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.

Happy Anniversary to ME!

If you’ve followed my blog, you know that I experienced a very severe bout of depression a little over 10 years ago (if you haven’t read it, you should… ). This illness occurred, likely coincidentally, during a transitional time in my life, as I was making the transition from a graduate student to a tenure-track assistant professor. After 1 year in that position, I wanted to kill myself. Literally. There is no clear cause of depression; certainly there are chemical imbalances that play a role, but it is unknown what triggers instigate bouts of depression. I really don’t know what my trigger was at that time, but I had always feared that the major transition in my life played a role. This fear haunted me as I went through the process of interviewing for my current position, moving and getting settled in. In fact, all the academic aspects of being a Department Chair didn’t frighten me as much as the fear that my depression would return.

And now, here I am 1 year into my new job – Happy Anniversary to Me! And it couldn’t have gone better! Rather than hiding under my desk crying, I am welcoming 3 new faculty to my Department! Rather than barely making it through the day, I’m excited to get out of bed in the morning to learn what awaits me at work. That’s not to say that there haven’t been challenges and that it is all flowers and rainbows. But overall, it has been an exciting year, during which I have learned an incredible amount.DSC_0224

Some of the lessons I’ve learned are very specific to my institution, like the process for approving grant proposals, how to approve time-off requests, how to approve expense reports (Department Chairs do a lot of approving!). But others are more about academic life in general – things I wish someone had told me about being a Department Chair, and things I wish someone had told me about being a good faculty member. Not to say that I wasn’t a good faculty member before, but there are things I could have done to be better.

Once upon a time, I loved email – when I first met my now husband back in the early 90s, email was new to us and was a fun way to communicate. I loved going to the computer lab to see if I had any new email and was always disappointed if I didn’t. I’ve always thought I was good about returning emails, and I realize now how important it is to reply to emails. However, I’ve grown to HATE email! I hate, hate, hate it! (I know, as my husband likes to reminds me, it isn’t nice to hate.) But email has become the primary means for communicating these days (for us old people, at least) which means that I receive a lot more email every day that I need to deal with, but also that I send a lot more email every day that I expect others to deal with. In both instances, the process of actual work can stop if one party does not respond. Luckily, I had been adequately prepared for the increased volume of emails that I would be receiving, so I wasn’t so surprised by that. However, I always thought that everyone else was as good about returning emails as I am, and wasn’t prepared for how I needed to compensate for those who aren’t.

Something else I was not prepared for was how lonely I would feel in this position. I was at my former institution for 11 years and had built a huge community there. Last fall, I went back for a research meeting, and could not walk down the street without running into someone I know. A benefit of that was that if I needed a statistical consult, or if I felt overwhelmed and needed to get some reassurance that everything would be okay, or even if I just wanted someone to go to lunch with, I knew who I could ask – different people for each of these, possibly, but all those roles were filled. Even as my role in the Department changed, my relationships with my colleagues were solid and I was able to easily balance my leadership responsibilities with my professional support system.

However, I’ve come into my new position new to my institution. I really like the faculty in my Department, but I haven’t had the benefit of “growing up” with them academically. While I realize it takes time to build the types of relationships I had previously, I also am cognizant of the fact that my relationship with the faculty in my Department is a little different. If I want to complain about something that happens in a Department meeting, I can’t always do so with them. If I need to get advice about a personnel issue, I have to be careful what I say and to whom I say it. One solution I’ve found for this is to build a different type of network – I have a monthly breakfast with the other department chairs in my school (there are 4 of us total), and have just started having lunch with a few other department heads outside of my school. And I need to practice patience – my relationships with the faculty in my Department are starting to grow, and I know that in time my loneliness will dissipate. Plus, my department has a great staff who I share my office suite with, and they are always wiling to help cure my loneliness (even if they don’t know that they’re doing it!).

This last year hasn’t been easy – there has been a tremendous amount of new things I’ve had to learn, both because I’m at a new institution and also because I’m in a new role. I’ve actually enjoyed this very much – I often say that I’m in academics because I love to learn new things, and this was the only way I could stay a student forever. While some of the things I’ve had to learn have been monotonous, others have been hard lessons about dealing with very personal issues. I’ve had the great fortune to hire 3 new faculty, but this also meant I had the extremely difficult job of telling very well-qualified candidates, who I really got to know and came to like very much, that I wasn’t going to be able to hire them. I had a long-standing adjunct stop teaching for our department, in part because I was unwilling to provide a substantive salary increase (I think), and had to scramble to find someone to teach a class this fall. I’ve made choices that I know haven’t always pleased everyone, but I feel confident that I’ve made those choices with the best intentions and the belief that they are the best for our Department. And I know that I’ve made mistakes – all leaders do, we ALL do– and I hope that I’ve learned from those mistakes and moved on.

As I face my second year as Chair, I know there will be many more challenges, and also much more learning. I’m looking forward to new things, such as teaching my first undergraduate class in my professional career; in collaboration with my department, developing a PhD program in Biostatistics; and advising my first doctoral student since I arrived. I also get to begin my fall with the annual reviews with the faculty and staff, a process that isn’t always easy, but I enjoy because it provides an opportunity to connect with each person individually and discuss their accomplishments and goals. It is also a time for me to reflect on what I’ve accomplished, and to set some goals for myself and my department. I look forward to reflecting back on those goals in a year, hopefully with the same enthusiasm for moving forward that I have now.


My name is StatGirl and I’m a teach-a-holic

I have a confession to make. I love teaching. And as we approach the start of a new school year, I’m getting ready to teach a new class – an undergraduate biostatistics class to public health majors. This is in stark contrast to anything I have ever taught in my professional career, as I have only taught graduate courses, often advanced doctoral-level classes. My only previous experience teaching undergraduates was over 20 years ago when I was an undergrad myself, teaching introduction to algebra and college algebra to other undergrads. As I’ve been struggling to find time to prepare my syllabus, I got to thinking about teaching in a research world. Many biostatisticians are extremely research-active, often covering high proportions of their salaries through grant funding. This impacts the time available to teach, both from a practical and from a legal perspective. If you are spending 90% of your time on research, then theoretically, it is illegal (andhours worked by academic rank_1 sometimes impossible) to spend more than 10% of your time on teaching. Of course, there is no actual definition of the denominator – academic workload is not always based on a 40-hour workweek: some estimates indicate that academics spend 50-60 hours per week working (although Chairs report the fewest hours worked, Whoohoo!), with some faculty reporting up to 80 hour workweeks! (NOTE: no comment on the quality of some of these charts, which I would never let my students/mentees/coauthors/friends/kids present, but you get the idea).

Teaching requirements differ from institution to institution, and also depend on other expectations. At my former institution, most faculty averaged about 1.5 classes per year in my department, but expectations were that you would cover a very high proportion of your salary through external funding (>70%). If your funding dropped, you could expect to teach more; in fact, more teaching was often seen as a punishment for not doing enough research. However, in my previous department, those who were successful as researchers also often (but not always) really enjoyed teaching, leading to very long hours during semesters while teaching, since the research responsibilities didn’t stop – or even slow down.

At my current institution, the workload policy specifies that teaching activities should account for about 50% of a tenure track faculty member’s effort (research is assigned 30% effort). This translates into about 4 quarter-classes per year for a 12-month appointed faculty member, plus advising students, course development and other teaching activities. Research-active faculty can buy out of a class with an additional 15% research funding; administrative responsibilities also lessen the teaching load. Since I’m just now completing my first year here, I still don’t have a good sense for how the faculty feel about this balance – and since I haven’t taught yet, I don’t have my own perspective. However, my research effort is already approaching 50%, so I already know that I will be working like a crazy woman this quarter.

ecardThese expectations are very different from those of tenure track faculty in primarily teaching institutions, where teaching loads still vary considerably, but can be as high as 4 classes in a single term across each term. There is little data available about what is “typical” from any institution, regardless of whether it is a research-intensive university or a small liberal arts college. Each institution has their own policy, some formal, others ad hoc.

It is also difficult to ascertain how much time is actually spent on teaching activities among tenure track faculty. One small study  at a single doctoral-granting institution published in 2014 (n=30) estimated that faculty spent 40% of their time on teaching-related activities. This is by no means generalizable – the institution at which this research was done is not as research active as many (237th in 2014 for total R&D expenditures), so this could be an overestimate for some. Very old data (1989) from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching showed that the more research funding at an institution, the less time spent on teaching activities, and that the emphasis on teaching-related activities during tenure and promotion is much lower for research-intensive institutions.


So, what do you do if you are at a research-intensive institution but love to teach? There is a lot of advice floating around the internet on this topic, including some that is repeated over and over in academics: “You will never get promoted based on good teaching alone, but being a bad teacher might keep you from getting promoted.” Add to the mix that it is difficult to measure effectiveness of teaching whereas it is much easier to quantify research productivity, and where does that leave us?

I often tell my mentees to do what they love and the rest will follow. If you are not having fun at work, you are wasting your time. If you are not going to get promoted doing what you have fun doing, you are not in the right place (others agree – see #7). If teaching is what you love, this may be a difficult pill to swallow – many faculty at research-intensive institutions train for decades in order to get tenure track positions. However, it is important to be in a place that fits with your goals and talents. I am not advocating quitting a tenure-track position just because you love teaching, but I am suggesting that you should evaluate your expectations and goals, and make sure they are in agreement with those of your chair and institution.

In my past life, I was at an institution that expected faculty to be at least 70% externally funded through grants, and I was routinely 85-90% funded. During my very first faculty meeting, my chair said that there was no reason we couldn’t be 95% funded and still teach.* As a tenure track faculty member, who also had a service requirement, I was floored… how could I be 95% funded, teach well, work with students, and also fulfill the service requirements for tenure? I also remember being told by a trusted mentor that it is okay to only give about 75% to my teaching – while I would know that I wasn’t giving it my all, my students just wouldn’t know the difference. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a teacher. For a semester in college, I was a Math Ed major, but eventually decided I wanted to teach college, which motivated me to get a PhD. Although I learned how much I enjoy research when I was in grad school, I always have, and always will, consider myself a teacher. So this news that students would not be able to tell how much effort I put into my classes was devastating to me. Despite this advice, I still threw myself into my teaching, teaching more than was expected and doing it well.

All these years later, I am still throwing myself in to my teaching. I’m extremely excited for my new challenge in the classroom, despite the time it will take away from other commitments, such as my research and my administrative responsibilities. Let alone the time it will take away from my family. It will be difficult, but I know it will be rewarding because I will be doing something I love, and hopefully I will make impact on the students. In the end, that will make it all worth it.

*Footnote: my chair was always very supportive of my desire to teach and to teach well, and I mean no disrespect to someone for whom I have the utmost respect!

PhD Qualifying Exams, or Purgatory for Graduate Students

For many PhD students, summer is the time of year when classes slow down and research picks up. When campuses are quieter and happy hour is earlier. Summer is an idyllic time for most PhD students. Except for those who have to take the dreaded qualifying exam. At many institutions, qualifying exams happen during the summer. They take many forms – some students must pass true qualifying exams, where they show mastery of the Master’s level curriculum. Others take comprehensive exams, where they show mastery of the PhD level curriculum. Some take both, typically separated by about a year. In some fields, qualifying exams may be written; in other fields these may be oral exams. Sometimes PhD students gain candidacy (and cheaper tuition) upon completion of their exams, in other instances there may be additional hoops to jump through before this can occur. Ugh.

Qualifying exams are a rite of passage. It is hard to provide rationale for why they are necessary, other than: I had to do it so you do, too. OK – that’s not entirely true. There are good reasons for students to show that they can synthesize the information from several classes and utilize that knowledge to solve problems which may be more complicated than ones they might find in a classroom. In Biostatistics, there is often an a theory exam and applied exam, the latter which allows a student to demonstrate that they have mastery of important collaborative skills. Regardless of the process or procedure by which a student must prove that they are “qualified” to continue in the PhD, it is a very stressful time for most students. And rightfully so. Their performance on their exam could have long-lasting implications for their career. Not to mention their psyche.


Psyche: William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1892)

To complete my Master’s degree in Biostatistics, I needed to pass an MS comprehensive exam. This was also the qualifying exam for the PhD students, so my classmates in the first year of their PhD program took this same exam as I did at the conclusion of my master’s degree. The exam went moderately well for me, with the exception of the last question. As I completed the problem, for which it was necessary for me to compute a probability, with almost no time left, I was dismayed to find that my solution was negative! I clearly had made a math error somewhere – of course I knew that a probability had to be in the set [0,1]. I was almost out of time, so just made a note “I know this can’t be right since my probability is negative, but I am out of time and cannot go back to figure out where my error is.” When I saw the results of my exam, although I passed, I was disappointed to find that the Professor who graded it disregarded my note, and essentially dismissed my solution, with a rather degrading comment. This was the first time in my academic career I felt downright stupid. It had an impact on my confidence in my future studies. All of a sudden, I considered myself to be no good at theory.

And then, my PhD. I did very well in my classes and prepared like hell for my qualifying exams. At my institution, we had a 2-day in-class theory exam, followed by a 1-day applied exam. I studied with classmates. I studied alone. I ate, slept and breathed the central limit theorem. I was ready. This exam was mine. Except it wasn’t. The day of the theory exam came and I found myself hiding in the bathroom, hyperventilating. And did you know that you could play Minesweeper on the HP-48G calculator?

calcminesweeperEventually, I picked myself up, went back to the exam, and did what I could, which wasn’t much. And so I failed the theory exam. No one had failed the theory exam in so many years, that none of the current students could remember the name of the last person to have failed. I was dejected. I was humiliated. I was sure that I needed to consider my non-scientific career choice (an event planner, by the way… which I may have to reconsider now that I’m planning a Bat Mitzvah celebration). Lucky for me, I had the opportunity to take the exam a second time. I just had to decide if I wanted to. Could my ego handle more failure? Seriously: what would I do if I didn’t pass? I took long walks with my friends (now my colleagues), and talked about what my alternatives were. My husband and I considered what options I had. In the end, I decided to take the exam again. And long story short, I passed. As my advisor told me, I didn’t “do great”, but I did “well enough”. Well HOLY SHIT! As far as I was concerned, well enough was good enough to pass, and that was good enough for me to continue in the PhD. Woohoo! But the damage was done.

I continued in my PhD, and successfully defended my dissertation some time later. After that, I started a job as an Assistant Professor, and the rest is history. And like all history, we tend to forget the parts that aren’t as pleasant. However, I could never quite forget my experiences with my exams. For years, I would tell people that I wasn’t theoretical, that I’m an outstanding applied statistics, even while teaching one of the more theoretical doctoral level courses my Department offered. I descried my methodological work as applied, since it was motivated by real problems. The damage was done.

As time went on, I became the Director of Graduate Studies. Now it was MY responsibility to oversee the qualifying exams of others. This was excruciating for me. All of my anxiety would well up each time the exam came around. I would agonize over whether the questions were consistent with those we asked in previous years. I would lose sleep about whether we had sufficiently prepared our students to do what we were asking of them. When the exam was being administered, I would delegate a different member of the committee to proctor the exam and I would not step foot in the building. The students’ fear and anxiety were too real to me. The damage was done.

Like most negative experiences, though, I found a way to use my failures to help others. Unfortunately, we typically had a student or two each year who did not pass their qualifying exam. It was my responsibility to pass that news along to them. When I did so, I always shared my experience, and I believe it helped them to know that this negative did not define me. Even if I still struggled to believe this, I was able to convince them that it was true.

And now? Now I’m a Department Chair. It is clear that my qualifying exam experiences did not hinder my career. Do I think I will ever have a JASA paper? No. But that’s okay – there are plenty of other statisticians who can fill that role. I am pretty good at what I do, and there are many strong theoretical statisticians who are terrible collaborators. Does it still sting sometimes? Absolutely. People who get PhDs are over-achievers, and experiencing failure is not something we do often or handle well. However, learning from my failures, and using them to help others, is a skill that I’m so glad I have. I believe that my failures make me much better at my job today. I know that my failure helped me better understand my strengths and my weaknesses.

Could things have been different if my experience with my Master’s exam had been different? Maybe. Perhaps I would have been more confident in my theoretical abilities, which in turn could have led to me passing my PhD qualifying exam on the first try. But maybe not. I am a really good collaborative statistician, and I enjoy it. So it could be that I still would have found that path, even if I felt that I excelled in the theory.

In the end, I still hate qualifying exams and always will. I understand their purpose, I understand the benefit they provide to our students in the long-run (in a multitude of ways), and I know they’re not going away. Unless the Department Chair has the power to do that….


The Joint Statistical Meetings… Then & Now

In just over a week, I will be attending the 2016 Joint Statistical Meetings (JSM) in Chicago, the largest annual gathering of statisticians in North America. I can see my non-statistical friends cringing, but to me it is pure nerdvana! With over 6000 attendees and over 600 sessions, JSM can be overwhelming at best, and downright scary at worst. As I’ve started planning my time in Chicago, I realized that 20 years ago, I attended my very first JSM, also in Chicago, which caused me to stop and reflect on how much has changed in that time.


Twenty years ago, I was in the middle of my Master’s degree at the University of Iowa, a wide-eyed kid trying to figure out what my next steps would be. A group of my classmates and I piled into a car and made our way to Chicago from Iowa City. There were 4 of us, 3 girls and a boy, and we all piled into a single room, with my male classmate respectfully sleeping on the floor. Each night we would all review the program for the next day, amazed by all the different talks we could see, trying to figure out which matched our interests. It was during this meeting that I attended talks which sparked my interest in clinical trials, drove my desire to someday write a statistics in sports paper, and reinforced my professors’ repeated lessons that good communications skills are a vital part of being a statistician. I remember walking into rooms in which I was the only woman, amazed that this was the 90s and that could still happen! I encountered “famous” statisticians (yes, there are such people) and was in awe; I also encountered my first instance of sexual harassment, from which I learned a valuable lesson about humanity. I learned as much from those few days in Chicago as I had in a year in graduate school – different lessons, to be sure, but still a tremendous amount. Most of all, I learned how little I knew, how much more there was to learn, and promptly decided that I needed to stay in school and get my PhD.


Fast forward 20 years, and here I am again, heading to Chicago with 6000 of my closest friends. Now, as a Professor and Department Chair, my perspective is different. I still go to JSM with my eyes wide open, with plans to continue to learn. However, what I learn will be decidedly different. This year at JSM, I will attend a chair workshop, during which I’ll have the chance to learn how to do my job better from others who have been doing it longer. I will meet with colleagues from the National Math Alliance, an amazing organization with a goal of increasing the number of underrepresented students in PhD programs in the math sciences and be reminded of how important it is to have diversity in our profession. I will have the chance to catch up with former classmates and colleagues, during which time we will laugh at the people we once were, and talk about the people we hope to be. And I’ll get to listen to people talk about statistics for 3 days. Three wonderful days during which I will remember what inspired me to be who I am today, and reinvigorate my passion for statistics. I will be inspired to become a better statistician. Because, no matter what my job title, no matter what my day-to-day responsibilities, deep down, I’m still just a nerdy girl who likes statistics and who thinks that data are cool. And maybe I’ll get a good idea for that sports paper I still haven’t written.


Twenty years is a long time, and I’ve come a long way in that time, but I still have a long way to go. The experiences I bring home with me from JSM will help set me on the path for my next 20 years. And who knows, maybe in 2036 I’ll be celebrating JSM back in Chicago!

Why I love study section (and why you should too)

I recently returned from serving on study section. My academic friends probably read that and groaned, but for me, study section is one of the most scientifically interesting things I do. For my non-academic friends, let me give you a little context. Study section is a group of scientists brought together to review scientific grants, and give input to the funding agency as to which are of high scientific quality and should be considered for funding, and which should not. Each member of the panel receives several grants to read ahead of time, provides critiques and scores, and then everyone comes together for a couple of days to discuss each grant proposal and its merits and weaknesses. At the end of the day the researchers who submitted the grants will receive scores comments from all of the reviewers. The agency to which the grant was submitted then determines which researchers will receive the money they requested. The NIH has a very comprehensive description of the process here, and if you’re not into reading information prepared by the government, you can listen to someone else read you government information on a very dry YouTube video.

The person who organizes and runs the study section is called the Scientific Review Officer – the SRO. Every study section is run differently, and this is highly dependent on the SRO. I have served on several different review panels for different agencies (e.g. NIH, NASA, American Heart Association) and truly believe that the SRO can totally make or break the experience.

The study section I regularly serve on reviews grant submissions that are concerned with clinical trials evaluating therapies for neurologic diseases and disorders. We are often evaluating grants that are requesting very large amounts of money that could have a big impact on patient populations. Our SRO works extremely hard to put together a multidisciplinary group of reviewers who take this responsibility very seriously. These are some of the most intelligent people I have ever met. While some study sections only have 3 reviewers who read each grant, our study section routinely has 5-9 – this allows each person who reviews the grant to focus on their area of expertise. We have extremely thorough discussions about each grant, and we all hold each other accountable.


Our study section is very diverse – we have expertise in neurology, neurosurgery, pharmacology, biostatistics, physiology, and several other areas that come and go based on the science we are evaluating. We come from all over the country, each have different research backgrounds, and the group includes Deans and Department Chairs, researchers from industry, as well as Assistant Professors who may be reviewing grants for their first time. However, when we discuss the science, we all respect each other for their expertise, regardless of our positions in our real lives. We may not always agree, but we don’t view our discourse as a problem, rather as a learning experience. It is truly extraordinary, amazingly intense, and unbelievably exhausting. We spend very long days doing something for which we get very little reward, except for the satisfaction in knowing that we are helping to advance science (and a small honorarium which probably comes to pennies on the hour given the time we spend).

It is a lot of hard work. But I always look forward to it. My fellow members of the study section are also my friends. We share our stories with each other. We greet each other with our photos of our children out front, and with our egos behind us. At the end of the day, we share meals and drinks and laughs and try to unwind after some very tough discussions. We all go home having learned a tremendous amount from each other, and better scientists for it.

There is a lot of discussion in the statistical community about serving on content-area study sections. It is a lot of hard work and not all experiences are as positive as mine. But it is extremely important that we continue to bring our expertise to the table, and continue to build relationships with other researchers. In fact, it is our responsibility as scientists to ensure that all research is subject to statistical rigor that ensure good study design and results.

I am fortunate that I regularly serve on a study section that respects all opinions, even those of the statisticians. I am lucky that I serve on a study section that provides me with so much scientific satisfaction. And I am lucky to have served with so many amazing, brilliant people, from whom I learn to be a better scientist.