This week we are delighted to share our interview of Dr. Kate Cain. We had We had a thoughtful conversation about creating mentoring networks, setting goals, and other engaging topics. Please see our website for more information about Dr. Cain’s background and commitment to mentoring.
What are some of the best lessons that you have learned during your research career?
The beginning of my career was challenging. I faced a lot of rejections. In academia, we need to be resilient and not give up because we get a lot of knock-backs in this business. We must believe in ourselves and the quality of our work. We much more readily share our successes. So then when we face a failure, we think we are alone and doubt ourselves. It’s important to share the negative too. To learn about ways to make rejections a shared part of your academic community, see Barabara Sarnecka’s idea of rejection parties:
Also, because I faced these rejections early on, I also learned to get outside expert perspectives on my work before I submitted my proposals or manuscripts. It’s difficult to make yourself vulnerable, but it improves our work. We often don’t see our own flaws in thinking or writing. Also, others can see connections to related fields that deepen our work. This collaboration and difference of opinion is a good thing! It sharpens and broadens our thinking.
How do you forge these connections to ask others to review your work?
You can do this formally and informally. Informally, you can ask individuals who are in your network. Formal structures also are beneficial. Then you don’t feel like you are asking someone for a favor. In my department, we initiated an optional writing day once a month. Both junior and senior colleagues join. Sometimes people can only come for part of the day, and that is okay. Everyone sets a goal for their writing for the day, and then each person shares their work. Several colleagues provide feedback.
What should one consider when looking for a mentor?
Multiple mentors are important. Your mentor is not always someone that you are going to collaborate with on research projects. Your mentor can also be someone who has been successful in areas that you are worried about or are struggling with, such as family-work balance or teaching.
What specific advice do you have for early to mid-career women?
Be careful about trying to do too many things at one time. Do things at a sensible pace. You want to situate yourself as an expert in your field, so you don’t want to spread yourself too thin. Establish your long term goals. Then think about what you need to do in the next 5 years to get there…3 years…1 year. For instance, let’s think about grants. Don’t start with a million dollar grant proposal. You haven’t demonstrated grant stewardship yet. Start with a smaller grant OR be a co-investigator on a larger grant. Give yourself the opportunity to learn how to do things. If you feel unsure, ask advice from senior colleagues. You may want to ask them: “What are my (quick) wins?”
How do you mentor doctoral students?
Again, it’s important to scaffold students to consider their goals and set a reasonable pace. One of the most helpful strategies is to help them break larger tasks into smaller chunks. When they get those wins, they gain confidence, and it keeps their spirits high. The personal connections are critical as well. I encourage them to build a peer network, such as attending a pre-conference doctoral student workshop or gathering. This gives them a sense of community.
How do you manage your time, including ensuring you have time for writing?
You have to block out your writing time on your calendar. With my doctoral students and post-docs, we also have dedicated writing days. It is set up similarly to the one I mentioned in my department, although it’s not optional.
I also reserve time on my calendar for other tasks, such as email. It’s also important to make sure you have time off away from your work. Working all the time doesn’t necessarily mean you are being productive! When I became department chair, 4 years ago I initiated a policy where individuals do not send emails to staff or students from 7 pm to 7 am. I had just read an article about how lots of us check email last thing at night, then stress and wake up in the night worrying about a work matter that you cannot get to until the next day. Of course, you’re not in a fit state to deal with that matter because you’ve slept badly. The email policy allows people to have breathing space. We need to be really thoughtful about boundaries especially when we think about power dynamics. We don’t want more junior individuals to feel like they have to immediately respond to more senior faculty or administration at every moment of the day. When there is a policy, it creates a boundary to safeguard people’s time. Of course, people may still get on email to read and draft…but they aren’t allowed to send it. We’ve now had this in place for 4 years, and other departments in the University have adopted it, and it has been helpful. We are continuing to use it.
How do you evaluate opportunities to say yes/no to? And if no, how do you communicate this answer?
I always think about whether this is a new opportunity for me or whether it is something that I have done before. With new opportunities, I’m looking to develop different skills or a different network. And sometimes I say yes to things because they are fun.
When I say no, I say something simple and straight forward, like “My time is already allocated.”
What should you consider when engaging with the media?
Get media training! You usually can get that at your university. They can teach you how to talk to different audiences and consider your message for different outlets (e.g., television, newspaper). You want to consider having an agreement with the media outlet so that you can preview what will be disseminated. Also, remember that you will have negative experiences. Everyone has one at some point. Don’t let these situations eat you up. Move on to the next opportunity.