstra makes slight tweaks to her questions each round, often asking trainees whether she has improved on something she pledged to work on after receiving feedback in a previous survey.
A well-crafted set of guidelines and advice can save time, reassure trainees and promote a positive lab culture, argues Mariam Aly.
Taken from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-06167-w
A year and a half ago, as I was preparing to launch my own laboratory studying cognition at Columbia University in New York City, I kept returning to a particular concern: I would soon be responsible for the scientific advancement of trainees. How could I help them be the best scientists they could be, while also protecting their well-being?
I found the answer on Twitter. Two principal investigators in my field, Jonathan Peelle at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, and Maureen Ritchey at Boston College in Massachusetts, shared their lab manuals. These laid out expectations for themselves and their trainees, as well as resources and tips to guide trainees through their time in the lab. I decided to follow in their footsteps by writing a lab manual to introduce my trainees to my philosophy for research and work–life balance. This required a great deal of time and thought, but it is something I would recommend to anyone leading a research group.
In the final few months of my postdoctoral studies, I thought about what had worked well and not so well for me as a trainee, and how to create best practices for my lab. Then I put into writing things that are usually transmitted informally. For example, that it doesn’t matter to me whether trainees arrive at 9 a.m. or 1 p.m. or work from home, as long as they get their work done and honour their commitments. And I explicitly encouraged trainees to talk to me if they need to vent or feel they are foundering: academia can be stressful, and I want to help.
I addressed concerns that I imagined trainees would have: what if I make a mistake in my experiment? (It’s OK, we all do; tell your collaborators right away so that you can start to discuss the next steps.) Do I have to work 80 hours a week to succeed? (No.) How do I ensure my results are reproducible? (Double-check your code, add explanatory comments, document every step of data analysis and use version control.) How do I participate in open science? (Publicly share stimuli, code and data when you submit a manuscript.)
I supplemented my lab manual (go.nature.com/2c1dxdt) with a wiki (go.nature.com/2pti9kj), a website of resources for lab members. This included everything from tools for learning the programming languages R and Python and how to do neuroimaging analyses, to tips on keeping up with the research literature (by using RSS feeds and Twitter) and where to find the best bagel in Manhattan (a ten-minute walk from the lab). My goal was that any newly accepted lab member could read the manual and wiki and then strut into the lab knowing what to expect.
I try hard to keep myself accountable for what I have written. For instance, I promised weekly meetings with each trainee, and I stick to that, although it’s a challenge with teaching obligations and travel. I hope that the consistency between my actions and my words helps lab members to understand that I meant what I wrote, even if they have yet to experience everything I promised.
I ask every trainee to read the lab manual. I make a point of referencing it and the wiki, along with repeated, not-so-subtle examples of their utility. My lab members now contribute to the wiki without prompting. When I checked in with them to see whether these resources were useful, the answer was a resounding ‘yes’. Their actions also suggest that they internalized what they read. Some share struggles with me, ask for advice and take days off for mental health — as I hoped they would, and as I wish I had done when I was a trainee.
Here’s another example: my lab manual states that trainees are entitled to read my grants, and my lab members have requested to see them. That’s something I never asked my previous advisers; I worried it would be presumptuous. I realize now that my thinking was almost certainly wrong, but my own uneasy feelings as a trainee just drive home how important it is to put into writing that something is OK — otherwise, trainees might assume it is not. That goes double for the areas that trainees are most sensitive about: I’ve written down in black and white that it is OK to make mistakes and to maintain a work–life balance.
Putting together a lab manual and wiki takes time, but there are several examples to use for inspiration. My lab manual and wiki are publicly available for anyone to use as starting points. Once the wiki has been written, the entire lab can help to maintain it; if everyone pitches in, any particular update will often take only a few minutes.
The initial effort of writing a manual saves enormous amounts of time in the long run. I no longer have to repeatedly search my e-mails or the Internet to find the answer to a problem I previously solved but have forgotten. Likewise, my trainees do not have to struggle to find answers to commonly asked questions (for example, ‘how do I get after-hours access to the building?’). More importantly, having a lab manual requires you to be explicit and transparent about your expectations and what you promise to do for your lab — every trainee reads the same expectations in the same words, putting everyone on equal footing.
A year after writing the lab manual, I re-read and revised it. That process reminded me of all that was at stake: all that I promised my trainees and all that I needed to do to ensure a healthy, happy and safe lab environment. It also led me to reflect on how pleased I am with my lab. My trainees are hard-working, sociable and supportive of one another. I love walking in and seeing them working together on a problem, or laughing and dancing when they’ve solved one. I might have written the lab manual, but my trainees brought it to life.
Taken from http://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2018/06/want-connect-other-graduate-students-check-out-new-online-community
Brittany Jack has been using Slack, the electronic communication and collaboration tool, since she joined Prachee Avasthi’s lab. Jack, who has just completed the first year of her Ph.D. at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, uses it to keep Avasthi up to date on her results and ask for advice. She’s also found it helpful for communicating with her labmates: a postdoctoral fellow, a research assistant, and three undergraduate researchers. But it wasn’t until another graduate student, Brae Bigge, started a rotation in the lab this spring that Jack realized how much she could gain from daily communication with trainees at her same career stage. And she realized that Slack could be just the tool to help make that happen—in a big way. Last month, Jack, together with Bigge and fellow grad student and friend Rosalyn Henn, launched Grad Student Slack. It joins a growing list of Slack groups for scientists, including New PI Slack (which Avasthi founded in 2016), Future PI Slack, and Mid-Career PI Slack. “I just wanted to have a community and … camaraderie with graduate students across the world,” Jack says. “We are all going through the same thing, and we can give each other advice.”
The only requirement to join Grad Student Slack is that you are a master’s or Ph.D. student. It is still in its early days, but the group already has some 300 members. Most of the interest is coming from the United States, Canada, Europe, and India, but there is also some from Asia and Australia. So far, members have created more than 40 discussion channels. Some are dedicated to research topics as diverse as cell and molecular biology, ecology, computer science, and the humanities. Others are forums to discuss how to prepare for qualifying exams, write a paper or thesis, mentor undergraduate students, participate in journal clubs, and engage in science communication. There are channels dedicated to professional and personal growth, covering the relationship with your principal investigator (PI), career development, job hunting, and being a scientist parent. A few channels promote networking within specific geographical regions. Yet others will help you get through a bad day or cultivate your mental health.
“It is a space for open and honest discussions about graduate school, both the personal and the professional aspects of it,” says Ankita Patil, who has just finished the third year of her neuroscience Ph.D. program at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Patil has already gotten tips on how to tackle graduate school’s workload, contributed to answering questions about attending conferences, and discussed research. “It’s also nice that there are plenty of students who actively engage in the conversations. It definitely allows you to voice your opinions or ideas without feeling like they may be singled out or dismissed.”
“Grad Student Slack is able to provide that broader sense of community that I haven’t yet found on campus,” says Joshua Landman, who completed a master’s degree in computer science at Washington University in St. Louis in Missouri and will begin a Ph.D. in data science there in August. He didn’t have a cohort during his master’s degree, and as an incoming student it’s not always easy to get to know people, says Landman, who was among the first people to join the Slack group after a friend sent him an invitation. Through Grad Student Slack, “I’ve met other students both within my discipline and from other branches of science, not to mention students at my university that I wouldn’t have otherwise interacted with,” he says. That is particularly important, because “grad school can, in some ways, be isolating.”
As Bryn Sachdeo, a final-year Ph.D. candidate in nutritional biochemistry and physiology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, puts it, “I see Grad Student Slack as a peer-support dream team.” Connecting with others this way can help fill the gaps that many students experience—even those with supportive PIs, thesis committees, and broader communities. So far, Sachdeo has exchanged postdoc hunting tips with an astrophysicist and a neuropharmacologist and given feedback on a thesis abstract about Drosophila genetics. She also appreciates that she can interact with the group on her timeline. “If I have an insane schedule and don’t have the energy for it, I can choose to not engage at all,” she says. “At the end of the day, it’s a voluntary social media platform, so you get out what you put in.”
As the discussions have the potential to delve into sensitive topics, one issue is anonymity—or lack thereof. All members must register with their full names and state their year in graduate school to be verified as graduate students. The founders opted for this policy because they wanted members to feel comfortable being open about their experiences, without the risk of retaliation from more senior researchers or other negative consequences. But members still need to be careful not to reveal anything that they may come to regret later, the founders warn. The group’s code of conduct, which emphasizes respect and courtesy, also invites students who feel too uncomfortable to participate to get in touch with the founders so that they can consider granting anonymity on a case-by-case basis. “We have not crossed that bridge yet,” Jack says, but “we are aware of the fact that [some students] might need to discuss problems with their PI and other people from their lab could be in [the Slack group].”
The founders see Grad Student Slack not only as a service to their community, but also an investment in their own futures. During a Ph.D., “the later years are often the more difficult ones,” says Henn, who is just about to start her second year. “Knowing that later on, we will be able to have this community that is going through the same experiences at the same time will be really beneficial.”
Doctoral students can use writing meet-ups to overcome isolation and depression — and boost their motivation, says Karra Harrington.
Taken from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-05589-w?utm_source=fbk_nnc&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=naturenews&sf193187400=1
Feelings of depression, anxiety and isolation are so common during a PhD programme that some have dubbed the experience ‘the PhD blues’. As a PhD student and practising psychologist, I wanted to try to reduce the impact of the blues on my fellow students and on me.
I decided to plan a regular meet-up with my student peers, in which we could write up our theses together. My hope was that it would establish deep social connections and help us to cope with some of the challenges of our PhD programmes.
I had attended Shut Up and Write! writing groups, which involve short ‘sprints’ of writing with breaks in between. Everyone works silently during the sprints and socializes during the breaks. These groups helped me to manage my productivity and motivation — but I had no sense of connection with my fellow writers. Often, participants would check e-mails or take a walk during breaks. And different people attended each session, which made it hard to get to know each other and to build connections. Any conversations were superficial and perfunctory.
For my group, I wanted to use the breaks to create supportive networks and to share ideas on how to overcome challenges. Ultimately, I wanted to create a community in which participants could learn from and support each other while also feeling productive and making progress on their theses.
I first needed to find participants. I reached out to students involved with the Cooperative Research Centre for Mental Health, an Australian research consortium based in Melbourne that aims to further mental-health research through collaboration. Students in the consortium work across research areas, institutions and geographical locations. Such diversity meant that relationships developed among students who would not usually interact regularly. It also meant that we could use the sessions to expand our networks and gain fresh perspectives on common challenges.
I launched the meet-up almost two years ago, and it has been a huge success, with a regular attendance of six to ten students every month. Our sessions are done in person and through videoconferencing, and include two to three hours of writing, as well as discussions on how to find mentors, structure thesis drafts or balance family life with completing a PhD. I facilitate each session, and group members raise topics according to their needs and interests. Members say that they feel accountable to the group, and that this motivates them and limits procrastination. They also check in with each other between sessions.
Bringing together students from different institutions, and creating a space in which they could interact, was challenging. The videoconferencing helps members who can’t get to campus — they feel engaged with their peers and less isolated. The meet-ups help me, too: I often have limited contact with other people during my working day. A regularly scheduled time to meet with others and discuss my science gives me a break from the isolation and is something to look forward to every month.
It took some time to build trust in the group so that everyone felt comfortable participating in the discussions. As facilitator, I keep discussions on track and relevant, encourage quieter group members to speak up and provide opportunities for those participating through videoconferencing to contribute. These efforts help to establish a sense of fairness and equality in the group.
The consistency of attendance by core group members is important because it helps participants to build relationships, thereby fostering a sense of safety and trust within each session. Group members say that they value having opportunities to connect with other PhD students and share their experiences, and that the group has helped them to maintain their motivation and sense of well-being.
Along the way, I’ve realized the importance of setting clear expectations using ground rules. Our ground rules are based on respect and confidentiality, and include speaking one at a time, listening to each other, not talking during writing sessions and maintaining confidentiality on all issues that we discuss in the group. All group members agree to stick to the rules, and the facilitator helps to enforce them.
As our group continued to meet and members started to open up about challenges that they faced, we found that the ground rules became even more valuable, because they helped to promote a sense of safety and encouraged useful exchanges between members. I found that it was also useful to make the group’s purpose — to manage productivity and well-being — explicit from the start. On signing up to join, members know immediately what to expect. We use the Pomodoro Technique, which involves blocks of writing, breaks for discussion and goal setting, to manage our productivity. At the start of each session, we share our individual goals with each other; and during the discussion breaks, we check with one another on our progress towards our goals.
For some group members, this was a new way of working and it took some time to get used to. But the fact that we made it clear from the start why we had adopted this way of working helped new members to understand and to agree to try out these techniques. Members say they’ve found that the group helps them to set aside quality writing time, and that the structure of the sessions enables them to make progress on their thesis even when they are struggling with motivation.
The peer-mentoring aspect gives everyone a space in which to ask questions and to share what they know. A group member might, for example, seek advice about conference networking while also providing guidance on a data-analysis technique. By creating opportunities for members to ask for support and advice, the sessions help everyone to feel more hopeful and to identify proactive steps that they can take to overcome challenges. The opportunity to help others and to share knowledge provides everyone with a sense of empowerment and the ability to recognize their own strengths and expertise.
Our discussions help to normalize the challenges of PhD studies and remind us to celebrate our successes. We wanted to share the benefits of the group with other PhD students, and so we’ve developed our model into a programme called Write Smarter: Feel Better. We have created guidelines for group sessions and training materials for group facilitators. These cover things such as how to build trust, and how to help the group reach agreement on ways in which members should interact with each other. Australia’s University of Melbourne and Edith Cowan University are now testing the programme, with evaluations planned for completion by the end of this year.
At both universities, PhD students volunteer for the role of facilitator. We worked with the universities to develop strategies to support PhD students in this role; these included providing first-aid training in mental health and arranging for a university staff member to be a support contact. Importantly, although the universities offer support, the sessions remain led by PhD students and for PhD students.
Creating this meet-up group has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my PhD experience. I have learnt so much from organizing and facilitating the sessions, and now have a solid peer network. I have been able to gain insights on my research and career that I wouldn’t have had if I had stuck to working on my own or only with lab peers. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, my goal is not only to survive, but to thrive — with passion, compassion, humour and style — and my meet-up is helping me to do exactly that.
Raw Talk Podcast — a project spearheaded by graduate students from The Institute of Medical Science (IMS) at U of T — hosted its first live show at JLABS on May 30. A two-part panel discussion, Raw Talk Live explored the current climate of science communication.
Traditionally, science was communicated through conferences, where researchers in the same or similar fields shared their findings with their peers. The responsibility for communicating this research to the public fell on teachers and science journalists. These days, researchers also communicate their findings outside of the academic community through scientific outreach and the media.
Public engagement in science
Tetyana Pekar, an IMS alum and moderator of the first panel, asked panelists what they thought the status quo for public engagement in science was and how it could be improved. The panelists all felt that the status quo was changing for the better, but that there was room for improvement.
One key concern was that scientific outreach tends to stay within the ivory towers of academia, and getting the general public to take interest in science is an ongoing struggle.
A 2017 survey conducted by the Ontario Science Centre found 47 per cent of Canadians do not believe in or understand the science behind global warming.
“There is this aspect of the public’s awareness of science that’s incomplete and they’re going to celebrities for information and that’s very troubling,” said Dan Weaver, a PhD candidate in the Department of Physics at U of T.
The results from a 2011 analysis indicate that students from underrepresented or underprivileged backgrounds have less access to science outreach initiatives, which further deepens these misunderstandings as these students are likely deterred from learning about science or pursuing a scientific career.
For Doina Oncel, founder of hEr VOLUTION, a non-profit organization in Toronto that empowers youth in underserved communities to enter STEM, outreach means that “We don’t [just] empower people, we give them tools to empower themselves.”
When Weaver and his research team traveled to Nunavut, they conducted science outreach activities with students from a local school. They showed the students how scientific instruments are used in research to make becoming a scientist a more concrete possibility.
Scientists also benefit from engaging with lay audiences about their research.
“I think the patient [and] parent voice in research is important. I think we have stories to tell and things to say that are valued in the research world,” said Connie Putterman, whose journey in science communication began when her son was diagnosed with autism 18 years ago.
The speakers agreed that citizens have a large impact on science policy, and, in turn, on scientific research. According to the Canadian Science Policy Centre founder and CEO Mehrdad Hariri, by creating a culture of public engagement in scientific research through initiatives like citizen science, we can better defend the integrity of science.
New methods of science communication
Eryn Tong, a Raw Talk segment host, asked speakers in the second panel what they thought effective science communication would look like in an ideal world.
According to Dr. Vicky Forster, a postdoctoral fellow at SickKids, science should be made more accessible through open access publications and accessible language. The other panelists echoed this sentiment. Especially as one in three Canadians are unable to follow science reports published in the media, creativity is necessary when reporting science accurately and in a way that is understood by non-expert audiences.
“What we’re seeing is that there’s a real appetite… to take content and customize it and make it so that it’s consumable in ways that people can navigate it in [a] non-linear fashion,” said Kevin Millar, Senior Vice President of Creative and Medical Science at INVIVO Communications, a digital healthcare agency that creates visual aids for communicating science.
Millar added that Canada should invest more time and talent into communicating science more effectively and for specific audiences.
Helen Kontozopoulos, co-founder of the Innovation Lab in the Department of Computer Science at U of T, pointed out that bringing different voices to the narrative could also help change the way scientific research is shared.
Elah Feder, U of T alum and co-host of science podcast Undiscovered, added that communicating the scientific process is equally important. “People just see a headline that coffee is bad for you and then next week they see that coffee is good for you and I think [they get confused] because they don’t understand the process,” said Feder.
Taken from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-03802-4
The lab is sometimes a silly place — and perhaps it should be. A group that behaves in daft ways from time to time tends to be one that is positive, results-oriented and successful, says Michael Kerr, a business speaker in Canmore, Canada, who focuses on humour in the workplace. Jokes and pranks can serve as signs of a healthy workplace, and provide ways to foster trust and good communication among staff, Kerr says.
A 2012 meta-review of studies on humour in the workplace found that it is linked with strong employee performance, effective stress-coping mechanisms and sturdy group cohesiveness1. The study, conducted by two management researchers at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and a psychologist at Florida International University in Miami, also linked humour to reduced burnout among employees.
Although humour has its benefits, researchers caution that jokes and laughs must be appropriate for the workplace and lab members should avoid making fun of each other in potentially or clearly hurtful ways. “Make sure you’re not harassing somebody or singling someone out,” says Sophie Scott, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London. “Banter can be bullying.” And simply saying “I was joking” doesn’t undo the hurt, she adds.
As any comedian knows, attempts at humour can fall flat or even backfire. Adam Ruben, a molecular biologist at Sanaria, a biotechnology company in Rockville, Maryland, worries that humour could ruin a younger scientist’s chances of being taken seriously. Ruben does stand-up comedy on the side, but keeps his major scientific talks mostly free of jokes.
Newcomers to a lab group should get to know their labmates and principal investigator well before they start joking around, advises Bernie Chun Nam Mak, a lecturer at Hong Kong Baptist University who studied workplace strategies, including humour, during his PhD programme in applied English linguistics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Burst the stress bubble
There’s no shortage of hilarity in the lab where James Utterback, a PhD student in physical chemistry at the University of Colorado Boulder, works. His greatest prank (so far — labmates beware) was inspired by a laser system that arrived in late 2015 for the group’s studies of solar photochemistry. It came in a crate with metres and metres of bubble wrap.
While another group was in a meeting, Utterback and his accomplices coated their student office’s floor, desks and printer with the bubbly sheets. They hid in the office so that they could catch their colleagues’ shocked reaction. Both groups laughed and entertained themselves popping the plastic bubbles.
But that wasn’t the last of it. When Utterback returned to his office after a conference in mid-2017, he discovered he’d been replaced — with a bubble-wrap mannequin, complete with a wig and clothes. “He had been named James 2,” says Utterback. “He became kind of like our group mascot.”
James 2 regularly rotated between the lab’s student offices, surprising people who turned on the lights to find him diligently ‘working’ at their desks.
“Working with James  was seriously delightful,” says Amanda Grennell, a freelance science writer in Missoula, Montana, who earned her PhD in August 2017 from the same lab. “Pranks gave my brain a much-needed break from both work and stress.”
Graduate studies and science in general can be frustrating and isolating, agrees Jorge Cham of Los Angeles, California, who earned a PhD in mechanical engineering from Stanford University in California. He started a PhD comic strip, ‘Piled Higher and Deeper’, soon after beginning graduate school, as a sort of art therapy to cope with the pressure cooker of academic training.
After a stint as an instructor at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, he switched in 2005 to cartooning full-time. He regularly lectures about the misery of graduate studies and the joys of procrastination.
This unusual career path has given Cham more fame than he probably ever would have earned in academic robotics — his original plan. The comics, which have drawn 188,000 followers on Twitter, have appeared in more than 50 US newspapers and been collated into 5 collections that have collectively sold more than 100,000 copies. They’ve helped many a stressed graduate student laugh through tough times, simply by showing readers that they’re not alone in their academic struggles. “Burnout is so common, anything that can be done to help people keep perspective and enjoy what they’re doing, the better the long-term prospects of the lab are,” says Cham.
A light attitude can also help to diffuse tension that arises from failures or errors. Cham once spilt a bucket of mildly toxic resin in another lab that had a group leader he found particularly intimidating. He was horrified. “I vividly remember my life flashing before my eyes,” recalls Cham. “I never thought that was something that actually happened.”
But the postdoc supervising Cham took it good-naturedly, simply telling him he was allowed to make that mistake — once. That helped Cham to move past the error.
As that supervisor so deftly illustrated, humour can be a powerful tool for leaders. The meta-analysis of workplace humour found that when those in power were viewed as fun and funny, their subordinates performed better and had stronger teamwork. Staff were also happier with their jobs and their bosses. And a fun, lighthearted lab group might produce better science than one that is perpetually solemn and serious. Humour, says Kerr, is a positive catalyst for thinking creatively. Or, for mathematicians: “Ha + Ha = Aha.”
Light-heartedness can also reduce embarrassment when inevitable mistakes happen in the lab. “Humour can help workers, especially superiors, to imply something negative to each other in a less face-threatening way,” says Mak. He once observed a situation in which a worker made a mistake on an Excel spreadsheet. Her supervisor admonished her by making a wry joke about the error, and they both laughed it off.
Lead with laughter
A humour-filled lab might not happen spontaneously, so leaders might wish to actively encourage it. Scott, who studies speech and laughter, makes a conscious effort to build a happy team.
But leaders should be wary of forcing humour onto junior scientists. “They have to feel comfortable first,” says Scott. “They have to feel part of a group.” She pays particular attention to new lab members — especially when they’re from other countries — ensuring that they feel comfortable, and not left out. If they’re laughing and joking, she knows that they’re settling in.
To help foster a positive group dynamic, Scott often organizes lab social events and includes both personal and scientific discussions in casual lab meetings over coffee. The personal sharing is optional, of course.
“The demeanour of the principal investigator will affect the atmosphere of the whole meeting,” she says. “I try to keep a positive and friendly mood.”
It might seem simple for Scott’s group to spice their work with humour — they study laughter, after all, and their work entails developing funny videos to make viewers and subjects chuckle. But no one has to be a stand-up comedian to infuse some humour into the lab. Kerr says that there are plenty of ways to make work fun, even for the less comedy-inclined. One option he likes is to put up a ‘humour bulletin board’. Lab members can contribute funny statistics, research results or cartoons.
Starting group traditions is another way to make work enjoyable. Kerr suggests giving out fun awards, such as the ‘Most Likely to Overdose on Caffeine Award’. Employees feel appreciated, and everyone has a good time.
Ruben recalls a fun tradition from his PhD lab at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Each scientist picked an orange test-tube stopper, or septum, and drew a little face on it. Once a week, they’d take a break to place the stoppers on a shaker; whichever stopper stayed on the longest before bouncing off won its scientist US$1 from each of the other entrants. That two-minute break provided a valuable bonding experience, Ruben says.
And if one wonders what to joke about, “the easiest person to laugh at is yourself”, advises Josh Willis, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who has trained with comedy troupes The Groundlings and Second City. He christened one of his missions OMG, an initialism for ‘Oceans Melting Greenland’.
Willis is perfectly willing to engage in a bit of self-deprecating humour, and one of his studies made it easy to do that. In 2006, early in his career, he collected data showing that, despite the effects of global warming, some of the world’s oceans had somehow cooled between 2003 and 20052. Willis endured a fair bit of ridicule for this ‘discovery’. Even conservative pundits got in on the harassment, using Willis’s paper as evidence that left-leaning scientists are clueless about climate.
Willis, trusting his data, took it all in his stride. Then, in February 2007, he discovered the error he’d made. No, the oceans weren’t getting colder: certain temperature sensors had given bad readings. He published a correction shortly afterwards3.
In response — playing on the talk-show punditry that Willis had endured — his wife gave him a set of business cards imprinted with the title ‘Idiot leftist scientist’. He still carries the cards in his wallet. “That dose of humility and making fun of myself — in the long run, I think it benefited my career,” says Willis.
Tread with care
Some joke topics are simply not acceptable in any workplace, notes Nicki Fuchs, a stand-up comic and biochemical engineer at MedImmune in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Gender, politics, race and religion, among other matters, are off the table, she advises.
Those rules still leave her with plenty of room to jest with her labmates. And it’s useful for her to joke about work, says Fuchs, because it helps her, a 30-year-old woman, to connect with the rest of the lab members — all older men. A recurring wisecrack is about whoever most recently left the water running and flooded the lab — a not-uncommon occurrence, because their work involves filling up large, pressurized bottles.
Jokes may fall flat in some settings. In graduate school, Ruben often ended his lab-meeting presentations with a joke slide. But during one such presentation, his adviser was already unimpressed with his scientific progress, and Ruben suspects that his joke slide — a colleague’s head that was Photoshopped onto a goat’s body — deepened his adviser’s doubts. Since then, he uses jokes only in informal presentations or talks about science careers.
Scientists should also be careful about humour that might not work well with people from other cultures. What’s funny to one ethnic group can be incomprehensible or offensive to another, Mak notes. It’s fairly simple to learn about the sense of humour in a geographical region to which one is travelling or moving, adds Kerr: he just Googles it.
Of course, some topics that scientists study — cancer, for example — aren’t funny at all. Yet jokes can help to ease tension and discomfort around specialities that deal with tragic subjects, says Helena González, who earned a PhD studying the epigenetics of cancer in 2013 and is now a science communicator with the comedy troupe Big Van Science in Barcelona. “That kind of black humour releases your feelings and makes your work much easier,” she says.
Still, she adds, scientists need to be careful about where they make any such jokes. Generally, among a few close colleagues in the lab, it’s fine. When dealing with patients or the public, it’s not.
And although pranks are fun, those that might endanger personnel, equipment or experiments have no place in the lab. Ruben recalls one supervisor he had at a summer job, who dropped a lit match into a recently emptied jug of ethanol. “A column of fire shot up to the ceiling,” Ruben says. “He probably shouldn’t have done that.”
That said, everyone can use a chuckle now and then. If you’re planning a — harmless! — April Fool’s lab jape, be sure to share it with @naturejobs, hashtag #AprilFools.