Archive for the 'advice' category

Your boss can’t always be your mentor

“You shouldn’t be afraid to tell your boss exactly what you want to do for your next step – it’s their job to mentor you,” is the advice I have given many people, particularly grad students and postdocs who decide they want to pursue careers other than strictly academic research but are afraid to tell their bosses. And now under similar circumstances myself, I have become very hesitant about what information to give my boss about my career plans. I see all the reasons that people would not want to be upfront with their bosses.

  1. I don’t want to get fired. If my boss thinks that I’m no longer right for this job, or the kind of person they want to train, they could just let me go.
  2. As far as I can tell, my boss is not interested in mentoring me for a career outside of academic research.
  3. I don’t want to appear flaky or uncertain. Mostly for reason #1, but also because I still want to be able to count on good letters of recommendation if needed.

At the same time though, there are reasons I should talk to my boss about this.

  1. I could use some advice, mentoring, and maybe even connections or referrals, and I still believe it is part of a boss’ job to provide those things.
  2. I don’t want to waste any more of our time or energy applying for research and training grants, if that is not a direction that will help my career.
  3. Doing so may actually push me to move out into the career I want – even if it was because I got fired.

Plus, I just prefer to be open and honest and I’m sure my boss would prefer that as well. So I will try to first get some mentoring outside of my boss, come up with a game plan for my next career steps, ideally a plan that includes a clear reason why my current position is valuable for my future, and then open up to my boss about it.

With this new perspective, I completely understand why people would not want to be completely open with their bosses, and I apologize for acting like it was so clear cut. That said, as many before me have noted, I do think that most PIs need to be more aware that the majority of trainees are not going to end up as PIs like them, and be open to the many career possibilities that appeal to PhDs. And let’s be honest, your PI probably can’t be a great mentor to you when you’re pursuing a career outside of academia, the only path they’ve traveled, an you’ll want to find another more helpful mentor anyway.

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Dual-body career planning

The ‘dual-body problem’ gets a bad rap in academia. It’s seen as a major difficulty even though virtually all couples with at least one career in academia, and many other fields, have the same basic issue to deal with. This career path requires multiple changes in position, usually at different institutions, and often different geographic locations. It’s hard for anyone to make these career transitions, and made even harder when there is a significant other’s job to take into consideration, no matter the field. Oh how we envy those wise enough to have settled down with a someone who can work from a computer anywhere, and rake in the money to boot!

Anyway, my spouse and I have one of many versions of the dual body problem. We graduated from the same PhD program at the same time, are going on the job market at the same time, and some aspects of our research are fairly similar, meaning we have a lot of overlap in the actual job postings/departments we’re looking at. We are also very picky about where we want to live long-term. There are many “solutions” to similar situations, from the individual to institutional level, but for now, here’s our dual-body approach to applying for jobs.

  1. Who is more needy/picky in their requirements? Will they be happy if they settle for less? Will the other partner? Is one person’s skill set more in demand? In other words, do you have a “trailing spouse” or does it depend on what position is offered to whom? For us, it is my husband who has more specific needs, and may be a more desirable hire since he has grant funding to go with him to his new position. To do the research he wants, he needs to be at a major university with specific facilities and collaborators. I am more flexible in that I’m applying for anything from primarily teaching positions at small liberal arts colleges to more research-focused jobs at R1s, and I would also be interested in other kinds of jobs if things didn’t align perfectly for a traditional academic job.
  2. Restrict/expand searches geographically to match. We’ve done the long-distance thing when we couldn’t get a perfect match for our postdocs. That’s not going to happen again, though you do hear those stories about couples who go the majority of their careers living long distance!
  3. Make exceptions. When I see a job that I’m a perfect fit for, I’ll apply anyway, even if my husband doesn’t have plans/options to apply in that region. At the very least it could be a competitive offer to give me negotiating power; at the most it might sway us both to move for my dream job, or my spouse might discover another match there at a later date. Don’t give up before you’ve exhausted your options!
  4. Strongly consider jobs that advertise multiple positions. I don’t know if it’s the economic recovery or what, but I’m seeing a lot more institutions advertising large hiring sprees this year. Even if they are not ideal in one way or another, this could be the best all-around fit for getting both of us in decent positions.
  5. As with any job search, spread the word! We got wind of two positions opening in a department we both wanted to be in, from a friend who was keeping an ear to the ground for us. We were able to get our applications in despite the short window the post was open because of our friend’s influence, and never would have known about it otherwise.
  6. Prepare for when and how to bring up the dual-body issues with the department (most sources say for this early career stage it should be after an offer has been made) and what to ask the department to do about it. Can they create a position for the spouse? Hire both of us to share a lab/position? Exert influence on another department/institution to consider hiring the spouse? We are choosing not to mention our dual-body issue in our cover letters and will see for each position when it makes sense to broach the subject.
  7. Support each other! Pass along job ads, decide together which jobs to apply for, read each other’s application packages, and be enthusiastic about all promising opportunities that come up without over-analyzing what you would do if

Stay tuned for future posts on interviews, decision making, rejection… and wish us luck! If you have any other experience or advice for the planning/applying stage, please post in the comments!

6 responses so far

Are you prepared to deal with chronic illness?

I could probably count on one hand the number of sick days I’ve used in my adult life before this year. I figured that would change when I had a baby, either to stay home with a sick kid or because I may get sick more often myself, and I was right. But I was unprepared for dealing with issues of chronic pain and illness.

I’ve had some physical issues this year that have noticeably affected my work. I haven’t had to take any sick time directly because of my illness, but I have had to take so many half days to see doctors trying to diagnose and then treat my issues, and then recently took a few days off following a treatment. And all throughout these months, so much of my time and energy outside of work has gone to dealing with the pain and doctors.

This has given me a great appreciation of what it must be like to work with a chronic illness, something I’d read about but didn’t know very much about. As much as I may have tried to hide it, I have definitely been less productive than I (or my boss) would have liked. I have missed promised deadlines, something that I never do, and finally had to tell my boss what was going on. As always, he’s been very kind and understanding, and I know how lucky I am. I even have a slight advantage (depending on the circumstances) in that my pain and the ways I’ve dealt with it are often visible with an obvious root; it can be extremely difficult for people with invisible illness (think fibromyalgia, depression) to deal with others not understanding or believing that they do in fact have an illness.

Even with a flexible schedule and sympathetic boss, I had to consider how my productivity was going to affect my job moving forward. As a postdoc, I’m expected to be in the most productive phase of my training – no classes to worry about, no teaching duties, just all research all the time! So what does it mean when I’m really not being very productive? For that matter, what is productive enough? Where would I need to draw the line, either because of my productivity or to preserve my own health, and consider taking a medical leave, going on disability, or cutting back my hours?

Then I realized that I had no idea how medical leave or disability insurance worked or what other possibilities were. And a number of reasons make it difficult to look into those things while in the midst of health issues – let alone after a traumatic accident of some sort. Sarcozona over at Tenure She Wrote recently wrote a wonderful post about some of these issues and more, and how to value and support [student] researchers with chronic illness. I think we should all take some time when we’re healthy to learn and think about how to deal when we’re not, for our own health and for times when we’re called upon to help or work with someone else like a student dealing with these issues. Talk to your HR representative, read that part of your employee/student handbook you may have glossed over, look into disability insurance – you never know when you might need the benefits suddenly!

In the meantime, take care of yourself and stay well!


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Do the same rules apply to all genders as mentors?

Image source:

I have great summer student. She was a student of mine at my previous institution and came to do research in my current lab for her summer internship. On her first day I was really busy and sorry I didn’t have time to do much more than set her up with her training, so I said, “Why don’t I take you out to lunch tomorrow?” I thought it would be a good chance to catch up and get to know her better. So we went out and got to chat about what was going on in her life and she asked me a lot more about my career history. It was great, and exactly what I would hope for from a mentor-mentee relationship.

And then, because I always love over-analyzing things as a gender-based thought experiment, I wondered how this would be different if our genders were different. Could taking a student out to lunch to get to know them better be perceived as inappropriate if my student was male? Probably not, but it would almost certainly be less comfortable for me and probably for the student. What if I was male and my student was female? That gave me pause. Of course this one event was within the bounds of normal mentoring, but I could see the potential for something like this to make a student uncomfortable or to be the beginning of a series of problematic events where the power differential* makes it difficult for the student to say no to increasingly line-crossing interactions.

Should I be okay with behavior that I don’t see a problem with in one gender combination, if I do see it as a potential problem with a different gender? The image above is an extreme example (since everything Leslie Knope does is extreme and awesome), but there are many things that can seem not noteworthy coming from women that would never be acceptable from men.

On the one hand, I think it is even more important for women to get close and mentor other women to help them overcome the obstacles we continue to face. However, when I think about a man mentoring another man [preferentially], it makes me feel like the old boys club is being perpetuated. Is it fair to think that one is essential and the other should be avoided, as long as there is an imbalance in the field?

Further, why should the line be drawn in a different place for me as a female mentor than for a male mentor? Should I hold myself to the same standards and distance that I would expect from a man?

There are certainly ways male and female mentors may have different benefits, for either female or male mentees, and for this among many reasons, it is advisable for a student to try to have several mentors. But what should a mentor take into consideration for his or her interactions with different trainees? How does one give each student the mentoring they need or deserve without favoritism, and is it possible to support stronger relationships between more similar people without perpetuating the existing hierarchy?

I’m really asking! What do you think?

*I’m not factoring sexual orientation into the equation here, mostly because the focus is on gender-based power differentials, and I’m trying not to consider sexual or romantic circumstances; I do recognize that people who are not heterosexual or cisgender may have even greater cause for worry or discomfort when presented with unclear lines in social situations related to the workplace.

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Listen to yourself

For the last six months I’ve been co-facilitating a peer mentoring group for postdocs, a group initiated by our postdoctoral affairs office. We’re seven people, all in some kind of biomedical research, but not necessarily with the same career goals. The aim of the group is to support each other and give feedback as we move forward on our career development paths, focusing on a specific task each month such as conducting an informational interview about a prospective career option.

One thing that has really struck me about this group is that at over half the people have changed their top-choice career goal just in the six months we’ve been meeting! And it’s not like we’re fresh off the PhD and just bouncing around all the options – most of us have been postdocs for more than a few years, and several of us have done two postdocs.

There are two main ways people have been led to change their goals. The first is through some introspection. We used an Individual Development Plan (My IDP) to facilitate this – I highly recommend this to anyone as a way to clarify (and quantify) your interests, skills and values in a way that can show you more about yourself and good potential career matches. It certainly has some limitations, but it can be eye-opening. For example, the first time I used this tool it told me that, based primarily on my interests, my top career choices (i.e. Principal Investigator) were actually at the very bottom of my list of all the potential science career matches. So that was hard to swallow, and apparently I still haven’t dealt with it completely since that’s the main career I’m still pursuing… but this post isn’t about my problems right now, it’s about helping other people!

The other way that people have been led to awareness of a need for a shift in career choices is by being alerted by someone else that they’re not on the right path. This usually comes in the form of someone saying “When I hear you talk about -X- you sound really excited, and you’re clearly putting a lot of effort into it, but I never hear you sound that excited when you talk about things related to your current career path -Y-.”

My hope with this post is that those of you who are not feeling great about your current career trajectory can really listen to yourself as you talk about different parts of your job – what do you find yourself talking excitedly about, wanting to share with others, or putting ahead of other tasks you should be doing first? If you can listen to yourself and identify those things you’re truly excited about, then you don’t need another person to notice and tell you when you’re on the wrong path, and hopefully you don’t need to waste any more time waiting for someone else to steer you right. And if you’re better with numbers than hearing your own excitement level, the IDP can help you consider and quantify what your top interests are.

I try to check in with myself periodically and hear myself talk. The easiest thing to notice is that I am virtually never excited to talk about research. The next thing I notice is that I am more enthusiastic about things involving students. I first thought this meant that teaching was the right path for me, but when I really thought about what aspects of my teaching and interactions with students I liked the best, I realized that it was the mentorship and guidance that I valued more than teaching content. I’ve been mulling this over for the last couple of years, thinking about and exploring different jobs and careers that can best translate these interests and skills. I’ll keep you posted on where I’m headed!

Has anyone else made a startling discovery/decision based on the way they communicate about their jobs, or been in a position to convince someone else they have a better fitting path to pursue?

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The benefits of networking – thoughts on what that really means

For years, networking was a terrifying word to me. In the past, it meant going a mile out of my comfort zone to find the biggest bigwigs at a meeting or seminar and getting their attention somehow. And trying to force conversation that hard is just painful, and I would end up falling on my face. Often hearing in school that I “should” be networking to advance my career just made my stomach do flips. What I realize now is that I had a huge misconception about what that word really was, and the people promoting this idea never really stopped to explain it to me. Thankfully, over the years, I have gained a much more profound understanding of what it is. My ideas about networking have gone through a beautiful evolution to the point that networking seems effortless, and I actually look forward to these opportunities. Net-building happens in ways you can’t always anticipate, and at times you don’t even know it is happening. It is fun for me to reflect back and try to see some of the webs that have been formed in my life, some of which have gotten me where I am today, and others that have perhaps influenced someone else’s path. Allow me attempt to unpack what this formerly terrifying word really means to me, today. Networking is NOT about only looking forward. I am referring to the bigwigs here. Networking is more about looking around in all directions. It is important (in lots of ways) that interactions are with people at ALL stages of their career. When I reflect back on my own experiences, the people who I previously thought I was supposed to network with have been the least helpful in carving the path I took to where I am at. One misconception I had about networking was that it was only about what I could get out of the interaction. I have gotten where I am by networking, but it wasn’t in ways that I thought. Often it was the lateral connections that have made the most impact on me, like: talking with other postdocs – sorting out the pros and cons of our goals, strengths and weaknesses, teaching with other people and having casual conversations about what they value and dislike about their current path, and talking with friends and former peers who are no longer in academia to see how their lives have changed. It was one of my friends who pointed out the opening for the government job I have now. While the numerous conversations I had with both my graduate school and postdoc mentor were insightful for one particular path, it was very limited in perspective. And I like to think I have provided insight to those mentees I have worked with. I always go out of my way to get coffee or lunch with people who want to know more. I love following their career paths as they graduate and get their first and subsequent jobs. I find it very satisfying to participate in the bio sci mentor program as an alumnus. This slightly ties into the larger issue of women in STEM in general. Often, younger female students don’t get enough exposure to the reality of working in STEM. Currently, 36 percent of high school students within the United States are not ready for college-level sciences. Misha Malyshev, CEO of Teza Technologies works with nonprofits to curb that number. International Day of the Girl is a great time to celebrate the women in this field, and every field, and recognize the opportunities allowed to girls. This will take effort on our part as we progress in our career paths. There will always be girls that come after us, and we should step up to the responsibility of mentoring, even though we will never have it all figured out. Day of Girl Networking is more effective if you express your genuine thoughts, ideas and questions. Another one of the misconceptions I had about networking is that I had to have a crystal clear understanding of myself and what I wanted before I “networked” so that the superstar I was supposed to rub shoulders with could help get me to where I wanted to be. It gave me so much anxiety to think that I had to know where I wanted to be while I was still in high school and college, and even grad school. As a result, it was almost like I had to create a character for myself (who I thought I wanted to be in the future) and only interact within these bounds. This had the unfortunate effect of preventing me from asking questions – questions that probably would have given me a lot more insight into figuring out who I wanted to be. Referring to the women in STEM example I gave above, if younger women had a more real understanding of what STEM careers are really like, these numbers might be different. Now, what networking means to me is having casual conversations with all kinds of people. What I have found to be most effective is trying to put myself in their shoes, a point that this article also makes. I try to understand their perspective on where they are at in their careers, or the interesting issues they are having to deal with at work. It has led to some fascinating conversations. Knowing what I know now and being rather new to my field, I try to follow up with those contacts I have had a meaningful conversation with. I send an email about how much I enjoyed chatting with them, how they have added to my understanding of x,y, or z, and any offer to follow up on a,b, or c. I want people to remember who I am. I know I have a lot to learn, and I believe I have a lot to offer. I have no idea what opportunities will come my way in the future, but I want to be in the best position I can to tackle them, and be in the best position to offer meaningful insight to people who are searching! I would love to hear other people’s networking successes and/or experiences to learn from.

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A Portrait of the Scientist Maintaining Her Zen

Sep 11 2015 Published by under advice, coping, stress

Traditionally, labor day marks the beginning of the season when sh*t hits the academic fan. Grants are due, Deans present you with “opportunities to make your voice heard” on important committees, seminars pick up again and bite into your bench time, and maybe you’ve even decided to take or audit a class! In the spirit of making it through to the holidays with sanity intact, here are some stress management tips from us at PSYW. What are your tips? Feel free to add to the list in the comments!


Writing about stress management is a challenging exercise for me.  I feel like I should be a pro at this, but alas I am not.  I definitely have a lot of anxiety, and over the years, I have strived to channel it in proper/creative/positive outlets.  Sometimes it worked, other times not so much.  Hopefully, I will be able to recap some of the things that have helped me.  In addition to the really wonderful comments below regarding stress management, I would like to start with a few of my own:

Self reflection   

What helped me through times of stress was trying to understand what it was I really was stressed about.  For example, if I had a deadline that was causing me to feel anxious, I would ask questions like, “what is it about this particular deadline that is making me feel worried?”  I knew that I would finish it on time, but why all the unnecessary feelings of unease?  Was it because I wanted to make sure I could impress my boss or my colleagues with the quality of the final product?  Was it because if I missed the deadline, I would suffer consequences, for example judgement from those whose opinions I value?  Was it because deep down I suffer from impostor syndrome, and that little voice in my head would insist on telling me that “see, you shouldn’t be here, you can’t even produce in time for this deadline.”  Breaking down this feeling of anxiety, acknowledging it and trying to understand the underlying intensity of feelings would help me digest the situation piece by piece and ease the tension.


Generally identifying what helps one bring down the temperature of the day to a steady state is tremendously helpful in managing stress.  Furthermore, taking time to indulge, to allow time to stand still and thoroughly dive in that pool of emotion that makes you feel good.  It can be small or large, but the effects can be lasting and deeply beneficial.  For me personally, I so covet the time with my friends on the weekends.  Every time I get together with them, I feel energized, happy and content – I carry this afterglow of positive energy for days on after.  The little things throughout the week to keep me balanced and centered, are typically like a walk outside, feeling the sun on my skin or the warmth of green grass on my bare feet, watching the dragonflies do their dance around a marshy pond, watching toddlers play in the sand.  Other things that make me happy are listening to podcasts by my favorite speakers (Tara Brach, Alan Watts, Tim Ferris) to and from work, cuddling with my four year old boys in the evening before bedtime, playing with my cats, drinking wine and watching our favorite shows at night with my husband once the boys are asleep, spending time in nature (hiking, camping, running), taking photos of the gorgeous Pacific Northwest outdoors – are all of the things on my list that make me feel oh so good.


This is an obvious choice for helping with stress, be it seeing a therapist, starting medical treatment, or trying cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).  But it’s not as simple as a “one pill treats all ailments.”  You really have to commit.  And it takes time.  Finding the right therapist or life coach with whom you have a deep meaningful connection can be very difficult, but so rewarding once you succeed.  That person can really help you unleash your potential and create a kinder space to help you find ways to regard yourself with empathy and respect.  Medical interventions can also be very helpful, however the stigma around seeking mental health help still exists.  Although I feel like things are getting better on that front.  Perhaps, finding a combination that works for each individual might be the proper approach.  For me, it has been seeing a brilliant, kind, thoughtful therapist in concert with deep breathing, meditation and acupuncture (I am sort of obsessed with the latter, perhaps I should write a whole post about it!) have helped me most.     


I schedule my time obsessively – so that I can not think about anything but fun in my free time

I know most of us are list-makers and schedulers, but I think I carry it a little farther than most. My Google calendar reflects exactly what I’m doing, down to the half-hour, for every time in my work and housework day. If I can’t get to something (or more often don’t want to) I just drag it to the next day or week and don’t feel bad about it – it’s on my calendar, therefore it will get done. More importantly, since I know everything is already scheduled and planned to the best of my ability, I will not even think of it or feel like something is hanging over my head when I’m experiencing that precious blank time on my calendar.

I never take work home (except when I do)

This might be more of a talent than a tip, but I completely drop all thoughts of work when I walk out the door. I’ve accomplished what I wanted to for the day, or put it on my calendar for another time in the future, and now I don’t have to think about it at all. Of course things do arise that just don’t fit into the regular work day or need to get done ASAP, so when that happens I put it on my get it done, but I don’t let it bother me that it’s taking time away from something else – it’s just the next thing on my list and I’m checking it off, no stress.


Reality (Therapy)

My ideal system would involve exercise, yoga, meditation, and reserving time for me to do things I enjoy like cooking and knitting. But, LOL, I have a toddler and I’m trying to finish my PhD. I have no time, and I tend to put socializing above exercising, for better or worse. So, hopefully I can figure out how to fit in exercise soon, but this is what I do now. Most of my tips come straight from my therapist. I am working on recognize anxiety, recurring stressful patterns of thought (ruminating), and other unhealthy mental thought loops. When I catch myself generating stress in this way, I call myself out (ie, you’re ruminating and it’s not productive). Acknowledging and recognizing the stress-generating pattern of thought goes a long way for me towards stopping it. A classic stress-maker for me is any annoying but important meeting with university administration. For example, when I was trying to save my dependent benefits from getting cut last year, I would get extremely stressed in advance of meetings and spend time and energy playing out what I would say in different scenarios. This generated a lot of extra anxiety, and made the whole thing more difficult. And it was pointless. Any meeting is just a conversation once it gets going. I can not read people’s minds to know what they’ll actually say, and going into a meeting as a stressed out mess makes it difficult to listen. After some really miserable meetings, I recognized that I was exacerbating my anxiety by ruminating and was able to pretty much get it under control to get through an awful meeting with a university finance guy and a VP without crying or agreeing with them. I see the free, on-campus, student health therapists regularly. They are pros. And we have subsidized dependent health coverage on a university sponsored plan for one more year, no thanks to the finance guy.

Done > Almost Done

In terms of my daily work in the lab, there is certainly a significant amount of stress generated by the PhD process. It forces me to be largely self directed and motivated. The dark side of that, of course, is when you’re not making progress it feels like a personal failing. My most useful (and only) strategy here is to break things down into tiny attainable chunks. I combine that with my mantras, “No one cares about things that are almost done” and “Done > Almost Done” to try to keep all the projects progressing and keep closing out parts of a project that are done by making a small figure and adding it to the folder called “Dissertation”.


Beyond the lab, I try to socialize when I can – maybe that’s why I feel like I have no time for exercise – and combine networking and socializing whenever possible to keep one eye on the future. I have a habit of overscheduling myself (and now my son). When I do that, a fun weekend turns into a harried race from one activity to the next and all the fun activities become stressful obligations. After the birth of my son, it became super important to be sure we all get downtime every day.  For us, limiting the number of activities to one scheduled activity per weekend day is the best way to make sure so one gets overstimulated and cranky. Sounds sounds like a nice problem to have – too much fun! – but it was making me stressed out. Now it no longer does, I get time for myself, my son gets a nap at the same time every day, and we all get unstructured time. I should have instituted an inflexible weekend naptime and a one activity per day rule when I was 25.



Like those above, having things scheduled and on a to do list helps me not worry about them. I do not schedule most things down to the hour like SweetScience, but I do break things into chunks and put everything I know I have to do on a to-do list or on my calendar. Having a sense of what I have to do each day and what portion of the day I’d like to get them done makes me able to focus on each thing at it’s time and not worry about the rest.


I am by no means a yogi, but I enjoy doing yoga when I have time and I like to carry the breathing practiced in yoga to my day. I learned a lot of yogi breathing techniques in preparing for my labors sans pain medication. One of my favorite breathing exercises is to take slow breaths, feeling each successive breath in a different part of my lungs. Doing this several times a day adds no time (do it in the elevator, while writing, anytime) brings relaxation to my body and peace to my mind.


Sometimes I get anxious about how I am not exceeding in areas of life as much as I would like (the house is a mess! I don’t make as much money as I should! I don’t do enough creative activities with my children! …I know, ugh!). The thing that helps me most with this type of anxiety is active recognition of what I do have. I have a beautiful house. I have a wonderful family. I have a job I don’t hate that makes enough money. I live in a beautiful place. Just recognizing all the things I have to be grateful for is sometimes enough to keep the demons at bay. Again, this is a thing that can be done during other activities and thus adds no time to my busy schedule.

rest + exercise

I exercise several times weekly and try to make sure I get enough sleep. I think that these things are really important for mental health and general happiness and are not worth compromising on. I am not myself without rest and exercise, and reminding myself of that helps me get up at 5:30am to run in the dark and go to sleep at a reasonable hour even though there are sometimes things I’d rather (or maybe should) do.



This topic makes me shudder. There have definitely been times in my life where I have felt frantic and overwhelmed in academia, and somehow, I always got through it. I certainly don’t feel like I have a strategy to advise, because it seemed I was always changing my strategy. I would try listing things for a while, but my problem with that is that I would always end up putting things that are too big on the list – like “finish manuscript”, and that task took weeks and weeks. My list would become so long that it would end up making me feel sick, and I would throw it away. So, “break things down into tiny attainable chunks” seems like pretty solid advice that would have served me well.

Harnessing productivity

My current strategy is to take advantage of moments where I am feeling highly motivated and productive, and knock out as much as I can in those moments. I know myself enough know to know that those usually occur in the mornings, so I plan for the harder to tackle tasks every day in the morning, and save the more repetitive, easier, or rewarding things for the afternoon.

Always, though, is the underlying need for balance in my life to deal with the stress. Like peirama, exercise is key. It seems that the more exercise I get, the more energy I have.

I can’t do it all myself

For the times that the stress got really bad, I found it useful to seek the help of outside, neutral people. As a postdoc, the thing that helped me a ton was a bi-weekly massage. It sounds ridiculous and stuck-up, but it really did wonders for my mental health and balance. I always felt so relaxed after that, and it really made a difference in how I approached problems and tasks. And also, there are times I have gotten very down on myself for not succeeding like I should, and having a psychologist or therapist to talk to helped me put things in perspective. I thought of those conversations as adding tools to my toolbox.


This is not my area of expertise — I thrived on putting myself in worst possible circumstances.  I was a master of procrastination and wasting time.  Maybe this was okay as a student, postdoc, and project scientist.  Yea, maybe I would not have survived as a professor…  When I was under much pressure and panic, CHOCOLATE helped.
I think we can all agree on that last one! What are your stress prevention tips or coping mechanisms? Leave a comment!

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Advice to young women: don’t laugh

“Girls, if boys say something that’s not funny, you don’t have to laugh.”

-Amy Poehler

This is some great advice from one of my favorite feminists. I’d like to extend this advice to young women in an academic or professional context and advise them not to laugh while giving a presentation (unless there’s something truly funny).

To avoid sounding like a total killjoy, let me first say that I am a very happy person who smiles and laughs quickly and easily, and I love hearing or making other people laugh as well. But what I’m talking about here is the laughter that is not in response to something funny – it’s the nervous giggle that is generated from anxiety. Most importantly, this is a laugh that is almost exclusive to girls and women.

As an instructor at a women’s college, I saw many young women give presentations in everything from a casual setting in class to a formal honors thesis presentation. No matter the level, quality, or competence of the person speaking, I noticed the nervous giggle was nearly ubiquitous, and it came to be my pet peeve.

She giggles when she can’t remember what she wants to say next. She giggles when she misspeaks, or sometimes for no apparent reason at all. She giggles when she accidentally skips ahead a slide in the presentation. In short, she’s usually laughing at herself for making mistakes.

This response is not all bad. It’s certainly better than getting angry, beating herself up for a little mistake. But it has a number of detrimental effects for the presenter:

1) Laughing at a mistake draws attention to the error. Usually this is something so minor or so understandable like skipping a slide and having to go back that the audience would not even be aware of it, and there’s no need to apologize or laugh in response.

2) Laughing appears unprofessional, like you’re not taking your work seriously.

3) The nervous giggle makes the presenter seem less confident and competent.

This final point is really the most important. On an individual level, you want to present yourself in the best possible light. You don’t want to do anything that will make you appear less confident in yourself or your research, or competent and understanding of your work, than you actually are. On a larger level, it is important to consider that this nervous laughter is a uniquely female trait. It is possible that the perception of a giggling young woman as less confident or competent compared to a male presenter could add to the stereotypes we are battling.

One important note is that I have rarely, if ever, noticed the nervous giggle in a presentation given by a female above an undergraduate level (graduate students, postdocs, faculty, other professionals). It is hard to say if there is a transition that occurs, where a woman matures or confidence is gained after college, or if the women I’ve met who go on to graduate school in science happen to be the women who never set out giggling or never got nervous. I do not believe the latter possibility to be true. I recently watched an amazing senior student give her honors thesis presentation. She is one of the most competent and confident students I’ve had the pleasure of teaching and clearly knows her field and her project very well; she is going on to an excellent graduate program and I am confident that she will be very successful as a scientific researcher. And yet, she giggled throughout her entire seminar.

If the possibility that there is a transition in young women from nervous giggling to confident presentations is true, what can instructors and mentors do to facilitate the transition (if only so I spend less time grinding my teeth down while listening to the presentations)?

1) Give direct feedback: “You clearly know your stuff, but your giggling makes you appear less confident. Try to be mindful of that in the future and cut back. Take a deep breath when you feel the urge to laugh.”

2) Give more opportunities for practice (and more feedback): anxiety contributes a large part to the nervous giggles, and more practice could make the talk smoother overall.

For more advice on minding your mannerisms:

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