In February 2019, members of the POWER Steering Committee spoke with Stephanie Al Otaiba
Ph.D. We had an insightful conversation about making an impact as education researcher and
advice for women.
POWER: What is the best advice you have received during your career?
POWER: How do you make decisions about how to spend your time?
POWER: What do you think is particularly important for early- and mid-career women to know?
POWER: What advice do you have for faculty who are developing mentoring relationships as either the mentor or the mentee?
POWER: Is there anything that you wish you had done differently in your career? What would you do differently?
We are grateful that Stephanie spent her time and energy helping us think strategically about how to make an impact that fits our values.
In January 2019, the POWER Steering Committee met with Barbara Wasik, Ph.D. during a
meeting in Washington D.C. We had a lively conversation about mentoring, advice for education
research, and work-life balance.
POWER: Can you describe the mentoring you received during your career and how your mentors
● Early in my career, I was mentored and really protected by two senior women, who I
worked with. They supported me and provided me with advice about work load, salary
and taught me how to navigate our organization. These two women were key. They
always said “Make yourself marketable to the larger professional field not just your
immediate university community.” For example, they said your standards for your
academic performance should be based more on what the larger market dictates rather
than your particular institution at the time.
● They helped me understand when I should advocate for myself as a junior researcher.
These were issues ranged from having difficult conversation with senior researchers
about authorship decisions to asking for an office that was more than a tiny closet. It took
me weeks to work up the courage to have one of these conversations, but it was the right
thing to do. On the other hand, there were some tasks that they helped me understand
would make me a better researcher—like spending time in schools collecting data and
observing in classrooms. This was valuable advice that I still follow today.
POWER: What advice to you have on how to be a good mentor to female education researchers?
● First, you have to know the criteria on which they are being evaluated. Then, get to know
how they allocate their time. Find out what they enjoy and what makes them anxious.
You might find that more junior people spend more time doing things that don’t make
them anxious but these activities may not are not the best use of their time or in their best
interest as they work towards tenure and promotion. Also, I would suggest that they
examine the types of service that they are involved in and determine the cost/benefits of
the service. If it is very time consuming or not the best use of their time, I would suggest
that they look for other opportunities.
● An important area for helping mentees is with networking, such as helping them learn to
network at conferences and contacting people who do similar research as they do in order
to make professional connections. Sometimes this includes peer mentoring or writing
● As a mentor, also know you can only do so much. This profession requires a lot of self-
motivation and self-regulation, so the mentees have to do their part.
POWER: What advice do you have for negotiating through research career ladders?
● Regarding promotion and tenure, I would recommend that you get advice from not only
your department/college but also the university level on matters of tenure.
● I think my approach has been to speak openly about issues that arise in the professional
setting. If there are policies that you may object to or decisions that you may not agree
with, seek out more senior people for advice and try always to be fair and try and see the
other side’s perspective. My instinct has always been to talk about things when
something uncomfortable happened.
POWER: What advice do you have for someone considering promotion or tenure?
● As you approach promotion and tenure, there can be a lot of noise and uncertainty around
what criteria your institution values. I would suggest you pay attention to the college and
university-based guidelines and seek advice from colleagues who have recently gone
through the tenure and promotion process at your university. Another key aspect is to
demonstrate that you have developed an independent research trajectory.
● If your institution requires letter writers you do not collaborate with, start by searching
for researchers who have cited your work. Your letter writers need to be familiar with
your work in order to write a strong letter of support.
What advice do you have on grant writing?
● I think the most important thing is to find colleagues with similar interests with whom
you can write grants. One person writing a grant is a lot to do independently. It is helpful
to have a small group of colleagues (inside or outside your organization) who you can
effectively collaborate and who you trust.
● I try to always put in two grants a year because most of the time, they don’t get funded on
the first submission. It is a balancing act of making sure you don’t put in so many grants
that you don’t do anything well. Another important thing is to remember you don’t have
to be a Principal Investigator (PI) on everything; being a co-investigator also covers
allows you to play an important role in a grant funded project while you are PI on other
● It’s also important to consider funding for graduate students when writing your budget.
● There are some funding mechanisms I would not do again, such as grants that require
matching funds. It was a lot of work to find additional foundation funding for those sorts
How did you approach the balancing act of being a researcher and having a family or other
● In the beginning, I was really focused on doing a good job with my research, but I also
had two young kids. I was able to create a schedule during those years as a research
scientist where I could put my children first (attend my children’s events at school, be
home after school, etc.) and that was the right choice for my family and me. You know,
you are going to remember memories about your children more than that journal article.
● You have to decide how you will carve out your time for work versus your family or
other life priorities. Some institutions are better than others in supporting work-life
Many thanks to Barbara for sharing her time with this group and for her commitment to
mentoring many women in education research.
Welcome to POWER! Here are a few updates on our recent activities:
That’s it for now, but we’ll be in touch again soon about our plans for the future. As a preview of things to come, we have identified some outstanding senior women scholars in the field who will be serving as informal mentors of members of POWER. We are also developing some new resources and are planning our next in-person event.
For the many women in education research careers, mentors and sponsors represent some of the most important supports for guiding their careers. I am a mid-career education researcher who is incredibly grateful for the senior women who saw potential in me as a young researcher and for the peer mentors who have walked alongside me across many ups and downs of conducting education research. Their influence leads me to believe mentorship is critical to the success of females in academia. For example, my senior mentors have done the most generous things that range from opening up their troves of data for me to publish my earliest papers, funding portions of my salary, nominating me for awards, and spending face-to-face time listening to my questions, concerns, and giving advice and encouragement. Senior mentors advocate for you, push you to think about the rigor of your research, and tend to be fantastic when it comes to polishing your scholarly writing.
Although traditional mentoring from more senior academics is not a new idea, there is increased awareness of the value of peer mentors (Darwin & Palmer, 2009). My peer mentors, meaning individuals at similar levels in their career (such as my colleagues in POWER), are essential for me as well. Peer mentors are unique in that they can keep you accountable for what really matters, provide emotional support, and give you substantive feedback on your scholarship in what can feel like a more safe space. Imagine that you have a new grant or paper idea that you know is still in that inevitable “half baked” state; a peer mentor might be a great person to help you think aloud about what you’re trying to accomplish to allow you to refine your early drafted ideas before you seek input from more senior mentors or a broader intellectual community. Another benefit of your peer mentors is that they can be collaborators for the duration of your career, potentially leading to a series of scholarly endeavors that cultivate an even more rich, supportive relationship.
Formal and informal mentoring can provide important supports for navigating careers in education research. The bar for promotion and tenure is ever rising, as are expectations for conducting increasingly rigorous and transparent research. All academic faculty face these demands, but they can be particularly challenging for women. If you are a woman conducting education research, mentors at your institution can be key to career advancement because they can help you navigate the promotion and tenure system within your university. For example, you can meet with your mentor to set goals and expectations around what is required for promotion/tenure. Mentors can also make the often opaque written requirements for promotion more clear by explaining informal rules of thumb for what it takes to move to the next level. They can help you balance work life challenges while staying on track toward your career goals.
Yet the success of mentoring relationships often depends on the extent to which the mentees apply the principle of “managing up” (Zerzan et al., 2009). This is a term that comes from the corporate world and referees to the concept of the mentee carrying the burden of organizing and directing the relationship with their mentor in ways such as planning and setting an agenda for meetings with their mentor or communicating needs and requesting feedback from the mentor. Part of cultivating a strong relationship with all levels of mentors is understanding the objectives of the relationship and following through on your assigned tasks.
Thus far, I have described my female mentors, yet it is clear that some of my most important daily mentors within my institution are men. Just this week, I met with a male mentor who clearly assessed an uncomfortable situation in a project I am leading and helped me understand what would be a more helpful direction to take the group. As I write this post amidst the #MeToo movement that is making great strides to reduce sexual harassment, an unintended consequence may be that men are uncomfortable to work alone with women. That would be a step in the wrong direction for mentoring. Advocacy groups are calling for more men to step up and mentor women. Indeed, this is a critical juncture for men to mentor women and for women to seek mentorship from men. I’m grateful for not only the safe workplace I work in, but that there are men there who are comfortable supporting me and giving me advice.
I am sure many readers have powerful mentoring stories of their own. The POWER group seeks to support formal and informal mentoring because it is key to successful, productive education research and can be gratifying for both the mentor and mentee. Do you have a mentor? Do you have senior and peer mentors? Are you avoiding mentoring? What are the reasons you’re not seeking out opportunities to mentor or be mentored? If you’re not in a mentoring relationship, get started today. If you’re a senior researcher, consider finding a women in education research to mentor. If you more junior or mid career, you should not only seek out senior mentors but also develop relationships with your peers and look for relationships where peer mentoring may be beneficial.
Darwin, A., & Palmer, E. (2009). Mentoring circles in higher education. Higher Education Research & Development, 28(2), 125-136.
Zerzan, J. T., Hess, R., Schur, E., Phillips, R. S., & Rigotti, N. (2009). Making the most of mentors: a guide for mentees. Academic Medicine, 84(1), 140-144.
Dr. Jaclyn Dynia will be hosting our first networking event at the Society for the Scientific Studies of Reading conference later this month! ALL are welcome. Please join and get to know your fellow reading researchers.
By Dr. Sara Hart, Florida State University
Have you been wondering what this Open Science movement is all about? Have you heard of the Open Science Framework but want to know more? Thanks to my wonderful students, I hosted a webinar on Open Science for Education, where we covered the main topics you hear about with Open Science, like preregistrations, registered reports, and open access publishing, as well as human subjects considerations and the like. You can watch a recording of the webinar here. Have a look at the slides, which are located HERE!
By Dr. Sara Hart, Florida State University
Summer time means the start of a new academic job season. Are you planning to be on the market? The first ads begin to appear in August, with deadlines as early as the beginning of September. This means you should start getting your materials together now! A few years ago Dr. Shayne Piasta and I put together a Powerpoint presentation of our best tips, including lots of useful links. Access it HERE in our Resources Area!
By Dr. Sonia Cabell, Florida State University
Scholarly writing for publication is our currency in academia. The more we publish in high quality journals, the greater the impact we will have in our field of research. Not to mention that it is often an essential consideration in promotion and tenure. But for most of us, it is a struggle to maintain productivity in our scholarly writing. It’s not that we don’t want to do it. There are just so many other competing demands. Just today, I have fielded important communication about setting up meetings with two large urban districts, had an unscheduled hour-long conference call with research staff about an emergency issue, have communicated with graduate students and colleagues, and am trying to work through an unending “to do” list that has little to do with moving my writing forward. And this is a pretty calm summer day with lots of hours “supposedly” available for writing.
Writing is a challenge. Yet I have found two easy ways to increase my writing productivity, namely developing a regular writing habit and creating accountability.
#1-- Make Writing A Priority by Developing a Regular Writing Habit
We can’t really complain that we don’t have time to write. We all have the same 24 hours in our day. If I am not making time for writing, I am choosing to prioritize other tasks over writing. I have found that if I don’t make writing a priority today, it is less likely to be a priority for me in general. Once I get away from a regular writing habit, it is much harder for me to return to it. I forget the details of the paper I was writing, and it takes me 30 minutes just to re-orient myself to where I was when I last wrote. Let’s face it. Writing for publication is hard work! So I have found that developing a regular writing habit, particularly a daily writing habit, has helped me increase my productivity.
Daily writing, even for 30 minute increments, has some very useful benefits. First, I have learned to not rely solely on large chunks of time for moving my writing forward. Yes, these chunks of time will always be helpful and perhaps even necessary to complete writing projects. But our schedules don’t always allow for these blocks of time, and that can be an anxiety-provoking experience. Second, I feel that I am accomplishing something each day of the work week. This makes me more likely to want to return to my writing because I feel that I am meeting my goals. Third, having a regular writing habit promotes a healthier work-life balance. I know that I will have time to write productively during my work day, so I can really spend quality time with my three-year-old son on nights and weekends.
Some colleagues have asked me, “What can you get done in 30 minutes?” Well, I have found that I can easily jump back into a paper I was working on the day before, without much need for re-orienting. And I break my tasks down into bite-sized chunks... like incorporating a particular study into my argument in the introduction section, writing the study hypotheses, working on references, or writing a description of a particular measure in the method. And 30 minutes often leads to spending more time, with 90 minutes being my typical daily length. Writing daily, even in small chunks, also helps writing feel routine instead of a special activity reserved for special days.
But to develop this regular habit, we must protect our writing time. We would never consider skipping a class we are teaching. Yet we allow meetings to be scheduled over our writing times. If I really see myself as a professional writer, then I will protect my writing time. For me, I have found that my best bet for writing is when I first arrive at work. So I try to schedule all my meetings for the afternoon.
#2-- Create Accountability for Yourself
We all benefit from accountability in all areas of life! For many of our academic tasks, we have built-in accountability. For example, if I don’t prepare for class or grade papers, then my student evaluations will likely suffer. If I don’t respond to emails from my students or project staff, they will remind me with another email or pay a visit to my office.
We don’t have this built-in accountability for our scholarly writing projects. No one is checking in with us to make sure we have made progress, especially when we are the ones leading the writing effort. Even when we do collaborate with others, we often write our own sections of a paper rather independently. Not meeting proposed writing timelines can sometimes feel like the norm rather than the exception.
Here are some easy ways to create some accountability for yourself:
Set a daily writing goal.
Goal setting keeps you from drifting aimlessly. Each time I sit down to write, I set a writing goal for that session. My goals have included writing for 30 minutes or writing 250 new words on a paper. I try to specify what paper I want to move forward and how I want it to move forward (e.g., begin the discussion section).
Keep a writing log.
Research shows that just tracking what we are eating, with a program like Weight Watchers, helps us make healthier choices. Similarly, tracking our daily writing goals can help us make good writing decisions. Here is an example of my writing log from a week where I had accountability from colleagues. I tracked both my time spent writing as well as the number of new words I wrote per day. Tracking words keeps me honest and shows me whether I am spending my time wisely. Some days, I won’t have any new words when I am revising or editing a paper or thinking through the argument for the introduction section. That’s okay. But at some point, the log should show that I am writing new drafts too. I also like keeping track of how I felt about the writing session on a given day, because it gives me a chance to celebrate successes or vent my frustrations.
Share your writing log with others.
Having some sort of accountability partner or writing group is a key to success. Share your log with these trusted colleagues for regular review. Engage in a weekly writing “check-in” to discuss your writing goals. Talk about how you did with your goals for the past week and your goals for the upcoming. Remember that you don’t have to be in the same field to be in the same writing group.
Recently a colleague of mine challenged me to work on a paper transparently using GoogleDocs. This allows us to see each others’ progress in real time. We both could even be writing in the paper at the same time! This can serve as a motivating collaborative experience. Importantly, this provides another layer of accountability to propel your work forward.
How will you make writing a priority today?
I hope that these ideas have been useful to you as you consider how to increase your writing productivity. I find that even the most highly productive scholars are looking for ways to improve in this area. This may be one of the reasons for their productivity in the first place! Take a few minutes to reflect on these questions.
The Steering Committee met in May 2018, wrote bylaws and voted in bylaws! We also voted in a new governance committee. POWER is on the move!
Dr. Sara Hart was award the 2017-2018 Developing Scholar Award at Florida State University. Read more here: http://news.fsu.edu/news/university-news/2018/05/03/biological-science-professor-wins-fsus-2018-distinguished-teacher-award/