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Girls Doing Research: A Case Study in Fostering Success in Early-Career Faculty in STEM Fields

Sheila K. Miller

This article is an online extra from the August/September issue of MAA FOCUS.

Many recent Ph.D. graduates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields spend the better part of a decade earning their credentials at major research institutions where they might hear, as I did: “You’re spending too much time on your teaching!” only to join the workforce at a teaching-focused two- or four-year school with high teaching loads and service expectations. The cultural shift can sometimes be extreme—and also puzzling, as many of these same schools have begun to require more original research for tenure and promotion without a corresponding decrease in the required teaching load.

Here I present and discuss a way in which a group of junior faculty members (all of whom happened to be women) at a teaching institution helped each other to maintain and develop their research programs in their first years as faculty members.

The Situation

Immediately after graduate school, I took a three-year teaching postdoc position at the U.S. Military Academy, better known as West Point.

Several mentors cautioned me that the job might not be the right fit for me: With no time to do research and no one with whom to do it, I would finish the postdoc three years out of my Ph.D. program with nothing to show for myself, not even the publication of my thesis, which I’d heard is unlikely to happen at all if it isn’t done within the first year after graduation.

There were some important differences between teaching at West Point and at my previous institution. Faculty at West Point are expected to be in the office unless they’re teaching; this is not the official position of the department leadership, but it is the expectation of the students and the majority of the faculty, 68 percent of whom are captains or majors in the U.S. Army with master’s degrees in fields related to mathematics, such as operations research. These junior military faculty, as they are called, are generally new to teaching and are stationed at West Point on three-year rotations. Unless they are selected to go back to graduate school for a Ph.D., they are unlikely to teach again.

Halfway through my first semester, I was ready to quit. I was miserable. I had decided that if I did nothing else that first year, I would prepare my thesis for publication and submit it. But I was spending every waking moment on my teaching and other college-related responsibilities.

As one friend and officer succinctly summarized it to me after puzzling for most of a year about why I was so impassioned about the importance of doing research and the treatment of mathematical ideas: “I finally get it. I am an army officer. You are a mathematics professor.”

On reflection, I realized that much of what I was missing was mathematics. One of my primary and sustaining joys throughout graduate school had been the time to think; time to try to prove theorems in ways that turned out to be completely wrong; time to contemplate mathematical questions for their own sake.
Seeking a way to create this time, I approached several other junior faculty members (all of whom happened to be women) who were also struggling to get done the work we all cared about, and we agreed to meet three hours every week.  Even though we were in different research areas, we didn’t need to talk to each other to work together. We all sat in a room, each working independently. Three hours a week wasn’t much time, but it was exactly what I (we) needed: time to think.

Here is how we went about reclaiming our research lives.

Setting Up the Group

I consider these the seven primary ingredients to Girls Doing Research (each to be elaborated on below):  Rules
- A few focused, responsible people
- A time
- A location
- A commitment
- A leader
- Ownership

Rules

Girls Doing Research began essentially as a secret club. There was no advertisement, and membership was by invitation only. In fact, we invented the name to get an acronym (GDR) for two reasons: Everything related to the army needs an acronym, and with an acronym we could reserve space without explicitly saying what we planned to do with it.

As with all secret clubs, there were rules.
Rule 1. No grading or lesson planning or appointments with students was allowed. Period.
Rule 2. Members had to attend the majority of the time.
Rule 3. Only relevant conversation allowed. (This extends to email, too; only email with collaborators could be read or sent.)

Rules 1 and 2 were explicit and enforced. Rule 3 was understood and more flexible. Of course we did not sit in silence for three hours. Occasionally someone had a question about a paper she was reading or wanted to discuss a talk she was preparing. Although we weren’t in overlapping research areas, we still had productive conversations.

Sometimes one of us needed to talk about an issue not related to research. Most often it was about some aspect of being a new faculty member, such as managing time and priorities, navigating the nuanced social and professional hierarchy, or, more generally, confirming that each of us was not alone in the challenges we faced, which for several of us included anxieties about being away from our research nest. Without speaking for anyone else, I would not have talked about many of those topics so openly—if at all—in mixed company.

My experiences in mixed-gender, all female, and male + few environments are all different.  Each of these environments has positive attributes and drawbacks, and I am in no way claiming that any is better or more desirable than another; on the contrary, I enjoy each of them very much. What I am saying is that a women’s gathering was supportive and helpful to me in ways that groups of another composition would not have been.  For reference, I consider mathematics to be, depending on the field and specific location, a male + few environment or a mixed-gender environment, particularly at the level of faculty members.
GDR is effective because it is a social contract, and all members need to know, understand, and agree to the rules of that social contract. Another group’s rules might be different from the rules our group set out, but I think that one reason we had no internal conflict was that we all knew in advance what was expected of us and what to expect of the other members of the group. This clarity and consensus of expectation prevents misunderstanding, one of the most destructive influences in otherwise healthy group dynamics.

The People

A good group contains four to five people, each with a strong sense of social responsibility, who like and respect each other.

After the great success of GDR in its first year, people began to catch on to what we were doing, and it was suggested that we should open membership in GDR to all interested faculty members in the department. In response, I sent out an email describing GDR and inviting participants to GDR and GDR2 (Guys Do Research, Too), to run concurrently and be collocated with GDR. The response was very positive, and for the first weeks of that semester we needed to reserve large rooms in the library.

Then an interesting thing happened. The GDR population collapsed. For those of us who had been the founding members, the new, large GDR was missing the intimacy of its former incarnation. Although there were the same rules for the new GDR, people did not have the same interest in following them, as the link between the success of their colleagues and their own choices was no longer so immediate or transparent. Eventually the situation stabilized via some recruitment and retention activities on an individual level, combined with the cessation of open invitations to the department.

Groups of other sizes and compositions than what we had could work perfectly well, provided there is mutual respect and comfort between the members. At West Point, where there is a large population of nontenured transient faculty, so it was easy to find people in a similar situation. In smaller departments and small schools, I suggest soliciting members from colleagues in adjacent disciplines (or even other geographically close schools). The real point is having the time, space, and support for intellectual work. The work itself could be many things.

To form a GDR group with two people would be difficult as sometimes there are unavoidable schedule conflicts. That being said, if you have only two or three people, don’t let that stop you! Find people you respect and trust and make your standing appointment with one another. As previously discussed, having a group larger than five or six does not seem to work as well.

For us, GDR began as a very personal activity, and our commitment to be there for one another was also very personal. This sense of responsibility dissipates in a large group, partly because the absence of any one person is not so acutely felt, so one feels more free to choose to be absent, regardless of any agreed-upon rules. This commitment to be there for each other resulted in being there for ourselves, too. We showed up and did our work, even when it was inconvenient, which it always was.

A Time

It is critical to have a set time and stick to that same time every week. This eliminates the need to renegotiate from week to week, which uses unnecessary energy and provides the opportunity for conflict. We met Wednesdays from 3:00 to 6:00 p.m. Constancy of the time gives the activity a backbone, makes it an integral part of every week’s plan, and enables participants to schedule their events around GDR, including planning ahead when necessary and the assignment and collection of assignments and exams.

Location

The most important thing is to have a place that is distinct from one’s usual work environment and away from students and other colleagues. Being asked what you are doing every thirty minutes will not help you do research, I promise. We all love our students, and that makes them very hard to resist when they present themselves, whether in person or via email; this is another reason to keep the email window closed. It’s only three hours. No matter who they are or what they need, they will live while you do your research.

We varied the location from a conference room, several different areas in two different libraries, and several coffee shops. It seemed beneficial to vary it slightly from week to week when the group was small. It felt like a luxury to meet outside of the confines of a traditional work setting. If the group is large or has open or revolving membership (as did the current incarnation of GDR at West Point at the time of this writing), keeping the location constant would be easier.

Places that have big tables and space are nice, especially if they also have good lighting and a noise level the group feels appropriate. Most of us listened to music on headphones (that could not be heard by others) while we were working except when we were in coffee shops. This is a matter of personal preference.

I recognize that in some STEM fields, research requires specialized equipment and spaces. To people in those fields who still wish to try something like GDR, it seems that the easiest adaptation would be to use GDR for reading papers and for paper, talk, and grant writing, but I am confident that you can respond to your own needs, whatever they may be. Be creative. We needed time, space, and cultural support, so we created them.

A Commitment

Nothing else can make up for each person’s individual commitment to be there for herself and for her compañeras. When assembling a GDR group, include only people with a genuine commitment, and don’t be afraid to stop inviting someone who is unreliable or disruptive. If he or she later notices and wants to try again, reassess the situation.

A Leader

Someone has to be in charge of sending reminders (yes, reminders need to be sent), touching base with members regularly, making reservations of space as necessary, arranging transportation if needed, and arbitrating conflict if it arises, either between the group and the outside world, or within the group. (In our case there was no conflict within the group, but there were some run-ins with unsupportive people not in GDR. As is probably the case in most teaching-focused institutions, there were individuals who did not consider research an appropriate activity for faculty members.  On some occasions there was conflict over, for example, the use of space, and having a spokesperson helped us resolve these situations with minimal drama and consequence.) Probably the leader will be whoever initiates GDR, but someone else may be more natural or comfortable in that role. (Leader ≠ dictator, though sometimes she might be the enforcer of social contracts.)

Ownership

Our group had a guerrilla mindset—we didn’t ask for permission, recognition, or resources, and this was part of why we were successful.  GDR worked because we wanted to be there, even when we didn’t want to be there.  It wasn’t imposed on us explicitly, implicitly, or culturally.
GDR is an empowerment activity, a way of seizing what is important, of taking control of a valuable part of lives overwhelmed by many responsibilities. There is a definite satisfaction in creating for oneself a path to one’s happiness and success.
If you are a chair person of a department, please resist the temptation to suggest GDR formation to any of your early-career faculty. Leave this article lying around if you like, and form your own GDR, but the last thing new hires need is one more box to check.

If you want to be part of GDR, do it! It may not be something for your CV, but your research output and the satisfaction of maintaining a connection to mathematics will be their own rewards.

Final Thoughts

I have spoken very little about gender or about STEM. This is because we did not create GDR to address issues of gender in STEM; we created GDR in response to our personal needs for time to think and a structure (time, place, and social group) to support us in taking that time. I believe this need is common to many early-career faculty—and likely faculty at many stages of their careers!—and it is in the hope that other people can feel themselves emboldened to create the environment they need that I share my experiences.

GDR isn’t and shouldn’t be about fairness, inclusiveness, or equity. It is about you getting done what you need to in order to feel fulfilled and be successful. You wouldn’t invite just anyone to your birthday party or to a homework study session, so don’t invite just anyone to be a member of your GDR and/or GDR2. Surround yourself with positive, supportive, reliable people with compatible goals, and in return be positive, supportive, and reliable.
I look forward to hearing of your experiences, feedback, and suggestions. Good luck!

After finishing a Ph.D. in 2007 at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Sheila Miller moved to New York to accept a position at the U.S. Military Academy, where she was most recently a National Research Council Davies Fellow. She is now an assistant professor at City University of New York. The author would like to thank Erika Rogers, Ted Hill, and Brian Winkel for suggesting that others might be interested in our efforts to create the time, space, and social support to do research.

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