Alma and Isadora

Obviously pseudos. Alma & Isadora are junior faculty. I mentor both, though their fields/areas of research are not mine. Alma is up for tenure in 2 years. Isadora in 4-5. I love them both. Really. They are my friends, albeit younger ones. They are both funded. Productive. Have a solid number of pubs. Do good teaching. Have responded well to early mentoring suggestions about improvement. I think they will both get tenure. They don’t. I am thoroughly committed to helping them. The world of academics is a better place for both of them in it. Their ability to mentor is just starting, but I see that they will grow into the kind of faculty that will be able to help others.

Grow into. That’s the key word here. They have similar problems, though are in different departments (and know each other vaguely in the way that the relatively small number of junior women know of each other).

I have been trying to put my finger on with what do they exactly need help. The glib answer is that they are so neurotic about tenure that they, caring people in general, have lost sight of what their interactions with others are.  They have screwed up in the people part of running their labs. When a departmental admin asst (i.e. secretary person) asked me “are all young female faculty such jerks?”, it became clear to me that this was a situation for which help & mentoring might matter. Angering support staff can impact your career. It can impact your ability to get grants out, to get handouts uploaded for class at the last minute, get purchase orders submitted in a timely fashion.

Why are these women perceived as being somewhat of a pain in the ass? Let’s do Isadora first (I have a sense this will become an ongoing set of posts). Isadora is 1.5 years into her job. She got wretched teaching reviews the first year, and sat down and figured out why and worked her ass off to improve them. She asked me to listen to one of her lectures and offer suggestions. She went to the school-wide teaching mentorship services and talked and listened. And she knocked the teaching ball out of the park the 2nd year. All the time being productive, and having a small grant and writing the big ones.

She hired a tech. It was a disaster. The “chemistry” wasn’t right. This happens. Things went from bad to very bad over 2 months. That also happens. But in her dept, the tech staff are tight. One person is unhappy and tells the others. That’s how the admin staff came to believe that Isadora was a jerk. I don’t want to debate or really even discuss the rights and wrongs of that pathway of communication. What is important is that it exists. At Isadora’s request I stepped in to help mediate at a meeting requested by HR. I was at a meeting that was not a good one. Everyone said inappropriate things. The tech brought up a very personal issue that Isadora had confided. Isadora tried to shut the tech down in the middle of explaining things. Everyone was crying, but not in a good cathartic way, that afterwards everyone joins hands and says I’m sorry. It was a “I hate you, and you are horrible” kind of way. I feel I kept it from being worse, but no one would think it was a success.

The tech needed/did not want to give up the job. Isadora felt the tech was lazy, incompetent and spent her days surfing the web. A couple of things were clear to me after talking to everyone. 1) the tech did not understand what she had done wrong & just wanted to make things “right” so she could keep the job. 2) some of the problems blamed on the tech were things Isadora had done.

The tech finally got another job. My role, now,  is to help Isadora not make the same mistake again.

I hate the tenure system. It helps promote and reinforce situations like this. Tenure becomes more important than being a mensch. Success at every step along the way seems to be make it or break it.  But just like glamour journals, tenure is not going away any time soon. And mentors need to figure out how to help the untenured.

Telling Isadora to calm down is counter-productive. When I was young (and even now) telling me to calm down would make me apoplectic. (what a lovely word). It was patronizing, condescending and by and large irrelevant. Isadora will listen. I need to find the words and ideas to get to here. This is not easy (for me, at least).

She needs to let go of the tenure anxiety a little bit. She needs to enjoy the path a bit more. She needs to understand that the people around her are people, with their own skills, foibles, strengths, and yes weaknesses.

She also needs (need, need, need…. not a good word) to understand that working with a tech is not a symmetric relationship. I think sometimes that we think about “fairness” too much. This is not about fair. This is about she needs to keep herself at a higher standard of interaction. She may hate being a “boss”, but being friends and equals (and confiding personal things, for example) is not a good idea and doesn’t get the science done.

As little as we may like “traditional formal relationships” there is a utility to them. Early on I had problems being friends with my students who were near my age. What a disaster. There are times when you have to tell someone how to do something, or ask them to get something done. It flows the other way far less (although in a good lab, it can and does). To me this formal does not mean that people who “report to you” are slaves, with no right to respect and consideration. It means that the communication is about what needs to be done. The communication is clear, precise and without emotional overtones.

Feelings about tenure are just that – feelings. Clear and precise instructions, explanations need to be done without the feelings. I think that many men find this easier (but not all) than women.

There is more to this, but I’m just working my way through it.



4 thoughts on “Alma and Isadora

  1. I wish I’d had this advice–especially the last part–before I started my faculty job. It’s very hard in the beginning as a new PI to figure out relationships with your first tech/grad student, etc. As the boxes of new glassware and equipment arrive and you start to test things out, there’s very much a feeling of “we’re all doing this together, making our lab, yay!” and those kind of bonding moments can lead to false senses of symmetry, as you put it. But this can, in my experience, lead to serious authority problems once the honeymoon period’s over and you have to get actual work done.

  2. When I began my job at SLAC, a senior colleague went out for lunch with me and told me the following about working with undergraduates: “My hope is that by the end of their stay in my lab, we can have a collegial and professional relationship”. It’s been an excellent guiding principle for me in how I treat the folks in my lab.

  3. This is why it’s so important to get people in mentoring/management mode before they land a faculty job. Putting post-doc’s in charge a grad students (esp. rotation students) is a good start, but you HAVE to monitor the situation and step in when the post-doc’ lets the power go to their head (which they will do). I had some very good mentoring in this area – as a post-doc’ I got an intramural pilot grant and used it to pay most of a tech’s salary. My PD mentor made me do the job-ad, interviews, hiring decision, and day-to-day personnel management of the tech. Adding to the “in at the deep end” feeling, there were some mental illness issues involved which made the entire situation a nightmare at times. But, in the end when I moved on to a faculty job the whole “how to deal with subordinates” thing was done and dusted.
    Since then I’ve seen several newly minted faculty here burn through lab’ technicians faster than pipet tips, and you’re right that news travels fast among the tech/student population. All it takes is a loose-mouthed tech’ and suddenly nobody wants to do rotations in your lab.
    What I find more shocking is there are definitely people who don’t qualify as junior any more, but still burn through personnel at a ridiculous rate. It’s possible to succeed for several decades in academia and still be a shitty manager.

  4. Something that I have found helpful….having had a first tech who did not ‘fit’…….was making a list of my expectations (in the form of actual lab tasks and then in general contributions to the scholarly activity of the lab). We do annual evaluations of all staff–of course this is only helpful at the back end, right? So when I hired my new tech (someone who has now been with me for years), I handed her the metrics for the evaluation upon her hire. Therefore, if there is something that is being slacked on, it can be pinpointed–and not in a personal, punitive way, but in a constructive way.

    Also, I am a better listener, than I was with my first hire. Maybe tech has a different opinion than I do about how something should be run–I can’t understand what this is or where she is coming from, unless I listen to her reasoning. If I still disagree, I know how to explain it, so it takes her thoughts into consideration without relinquishing my authority (and sometimes her ideas are better…so there’s that too).

    The ‘coming to Jesus’ moments about productivity = tenure only work, if there is not a daily (weekly, monthly, bimonthly) sense or state of panic, but a specific situation where YOU (PI) have a plan to make it better. That doesn’t meant that I don’t panic when we are on the third week of trying to get the EasiestExperimentInTheWorld to technically work…it just means that I bust my ass on the elliptical, have an extra glass of wine, go to a yoga class, AND remind myself of the very first sentence in this paragraph and ask myself if the current situation warrants that response…..

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