It is a nightmare: I am at university, and I have to pass a difficult exam. It is an oral examination, for which I have prepared, but probably not enough. I am nervous. The Professor’s office is in an old building, down a long corridor. Outside the room, a few students are waiting their turn. I go sit with them. I don’t know any of them. One of the girls greets me and says something. I don’t understand her. It sounds like what she is saying is “So, how many times have you tried this one?” I mumble something about this being my first time. (And hopefully my last! But I don’t even have the courage to say that. This, I feel, is no time for being over-confident.) I go through my notes, like everybody else does. After a few minutes, the door opens and out comes The Professor. I have never seen this man before.
It’s the first week of semester 1 of our new Biomedical Sciences degree programme, and the first cohort of students have been through their first few lectures and tutorials. They are wonderful young people, bright, optimistic, maybe a bit anxious, but nonetheless ready to throw themselves into this new adventure. These days, I think a lot of what it was like for me when I was in my first year of undergraduate. And about what I was like.
Now that I have my own lab, the topic of students writing stuff comes up a lot. It seems like everybody writes to a universal time plan, which is the following: If you have n days to produce a report, or a thesis chapter, or an abstract, then do absolutely nothing for n-2 days, scramble to produce something on day n-1, send it to your supervisor and ask them to provide feedback within the next hour or so, because after all, the deadline is tomorrow! I know this time plan well, because I have followed it myself for years. But it’s not great. And while I’m at it, let me dispense some other sage writing advice …
When I was a child, my grandfather blew my mind with a bit of basic probability and statistics. If you play the lottery, he explained, you might as well just play the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Your chance of winning will be exactly the same as with any other particular combination of numbers. I was astonished and incredulous at first, but then I thought it through, and had to admit, of course, that he was right.
Now, years later, I am not so sure anymore.
It’s International Women’s Day, and like on so many other days, I have been thinking about superpowers (one of my favourite topics). In particular, about invisibility. Because it can be an awesome superpower, and it can also be devastating, and all this has a lot to do with women in science. But let me explain. Continue reading
When I was a postdoc, my university had a biology reading course for undergraduates. It was structured as a small seminar, and any postdoc or faculty member could choose a topic and lead a discussion group, provided enough students showed up. Excited, I wrote up a proposal on one of my favourite topics and handed it in. Time passed. Zero undergraduates signed up. Zero. I talked to the professor overseeing the course about possible reasons. “Maybe,” she said, “you should have chosen a sexier title.” I was astonished. How is “Computational Models in Biology and Biochemistry” not sexy enough?
Over the past weeks, I have taken an awesome MOOC called “How to survive your PhD” on EdX (thank you Simone for pointing me to this!) Of course, I did survive my own PhD a while ago, but as I am crossing over to the
dark supervisor side of things, I want to learn as much as I can about the general PhD experience and about what we can do to support our students.
Have you heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect? It’s an interesting psychological insight about how people’s actual knowledge and skill aligns with their perceived knowledge and skill.
People who are not very skilled at a particular task find it very hard to understand the level of skill needed to do that task well. As a consequence, they fail to recognise a truly skilled practitioner when they see one, and they tend to overestimate their own skill. As a people get better at a particular skill, they also get better at accurately estimating how good they are at it. This is true for a wide range of skills and knowledge areas, including grammar, logical thinking, and even humour. It was first described in a 1999 paper by Kruger and Dunning entitled Unskilled and Unaware of it.
Now, here is the problem.
Imagine the following situation. You are at a party and chat with someone you’ve just met. You start talking about what you do and what you are interested in. You say something like “I like statistics, and especially how it applies to solving biological problems.” The person you are talking to smiles brightly and then says: “Fantastic! Have you tried braiding your hair?”
“Excellent”, said an e-mail I received recently from a collaborator, “talk to you soon, Stephanie!” This happens to me a lot, in professional contexts. I have been called Stephanie by colleagues and teachers, bosses and students. I have been introduced to a full lecture theatre as Stephanie, I have been invited for job interviews as Stephanie.
I don’t like it.