In February 2019, members of the POWER Steering Committee met with Sharon Vaugh, Ph.D. We had a thoughtful conversation about research, writing, and how to say “no” sometimes.
What is your advice for developing as a writer?
What are your tips for successful grant writing?
How do you envision a focused program of research?
How do you recommend young researchers find a more senior mentor?
Can you talk about work-life balance and how you’ve thought about that across your career?
How do you assess what opportunities to “yes” versus “no” to?
Many thanks to Sharon for sharing her advice and time with us; we are especially grateful for her honesty about managing anxieties and decision-making.
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.
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.