AWIS workshop on “what works”

i-f875c0b07d9b3cb6229668554781b35a-alice.jpgA couple of weeks ago, I was invited to come to a day-long workshop hosted by the Association of Women in Science at Eli Lilly in Indianapolis. Below are some snippets on things I learned, for better or worse.

AWIS workshop

I listened to a panel of scientists, Margaret Wasilewski, Katherine Armstrong, and Alisa Wright. Wasilewski is moving into retirement, and asks us to pass on good ideas and information to people coming after us. She said she recommended that you trust your instincts about what roads are good for you, and if there is no road where you want to go, you build it yourself. Armstrong talked about needing to have passion for what you do, and that you can think of a career as “great things [formed from] a series of small things brought together” (Van Gogh?). She said you could also think of a career as made up of four stages:

acquiring: when you are networking and setting up mentoring relationships;
applying: when you deliver most of your tangible career results;
leveraging: when you take on roles to focus on impact and making a difference; and
visioning: when you move into the mentor stage for others, and are not really thinking about your career path anymore and are just enjoying your career.

I’m curious if people think those stages accurately represent their careers, or if they find their naming to be helpful.

And finally Wright talked about her variable career path through 6 different jobs so far. She talked about tricks to keep track of important or good ideas over time – she said you had to be sure to write them down. She wrote them on post-its, and the once a week you have a look at them and choose something to do over the next month. She also advocated becoming professionally active outside of one’s job.

These women were all very impressive, but something irked me from their somewhat hackneyed exhortations for us in the audience to do what we wanted to do to be happy. While I think it is all good to love what you do, I think it is a very privileged choice to make career decisions simply on what makes you happy. People who have gone into debt to support themselves during their schooling, for example, can’t really afford not to go into a field that can help them pay back their debt. People who have lots of people to support can’t risk not finding a job. So who are we speaking to, when we say one should choose a career that one loves?

I once had a student in a class I was teaching who taught me this. She said she had chosen engineering because she could be sure of a good job when she was done. After a discussion with other people in the class, she said she felt horrendous, that she had gone into engineering for the “wrong reasons,” that perhaps she was making a terrible mistake. I’ve thought about that student often over the last 6 years – who am I, with my low-debt existence, to be telling someone who was scraping resources together to get an education that she was choosing her career for the wrong reasons? And to those of us who choose careers we’re passionate about, it seems a lot of us sacrifice a lot of ourselves to do those jobs – perhaps we would allow ourselves to have healthier external lives if we made decisions about our careers that were more practical.

Anyway, just a thought.

I went to a mentoring workshop run by my colleague Barb Clark at Purdue. She said there were different kinds of mentors that people need, and that very few of us find all our mentoring help in one person. She talked about vocational mentoring (where mentors teach mentees things, act as consultants, sponsor mentees and speak well on their behalf, and protect mentees from negative publicity), and psychosocial mentoring (where mentors are role models who encourage and counsel mentees, and who move from mentors to colleagues).

Qualities of good mentors seem to include their time availability (shocking, I know), that they will help start and maintain a mentoring relationship, that they listen rather than tell, and they will act as advocates. I thought it was also useful to talk about what makes a good mentee – the group agreed that curiosity and enthusiasm were good, as well as being willing to take steps on one’s own, and being respectful of mentors’ limited time.

I also heard from Bridget Gourley of DePauw University, who talked through various key aspects of the tenure process at DePauw (a private, liberal arts school). While Purdue is a pretty different kettle of fish from DePauw, there were some good nuggets for me to take away, including:

  • learn what the “code words” are that you need to activate in your package. Is it better to be a “good” teacher or an “effective” one? Is it better to be “significant” or show “continued effectiveness”?
  • learn how to demonstrate how your priorities support the university mission (and probably your college and/or departmental mission, too).
  • be significant somewhere rather than adequate everywhere
  • when preparing your file, think of your audience, address the university criteria, follow directions, explain why every piece of information is being included, be sure it is obvious also to the reader, and choose only the information you need to tell your story.

Two other tips she gave: keep a version of your CV on your desktop and dump things into it everytime you say yes to something; and keep a “save it” box of things like good graded student work, nice letters from students or colleagues, or other items that might be useful for P&T time.

The oddest thing about some of these AWIS sessions is that they happened in the midst of the recent economic collapse, but it didn’t seem to make it in to any of the speakers’ patter. One person was talking about biotech being the wave of the future, but how does that need to be put in context of not just a generic future but this future? Another person was talking about the time needed to go from drug idea through development to delivery to the marketplace. How is that going to change with the current economic crisis? How will it have to change to take into account current fuel prices, and forthcoming (perhaps, if we’re sensible) carbon dioxide restrictions? How about how funding realities for academics are going to change when a government that is massively more in debt now than it was 2 months ago reprioritizes its budget?

The AWIS conference was an interesting event, and I did get a lot out of a couple sessions. But for a set of talks being put on for a bunch of really smart women, it was unclear what the overall philosophy was. Biotech and pharmaceutical plenaries were flanked by sessions on career advancement, but little of the former seemed to be situated in today, and little of the latter seemed to have any explicit research evidence behind it, and the former didn’t seem to have much to do with the latter.

Not to be too critical, though. And the food was really good. I appreciate the opportunity to have gone. And if any of you readers out there also went, I would love to hear what you thought and got out of the experience.

Mmmmm....scientific m&ms and pretzels....


  1. #1 PhizzleDizzle
    October 29, 2008

    A few years ago I saw an author on TV talking about their new book which was essentially talking about the myth of “doing what you love.” He said, if you look at things from a bell-curve perspective (which I love to do!!), a large proportion of society will love the same things (the middle of the curve). Thus, necessarily you will either have to be exceedingly good (i.e. at the top of the bell curve of those who love that career), or be poor. He cited artists and writers as an example. Tons of people dream of being artists or writers, and that necessarily makes most of them struggle financially, except for an exceptional few.

    I think this all makes a ton of sense and that sometimes, advocating doing only what you love can be a bit disingenuous, so I totally agree with this post. I feel fortunate to be not only doing what I like a lot (maybe not love, but like a lot) and it’s something that will not leave me in the poorhouse.

  2. #2 ScienceWoman
    October 29, 2008

    I think the naming of career stages is potentially useful, but I find myself wondering what stage I am in now. Am I still acquiring (which is what I feel like most days) or am I supposed to be fully into the leveraging stage? Is it OK to still feel transitional two years into a tenure-track job?

    Maybe rather than advocating “doing what you love” we should be advocating finding ways to incorporate what we love into what we do, that which pays the bills. For example, I really love working one-on-one or with small groups of students, teaching them how to really *do* science, that’s been the driving force pushing me into a career at a research university. But the bills are paid by the fact that I teach and that I produce enough pubs and $ to keep my job.

  3. #3 KS
    October 29, 2008

    The career stages make sense and also indicate a sticking point. Acquiring and applying are early in the career path. They also seem to be energy and time expensive stages and occur when most women are balancing dating, spouses, children, and family (also very energy expensive processes).

  4. #4 Sara
    October 29, 2008

    You left out the “getting f***ed” stage. 😉 Only half joking unfortunately.

    I found this to be a very interesting example of how a workplace changed in a concrete way to include women and accurately reflect their contribution to their workplace:

  5. #5 Kate
    October 29, 2008

    The career stages seem to be helpful as a starting off point, or as a model to find exceptions to. My thinking is, these are pretty fluid categories that an individual can move in and out of, and go back to depending on her position (new job, new service, new teaching prep, etc) but also her context (in the presence of her TAs, her mentor, her diss advisor, her dept chair, her university president). The other main issue I have with it is that it contains the same, selfish, tired old story: take care of yourself first (acquire and apply) before trying to effect wide world (or wide educational) change. I have my biggest, best thoughts as a scholar when I am thinking in the context of wide world change, but technically as a first year t-t prof I am in the “acquiring” stage.

    Am I doing it wrong? I don’t think so.

  6. #6 JC
    October 30, 2008

    Sara – that article is onto something.

    I think having “fluid categories” is a good way to think about it, but white males swim easily along in water through a well-lit harbor, while minorities trudge through molasses in the swamp. One size doesn’t fit all.

    My mentors (men and women) can really only provide advice on what worked for them… these economic times are beyond their grasp. When they got into academia, there were a few dozen applicants per job… now, there are hundreds per job. And for “code words” and everything crusty old tenured profs say is important for current tenure evaluations, that all goes out the window now in times of lowwwww % of funded proposals, less pies to get a cut from, more teaching demands, etc. Not only does everyone need to refinance their mortgages, we need to refinance our careers.

  7. #7 Emily
    October 31, 2008

    I’m only in the very beginning of the acquiring stage, having just started grad school this year. It’s interesting to see the stages laid out like that, but I agree that, like most “stages” we go through, they’re fluid.

    I was rather surprised to see “move into the mentor stage for others” in the very last stage. Does Armstrong mean “mentor” strictly as “older faculty mentoring new faculty”? I’ve never thought of mentoring as something that you just suddenly start doing – you’re always doing it. In college I mentored high schoolers and the younger college students in the labs I taught. Now in grad school I’m mentoring undergraduate friends as they struggle through senior theses and grad school applications, and, at the same time, being mentored by other students, profs, and my advisor. Mentoring is a multidirectional process, and it’s hard to tell where it really starts and stops. It should be included in all those stages, not just be something you take up once you’re settled into your career.

  8. #8 stepwise girl
    October 31, 2008

    I see your point on doing what you need to vs. what you like, but I suspect it can be very different at the point of choosing a degree or a job.

    When you’re 18 and looking for a degree, a lot of uninformed people give you their uninformed opinion on job prospects, which I find really unhelpful. In many cases people just don’t know what the prospects are outside obvious degrees like engineering (high prospects) and litterature (low prospects … but really?); also, and especially in the current context, who can say what the prospects will be when you actually enter the job market, 4 or 5 years later? Another thing is that when you pick a degree there are usualy zillion jobs or activities you don’t know about that you might end up like (or not).

    So I agree with you that being able to do something you love might be a privilege, but choosing to study something you like might just be sensible: if you like it, you’ll be better at it and increase your job prospects for something you like, or simply for a job. I wouldn’t be where I am (an academic and loving it -most days!) if I had listened to them.

    What do you think?

  9. #9 PhizzleDizzle
    October 31, 2008

    @stepwise girl: Yes, I agree! I like to think of it as optimizing the (sensible X love) product. Maximizing that value would be hard if you were doing something you hated! Which is why I’m glad to be in a field that I like (very much) and is sensible too.

    But I agree with your sentiment that there is a lot out there, and locking into something sensible when you’re young SOLELY because it’s sensible is pretty silly.

  10. #10 essa
    October 14, 2010

    @stepwise girl: Yes, I agree! I like to think of it as optimizing the (sensible X love) product. Maximizing that value would be hard if you were doing something you hated! Which is why I’m glad to be in a field that I like (very much) and is sensible too

New comments have been disabled.