Friday, May 20th 2016

Mentors and collaborators: when are you one, when are you the other?

In the sciences we’ve moved almost completely over to the model of the multi-paper dissertation. There are of course a number of advantages. Students can have a far more impressive CV for when they go on the job market if they already have publications, rather than if they are struggling to convert dissertation chapters into publications. Their advisors also often get a few more pubs to their name, which is helpful if they are pre-tenure or gearing up for a grant proposal. And it gives students some time while they are still students to be mentored on the art of the journal publication.

The challenge I see is in navigating the advisor’s dual role on student manuscripts as mentor and collaborator. Advisors generally make substantial intellectual contributions to student work, because it is a part of the training the student receives to become a researcher and a scientist. Advisors also have a lot more experience in the culture of academia, from the appropriate journals, to the way to word critiques, to how strongly one points out one’s own study limitations. But in my field at least, advisors are not the ultimate expert on that student’s dissertation: the student is. The student is the one who spent six years developing an idea and expertise, carrying out the research, and carving a niche for herself. Even when students are carving out their own space in a broader project of the advisor’s, they are the content experts and the advisors are often conceptual framework/theory/disciplinary experts. The goal of a PhD is to have your student know more than you by the time they defend.

So, when it comes time to write the papers, what is an advisor (or a dissertation committee, depending on how involved they are) to do?

The advisors could treat the manuscript like a dissertation and provide rounds and rounds of edits until it’s as they like it. They could use it as a chance to teach the student about formatting, and writing, and how to communicate best with colleagues. This seems like a good thing until it isn’t. This student is presumably first author and did all the work, and if the advisor is too heavy handed the student may become resistant to revisions, however good or correct they may be. The paper may stop feeling like the student’s, or they may grow to hate it, or they may just make changes to please their committee rather than the changes they feel are appropriate to the science.

Now, these are issues that can crop up with any form of collaborative writing. But power dynamics get tricky when the lead author is junior and the collaborators are all the people who will decide whether or not you get a PhD.

I don’t know that there is a perfect solution to this. But I have a few thoughts for those of us in the more powerful position:

  • As Paul Silvia argues in Write It Up, have the journal in mind before you write the paper (actually, he argues you should have the journal in mind before you even run the study!). This was a dissertation. It probably wasn’t well funded. It probably wasn’t perfect. It is still an important contribution that deserves to get out there, or else you wouldn’t be writing this paper with your student. So rather than try to make the paper a PNAS paper, determine what would be a journal that is an excellent fit for the topic and great for your student. Maybe in your own research you aim higher. If you force this paper follow your usual trajectory, it could lead to heartbreak for all parties.
  • If the lead author were a fellow faculty member (albeit a junior one), how would you handle your disagreements or edits? At what point would you let some things go? (Or maybe you’re the kind of collaborator who doesn’t let a single perspective or grammatical difference go anyone else’s way but your own. If that’s the case, remind me not to collaborate with you.)
  • As you would with a colleague, if a student is really obstinate and you are quite sure you are right, give the reviewers a chance to tell her. (I had this happen to me once, and it was quite humbling; I had this happen to a collaborator once and it was quite satisfying.)

You’ll notice what I’m advocating for here is a little bit of balance: a recognition of our expertise and role as mentors, but also the recognition that we are, when writing papers, collaborators. Our students may still have loads to learn from us (and we from them), but I imagine the way to create that optimal learning environment is to guide and lead rather than grind away.

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Monday, April 20th 2015

Gaslighting STEM

Gaslighting Duo Ceci and Williams are at it again. They’ve published another piece saying there is nothing to worry about in STEM in terms of institutional climate that might be limiting women’s careers or progress. Rather than link to their own op-ed or not-exactly-hard-hitting pieces in mainstream media, I’ll point my readers to dissenting perspectives offered by several smart colleagues:

The Myth About Women in Science? Bias in the study of gender inequality in STEM by Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos at Other Sociology

Be careful saying “The Myth About Women in Science” is solved by Dr. Marie-Claire Shanahan at Boundary Vision

“A Surprisingly Welcome Atmosphere” by Dr. Matthew R. Francis at Slate

#StillaProblem II: academic science is (still) sexist, Storify curated by Dr. Karen E. James


Friday, February 6th 2015

Conference at Illinois this April! The 21st Century Scientist Conference: Inclusion, Innovation, and Incentives

(Cross-posted from 21st Century Scientists Working Group.)


Preliminary schedule:

  • 8am: Registration
  • 8:30am: Opening remarks
  • 9-10:30am: Workshop on the craft of communication.
  • 10:30am-12pm: Workshop on crafting a community.
  • 12-1pm: Panel (lunch included!) on alternative and traditional science careers.
  • 1-2pm: Free time, networking, finishing up earlier workshop projects
  • 2-5pm: Extended afternoon workshop with our featured speaker Miriam Goldstein on working with politicians to advance scientific agendas.

Registration information – as well as early bird and student pricing – to come soon!

Current science stereotypes are harmful to underrepresented people who are or would like to become scientists and science writers, and thus hinders their recruitment, retention, and advancement. These stereotypes persist because scientists who wish to engage as part of their job, and scientists who wish to train to join alternative, non-academic or non-industry careers, are provided with no support system, training, or incentives to do so. While outreach-focused courses do occasionally exist within science departments, they are taught infrequently. Further, recent research on science faculty views on outreach suggests that many view outreach as a threat to their reputations as serious scientists (Johnson et al., 2014). Even in a study of funded NSFs that sought to assess the broader impacts criterion, a percentage of funded grants studied contained no broader impacts, or broader impacts that only involved general scientific training of students (Kamenetsky, 2013).

The University of Illinois 21st Century Scientist Working Group, or 21Sci, plans to change the culture around public engagement in science through a focus on inclusive community, innovation in the conceptualization of the 21st Century Scientist, and positive incentives for engagement. We identify four main goals:

  1. Develop consistent training for scientists who want to improve the skills necessary to become engaged scientists and/or pursue non-academic careers, including professional science writing.
  2. Create community to support like-minded scientists to operate against the negative culture of disengagement, and reconceptualize the role of the scientist in today’s society.
  3. Increase underrepresented minorities and women in science, science writing, and as the target audience for science writing, outreach, and engagement.
  4. Advocate for new incentives within academic science, particularly around promotion and tenure, to make engaging with science writers, outreach efforts, and boundary organizations easier for practicing scientists.

Our working group and journal club meetings have attracted faculty, staff, and students from across the STEM disciplines, agriculture, and journalism, as well as administrators in the Office for the Vice Chancellor of Research, the Office for Public Engagement, and the Extension School. Our goal for this semester is to develop strategies for strengthening our relationship with boundary organizations like the Extension School, as well as leveraging these relationships to begin to effect change at higher levels of university administration.

Our goal is a lofty one – change the culture at a major R1 institution – but our belief is that if we focus our efforts at the University of Illinois and the surrounding region, we can create a model and momentum for similar change elsewhere.



Johnson DR, Ecklund EH and Lincoln AE. Narratives of Science Outreach in Elite Contexts of Academic Science. Science Communication 2014:36;81-105.

Kamenetsky J. Opportunities for impact: Statistical analysis of the National Science Foudnation’s broader impacts criterion. Science and Public Policy 2013:40;72-84.

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