2010-08-17 08:13 pm
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Traveling for SCIENCE!

Ok, a post just under the wire!

At some point in your graduate science career, you will travel for science. This has been on my mind, as I have done a LOT of travel for science this summer: more than 50% of my time. (My poor cat!) Traveling for science can be very rewarding, absolutely soul-sucking, both, or anywhere in-between. My hope in this post is to give some advice about how to maximize happiness while traveling for SCIENCE!

First: paying for it. Since you are lucky enough to be in science grad school, your advisor probably has money in their grant specifically for paying for travel for you. Hooray! However, you should be clear up front with your advisor about who pays what when, if you have to go through a travel office, whether you have a per diem (a certain amount of money per day for food and lodging) or you have to have receipts for food and lodging, what your budget is, if you ought to have a roommate, etc. For example, I have a deal with my advisor that if I want to take some vacation around my travel (e.g. stay an extra couple of days to do sightseeing or visit friends or whatever) the airfare can't be more than if I just went for the days of the trip. It usually works for me, and I've gotten quite good at the "go somewhere, see an old friend on the school's dime" game. Regardless, keep your receipts, your boarding passes, and hotel bills.

Furthermore, if your advisor doesn't have money, there are lots of travel grants out there. Often conferences and summer schools will have scholarship money, or your department or university may have grants, or your professional organization. There's lots of money out there! Use it!

And, seriously. Do your travel reimbursement within a week of coming back. Your wallet and your brain will be way happier.

Second: conferences/intensive schools/collaboration meetings. I'm not going to talk a lot about what you should do during a conference, as I think that varies a lot by discipline/size of the conference. However, traveling to a conference can be quite different than traveling for other reasons. Basically, I have to keep an eye on myself, more so than if I am at home. For me the hardest part about conferences is the fact that time can be quite heavily scheduled, and I'm used to having a lot of freedom in my day. So I have to be sure to make time to be by myself, calm down, and breathe. Also, eating out all the time tends to throw off my digestive system, so I have to be a lot more careful about what I eat. On the other hand, I get the most value out of conferences at meals, getting to talk to people more closely, and meet new people, so it's a balancing act.

I also think that trying to see some of the city where the conference is is a great idea. Ask the organizers, or better yet, the grad students of the organizers; they live there and can tell you the best things to do. Sometimes they'll even offer to take you to see things. After all, all work and no play...makes for a really sucky week.

Third: traveling to another lab/facility. Sometimes (or in some disciplines, like mine, almost certainly) you will need to travel to another facility to use some equipment, install some parts, assist another group, etc. Be a good guest. No, really. BE A GOOD GUEST. Obey your hosts' regulations on safety, training, ID, etc. Also, be clear on what those regulations are before you go. Do you need proof of citizenship/radiation training/biohazard training/whatever? Get it done before you go. Leave lab space that is not your own cleaner than you found it. Be prepared. Have a plan for the work you want to accomplish and how you are going to do it. Discuss your plan with your hosts before you get there. They will know if something is unreasonable. This will save a lot of frustration. Trips like this often mean very, very long work hours. Set boundaries for yourself. (Seriously. Don't work 18 hours a day. Just. Don't.)

Again, take care of yourself. Try to eat well. Schedule time to unwind a little. See interesting things around the area. I like to try to keep a schedule as much like my home schedule as possible; I like to try to stay somewhere with a kitchen, as cooking is something that feeds me cheaply and keeps me calm. You can often find twoish week sublets on Craigslist in major urban area—or even if it's for a month, it'll be cheaper than a hotel for two weeks.

If you have guests visiting your lab, be nice to them. Tell them the fun things to do in your area. Help them get the supplies they need. Help them navigate your local bureaucracy.

Fourth: be prepared for reentry, particularly if you've been away for awhile. Getting back into your rhythm can be hard. I like to come home on Saturdays, so I can relax, see friends, and do my laundry on Sunday. Then I'm ready to go on Monday. If I can't do that, I often work only the afternoon the day after I come back. Also, I find it helpful to make a report on my travels. If I went to a conference/school, I'll make notes on interesting talks. If I was doing lab-related travel, I'll make notes on what I got done, any results, and the status of my project. Then I present this at the next lab meeting. It makes you look fantastic to your advisor, and it's a great way to keep track of what you learned on your trip.

Lastly, and this is not relevant in every situation, but I've been through some hell with it: be prepared to encounter culture not your own. Now, this is true of every kind of travel (and even the point of most of it!) but more so when you are trying to get work done, rather than relax and see the sights. I have had to do a lot of travel to a very rural part of the US; I'm a city boy through and through. It's been hard for me: I don't feel the safest there, I can't do many of the things I like to do, the restaurants close before I'm even hungry, the people I work with there have political views I find abhorrent. Parts of it I've just had to suck up and deal with. But I've also countered by keeping in touch with my support structure at home. I email and text and try to keep up with goings on in my friends' lives. I have people who know I'm there and who I can call and vent to, if necessary. I try not to go there alone. I keep in contact with other visiting scientists there. Basically, I make sure that people have my back.

OK! I hope that this was not too long, and that it is helpful for adorkable new grad students. Comment if you have anything to add.
2010-07-23 11:01 am

Relationships & Grad School

The hardest thing for me, when I moved to grad school, wasn't even on my list of "things that could possibly go wrong". And being an inveterate worrier, that list was pretty long. That hardest thing? Developing a successful network of relationships.

I mean, after all, though I'm not exactly socially ept, throughout high school and college, I'd dropped right into a large, nerdy, friendly group of people to hang out with and to get support from when I needed it. I assumed the same would be true in grad school. And that was false.

Before grad school, the largest group of my friends at any given time came from school, as I suspect is true for most people. Neither my high school nor my college was particularly large, but contained people with varied interests—writers, linguists, theater folk, biologists, historians, musicians, sailors, etc. I took classes in a wide range of things, and made friends in those classes. However, in grad school, the people I saw day in and day out, in class, doing homework, in the lab—they were all physicists. And since grad school is such a time suck, I pretty much spent all my time with physicists.

Now don't get me wrong. I love physicists. I am a physicist—it's not just a job, but also an identity. But I was starving, socially, when all my social activity came from my department. It took me the better part of a year to figure out what was wrong and how to start to go about fixing it. I'm not even sure I've fixed it now, but it's much better than it was that first year. The fix was really to focus on generating and maintaining relationships outside of school: the variety of people I need in my life to be happy were mostly there, but because I didn't see them every day or around campus, those relationships were withering. It's not easy, particularly for someone as introverted as I am, but the payoff has been worth it.

So, three tips for building and maintaining relationships in grad school:

1. Build boundaries about when you work and when you don't. If you schedule time that isn't for work/work people, it's way easier to find and see people outside your program. Also, it's good for your sanity.

2. Find a good coffeeshop or five. Or a good bar or five. NOT on campus. Hang out with people there. Even if you are hanging out with grad school people, the mere fact of being away from school tends to loosen people up and bring out the parts of them that aren't about school.

3. Hobbies are hard in grad school, because of the time factor; however, they are a great way to find people outside your program. But be careful about your institution's various clubs and teams: many will be full of undergraduates, which isn't a bad thing, but can be disappointing in its own way.

All those are pretty general, but I want to have one last word about relationships and identity. I was also starving because, though I am white and male—typical in physics—I am also trans and queer and Christian—not typical, to put it mildly. I don't necessarily feel comfortable among my physics friends being vocal about those identities, not because people are bigoted or mean, but because my physics friends just don't Get It. This put extra emotional pressure on me. I can imagine that people who are gender minorities or racial/ethnic minorities or other minority categories in their field might feel the same way. I don't think the solution is any different—make a variety of friends, probably some of whom are those minority categories—but I do think that it's important to be aware of that effect and that it can wear you down, even if you don't think it will.
2010-06-24 10:26 pm
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...but not like that.

I just got back from an extended vacation/conference. I am apparently no longer able to take vacation without also going to a conference, but that's not the point of this post.

I noticed, at the conference that I was hanging out with a couple of different groups of people: grad students on my experiment, professors from my university, other random people I know. And I noticed that while I was hanging out with different groups, I was noticeably and appreciably shifting my gender presentation—at least within the allowed boundaries of masculinity for physicists. For example, when hanging out with the grad students on my experiment, I gravitated towards a beer-soccer version. (World Cup, WOOOOOO! USA! USA!) When with the profs, I tended towards a less...loud...aspect of gender performance, and more towards a competence-sophisticated version of masculinity.

Now both of these (and all the other masculinities I perform(ed)) are not inaccurate representations of my gender. I do love soccer. I do love beer. I do love long lunchtime discussions of experiments. But it was extra apparent to me that I was specifically manipulating aspects of my personality to fit those I was with, and that manipulation felt particularly gendered to me during this conference.

I'm not really sure what to make of this, other than it feels a lot like my ambivalence about what my gender actually means to me, as I talked about in this post on the cisgender/transgender distinction. Which is to say that 20-some years into my life, fiveish years into transition, and I still have no clue how to define my gender, despite being perfectly clear that medical transition has been exactly the right thing for me.
2009-06-07 05:05 pm
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More Women in Science News

Via Slate comes this article, again about the gender gap in science.

In a study at the United States Air Force Academy, they studied the effect of professor gender on student achievement. USAFA is a great place to study this because it controls for many effects: the students are assigned to sections randomly, the syllabus is standard and set, and all students take the same exam at the end of the term.

The authors found that simply having a female professor essentially erased the gender gap, especially for high-performing students, as well as substantially increasing the probability that women would go on to advanced courses and science degrees.

This is not at all surprising to me. The role of mentor is an extraordinarily important one in the development of the proto-scientist. What I did find interesting is that certain male professors also erase the gender gap between male and female students. I would be extraordinarily interested in the qualities that those professors have. I have some suspicions about those already: calm in temper, casual, reasonably good social skills, fair, empathetic, and with a strong understanding and valuing of a well-rounded student. Or, pretty much, my undergraduate mentor.

My undergrad mentor managed to attract a disproportionate number of female students, both graduate and undergraduate students. Both of his grad students while I knew him were female, and 75% of his undergrads. I don't know how the cluster got started, but I do know how it perpetuated itself: he actually listened to and respected female students. They knew they had a voice in the group and other women saw that when they looked into joining the group. My group now perpetuates itself in the same way: there are a number of women, who are well respected, and that encourages other women to join. This was no small issue for me in joining a group—I felt sure that a group that was welcoming to women would be understanding of my transition. Furthermore, I believe that this cluster is good for those of us who are male students in the group. We're learning now how to become the seeds for when we are postdocs and professors.

The big question for me, then, is how to plant the seeds—my undergrad mentor, my graduate advisors—that nurture the clusters that draw women into physics. Can we plant them now? Can we retrain men to be those exceptional ones? Or do we just have to wait until the old ones die out?
2009-06-03 07:08 am

The Gender Gap in Math...

...is nearly gone, at least in the US, so says a new study. (Abstract linked, full article behind a pay wall, summary blog post)

In short, the study finds that boys and girls score the same on math standardized exams through graduation from high school, and that they are taking calculus classes at the same rate. The study then goes on to test the hypothesis that the averages are the same, but that men have a larger standard deviation, and so there are more math geniuses that are men, and finds that, while there are more men than women above the 95th and 99th percentile, that ratio has changed with time and with culture of origin, indicating that this is likely a culturally derived factor.

I find this to jive strongly with my experience. I work in physics, a STEM field with a poor reputation for gender equality, and currently at an institution that is below average, even for our field, even while it is a top-ranked department.

As both a graduate student and as an undergraduate student, I earned a reputation among my peers for being at the top of my class. But I noticed a marked difference between undergrad (when I lived as a woman) and grad (when I live as a man) in how my peers treated that reputation. As a grad student, it was treated matter-of-fact: someone's got to be at the top, eh, it's him. As an undergrad, it was treated as a bit of a challenge to the boys in my class. Not all of them, but some.

I will say, with some relief, that this isn't true for my research groups. I talk more, and have more responsibility now, but I attribute that to being a grad student, rather than an undergrad. I'm supposed to have more responsibility. I think part of the reason for this is that I've worked in two extremely female-friendly groups. My current group has 50% female professors, which is unheard of in my field. My undergrad group was 75% female grad students. With numbers like those, you don't get anywhere if you don't respect and listen to the contributions of women.

All of which is to say that both the numbers and my personal experience uphold the idea that it is cultural factors holding women back from numerical equivalency in STEM fields, both cultural ideas about what women can do and "lifestyle factors" (the ever-popular euphemism for, "hey, some people want to have kids and a life AND do science").

Now, this isn't a new thought for a trans man to have; Ben Barres has advocated this view for a long time. But I feel that it's worth repeating, because while the plural of anecdote isn't data, we're far enough apart in academic careers and fields that I'm adding more perspective.