Ready, Set, Goal!

Right around this time of the year, I meet with the faculty and staff in my department to do their annual reviews. Each faculty member is required to record their achievements in research, teaching and service over the past year, as well as assess their progress on their goals from the previous year, and set their goals for the upcoming year. Staff reviews are somewhat different – more task-oriented – but still require assessing progress on goals and developing new goals. Faculty and staff are then evaluated on their achievements and goals and scored. The scores are then translated into merit increases, should we be so lucky as to receive them that year.goals crush them

This process is not unique to my institution. Variations on this theme happen in academic units all around the country. The process ranges from highlighting new entries on your CV to paper forms to electronic data entry, but almost always includes goal setting for the short and long-term. There are plenty of reasons documented as to why it is important to set goals (e.g. Forbes and Harvard have some ideas), with requisite science (correlation, not causation – some entertaining examples here!) supporting the habit.

Most faculty hate this process. It can be painful to try to recall all of your accomplishments from the last year, and some are harder than others to dig up (e.g. how many grants did I collaborate on that never got funded?!). Systems to collect these data can change from year-to-year and can sometimes be glitchy. Finding the time to enter all of this information may not be easy, and meeting with your chair/director/boss may not be pleasant. Plenty of reasons to dislike this process.

I, on the other hand, have always enjoyed this process. It isn’t very often that you get the opportunity to really see what you’ve accomplished in a set period of time all in one place. Plus, I’m pretty good about keeping up my CV, so much of the information already exists and can just be cut and pasted into the form. But more than that, I’ve always welcomed the opportunity for me to review me. This is the one time each year that, in addition to seeing all of my accomplishments in one place, I also get to see my shortcomings. As I review the goals I set for myself, I get the chance to reflect on what I’ve done and what I have yet to do.



As a Department Chair now, although extremely time consuming to meet with all members of the faculty and staff, this process is even more fun for me. Sure, there are the rare occasions of having to tell someone that they are not meeting the expectations we set for them the previous year, but I also get the chance to help each member of the department celebrate her/his accomplishments. Individually, I get to share in the excitement each person feels in reaching their goals, and help in the important process of setting new goals. I also get to see what my department has accomplished in aggregate over the last year, and how we are moving towards our shared goals and vision. It is quite incredible.

hockey goals
Getting ready for these meetings, I know that faculty and staff are not always excited about this. I know that they get annoyed about the time it takes to put all of this information together. Some of them are nervous to meet with me. I know, because I have to do it too. This year, putting together my review packet has been more difficult. Specifically, setting my goals has been difficult. As I started to review my goals from the past year, I realized that all my goals were for the Department. Given that I’m a Department chair, maybe this is okay. Maybe I’m overlooking some unwritten goals: success with my grant submissions, progress with my students, and success in the classroom. And certainly I had non-professional goals, like keeping both kids alive through another year (which, (1) I was successful in, and (2) gets WAY easier as they get older). But I’ve always been moving towards something in my career. First, just getting through my PhD and getting a job. Check. Then, there are some goals that your institution sets (e.g. promotion, tenure), which are obvious targets. Check. But I’ve always set goals beyond that. After I became involved in the graduate program, I set my sights on becoming the Graduate Program Director. Check. Next step, Section Head. Check. Then, Department Chair. Check. But this is where my list ends!  So, I find myself asking: what next? This is a strange space for me, I’m a very goal-oriented person, and not moving towards a goal leaves me feeling… uncomfortable.

Which brings me to my first week at ELAM. Without getting into the nitty gritty of the week, much of the time was spent with me getting to know me. Exploring my strengths and weaknesses. Examining what others see as my strengths and weaknesses. I’m definitely a talker, and I love to talk about data, about facts. But talk about how I feel? Talk about feeling uncomfortable… But it was important for me to step outside of my comfort zone and think about how to foster my strengths and how to improve on my weaknesses. And maybe this is the next step to figuring out “what’s next.”

hdt goals quoteOr, maybe this is what’s next. That is to say, maybe I don’t need a next step right now. Maybe I’m doing exactly what I should be doing, and my goals should be to be the best chair I can be. Maybe goals to improve my department are exactly the goals I should be setting. It is definitely rewarding to look back at the past two years and identify changes that have come about in the Department as a result of work I’ve done, so maybe that’s just fine. Maybe in addition to continuing to move the Department forward, I should focus on my personal goals – continue to try to keep my children alive, and perhaps even help them learn to be contributing members of society. Work on strengthening my relationship with my husband. Develop some hobbies (since said husband seems to think that watching Law & Order reruns isn’t a hobby).

I always try to emphasize having fun at work when I meet with the faculty and staff. This should be the ultimate goal – if you’re not having fun at work, you’re not doing it right. As I go through these meetings and try to help the faculty and staff set goals that will make their work more fun, maybe I should practice what I preach. Since I’m really having fun celebrating all the successes of my department, then YAY! I’m accomplishing my goals and perhaps “what’s next” should really just be “what’s now.”


What it Feels Like for a Girl

I am fortunate to have been accepted into the Hedwig van Ameringen Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine® (ELAM®) program, as part of the 2017-18 class – the 23rd cohort. This program is for women in medicine, public health, and dentistry, and to be eligible, it is required that you have held the rank of associate professor for at least 2 years, and that you already have a leadership role in your institution. The group of ELAM alumnae (ELUM) are impressive – with ELAM alumnae holding executive leadership positions at 240 academic health institutions. Among the women who have completed the program, 64 re now Chief Executives/Academic Officers (Presidents/Chief Executive Officers, Executive Directors, Provosts, Chancellors); 26 are Deans: 11 of 28 women Deans of Medical Schools, 6 of the 12 women Deans at Dental Schools, and 2 of the 13 women Deans at Schools of Public Health. Additionally, 7 ELAM graduates are Deans of US graduate schools. Many ELAM alumnae hold other leadership roles, such as Associate Deans, Center Directors or Department Chairs. This amazing group of women are not slackers! Now, this would probably be a good time to mention correlation vs. causation: it is likely that women who are high achieving and have considerable ambition are more likely to apply for and be accepted into ELAM, so I’m not suggesting that participating in ELAM causes someone to become a Dean, but rather only that there is a correlation between participating in this program and future leadership. Anyway, ELAM is a year-long intensive leadership program, requiring 3 week-long residency sessions throughout the year (one in September, one in January, and one in April). And if academic medicine/public health isn’t your thing, but academic technology or engineering is, you should check out the ELATE (Executive Leadership in Academic Technology and Engineering) program, open to women in engineering, computer science math, physics, chemistry, or other high technology fields.

When I tell people that I’m participating in this program, I often am asked one of two questions. The first is “Do you want to be a Dean?” There is a strong history of statisticians ascending into Deanships, including women (e.g. Rebecca Doerge, Montserrat FuentesSally Morton). In fact, at a recent conference, I was talking with a former professor of mine, and he said he was having a conversation with a few others about all the women in our profession who have recently become Deans, and who might be likely to. He said that my name was mentioned among those who might be likely to one day be a Dean. It was very complimentary and flattering, but the truth is, I don’t know if I want to be a Dean. Almost halfway through my term as Chair, I am really enjoying what I’m doing! I have the ability to help set the direction for my Department, the opportunity to impact the growth and development of the faculty and staff in the Department, and have the honor of representing my Department to those within and outside of my institution. Yet, at the same time, I’m able to teach (which you may remember I love to do from previous posts), I get to work with students and post docs, and I have the time to pursue my own research and collaborate with others. It isn’t clear to me what the balance of my time would be like as a Dean, and how much of my time would be truly be my own. One of the reasons I applied to ELAM was to explore what leadership opportunities are available to me beyond Chair, to have a better understanding of what they entail, and to determine what I would need to do to prepare for those roles, should I desire to obtain one.

The second question I’ve been asked more than once when I tell people that I’m participating in ELAM is: “Why do we need leadership training exclusive to women?” or some variation on that theme. In fact, that same former professor, in reference to programs geared at increasing diversity in my field, asked “Is being an academic really that different for women?” You can imagine that I’m not being asked this by other women. But sarcasm aside, this is definitely something I’ve thought about. For years, actually. I once participated in a women’s leadership program for rising leaders in the Jewish community in my old hometown. I thought a lot about the need for leadership training exclusively for women then, and I continue to grapple with the necessity for this. Hopefully one day we won’t need to have leadership programs that are exclusively for women. Hopefully one day, there will be a spectrum of leaders with a spectrum of leadership styles, and we’ll be able to value each individual’s strengths and mold them into leaders. Hopefully one day, the proportion of women in leadership will reflect the proportion of women being led. But right now, the gender make-up of our leaders still doesn’t match the gender make-up of our trainees or our workforce across a variety of fields. Despite the that the US population is 50.9% female (according to 2010 census data), still only 21% of US senators and 20% of our US representatives are female. Women are earning 36% of the MBAs in the US, but only 4.2% of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are women. Academics isn’t much better, while the proportion of university presidents who are women has been steadily increasing over 20 years, women still only represent 30% of university presidents, despite more women graduating from college than men. ACPS2017-Figure10In my field, biostatistics, approximately 50% of PhDs are awarded to women (and this has been fairly constant over time); however, when I scan the list of Chairs of Biostatistics departments in North America, only 31% are female. The numbers look worse when you consider statistics jointly with biostatistics.

But these are “just” statistics. Perhaps fewer women are in leadership because fewer women desire leadership roles. Then it is time to stop and ask why that is? What image are we portraying as leaders that makes these roles undesirable to other women? Does it appear that in order to lead an organization, you have to sacrifice having a family? Or sacrifice spending time with your family? Does leadership have to be all-consuming, leaving little time for hobbies and leisure? Does being a leader mean that you have to be cold and unfeeling? Do you have to buy a whole new wardrobe in order to lead? And what about the shoes!? These are questions that everyone considering leadership has to ask themselves, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation… regardless of who they are. But the perceived answers differ according to each of our experiences, and it is impossible to separate our experiences from who we are. I am a woman, who has experienced sexual assault and discrimination based on my gender. Who has been talked over and ignored in meetings. Who has been asked, repeatedly, whether I’m a little young to do the job that I’m very ably doing; whereas my male colleagues have not. All of this shapes who I am, my desire to lead, and how I lead. And these experiences are not unique to me, but are shared by many other women. We_Can_Do_It!I have female colleagues who have been told that they should stop coloring their hair, as they’ll be taken more seriously if they let their gray show. Others who have been told not to wear what is comfortable to them, if they want to be taken seriously. Until my male colleagues are told that they should stop wearing jeans to work if they want to be taken seriously, until their input is repeatedly minimized in meetings (even if they ae the expert in the room), until they are treated in the same way women are, we will continue to need leadership programs exclusively for women. Or, when I’m not being cynical, when women in leadership stop being perceived differently than men in leadership, only then we will no longer need leadership programs exclusively for women.

As I begin this year-long journey, I have a lot of different emotions. I’m extremely excited to engage with an amazing group of women leaders, my 2017-18 ELAM cohort, from whom I will learn and with whom I will learn. I’m excited, and a little nervous, to learn more about me, about how to use my strengths and compensate for my weaknesses to become a better leader. I’m worried about packing for a week. I’m a statistician, in a school of public health, and this is a program geared towards women in academic medicine – what if I stand out clearly as the statistician in the room based solely on my wardrobe? I’m nervous about the huge amount of time I’ve committed to invest in this program – in addition to the residency weeks, there is a tremendous amount of time required for readings, developing and carrying out an institutional project, and having meetings with the leadership in my home institution. I’m sad about being away from my family for a week, missing soccer games and back to school night, and who knows what else. Despite enjoying travel, a full week is a long time to be gone. However, I’m confident that the rewards will make it worth it. Even if I never become a Dean or a University President or the US President or anything more than what I am now, the skills I’m going to learn will help me be a better me. And what more can any of us ask for?

Sexual assault and harassment in STEM: we can no longer afford to be silent

Last summer, I wrote a blog post about my 20th anniversary of attending the Joint Statistical Meetings (JSM) for the first time, in which I alluded to the fact that I had been sexually assaulted during the meeting. I made the comment in passing, but didn’t give it much attention. Until now. I share my story, in hopes that it will prompt others to do so. Without knowing the depth of the problem, we cannot solve it.

Before I tell my story, I want to provide some definitions, so we’re on the same page. Sexual harassment, as defined by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, includes “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.”  The Department of Justice defines sexual assault as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient,” although legal definitions may vary by state and are subject to interpretation.

During my first JSM, one of the sessions I attended was presentations by students who had won travel awards. As I was currently a student, I was interested in how I could eventually win one of those awards. So after the talks ended, I went and spoke to the session organizer, who happened to be a very well known statistician, who I’ll call “Dr. X.” Dr. X was very kind and told me about the process by which the student travel award winners were chosen – we had a nice conversation about recognizing student work at the meetings, and I left and went to the next set of talks (likely about statistics in sports). And that was that. Throughout the rest of the day, I kept running into Dr. X around the conference – not surprising since it a relatively small conference.

Later that day, I went to the conference Expo, a collection of agencies, companies and publishers who are interested in advertising to the attendees at the conference. I had a goal – I was interested in learning about summer internships at the CDC. I spent a while speaking with the guys at the CDC table about what opportunities they had available, how you apply, and other details about what a CDC internship would entail. It was exciting and I was all ready to apply!

Each year at the JSM, there is a dance. I always try to attend it, initially because it was quite entertaining to watch a bunch of old white guys trying to dance, but more recently because there are a lot more young folks who come to dance and it’s fun! This being my first JSM, I had no idea what to expect at the dance, but my classmates and I attended. During the course of the evening, I happened to run into the guys from the CDC, who happened to be talking to Dr. X. I said hello, and stood and listened to their discussions. Apparently, Dr. X was coming to give a short course at the CDC, and they were discussing the details.

The tone of the conversation changed when Dr. X started asking about which strip clubs they would be visiting during his trip to Atlanta. Never one to keep my opinion to myself, I quickly spoke up and suggested that maybe that wasn’t an appropriate conversation to be having. Dr. X smiled at me, patted me on my ass, and walked away. I was stunned… I had no idea how to react, what to say. The guys from the CDC were astonished. “How do you know Dr. X?” they asked me. “I just met him this afternoon,” I replied, still stunned. And that was that. I knew I wasn’t going to apply to their group for an internship at the CDC. I knew that they were judging me based on the actions of Dr. X. Even though I didn’t ask for it. Even though I didn’t invite it. Even though I was just being curious and thoughtful. I was being judged by his actions. And I was lucky – I’ve now worked over 20 years in a field in which I am sometimes still the only woman in the room, and this is the only time that I’d experienced that kind of unwanted physical interaction. It could have been so much worse, and for many women it is.

The ramifications of that seemingly minor incident were broad. I was on guard the rest of the conference, skulking away if Dr. X approached, afraid of appearing as if I were inviting him to treat me as he had. I ruled out applying to a very good PhD program because he was on faculty at that institution. Statistics is a very small world, though, and other occasions to encounter Dr. X would arise. In fact, when I did start my PhD the following year, Dr. X came to give a seminar. At my request, several of my classmates and I staged a quiet boycott and did not attend his talk; however, I never told any one with any influence what had happened. I know of others who have encountered similar sexual assault, seemingly minor yet having major impact. All seemed to be in situations where the man had power over us – Professor/Student types of dynamics. We all felt that we were helpless, and that any action we took could result in repercussions in our career.

These feelings are not unusual among women in science who experience sexual harassment or assault, and reports of sexual harassment in science are rampant. An Atlantic article quotes one source that indicates 1 in 3 women science professors report being sexually harassed. In another article, over a quarter of women who responded to a survey regarding sexual assault and harassment during field experiences reported being sexually assaulted, and this occurred much more frequently among female trainees than faculty. While there are clear limitations to this research, it does speak to the problem of the mistreatment of women in STEM fields, particularly when the women is in a subordinate role to the man. A recent sexual harassment case at UC Berkeley has shined even more light on this issue, highlighted in an NPR story which also reinforces the idea that women, especially students and trainees, are afraid to report these instances of harassment and assault because of fear of career repercussions, fear of retribution, fear of being labeled. A quick Google search shows numerous articles that tell the same story – women are afraid to report harassment and assault because of jeopardizing their careers. The same reasons I was silent.

What can we do to improve the situation for women in STEM fields? First of all, we must no longer be silent. We all have a responsibility to report harassment and assault, to stand up for those who are vulnerable. We must have a zero tolerance policy for these actions. No matter how impressive their research, we cannot continue to allow people who harass and assault others to remain in their positions, particularly if they are in positions of power. We must train faculty in appropriate workplace conduct, and insist that they uphold our standards. Finally, we must insist that people with influence – Department Chairs, Deans – take allegations of sexual misconduct seriously, and take swift and appropriate actions.

In retrospect, it’s hard for me to believe that this actually happened to me. I like to think of myself as a strong, independent woman. I like to believe that I think quickly, and all these years later, I’m still disappointed that I didn’t react. I hope that in the future, should I be in a similar situation, I’m able to react in some way, either verbally or through a physical response (e.g. a swift kick to the balls). My lack of reaction or response could have signaled to Dr. X that it was okay to behave in this fashion, and encouraged him to act this way towards others. I think I was just so caught off guard that a prominent person in my field would think to treat me like that, and to do so in the presence of others. As I my presence and reputation grow in my field, I hope that I am never perceived as taking advantage of my position of power over another person, and I hope that I’m able to use my position to protect others from these types of interactions.

Many stories of sexual harassment and assault among women scientists end with: “And that is why I am no longer in my STEM field.” That could have been me. I could have dropped out of my program, or decided not to pursue my PhD. I could currently be blissfully planning weddings for bridezillas, or teaching math to moody high school students. And what a shame that would be – I love what I do, and would have missed the opportunity to positively influence others in my field. But as long as we allow sexual misconduct to continue in the sciences, we will continue to lose our future leaders.

If you’ve been the victim of sexual assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673 or chat online at,

Play the Game – Part 2

In my last blog post, I talked about my experience searching for my first assistant professor job, and talked about being on a search committee. I left off describing how the process was like a game, except that as a candidate, you don’t get to play the whole game. All of that changes as Department Chair.

As Department Chair, I now get to play the game from start to finish, and the game looks REALLY different. The game has seemingly different instructions and is far more stressful than it ever was before. So here’s what the whole game looks like, from the seat I now sit in.

The game starts when you have to write the job posting. Well, that is, after you’ve received approval from the Dean to have the search, who in turn received approval from the Provost. Who probably asked God’s permission… The job posting has to sound appealing to applicants and must differentiate your position from the possibly hundreds of others out there. I’ve always felt fortunate when interviewing to be in a field in which there are still so many job opportunities, but now I just see it as more competition for good candidates! If we’re interviewing good people, the competition is also interviewing these folks… and what if other institutions started earlier? What if they have more money available to attract top candidates? Might they snatch up our candidate before we even get a chance to interview him/her? What if they take our “perfect fit”?


Next, you have to choose a search committee. This is the group of faculty (and sometimes staff and students) who you are entrusting to make important decisions on behalf of the Department in a timely fashion. They put in a lot of time reviewing CVs, publications, letters of reference, and personal statements, and from a lot of candidates. They are the first line of defense, often having the first contact with the candidates. It is not a trivial commitment of time or effort. The search committee must represent the diversity of the department in every sense of the word. I am currently in a department that comprises two disciplines, so the difficulty in finding the right balance of faculty is compounded.

After the search committee reviews all of the applications, the committee then typically does 30 minute Skype/phone pre-interviews with a subset of the applicants – sometimes as many as 20, which can help narrow down the pool to thoroulettese that have real interest in our Department, who have good communication skills, and who ask well thought out questions. Based on these initial contacts, the committee then determines who will be invited for an on-campus interview.

On-campus interviews are a time-intensive endeavor for the departmental faculty: there are meals to be had, individual meetings to be had, seminars to attend. Also, someone has to organize the troops and make sure all travel, scheduling and room arrangements are made (shout out to the BEST STAFF EVER). As the Department Chair, I spend a lot of time with each candidate. I try to see the candidate at the beginning of their visit, so that I can provide them with the context they need to appropriately evaluate us. I give them a guided tour of their itinerary, so that they have a good knowledge of who everyone is and how they fit into the Department. I go to their 20-questionsseminar, and I have to pay better attention than I’ve ever had to pay during a talk before. I want to be able to really evaluate their ability to explain their research, but even more, I want to be able to evaluate their ability to answer questions (which means I have to be able to formulate an intelligent question). The seminar is extremely important – not only does it give us some indication of the candidate’s research abilities, it also give us some idea of how they would be in the classroom. I also like to meet with the candidates at the end of the day to recap their visit, answer any lingering questions they may have, and let them know our timeline and next steps as best I can. Because I spend so much time with them, I get to know them quite well.

And then it gets even more difficult. We have to make a decision. If we’re lucky, we’ve had several outstanding candidates visit, and now we have to try to figure out who has the highest chance of being successful in our Department. The search committee collects feedback, makes a recommendation to me, and it is my responsibility to decide who uno-cardsreceives our first offer. This is tricky – we may be competing with other department for the same candidates. Some already have offers pending by the time they receive our offer. Also, I have to reconcile the recommendations of the search committee with my opinions, which may or may not coincide. We have a shared goal of moving the Department forward and bringing in faculty who we think will be successful, but we may have different views on who could best contribute to our mission. I don’t want to do wrong by Department, and I feel like a have a great responsibility to them, but I also don’t want to do wrong by the candidates. I want to ensure we’re hiring a candidate who has a high probability of being successful in our Department.

The hardest part of this process for me is telling candidates that we are NOT going to offer them a job. I know, and I hope the candidates know, that just because we’re not offering them a job doesn’t mean that they weren’t outstanding. Because I spend a lot of time with the candidates, I get to know them and often become quite fond of them, and so I want to see them all be successful. And while I recognize that it is strictly a business transaction, the lines between business and friendship can be blurred. This is especially true in my field, which is a very small world, and often friends are applying to positions in my Department. I know I will see the candidates again at conferences and will encounter them in other venues, so I want to be sure that I build bridges regardless of whether I hire them.

All of that being said, it is definitely exciting to be able to make a job offer to someone At the same time, it is scary! What if they don’t like us enough, what if we don’t offer enough money, what if they “swipe left”? There are so many different emotions at play. When I get on the phone with a candidate I’ve just made an offer to, I’m guessing that I’m just as nervous as they are! Is the candidate going to tell me that they have another offer – a better offer? Are there unknowns that I hadn’t thought of? Maybe there are collaborators I should have introduced them to around the University that would have made our Department more attractive? If they’re a senior recruit, we need to determine whether they are eligible for tenure at our institution, a whole process in and of itself. Maybe they also have a two-body problem? Perhaps they’re worried about finding good schools for their children? What if the Provost doesn’t approve the offer we want to make? While I’m hoping that we find a new faculty member that we can help grow and succeed, I have to remember that each faculty candidate has their own definition of fit, and we may not be it.

And then… game ogame overver, because our candidate has accepted our offer. Or is it? If the first offer doesn’t work out, it’s back to the drawing board. Again, hopefully we’ve interviewed several outstanding candidates. If we’re fortunate, the next outstanding candidate on our list has not yet accepted another position. So the game starts again. What will this candidate need to be successful? Will we be able to attract him or her? Will the Provost approve this letter? So many things to think about, so many rules to the game, and they are always changing.

Ultimately, we all hope to win the game. To me, a win means that not only did we hire someone, we hired someone who will be an asset to the Department, and to whom the Department will be an asset. The process is long, expensive, and exhausting. It is a lot of fun, but also fraught with emotion. But like with any game, you can’t win if you don’t play!


Play the Game – Part 1

In Pennsylvania, deer hunting season opens in October. This is a big deal if you’re a hunter (I’m not), something you’ve looked forward to all year. It’s also a big deal if you’re a hiker (I am) – you’d better be careful to wear your hunter orange when you go for a walk in the woods, you don’t want to get mistaken for a buck.


In academics, around the same time, recruiting seasons opens. This is the time when bright-eyed and bushy tailed graduate students and post-docs look for their dream job, and where departments seek to fill a coveted tenure-track position. It’s a little bit of a hunt, a little bit like match-making, a little bit of a game, and a lot of stress. I’ve gone through the process as a job candidate, a search committee member, and now as a Department chair, and I can tell you that this academic match making, this process of finding a perfect fit, of finding a 10-point buck looks very different depending on where you sit.

gameoflifeOnce upon a time, there was a younger, wiser version of me. In my late 20s, I’d been in school for a very long time, and on the verge of finally graduating for my last time. My husband and I had a baby about 10 months before we defended our dissertations, and I was ready to get out of school, find a real job, and be able to afford to feed my child. So I started my first academic job search. I applied for 5 positions, all tenure track. One was close to family and an alma mater, so I had emotional ties to the area. Another was also an alma mater, again emotionally appealing. All were different: one was in a Department of Preventive Medicine, two were in a medical schools, and two were in Departments of Biostatistics, in Schools of Public Health. It was good that they were different as it allowed me to try to determine where the right “fit” was. Fit. That elusive, indescribable thing we’re all trying to find in jobs and in life. For me, it was important to find an environment in which I could be successful – a place that values the skills I excelled at. It was also important for me to find a place in which I was comfortable socially. I knew I’d be spending a lot of time at work and wanted to be in a place where I’d have fun.

clue-cover-banner-1I was invited for on-campus interviews at 4 of the 5 places I applied. The first place I went was the one closest to my family, which was helpful since I was exclusively nursing my 4-month-old daughter at the time. It ended up being a good practice round for me – a good way to learn the rules of the game. They didn’t offer me a job, and it is probably for the best. I likely would have accepted it mainly because of location, and not for the other aspects of fit I was looking for.

Overall, I found the interview process to very different from what I’d expected. I thought it would be extremely stressful, and well… it was definitely stressful. I was still nursing my daughter for 2 of my other interviews, so needed to ask for breaks in my schedule for pumping. My doctoral advisor (a man in his 60s) told me that I wouldn’t want to work somewhere that wasn’t willing to accommodate me – maybe some of the most important advice he gave me during my job search. And while everyone was accommodating, it did add stress to an already stressful process.

But I was surprised by how much fun I had interviewing. I enjoyed the opportunity to meet new people, to learn about different departments and their values. I was interested to hear who felt that there was work/life balance at the institution (often getting conflicting answers within the same institution), and what research was going on where. cranium-boxI learned a lot from the interview process, lessons that I’ve carried forward with me throughout my career, such as how to answer questions with poise even when I had no idea what the person was asking. I learned how small a world biostatistics is, and how people are just people, no matter how many books they’ve written, how many theorems are named after them, or how much black they wear.

And in the end, just like every game, you win some and you lose some. I was fortunate to have been offered jobs from 3 of the 4 places I interviewed, and even more fortunate that one of the offers came from somewhere that felt like the best fit.

The next stage of the game: negotiation. I was terrible at this part of the game. I didn’t know what to ask for and didn’t know that practically everything is negotiable. And really, after nearly 9 years in graduate school, any real salary felt like a million bucks! Luckily, my pay-day
new chair was fair to me, and my offer contained a very competitive salary, relative to the other offers I received. This is extremely important, because salary increases are typically based on a % of your current salary, so if you start low, it is difficult to make it up over time.

So I accepted the offer and marched off into the sunset, right? If only life was so easy. You see, I have a two-body problem – my husband also needed to find an academic position. However, we got extremely lucky. We won the game! He found a position at the same institution, and so off we rode, into the sunset.
Fast forward a few years, and now Assistant Professor StatGirl is on a pizza-mathsearch committee. What a different process! Now, it was my job to help decide who would come visit our department and make recommendations about to whom we should off
er the position. I got to help court the candidates. Again, it was fun for me, for many of the same reasons as when I was interviewing. I learned some interesting new statistical methods. I got to eat dinner at some of the best restaurants in town. And when it was done, the committee made our recommendations, and it was out of our hands. I met some really interesting people, many of whom took other jobs, but people I still call my colleagues and friends – the ones who got away!

And that was that. I didn’t think about what came before the search committee. I didn’t think about what would happen if no one accepted our offer. Because I didn’t understand the entire process. I didn’t get the chance to play the whole game. Stay tuned for part 2 – in which I tell you about the rest of the game.

Why do we do the things we do?

A recent episode of “The Effort Report” – this really great podcast that you should listen to if you’re not already (and I’m not just saying that because they mentioned my blog) – focused on academic affluenza. Essentially, the discussion was about what happens after you get tenured and promoted… what options do you have for career growth and development? One path is the administrative path, and on the podcast, Roger Peng wondered why people seek out Department Chair positions, which he referred to as “highly coveted.” Since I was one of those people who sought out a Department Chair position, I thought why would make a good blog post.

Beforerodnick-shark-chair-625 I start to talk about why I wanted to be Department chair, it may be helpful for me to give some background about the role of a Department Chair. In some fields, especially in liberal arts, being the Department chair is a service that rotates among the more senior faculty. It is not a position of prestige, nor does it come with additional resources or administrative supplements; in fact, some faculty grudgingly take the role on. However, in medical fields and public health, Department chair positions are typically advertised nationally, and usually candidates are brought in from outside of the University to interview. A new chair can often negotiate for fairly substantive resources for a variety of purposes, such as: to support their own research, to build research/infrastructure in the department, to support departmental educational programs or for recruiting and retaining faculty. This infusion of resources can be a lifeline for a struggling department, and a boon for already healthy departments. I’m in the latter situation – I was recruited externally and was able to successfully negotiate for resources to help both my own research and the Department (in several ways).

Now, why would anyone want to do this job? It is often a thankless job, and chair4a lot of what a chair does is solving problems (mostly other people’s problems). It is very much middle management – you have responsibility for managing the departmental faculty, staff and students, but are subject to the contstraints that the Dean places on you, as well as everyone else above her. It can take its toll on other aspects of your career, and can wear down even those with the best of intentions.

So, why would anyone want to do this job? First of all, we all have different strengths – and the best path to career success is to make choices that play to our strengths. Some of my strengths also happen to be skills that contribute to being a good chair: I am highly organized, I am an effective problem solver and I am good at helping others find their best career path.

Another way to have a successful career is to do what you enjoy. When I mentor junior faculty, I always tell them to “do what they love and the rest will follow.” If we spend the majority of our time trying to do something we don’t enjoy, in the end, will it matter if we’re successful? chair2Do more of what you enjoy so that you enjoy more of what you do. So, I am fortunate that the things I do as an administrator are also things I enjoy. I enjoy networking and “academic matchmaking” – helping others build their networks. I enjoy mentoring and teaching, and really enjoy helping others celebrate their successes. And I love to tell other people what to do. This is a skill I’ve honed as a wife and mother. I’m still trying to figure out how to get other people to listen to me, though… No really… Did you hear what I just said?!

So, when I put together the things I am good at with the things I enjoy doing, there was never much doubt that I would move into an administrative role. Except that I really enjoy research and love teaching, and moving into an administrative role would mean giving up some of each. In fact, during my interview for my current position, I was asked (in so many words) whether I felt that I was too young to be a chair (actual question: “Do you feel it is too early in your career to move into a chair role?”). Because a chair often has to sacrifice the other aspects of their career, this is a somewhat fair question. I say somewhat because I felt at the time, and still do, that it was the job of the interviewers to evaluate whether I was qualified to do the job I was interviewing for, and the job of the interviewee (me) to decide whether it would be premature for me to sacrifice my research and teaching efforts for a chair position. Anyway, my response was: “If you would have asked me 20 years ago, when I was still a graduate student, what I’d be doing in 20 years, I’d have said that I’d be a Department Chair. It is what I’ve always known I’d someday do – it uses my strengths and allows me to do what I enjoy doing.” This was not a lie, or an answer made up to sound impressive, or so that I’d get offered the job (although I did get offered the job!). This is the truth. I’ve spent my career preparing myself for this job.

Rewind 20 years. When I was getting my Master’s degree, I organized the Biostatistics Student Organization in my department. It still exists and thrives today. When I was getting my PhD, I served on university-wide committees, I again helped to organize the students, and I helped to develop and teach a new course for our incoming students. As a student, I was already doing university service and curriculum development. I was preparing to be a Chair someday.
Fast forward to my first tenure track position. Within a year of joining the faculty, I became involved with the Graduate Program Committee – more curriculum dchair3evelopment, as well as learning about admissions, qualifying exams, and other aspects of running a graduate program. Four years later, I was directing the graduate program. This was
intentional on my part. I sought out the position, when the person in that role left for a different University. Some thought it was too soon, that I shouldn’t do it – one person who was in a leadership role in my department came and told me that it was too soon and that I wouldn’t be able to handle it along with my other responsibilities (I was pre-tenure at the time). I was lucky to have a chair who supported me and put his faith in me. I did it, and I did it well – the naysayer actually came back a year later, after I was making positive changes in the graduate program (and now promoted and tenured) and told me he was wrong. I knew I would be good at it. Not because of my ego, but because I know my strengths, and I knew that I had the skills necessary to do that job well.

A few years later, the Section Head position came open in my Department. I was asked to do it, and was hesitant – not because I didn’t think I could do it well, but because of the state of my department at the time. I was hesitant to get involved with some political “stuff” that was going on; however, in the end, I was convinced and again feel that I did a good job, making positive changes for the faculty in the section.
Which brings us to last year, when I made a very conscious decision to accept a position as a chair. I worked hard to get here – this is what I wanted to do. And I think I’m good at it, but only time will tell, in the long run. I don’t think this was a case of “academic affluenza” – that I reached a plateau in my career and was looking for what was next. I do think this was a very intentional path that I chose to follow, mainly because it pairs my strengths nicely with the things I enjoy doing. Like a nice wine with a good stinky cheese. And I’ll let you decide who’s the wine and who’s the stinky cheese in this scenario.chair1
As for where I go from here, I’ve already been asked if I want to be a Dean someday. The truth is, I really like being a Department Chair so far, and I haven’t planned anything further except for the goals I’d like to accomplish with my Department in the next few years. I have work to do. Hard work. And I plan to have fun doing it.

Biostatistics IS Public Health!

This week, I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Tom Farley speak to our school’s incoming students about his book Saving Gotham, A Billionaire Mayor, Activist Doctors, and the Fight for 8 Million Lives. As part of our orientation activities, we assigned the students to read Dr. Farley’s book about the monumental strides New York City took to improve the public’s health. If you’re not from these here parts, you may not know that Dr. Farley served as the NYC Health Commissioner from 2009-2014 under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He is now the Philadelphia Health Commissioner and is also an amazing resource for our School of Public Health.

The book, an exciting work of non-fiction, chronicles the NYC Health Department’s efforts to reduce the rates of smoking, limit the intake of salt and sugar, and eliminate trans fats (among other programs) in NYC. The stories Dr. Farley tells, and the characters in them, unfold as if reading fiction, except that these stories really happened, and these characters actually made them happen. As I read the book, I couldn’t wait to find out what was going to happen, even though I already knew what happened. I could recall the late-night comedians ridiculing the Mayor’s efforts to reduce sugar-sweetened beverage intake, and remember when calorie labeling on menus went into effect. The work done by the NYC Health Department during that time was incredible – important life-saving and precedent setting efforts. It was public health at its finest (editors note: some could argue the health department was overreaching their authority – this is a topic for another time!). Many themes emerged from the book. You can pick your favorite for discussion: leadership, politics, teamwork. However, what was most striking to me was the display of how truly interdisciplinary real public health is. Not a single one of these policy changes (or proposed changes) could have happened without a diverse team of public health professionals: folks who analyze the scientific data, someone to translate the research into lives saved; an expert in policy development; someone who could work with the communities to implement changes; someone to hold focus groups and someone else to analyze the outcomes from those focus groups… the list could go on and on. In order to effect change, each public health discipline is equally important.

So what? We all know that the world is becoming more interdisciplinary, right? Maybe… while I was reading this book, there was also a very important discussion circulating among the Chairs of Biostatistics Departments about the role of statistics in public health. Recently, the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH), the accrediting body for Schools of Public Health, presented the proposed revised criteria for accreditation. While setting out to  develop criteria that get away from the five core disciplines of public health, and moving towards criteria that allow flexibility and creativity in curriculum (both of which are good things), CEPH has essentially erased Biostatistics from their accreditation criteria (NOT a good thing). This is of great concern to many of us, because if the accrediting body ceases to recognize Biostatistics as a core component of a public health education, where does that leave us? I’ll come back to that question.biostatistics-is-public-health

For many years, I have jokingly referred to Biostatistics as the “bastard child” of public health. Biostatisticians are not like their colleagues in other public health disciplines in a lot of ways. Students receiving MS or PhD degrees in biostatistics don’t typically have to take courses in the breadth of public health disciplines, like Master’s of Public Health students do. Among faculty, it is unusual for a biostatistician to get a large grant for which they’re the primary investigator – often their PIships come from methods grants that are typically smaller in dollar amounts or they are funded through collaborative research. It is also typical for a biostatistician to have many fewer first authored manuscripts in methodological areas, and perhaps many more second authored manuscripts in which they act as the collaborating statistician. Some biostatisticians find their collaborators mainly in medical schools or cancer centers, and some biostatistics departments are located in these clinical departments or divisions. However, there are many, many Biostatisticians who are true public health professionals – developing methods or collaborating on studies that are concerned with addressing public health challenges. I believe that most of my colleagues would consider themselves public health professionals, I certainly do (even though a good portion of my collaborations are clinical). Because what we do is integral to the process of improving the health of the public. And this has only become more and more evident through these discussions among the chairs, the activities we’ve been conducting among our students, and my day-to-day life interacting with the faculty in my school.

Despite biostatistics’ differences from other public health disciplines, biostatistics is an integral part of the field. Biostatisticians are trained to help translate data into answers (see a great interview here about what biostatisticians do and how biostatistics fits into public health), through the appropriate application of statistical methods. But biostatisticians can (and do) do much more than that. Biostatisticians can help determine appropriate data collection instruments, ensure appropriate data collection methods, and assess whether outcomes are suitable for answering the questions of interest. To be clear, there are many public health professionals who are not trained in biostatistics who have many of these skills as well. However, beyond that, as the field of public health grows and the questions we are trying to answer become more complicated, the methods we are currently using may no longer fit the questions we ask. Biostatisticians have a large role in developing new methods to address the increasingly complicated public health questions. Without biostatistics, public health will stagnate.

So back to the question – where does this omission of biostatistics from the CEPH guidelines leave us? Our first step is to try to modify the proposed guidelines to be more inclusive – many of the biostatistics Chairs submitted comments to the CEPH council and we produced letters signed by the many of the Chairs, and the Presidents of the American Statistical Association (ASA) and the East North American Region of the International Biometrics Society (ENAR). Talking points for conversations with Deans were developed, and plans to continue discussions among the Chairs were made. These strides are important and hopefully will have impact on the guidelines, but if they don’t, the results could be disastrous for public health. As public health becomes more interdisciplinary, it is important to ensure that each discipline continues to grow, or there is a real danger that biostatistics could lose its identity. And that would be a shame, because biostatistics is public health.