Tips for Social and Psychological Researchers

4researcher.org — provides a variety of resources for researchers aimed at fostering career success.  The site promises “practical advice for working researchers.”   Created by the 3-C Institute for Social Development in Cary, North Carolina.  Worth a look!   — EdProf

Mystery of Missing Women in Science

The New York Times has published a series of articles and commentaries on the relatively small number of women and girls who pursue scientific careers.  This September 3, 2013 article offers an overview of the problem and some of its possible origins.

Mystery of the Missing Women in Science
Female students are catching up or surpassing male counterparts in math and science, yet the fields like engineering and computer science remain male dominated.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/03/science/mystery-of-the-missing-women-in-science.html?smid=pl-share

The article’s author, Natalie Angier, notes that whereas girls and boys are similar with respect to competence in math and science, boys express intent to pursue technical careers in greater numbers than do girls.  Women are attracted to, or at least wind up in education and healthcare fields, where salaries are lower than in science and engineering.  The reasons for all this are complex and not well understood.  To her credit, Angier acknowledges that understanding girls’ disinterest in technical careers requires a consideration of both psychological and contextual factors.  She observes,
In seeking to explain girls’ persistent aversion to science, researchers argue that standard surveys won’t reveal hidden impulses or negative thoughts. People may say they consider women the equals of men, but as Jo Handelsman and her colleagues at Yale University reported last year, simply substituting the name Jennifer for John lowered both men’s and women’s estimation of an aspiring scientist’s résumé.
Small details can have serious consequences. Women do worse on standardized math tests when asked to indicate their sex. When they are told men and women do equally well on such tests, their performance improves. Students show greater gains when they are taught that the mind, like a muscle, gets stronger with work, as opposed to being told that talents are fixed and you’re born either quick or slow.
Writing about “Women and the Maths Problem” in 2012, Helen Powell proposed that the explanation may lie not in the adverse effects of “stereotype threat,” but in the fact that girls think that mathematics is boring.
New York based author Emma Keller provided a blog post on “Gender and Science: Why the Gender Gap Persists and What to Do About It”  that provides some suggestions for those who want to help their daughters develop and maintain their enthusiasm for mathematics and science.

Women and Leadership: The Quest for Self-Confidence

A New York Times article last fall reported on the persistence of gender bias in the sciences.  A byproduct of differential experiences in the sciences is that they may undermine women’s confidence.  As a consequence, women in the sciences may be less likely to pursue opportunities for advancement within their institutions.  (see Bias Persists for Women of Science, a Study Finds)

In the widely read Lean In: Women, work and the will to lead, Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg (2013) discussed the challenges women face as they strive to “sit at the table” — play leadership roles in complex organizations.  In Chapter 2, she noted that “even now, I am a long way from mastering the art of feeling confident” (p. 37).  She concluded the chapter with the following observations:

No one accomplishes anything all alone.

But I also know that in order to continue to grow and challenge myself, I have to believe in my own abilities.  I still face situations that I fear are beyond my capabilities.  I still have days when I feel like a fraud.  And I still sometimes find myself spoken over and discounted while men sitting next to me are not.  But now I know how to take a deep breath and keep my hand up.  I have learned to sit at the table. (p. 38)

Sandberg’s book offered a host of documented examples of the barriers women still face today as they attempt to climb up the corporate ladder (or jungle gym, her more useful metaphor!).  I think the popularity of the book highlights a perceived recognition that many of us long for words of advice and encouragement, along with fresh new images of women as leaders.

Another recent New York Times article spotlighted Elizabeth H. Blackburn who, with Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak, won the 2009 Nobel Prize for ground-breaking work on telomeres (see Charting Her Own Course).  Her recent work promises to shed important light not only on the relationship between stress, DNA and mortality, but to offer potentially very powerful biomedical applications that could transform the practice of medicine.  She clearly has earned a “seat at the table” as a scientist.  With respect to the theme of “confidence,” the following quote from Blackburn warrants attention.  Describing her more recent interdisciplinary research activities beyond the laboratory, she stated

I would have been a little afraid to do things, because my male colleagues wouldn’t have taken me seriously as a molecular biologist…[But now] Being senior enough in the field, having enough solidity, I don’t feel afraid of being marginalized” (2013, D6)

One wonders how many very capable women have not been able to pursue new directions in their work, given the long road many face to achieve seniority and therefore security (and perhaps “self-confidence”) in their fields.

In a related vein:  At my own institution, a new group — the Women’s Faculty Caucus — has formed to discuss issues of particular concern to faculty women.  This lively group has organized several business meetings and social gatherings.  Similar groups meet at other institutions.  This might be a good day to see what resources are available in your own organization.  Just as bias, isolation and marginalization erode self-confidence, collaboration with like-minded others has the potential to strengthen it. – EdProf

References

New York Times, September 24, 2012

Bias Persists for Women of Science, a Study Finds

Science professors at American universities widely regard female undergraduates as less competent than students with the same accomplishments and skills, a new study by researchers at Yale concluded.

New York Times, April 9, 2013

Charting Her Own Course

A Nobel-winning molecular biologist explores the connections of emotional stress, health and DNA.

Sandberg, Sheryl (2013). Lean In: Women, work and the will to lead.  New York: Alfred Knopf (written with Nel Scovell).

Further reading

Maitlin, M. W. (2012). The psychology of women.  Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.  [See pages 164 – 168 for a straightforward discussion of gender differences in self-confidence.  Recommended readings cited on page 171.]

The Heart Grows Smarter

In “The Heart Grows Smarter,” David Brooks describes  the Grant Study — a longitudinal study begun in 1938 at Harvard that followed participants for decades.  George Vaillant’s recent Trimphs of Experience tells the story of this impressive scholarly achievement.  Lifespan development research in action!

The Heart Grows Smarter – NYTimes.com

Further Reading

Vaillant, George (2012) Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study.  Belknap Press of Harvard.

Formal-Operational vs. Post-Formal Thinking: Brains Grow Up

Here is a reblogged essay from the Classroom as Microcosm Blog written by irrepressible and indomitable college teacher, “Siobhan Curious.”   It explores one aspect of early adult development: the growth of postformal thought.

Formal-Operational vs. Post-Formal Thinking: Brains Grow Up « Classroom as Microcosm.

I have written about emerging adulthood (and academic versus authentic writing) in another post.  If you are looking for additional reading on this topic, scroll down to references at the end of my first “Diary of an Ed Prof” essay.   — Ed Prof

Journalists on the Edge of Truth – NYTimes.com

In this re-blogged post (8/19/12), David Carr offers a number of interesting observations on pressures facing journalists.  I was especially struck by his observations on changes in the nature of professional socialization in journalism.  He notes a shift from how journalists who came up the ranks by working in old media (“legacy media”) to a new situation in which media stars rise to prominence without the requisite experiences necessary to foster conformity to conventionally understood professional ideals.   I wonder if there are not parallel problems in other fields as well?   — EdProf

Journalists on the Edge of Truth – NYTimes.com.

The Psychological Contract

In 1952, Rutgers University Professor Selman Waksman won the Nobel Prize for developing Streptomycin, a powerful antibiotic that cured tuberculosis.  His 23-year old graduate student, Albert Schatz, claimed to have been the first to isolate the bacterium that produced this drug in August, 1943.  Schatz and Waksman applied for a patent, but the royalties all went to Waksman.  Schatz sued and won a share of the royalties, but Waksman never acknowledged the part he played in the discovery.   Waksman had a distinguished career until his death in 1973.  Twenty years later, and fifty years after the discovery of Streptoymycin, Schatz published the second of two articles describing his role in the discovery (Schatz, 1993). This year, Schatz’ claim was confirmed by the discovery of his detailed 1943 lab notes in a box of Waksman’s papers (Pringle, 2012). The notes show that Schatz was the first to isolate the bacterium.

From a professional studies point of view, this story provides rich terrain for analysis.   It is a reminder that professional communities, while said to be self-policing, are not always or perhaps ever what novices imagine them to be. The disparity between students’ idealism and reality constitutes  a violation of the psychological contract implicit in the relationship between student and mentor as it is enacted within the structure of the research university.  When institutions violate the psychological contract, those who work within them experience adverse psychological effects.  This is not by any means limited to universities and science laboratories, but a more general phenomenon experienced by teachers, physicians, nurses, social workers, professors, and others who find themselves grappling with shifting institutional priorities, ominous new power structures, and heartbreaking barriers to best practice.  What this suggests to me is that those who train professionals need to try to understand students’ images of professional life and conceptions about the field as a whole.  They also need to be reflexive — able to model honest self-appraisal, self-criticism, awareness of the field’s potentially problematic effects, weaknesses and shortcomings, as well as its achievements and technical demands.  There is a vital role for the humanities and the social sciences in this enterprise.

To return to the case at hand, the “system” (and the individual scientists working within it) produced a great societal benefit, yet also permitted, and may have promoted, inequity and injustice.  And it is noteworthy that all this contention emerged concurrent with what one journalist described as “the birth of big Pharma.”  Today, scientific discoveries are made by large, complex groups of people, yet when we teach about science, we still employ a curriculum that spotlights the work of “heroic” individual scientists who are the stars of the scientific show — immortal symbols of the quest for understanding.  The media promote public conceptions of the solitary, successful, charismatic scientist (and teacher, and physician…) that no longer align well with professional life as most of us ordinary beings experience it.

Recognition remains the gold standard in the political economy of academic life — publications, citations,  grants, prizes, awards, tweets, followers!  Schatz never gave up his quest for recognition.  And as the “op ed” letter below suggests, Wacksman was a well regarded teacher and scientist who attended to the needs of the next generation (Erikson, 1950).  With respect to human lifespan development, I think this story demonstrates how scholarly priorities can change through the life course. In particular, the interests of senior scholars may move away from concerted efforts to acquire yet more intellectual knowledge toward articulation and reinterpretation of one’s life and its meaning.

Sources and Further Reading

Conway, N. & Briner, R. (2006). Understanding Psychological Contracts at Work: A Critical Evaluation of Theory and Research. Oxford University.

Erikson, E. (1950). Eight Stages of Man (Chapter 7), Childhood and Society, New York: W.W. Norton.

Forbes, P.  (2012).Experiment Eleven: Deceit and Betrayal in the Discovery of the Cure for Tuberculosis by Peter Pringle – review . The Guardian, June 29.

Pringle, P. (2012). Notebooks Shed Light on and Antibiotic’s Contested Discovery. New York Times, June 11.

Rousseau, Denise M. (1996). Psychological Contracts in Organizations: Understanding Written and Unwritten Agreements. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Schatz, A. (1993). The true story of the discovery of Streptomycin.  Actinomycetes, Vol. IV, Part 2: 27-39