A 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.
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.