Emily Solari, Ph.D.
Just two weeks ago, I had been prepared to send a letter to our POWER membership about the organization’s plans for the new decade. The contents largely outlined the goals and mission of the organization, described some of the work we had been actively and sometimes quietly engaged in, and our aspirations moving forward. It became evident two weeks ago the world was quickly changing, and today, having re-read what I wrote weeks ago, it became crystal clear that much of what I had outlined is no longer relevant.
As I have settled into a forced homeschool situation with my three young boys coupled by an exponential work load increase, the things I deemed important two weeks ago are no longer. Today I worry about the health of my nuclear family, my aging parents and grandparents, and my friends far and wide. In a very real way, I worry about being able to manage my job while also managing my kids at home. I hope that someday soon, I will get through just one zoom call without my 5-year-old interrupting it by yelling some totally asinine thing that at the very least worries the participants on the call, and most certainly makes it so that they are judging my parenting. As I work late into the night trying my hardest to catch up, I often get paralyzed by the thought that I just can’t do it all. I can’t, and quite frankly, I just don’t want to. It feels weird to be pushing so hard on the ordinary work things when the world is in such a desperate and strange state. I worry that my kids are worried. Should I be concerned that they have started playing a game called “social distance freeze tag”, I mean- this is odd, right? I worry about the kids in schools, those who usually benefit in some way from my work, and are often the most marginalized in schools- how are they coping at home? Essentially, I worry about all the things. And, I am concerned that with all this worry, about my family and the world around me, that I will never again be able to fully engage in the deep and critical thinking that is required in our line of work to be a productive scholar.
At the same time, I realize that my concerns are happening from a place of great privilege. I have a roof over my head, resources for myself and my children, and job security. I am keenly aware that not all the people that make up our membership are in the same situation. I have spent a lot of time thinking about the impact this situation will have on my more junior colleagues and those not situated in tenure or tenure line positions. Since so many of us work in applied research settings there is no doubt that research agendas have been disrupted. This will have more of a negative impact on our junior colleagues than more senior, there is just no way around this. Folks who hear the tick tock of the tenure clock, or were collecting data as pilot study to submit an early career grant are more impacted. Similarly, dissertation studies are being altered as we speak and graduate students and postdocs are looking at a new reality of a potentially even more difficult academic job market.
When POWER was first conceived we had a laser focus on three main goals, which are to advocate, support, and connect people in educational and human development research, with a particular interest in lifting up junior women in our fields. Now, more than ever, is the time to think about how we can do this as a collective group. I have heard from several good friends who are more junior that they feel hesitant about speaking up against the narrative around productivity during this time. To those people, I would like to scream, “I am here for you and I think many others are as well.” It is so important for us to keep in mind that for people who are in vulnerable positions within the academic structure, their vulnerability is exacerbated in times like these. The question becomes how do we use our collective voice to support ourselves and those around us.
Advocate. I am hopeful that the people who are in positions of power across the multiple institutions that we represent, and those that have secure job positions, will be unapologetic in their advocacy for folks in our community for whom this is not their reality. Those of us who can speak up, should. We should be asking the hard questions about how our institutions are going to deal with tenure related concerns and funding of graduate students as we move forward. I am not suggesting that we all have to be publicly vocal, some very important things can happen at the local level. Be the person who surfaces the issues at the faculty meetings, engage with your other more senior colleagues about these concerns. Lead the efforts around how we will rethink the notion of productivity in 2020 and 2021. Ask the hard questions about your institution’s plan to support graduate students. Bottom line, our junior colleagues should not be left alone to consider how the current situation is going to impact them differentially and in inequitable ways.
Support. People are approaching this new reality in drastically different ways, and I have found over the past two weeks that this means that there are very different types of supports that folks need. One interesting consequence of our current situation is that I have heard on more than one occasion more senior colleagues suggesting that this time is a great time to be productive. I’ve heard - we are stuck at home, why would we not consider how we can use this time to write more papers, conceive of grant ideas, etc.? To those people, I ask that you stop to consider how this narrative impacts the people around you and how actively resisting the notion of sustained and even increased productivity during this time may be a supportive step for women and our more junior colleagues. As people are settling into this new reality, we each have our own individual distractions. Some of us have increased childcare and/or eldercare responsibilities, some of us are scrambling to provide quality content to our students in an online platform for the first time, many of us have seen research disrupted. Many of us are feeling a heightened state of anxiety- we are concerned about our students, our families, the world. Let’s be mindful of this in our interactions, especially those of us who are in positions of power within institutions. And more importantly, let’s try to be intentional in support of our colleagues, especially those who are struggling to find secure footing in their personal and professional lives during these extremely trying times.
Connect. Let’s be purposeful about connecting with each other, both socially and professionally. One of the most successful activities that POWER has been engaged in over the past two years is our most simple - we host happy hours at professional conferences and meetings. These happy hours serve as a safe place for women, and, others who support women in our field to talk about successes, issues, and create meaningful relationships. Early on, our steering committee recognized that we are more powerful as advocates when we communicate with each other. As our new reality sets in, we should share what is working for us, how our institutions are responding, and ideas for advocacy and supports across institutions. Please also connect with me and with our steering committee as you see fit, we want to hear from you and we want to know how we can support your efforts at your institutions.
Let’s take care of and be kind to each other and ourselves as we move through this uncharted territory.
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.