Rejection sucks. But it’s OK.

I submitted my first first-author publication in June.  It was a great start to the summer and it felt great to finally get something under review.  My advisor and coauthors were excited about the manuscript and I was super proud of it.  It seemed perfect, a year prior the editor of the journal we submitted to had come up to my poster at a major conference in my field and asked me to write up the poster and send it to him.

So I did.

And then on the first week of my amazing honeymoon in Costa Rica (more on the stress of planning a wedding and being in grad school later), I got the rejection letter.

Fortunately being in the beautiful foothills of an active volcano with a private hot spring and a swim up bar made it sting a little less.  It wasn’t until this week when I finally had to step back into the academic school year and weekly meetings with people who expect me to get stuff done did I actually have time to pause and reflect about how much rejection sucks.  But how good it is for someone like me.

At the request of some of my friends I finally took the Strengthsquest assessment (if you have a vt.edu email address you can take it for free here).  I consider myself a neuroscientist and although I occasionally dabble in questionnaires, I do NOT use personality tests in my research.  Like at all.  If it weren’t for teaching Intro Psych I wouldn’t be able to name the Big 5 personality traits.

I enjoyed taking the assessment, mostly because I like talking about myself and my strengths (even if it’s just to a computer algorithm).  And my results were pretty consistent with how I see myself and how I like to portray myself (for a review of issues with online personality tests click here).

My top 5 strengths were:

  1. Input
  2. Learner
  3. Connectedness
  4. Achiever
  5. Futuristic

As anyone who knows me would expect, both input and learner are characterized by continuously wanting to improve and be the best.

I like being right.  I like being good at things.  And, for the most part, I’m able to regularly do the things I excel at and ignore and avoid the things I’m bad at.  And it’s rare that I put myself in situations where I even have a chance at being rejected and told I’m not good enough.

So this academic, completely non-personal rejection was new for me.  And I know it’s something I’m going to have to get used to as an academic.  There are a myriad of issues with the way that academic publishing works and I sincerely hope that I can be part of the movement to change things.  But, regardless of how things will change, peer review and discrimination in what information gets published is important.

And sometimes it’s good for you.

Revise and resubmit elsewhere, baby.

Racism and protests at Emory

I did my undergraduate degree at Emory University in Atlanta, GA.  Therefore, the recent list of demands and protests by students to the administration at Emory caught my eye.  We’ve talked about what’s happening at the University of Missouri in class, but those events seemed far away to me and harder to relate to, since I’ve never even been to Missouri. When articles and facebook statuses started popping up on my wall about similar events at Emory, I took a personal interest in what was happening.

Emory is a majority white campus in a majority black city (54% black, according to 2010 census).  Most of the support staff I interacted with daily in dining halls and dorms were black, but I never had a single professor who was.  This demonstrates so much of what is wrong with the exclusivity associated with higher education.

According to this article in the school newspaper, organizers of the Emory protest submitted a list of demands to the administration:

  • recognition of traumatic events for black students by the University
  • institutional support for black students facing trauma on campus
  • repercussions or sanctions for racist actions on campus
  • the consultation of black students and faculty during the implementation of diversity initiatives
  • higher compensation and positions for black staff and administrators
  • tighter job security for black administrators
  • increased funding and decreased policing for black student organizations
  • more faculty of color in all departments

A lot of these demands seem impossible to fulfill.  The problem of lack of faculty of color is due to the lack of qualified candidates of color to fill those positions.  That isn’t something that can be fixed overnight. Similarly,  shouldn’t black student organizations be subject to the same budget constraints as all the other student organizations?  I remember petitioning the SGA for funds for my clubs and being constantly denied.  That’s what bake sales are for.  However, in light of this accusation, there needs to be an investigation to make sure that funds aren’t being withheld from those groups.

But these demands should be taken seriously by the administration.  I know from conversations with friends that students of color at Emory have to deal with racism in subtle and not-so-subtle ways every single day.  The administration and Emory community needs to engage in dialog and take concrete action to address the racial disparities on campus.

 

Grad student unions?

I read an interesting article from the Chronicle of Higher Ed. on the movement for unionization amongst graduate students at the New School in NYC to form a union.  This union would allow graduate students collective bargaining for pay and benefits.

Apparently, according to the article, this debate has been going on since 1972 and the National Labor Relations Board has consistently ruled against graduate students in this capacity.  But is seems like things might be changing.

Speaking as a graduate student, living on a stipend is hard.  I know.  But it’s also part of what I signed up for.  Anyone who goes into a graduate program without thinking seriously about the budget and lifestyle requirements probably doesn’t belong in a rigorous program.

That said, I do believe that unionization is a right in this country and should be treated as such.  Graduate students are employees of the university and should be given the rights of other employees.  Healthcare and time off is vital if we want to keep the best minds in academia and not lose bright graduate students to the lures of the private sector.

 

The future of the university

What a loaded topic!  As someone who has decided to devote their life to higher education, it’s a daunting thought to realize that I am entering into a profession that is undergoing, and will continue to undergo substantial changes over the next few decades.  As frightening as it is, I am so eager to be a part of these changes.

I think the diversity of higher ed is already undergoing a huge change.  The new”minority majority” is happening in America, whether or not the white men in charge are ready for it.  By allowing and supporting students from different backgrounds to come together to share ideas, universities become fertile ground for new relationships and understanding, but also for hatred and aggression.  I think the future of the university is to facilitate the former and educate to prevent the latter.

I’m also in the middle(okay, beginning..) of writing my final paper for this class about online education, which I think is going to be vital for the future of the university.  College is becoming more and more important for attaining a middle class lifestyle, and the only way to make sure students are able to afford it is with new strategies for learning.  The internet has been a game changer is just about every industry, and education is no different.

I’m excited to be a catalyst for these changes in my career as an academic and am sure that the age old tradition of the academy will continue.  It just might be in an ivory chatroom, instead of a tower.

Journal

The end of the semester is rough.  And I’m the kinda girl who thrives on deadlines and due dates.  The stress of academia is notorious and pervasive.  There’s a pretty funny comic that sums this up pretty well:20120117This idea makes sense to those not in the field.  And those thinking about going to grad school.  But I think the type of stress is inherently different.  The independence of research that can be done just as well in the middle of the night as at 9 am, makes productivity come in spurts and jumps.  Writing for grant deadlines requires willpower beyond writing a memo for a boss.  The multi tasking of various committees, taking and teaching classes is a difficult dance of time management and planning.

I think some people exaggerate and put themselves in situations that make it harder to be productive, but the stress of academia is qualitatively different than in other types of work.

 

Now to get back to writing.

 

Journal

We talked in class about plagiarism and authorship today.  These topics should be easy, but in the hierarchical field that is science, it’s really hard to do the right thing.  As I’ve talked about before, my advisor is the best mentor I could ever ask for.  And she would never ask me to do anything unethical.  But I can absolutely imagine that I would do whatever she told me, even if I knew it was wrong.

We’re taught to trust our advisors and give them unending allegiance.   Graduate students devote 5 to 8 of their prime years in indentured service to a professor who promises to teach them the trade in exchange for nights writing papers and weekends in the lab.  And that’s all well and good.  But that kind of intense allegiance and authority (I ran my wedding date by my advisor to make sure it wouldn’t compete with any deadlines or conferences) makes it hard to say no.

I taught my class about Milgram’s experiments on authority this week.  Milgram showed that 60% of typical men would continue shocking another person until they got to the end of the switchboard, even if the other person had stopped responding and could have been dead (here for more info).  This finding only occurred if there was an experimenter in the room prodding the subject to continue and assuring that the experimenter would take all responsibility for any harm caused.

Having an advisor is somewhat like this.  You’ve devoted your academic career to them, you trust them, and they hold ultimate authority over you (in that they decide if you get your degree or not).  From a psychologists perspective, it’s easy to see why graduate students will allow ghost authors to take credit for their work and take their advisors word that self-plagiarism is okay.

Journal

As an academic so much of my focus is on educating people and being educated.  I seek to fully understand and absorb information in my field, but this curiosity can lead to a desire to understand everything, not only how babies’ brains develop.  This curiosity and desire to educate has been especially difficult in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Paris a few days ago (just in case you’re living under a rock or reading this in 100 years, here is the link).  I can’t seem to stop myself from analyzing and proselytizing.

I know everyone get transfixed by these types of events, but I think the way that they compel someone whose job is to follow the scientific method a little differently.  I, like most of the world’s population, want answers about who would do something like this and how the world has become such a scary place, but I’m not content to let my news station of choice feed me the information they think I want to (need to?) know.  Like I’m writing a research paper I aggressively seek out both (as if there were only two) sides and spend hours on twitter looking for primary accounts.  I want a full answer and elegantly designed experiment to account for all the variables.  I want to test my hypotheses and know if the relationship between climate change and civil unrest is actually significant (see here).

But I can’t.  There’s no way to test the counterfactual or establish causality in our messy history.

The other way the being an academic presents difficulties in light of these tragedies is that I want to educate EVERYONE.  Something about these sorts of events causes the most upsetting spillage of bullcrap onto social media.  It comes from every angle and it seems completely unescapable.  And instead of hiding in my Ivory Tower I want to engage and educate.  I want to talk to my students, my grandma, and my next door neighbor from when I was 4 and show them the research and explain the importance of historical context and compassion.

But I can’t.  My students have already moved on to the next story on their newsfeeds.  My grandma and neighbors don’t care to hear conflicting, messy, explanations.  They want the concrete answers that news pundits and politicians offer.

Because not knowing the answer is scary.