Tag Archives: academia

Bad things will happen. Strategies on how to deal with them.

7 Jan

By Pleuni Pennings & Gina Baucom

Yesterday I was talking to two students from my CS class. I asked how they were doing and they said: Not good, we are stuck and frustrated. So, I talked to them about how being stuck is a normal part of coding and that they need to find strategies for themselves to deal with being stuck. I shared some of my own strategies. Two of my favorites are (1) taking a break to walk over to the other building to buy coffee and (2) taking a piece of paper and writing down what I am working on to get my thoughts organized.

Just like I know that students who are learning Python will get stuck, I know that all of us will have to deal with all kinds of shit that will happen during our career. This is especially true for those who are underrepresented, like women, people of color and LGBTQ folks (and most of all, those who intersect these categories).

You may not get accepted in a PhD program. Your paper may get rejected, or take forever to be accepted. You are overlooked for a prize. You may not get the job, the grant, the raise, the sabbatical you applied for. Worse: someone else who is less qualified will get those jobs and grants and raises. Then, if you do get the job or the prize, someone may say that you only got it because you’re a woman / person of color — you name it. You may not get invited to be part of collaborations, even when you are obviously the right person for it. People may say nasty things about you. You may be bullied or harassed. You may be asked to do more work than your colleagues, and the work you do will not be recognized.

One hears: “Rejection is part of the job. Better deal with it.” But how? How do we deal with the shit that happens? 

Even if rejection and disappointment are part of our job, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt. Discrimination and unfairness should not be part of anyone’s job so that hurts double.

It’d be good if we learned strategies on how to deal with the bad things that happen. Of course, if something happens that needs reporting to police or the Title IX office – that should happen. But in this case I am thinking about things that are not illegal, but still really bad. How do you process super unfair (or maybe just shitty) things so that you can move forward? 

I brought this up with Gina, we talked about it, and thought it might be helpful to write a blog post about general strategies that we developed for dealing with really bad or annoying shit during our careers thus far. So, here are some of our strategies.

It’s OK to be angry

Know that it is OK to be angry and sad. When bad news arrives, often by email, you may want to take the day off, call a friend, cry, eat ice cream or walk along the beach. The last time I (Pleuni) did this was when I didn’t get a job that I had applied for. For me, job rejections are the hardest, because when I write that application letter, I not only imagine myself in a new department and with new colleagues, but I imagine myself in a new city, with a new life. To write a convincing letter, I need to imagine that new life, but when I get the rejection, I lose that imagined future.

Know why you are here & remind yourself of this

We think it is useful to try and create an inner compass by writing a personal statement for yourself. For example, you may write that you enjoy science, discovery and working in the lab, and that your goal is to make discoveries and share the joy of lab work. Now, if your paper is unreasonably rejected, go back and read why you are doing what you are doing, and schedule some of that science / discovery / lab work in your near future. It’ll remind you that the paper is only a part of why you are there. Beronda Montgomery has written about related things such as creating your own tenure rules. 


Even if rejection is part of the game, you can still fight rejection – at least in some cases. Paper rejections are a clear example of when you can fight the decision. Sometimes grant rejections and tenure rejections can be appealed too. Editors can change their mind and rebuttals are sometimes successful. No need to just roll over. Also, if you decide to go for another journal, consider making your paper bolder and aim for a more prestigious journal. 

Take time for your life outside of science.

Your hobbies, your family, your friends. Read a book, go for a hike, talk to a friend. 

Find your people in academia

Twitter and Facebook are good places to find your people, and there are groups on campus that may help you find your people as well. I (Gina) moved quite a bit when growing up, and from that experience, developed a theory that it takes at least 2 years once in a new place to *really* find your people – by that I mean the people that get you, celebrate with you, will be honest with you, and will forgive you when you screw up, i.e. real friends. Don’t give up trying to strike up friendships. It is true that it becomes more difficult to make friends as you get older, but it is so important that you have people that check in with you, and people that you check in on. 

Talk to a therapist

Speaks for itself. Therapists, counselors, coaches and others can help us deal with things! 

Be inspired by heroes

I (Pleuni) find that reading about others who overcame adversity is truly inspiring. Nelson Mandela was in prison for 30 years and he didn’t give up! Closer to home, when my work on soft sweeps was harshly criticized, it was nice to read that the original and now classic work on selective sweeps by Haigh and Maynard-Smith was also criticized in published papers.


If shit tends to come from one particular direction, see if you can avoid that place. I (Pleuni) know of someone who moved to a different floor in their building to avoid certain people. It helped! Maybe it helps to work in a different lab, slightly change the topic you work on, choose a different journal you submit to? And if you decide that you need to leave the academic world, that’s OK too. There are fun and important jobs in many places. No guarantee that there is less shit to deal with, but it may be easier for you to deal with. A friend left academia to go work for the police. She prefers the shit she encounters in this openly macho world to the polite shit she had to deal with in the academic world.  

Use your anger

Some of the best things come out of anger. I (Gina) & Meg Duffy started the Diversify EEB list (this type of list now exists in many fields) to do something with the annoyance of often seeing a low number of white women and persons of color winning awards in ecology and evolution. It does seem like this trend is changing/has changed (at least for gender). 

Help someone else

When I (Pleuni) was a postdoc at Harvard and my papers were getting rejected it made me very angry. Of course, I knew that I was in a privileged situation, working at Harvard with a super friendly advisor. But the paper rejections were frustrating nevertheless, and maybe even more so at Harvard where it felt like everyone was so successful. One of the things that helped me feel better was a volunteer job I did for a little bit. I helped adults prepare for their GEDs (high school equivalent for adults). The students were mostly young black men who had spent their high school years in jail, but who were now working hard to learn math. I enjoyed the teaching, it made me forget my own struggles, and the students inspired me to not give up (they were not giving up, so why would I?)

Final note

On a final note, we want to be clear that the above examples of bad things that happen – especially bad behavior that falls under sexual harassment, discrimination, or bullying – is not ever your fault. We’re not suggesting that if you are targeted with this type of behavior that you should just ‘suck it up and deal’, but instead, and depending on your circumstances, you should report to a trusted advisor or administrator. However, when bad things like that happen, similar to other bad things like grant and paper rejections, we still have to process it so that we can move forward. The above suggestions are the ways in which we have learned to process a range of bad experiences, some of which are common to every scientist and others that are largely experienced by white women, persons of color, and other minorities (those marginalized by racism, sexism, homophobia). We hope that you find these tips helpful, and if you have other solutions, we’d love to hear them. 

My experience with sexism on the academic job market

27 Jul

Earlier this summer I spent a day at Stanford to be on a committee for a PhD defense. As I grabbed a coffee before driving to Stanford I ran in to one of my SF State colleagues. He was surprised and impressed that I was “allowed” to be on a committee at Stanford.

I work at SF State, a Master-granting institution. This means that we don’t have PhD students and most labs have no postdocs. At SF State, we quickly learn that we are not playing in the same league as our colleagues at PhD-granting institutions. I do biomedical research, but my department of 42 professors hadn’t had an R01 grant for years, in part because we’re advised to not apply for them (I did get one in 2017, in part because I had missed the memo about not applying for them). We are not allowed to apply for HHMI funding because, according to HHMI, our institution is not research-intensive enough. And I don’t think SF State Biology has ever had a McArthur Genius award or a Sloan fellowship. We also have a higher teaching load than most faculty in PhD-granting institutions, which makes it harder for us to write grants and do research.

So, when I am “allowed” to be on a committee at Stanford and rub arms with some of the smartest and most influential population geneticists of our time, it feels good! It reminds me that, even though I work at SF State, I am in their league. And it is not just a committee at Stanford, I often get invited to interesting places. I have been invited for talks at ESEB, SMBE, ASM, Biology of Genomes, a Gordon Research Conference, and PopGroup 2019 in Oxford (UK). In 2018 I am flying to Europe for three different invited seminars. These invitations remind me that I am respected in my field. But the invitations also remind me that I don’t work at these places. When I hang out with colleagues at these trips, they are almost always at institutions where they get better salaries, more research support, and fewer teaching duties [at least in the US. Things are sometimes quite different in Europe]. The obvious question therefore arises: How did I end up at SF State?

How I ended up at SF State University

Now, before I talk about how I ended up at SF State, let me make one thing very clear: since I have been here, I’ve learned that SF State is a great place and a great place for me. I love working there, I have amazing colleagues and students and we do important research. I have thriving collaborations within my department, but also with Chemistry/Biochemistry and Computer Science. The quality of teaching is higher than I have seen anywhere else. For these reasons, I love my work. But those reasons are not why I went to SF State.

I took the job at SF State because I had no other way to stay in academia, since no other department was willing to hire me. Stanford, Berkeley, UC Merced, UCSD and about 50 other schools did not invite me for an interview. The University of Arizona, NYU, UC Irvine, the University of Vienna and a few others did invite me for interviews, but they didn’t offer me a job.

Why did I not get a job at a PhD-granting institution?

It is not immediately clear why it was so hard for me to get an academic job. I had 18 papers on my CV in the last job season in which I applied for jobs. Papers in journals like PLOS Genetics, Genetics, MBE and American Naturalist. A few of these papers were very influential in my field (if you are in population genetics or evolutionary genomics, you have probably heard of soft sweeps – this term was coined by my PhD advisor and myself in 2005). Together, the papers from my PhD are now cited more than 1000 times, which is a lot for theoretical population genetics papers. That success early in my career should have made it possible for me to land a job at a PhD-granting university. I also think that I interviewed quite well, at least the last year I was on the market. After my interview at the University of Arizona (a visit that I enjoyed a lot!), one of the people on the committee wrote in an email: “I have to say, in my opinion, you gave one of the best chalk talks I’ve seen.”

So, I don’t think that my publication record or my interviewing skills explain my struggles on the job market. Here are my alternative hypotheses:

  1. My work is too interdisciplinary.
  2. I have a foreign PhD.
  3. I am a woman and implicit bias makes it harder for women to get jobs.

Why do I think that my gender played a role? Well, first of all because of well-known biases in academia as shown by a large body of published work. For example, Knobloch-Westerwick  showed in an experiment that abstracts are rated higher when authored by men (Knobloch-Westerwick, Glynn and Huge, 2013). Moss-Racusin showed in an experiment that faculty judge a male candidate for a lab tech position to be higher quality than the identical female candidate (Moss-Racusin et al., 2012). And Van der Lee showed that women score lower on “quality of researcher” for research grants in The Netherlands, but not “quality of proposal” (van der Lee and Ellemers, 2015). These biases probably exist search committees too.

Secondly, I got insight in the opinions of a committee that was judging one of my job applications, and what they wrote wasn’t pretty. Written reviews for job candidates are uncommon in the US, but one of the jobs I applied for in Europe had a stage where outside reviewers looked at my file and wrote an opinion about me. Three of the reviewers were very positive, but two of them were quite negative. Here are some quotes. Judge for yourself.

A rare look behind the scenes of a committee of reviewers

One reviewer says I am vocal but know nothing about evolution

Reviewer A: “The candidate is an avid organizer (see CV) and can be quite vocal (see the article in PLoS). However, she is not ready for a science leader position.”

This comment suggests that being an avid organizer cannot go together with being a good scientist. Then it says that I am “vocal” in my PLOS Computational Biology paper (2012). Now, I think you’ll agree with me that this is a strange comment about a technical paper in a technical journal. The reviewer may not think it is a good paper, that’s their right, but publishing my results about standing genetic variation and effective population sizes in HIV in a journal like PLOS Computational Biology is what computational biologists do. It is hardly “vocal”.


The reviewer continues: “I feel she needs to acquire more experience in general evolution theory, virus evolution theory, applications to HIV and other important systems, and understand basic principles of data interpretation and parameter handling”

So, this reviewer may think I don’t know theory or data-analysis, but by that time, I had published 16 peer-reviewed papers, 4 of them on new evolutionary theory (soft sweeps and sympatric speciation) and the rest on different experimental systems which all relied on data collection and data interpretation.

Another reviewer suggests I was simply too “light”

Reviewer B: “I do not think that the applicant has shown the ability to build an independent research group at this stage of her career. I hope she will not find my comments too harsh. These are in no way a critique of her abilities but rather the reflection of the fact that her achievements and her project are too light for this position.”

This reviewer thinks I am not ready for a junior group leader position. It is not so clear why he/she thinks this. I had published extensively and my work had appeared in textbooks. I had also successfully applied for research money alone and with others. I had started and run a successful company, coordinated a Master’s program and produced a series of prize-winning videos about evolutionary research. How on earth was I too “light” to run a junior research group?

This reviewer also doubts whether my achievements are actually my achievements.

Reviewer B: “It is difficult to know whether the number of citations the articles from the applicant has attracted is due to her or to her supervisor (in fact, she is not the lead author on her most cited paper, which accounts for 150 citations of over 350). So far, approximately 80% of the citations she has attracted are on articles with her supervisor.”

Well, that’s how academia works. We learn by working with advisors and I have had amazing advisors! It is worth noting here that the paper that got all the citations (Hermisson and Pennings, 2005), is also Joachim Hermisson’s most cited paper.

The same reviewer suggests that my peer-reviewed work in PLoS Computational Biology is scientifically incorrect. 

Reviewer B: “The main aspect that struck me while reading this article is that none of the mathematics are shown in the article (everything is in the online supplementary materials). (…) It makes it very difficult for the reader to assess the solidity of the methods and usually implies that the article rests upon the author’s capacity as a writer rather than the scientific correctness.”

Nowadays, in most biology journals it is quite standard to put most or all math in the supplementary materials. There is nothing special about the lack of math in this paper. Plus, if they were worried about the correctness of the math, they could have just read the supplementary materials, instead of implying that the science is wrong. http://journals.plos.org/ploscompbiol/article?id=10.1371/journal.pcbi.1002527

When asked about whether the job environment would be good for me, the first reviewer concludes:

Reviewer A: “I have no information regarding environment, but Dr Pennings hardly needs more stimulation. She needs restraint”

I am not even sure what to say about this comment. She needs restraint?!? [I think I need to have that printed on a t-shirt.] I cannot prove it, of course, but I don’t think a man with the same CV would have been judged like this.


My academic job search was extremely frustrating. After a very successful PhD, an HFSP grant to go to Harvard and Stanford, and several papers from my postdoc time, I expected to be able to land a job as an evolutionary biologist at a PhD-granting institution. That wasn’t the case and I think that sexism played a role.

When you want a job in academia, you need to convince a committee, or sometimes an entire department, that you are the right candidate. One or two people on a committee can sow doubt about a candidate. For at least one of my job applications, two reviewers sowed doubt about me. Among other things, they argued that I was (1) “vocal” and (2) “too light” for the position. They also argued (3) that my papers were not really my achievement. These arguments would unlikely be made about a man. The result was that despite very clear quantifiable achievements (papers, citations and funding), their reviews made it sound like I was a newbie who had no idea what I was doing.

Now it is 4 years later. I am happy at SF State. I am still a successful researcher: I am publishing, bringing in grant money, and I get invited for talks. I love it when I get invited to talk about my research at a conference or when I get to sit on a PhD committee at Stanford, but these invitations also remind me of the times where these very same places didn’t invite me for job interviews. And it reminds me of what these lost job opportunities cost me every day in terms of salary and in terms of lost opportunity (HHMI, if you are reading, I would love the opportunity to apply for a grant with you!).

Of course, I acknowledge that I am privileged and my struggles are small compared to what others face. I am white, straight, married, and I never lived in poverty. So many of my colleagues and my students have to fight even harder because they are Black or Latinx or gay or poor or undocumented or a combination of those.

The silver lining of this story is that thanks to certain doors being closed to me, I ended up in an amazing department that has made opening doors for marginalized people almost its core business. Next to my research, I am now in the business of opening the doors of Computer Science to women and minority students. I am picking up a lot of “door-opening” expertise from Drs Letitia Marquez-Magaña, Kimberly Tanner, Blake Riggs, Diana Chu and others. I will try to take that expertise with me on my trips to conferences and departmental seminars and to contribute to some doors being opened at PhD-granting institutions.

PS: I want to thank the soccer player Abby Wambach for making me see the situation more clearly. Worth watching: https://barnard.edu/commencement/archives/2018/abby-wambach-remarks

Thanks to Diana Chu and Rori Rohlfs for comments on an earlier version of this post.