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Overcoming Obstacles

Overcoming Obstacles

Turning Points Series Discover nuggets of unconventional wisdom through the excerpts of student interviews with Rice University faculty. Copyright 2012 Rice University. All rights reserved. No parts of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of the School of Social Sciences at Rice University. Requests for permission should be directed to

Other books in the 2011-2012 series: Choosing Academia Finding Inspiration Fostering Curiosity Sparking Enthusiasm

Rice University School of Social Sciences

Gateway Study of Leadership TURNING POINTS

{series V | 2011 - 2012}

Overcoming Obstacles

Gateway School of Social Sciences Rice University 6100 Main Street Houston, Texas 77005-1827 U.S.A.

Turning Points Series PRODUCTION TEAM

Ipek Martinez, Director of Gateway and Turning Points Mark Seraydarian, Gateway Post Baccalaureate Fellow Kaitlin Barnes, Daniel Cohen, Neeraj Salhotra, Amol Utrankar, and Catherine Yuh, Gateway Study of Leadership Fellows Brittany Fox, Editor Vinita Israni, Graphic Designer The 2011-2012 Turning Points series is made possible from excerpts of faculty interviews conducted by the following Gateway students: GATEWAY STUDY OF LEADERSHIP LEADERS & FELLOWS:

Nadia Khalid, Joe Pullano, Mark Seraydarian. Kaitlin Barnes, Nivriti Chowdhry, Daniel Cohen, Navtej Dhaliwal, Chris Keller, Sherry Lin, David Liou, Abby Marcus, Zachary Marx-Kuo, Asia McCleary-Gaddy, Marc Sabbagh, Neeraj Salhotra, Rohini Rao Sigireddi, Amol Utrankar, Pin-Fang Wang, Catherine Yuh. GATEWAY INTERNATIONAL AMBASSADORS & SUMMER FELLOWS:

Kelsey Lau, Dylan McNally, Kelly O’Connor, Christine Pao, Emma Stockdale


The 2011-2012 Turning Points series shares excerpts from student interviews with the School of Social Sciences faculty to bring a slice of life experiences to view for the Rice University community and beyond. In the fall of 2011, the School of Social Sciences Gateway program initiated Gateway Study of Leadership (GSL), which brought three undergraduates together to organize and lead a group of sixteen student fellows in interviewing social sciences faculty and hosting distinguished guests to discover career journeys and inspiration behind research endeavors. The GSL team hosted twelve guest speakers and conducted and transcribed thirty-seven faculty interviews. They found many thought provoking life experiences and interesting stories during their candid conversations. Most interviews had an essence of a “turning point� regarding the decisions involved in attending college, selecting majors, pursuing advanced

degrees, encountering mentors, finding inspiration for research topics, and developing a refreshing new approach to handle criticism in order to build knowledge and propel ahead. The faculty shared tangible advice for current and prospective students, sparking their enthusiasm and fostering their curiosities. We gathered few excerpts from these conversations to share as the GSL Turning Points series, in five booklets titled: Choosing Academia, Finding Inspiration, Overcoming Obstacles, Fostering Curiosity, and Sparking Enthusiasm. Ipek Martinez



Anton Villado, Ph.D. Never Stop Learning


2. Ashley Leeds, Ph.D. 5 How Can I Do Better? 3.

Elaine Ecklund, Ph.D. Unique Gift



Fred Oswald, Ph.D. Follow Your Heart



Jessica Logan, Ph.D. Just Try It


6. John Ambler, Ph.D. Thick-Skinned



Justin Denney, Ph.D. Good Cast of Mentors


8. 9. 10.

Margaret Beier, Ph.D. Get Back in the Game


Melissa Marschall, Ph.D. Constructive and Productive Criticism


Mikki Hebl, Ph.D. Five Obstacles of Academics



Phillip Kortum, Ph.D. Feedback Loop



Randi Martin, Ph.D. Giving Talks



Richard Stoll, Ph.D. Making Your Case



Rick Wilson, Ph.D. You Can’t “Slide By”



Robin Sickles, Ph.D. Having a Thick Skin



Ruth Lopez Turley, Ph.D. Listen to Criticism



Ruth Lopez Turley, Ph.D. Half-Asleep, Half-Awake



Siyang Xiong, Ph.D. Research and Publication Records



Ted Temzelides, Ph.D. The Objective Answer


About the Contributors 51 Acknowledgements 59


Never Stop Learning Anton Villado, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, Psychology, Rice University

When I was less mature—I’m not going to suggest that I’m fully mature—but when I was less mature, it was hard to deal with criticism. We in the academic world (and professionals in general) have spent a lot of time preparing and studying and working on projects. And so when our work is criticized, it may be interpreted as not having done a good job, that one is not competent. When I was less mature, I took it very personally, and I responded as anyone would to an attack and fought back. I think that over the years, I’ve matured in such a way where I actually really enjoy criticism. I welcome criticism because I view my role in the academic world as putting out an idea and letting people criticize it. I’ll propose a theory or model, test it, and show you data that suggests that this theory or model is, in fact, accurate. If people criticize it, that’s great! And 1

if it stands up to critiques and alternative views after years, then maybe it’s a good model. And if it’s not around in a few years, then we’ve moved forward because we know that my whacky idea doesn’t work. So I actually welcome criticism and I like it today. I remind my students, this is one of the only opportunities they’re going to get where people are actually interested in helping them to improve. Once you leave these walls, once you leave these halls and have a job, when you fail, you’re fired. Right? And you’re replaced. But here, when you fail, we sit down and talk about it and hopefully learn from our failures. Ultimately, I hope to teach the skill of learning from your errors or mistakes. This is an extremely important skill and something that we can use to learn throughout our lives. It’s unfortunate because I see a lot of students in this time of life, during their undergraduate experience, that they come in as freshman—you’re in and you’re excited and then you’re a sophomore and you’re starting to get a feel for things, and you’re the junior—okay, now you’re chugging through, and 2

then you’re the senior and you know it all. And I think that to ever say that you know it all and that you can’t learn from others is a huge misconception, and I see that, I think, far too often in students. We just need to all realize that—even I, I need to realize that even at my stage in my career, there is a lot for me to learn, a whole lot for me to learn.




How Can I Do Better Ashley Leeds, Ph.D. Associate Professor, Political Science, Rice University

Academia is a very negative profession in many senses, and I had a lot of trouble with that from the beginning. I felt like if I sent an article out for review and got back negative reviews, my reaction would be, “Well this is obviously not any good.” First of all, I had to realize that nobody writes something great in the first draft. I remember when a senior colleague that I really respected told me he’d worked on his book for eight years—and now I think that’s a short time for a book. But at the time, I thought, “Wow,” because I was looking at these books and thinking, “I’m supposed to be able to write that this year?” I think hearing other people’s stories that I really respected about them being heavily criticized and taking a long time to get it to where they were proud of it was helpful. 5

The other thing was someone once told me that the way to think about reviews is, what did I not make clear? Why is it that they didn’t understand the value in this? How can I explain it better? And that’s been really helpful for me in thinking that if someone says this is a completely wrong-headed way, I can think, why didn’t they understand why this makes sense? Let me think how I can explain it better and can convince them. I think that’s been really helpful for me to think it’s probably my fault that they misunderstood my work and that I can probably explain it better. The other thing is being on the other side. Once you’ve done a lot of reviewing you realize the process, and it helps more.



Unique Gift Elaine Ecklund, Ph.D. Associate Professor, Sociology, Rice University

So far, the greatest challenge has been there being too many options. I’m fortunate that I work at a very good institution—I’m not saying this just to be complimentary to Rice—this really is a wonderful place to work, and I know—I have faculty colleagues at other institutions whose lives are much harder because they just don’t have the resources that we have available to faculty here. All of that said, there are just so many hours in a day. I’m asked to review eight to ten articles a month now. I’m asked to be on professional committees and that’s just service to the profession. I’m on internal Rice committees that I’m asked to be on at the department level and the university level. Then, I have all my writing, research, and teaching, and then individual student mentoring on top of classroom teaching. And I think you just have to decide—what am I really good 7

at? What will hurt if I don’t show up? What is my unique gift? And what could someone else do just as well or better that I do not need to be involved in? I think sometimes that if I take on too much then I’m taking away opportunities from other people. You have to figure out your vision for your career.



Follow Your Heart Fred Oswald, Ph.D. Professor, Psychology, Rice University

I serve as a Divisional Advisor at Wiess College, so I get a lot of questions about career issues and what they should do to prepare for their career in terms of courses. And naturally—especially in this economy—there’s reason to be a little anxious about these things. My advice is for students to follow their heart because I don’t doubt in students’ ability here at this university, and neither should they. I have every confidence in it. What I feel like when I teach an undergraduate course, sometimes I feel like I’m just cheering students on their mad sprint down the road to their own success. They’re just soaking up knowledge that I’m giving and even a lot of knowledge that I’m not giving. I’m saying this because—even though I feel that I do a very competent job at teaching undergraduate statistics— at some level a student of the caliber found at Rice 9

could be put in any environment and would be very successful in any subject on the basis of their ability. On the other hand, I think a lot of misfit occurs when students are not following their own preferences, their own heart, when it comes to what intellectual and personal experiences are going to make them satisfied in the long term. There can be parental pressures—that I don’t deny the real and perceived pressures—but try to make yourself and your own development a priority, I guess I would say. Believe in your potential, because it’s pretty evident to others. That’s some basic advice I’d give. Challenges include things like, what direction do I want to take with my research? That can be a challenge on multiple fronts—one, you want research that your grad students can get involved in. So I have research that is separate from them that I just do on my own or with other colleagues. Then there’s the question of what research is fundable by granting agencies, which may overlap but not entirely align with the research of graduate students and colleagues. And what research am I doing that is going to be the most impactful in the long-term, 10

or what you might call “big research” or “big ideas.” Again, that sort of research may or may not align with current funding opportunities; it may or may not align with what you’re doing with grad students. So there’s sort of a balancing act there that’s a real challenge and a real enjoyment. And again, as a professor, those challenges don’t stop—they’re interesting, they’re good challenges, but if you’re not mindful of it you can kind of get pulled back and forth between these domains. There’s no boss except yourself to structure your day or your work for you, so you have to take a step back sometimes and address these challenges.




Just Try It Jessica Logan, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, Psychology, Rice University

I didn’t even consider this as a career until I was pretty late in my undergraduate career. I wanted to be a lot of things when I was a kid, and they were all pretty nerdy now that I think about it. I didn’t really want to be a ballerina or an actress. The earliest thing I remember wanting to be was a meteorologist. I wanted to study weather. Then I wanted to be an astronomer and my dad bought me a telescope. I thought it was all about looking at stars. I wanted to be a geologist for a while. Anything that ended with “ologist,” I wanted to be it. I always did really well in school. That was kind of my thing. At some point I was in an honors math class, and it was not easy for me. I was used to doing well in classes. I remember I got an 89, and I freaked out 13

and thought, “Wow, I can’t do this!” In seventh grade, I decided I couldn’t do science and math, but I really liked it! I remember going to academic counseling in high school, and I thought, “I can’t be a scientist.” Then I wanted to be a computer crimes lawyer. I wanted to be all these really nerdy things. Then I thought I might want to be in government. I had a little bit of experience working in government, and I thought, “No way do I want to be in government!” When I entered UT, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I had really good test scores and a good GPA, so I went to UT Austin. I entered as a business honors student because that was the hardest program to get into at UT besides engineering, and I knew I couldn’t do engineering because I couldn’t do math or science. At some point, I took an Intro Psychology correspondence course through a community college. I remember reading in chapter one or two about cognitive science. It was this combination of things like computers, language, the brain, philosophy, and I thought, “How do I do that? How do I major in that?” I went to the psychology department and said, “Who do I learn more about this from?” I remember my business 14

friends at the time, when we were registering for classes and I wanted to register for things like Linguistics 101 and all of these psychology classes, they said, “You don’t need that much social science!” But I thought, “Oh man! This is what I need to take!” I met with some psychology professors, though I had no background in psychology whatsoever besides this correspondence course. This professor normally didn’t take people into her lab unless they had research methods and stats and a course from her in cognitive psychology, and I didn’t even have that background. I said, “I don’t care! I’ll sit in your lab and staple papers. I just want some experience in this.” She took a chance on me, and I ended up running some subjects for her. Around that same time, the real thing that made me study psychology was a car crash between my freshman and sophomore years, while coming home from work at the Gallup Poll. It scared the daylights out of me because it was bad. I remember coming home and saying to my parents, “I’m changing my major to psychology.” They said, “Okay, whatever.” My parents didn’t care at all what I majored in. I think they thought it was good if I could get a good job, so business was 15

a way to get a good job. In fact, I ended up double majoring in Psychology and Linguistics. After that, I started working in Dr. Spellman’s lab for credit, and eventually I did my honors thesis and got my first publication with her. She was a fantastic mentor, and there were a lot of times when she’d say, “You know, you should apply for this summer program.” I’d say, “Oh my gosh, I can’t get into that.” She’d say, “Well, you’re definitely not going to get in if you don’t apply, so why don’t you apply? Maybe there’s a chance. If you don’t get in, nothing’s changed, big deal.” That was her attitude when I applied for an undergraduate grant at UT—“Just try it. Who knows, you might get something.” And I did! Every time I did that, I got the grant, and I got into the summer program. I think having her mentorship, as somebody who didn’t really know what she was doing, helped shape my career choices. I was also a peer counselor at the career center on campus, and I realized that being an expert was something that was really important for me. I really wanted to know something really deeply. That’s how I started to settle on, “I’m going to graduate school.” I knew I wanted an advanced degree from there. 16


Thick-Skinned John Ambler, Ph.D. Professor, Political Science, Rice University

In my early work, I rarely got sharp criticism. My first book was pretty well reviewed. The strongest criticism I’ve ever had to anything I’ve written was on an article on school choice that was based on the European experience suggesting that one of the disadvantages of school choice was that wealthier, better-educated people tend to take better advantage and use it sometime to increase the gap between the wealthy and the poor. I sent this article to a journal and I got two reviews back. One of them said, “Wonderful article, publish.” The other one said, “This person obviously doesn’t know that the market solves all problems and that we should allow free choice in order to increase equality.” I revised it, sent it back, and I got two more reviews. One of them said, “A good article, publish it as is,” and the other said, “This person doesn’t understand that 17

the market solves all problems.� And what I was getting into was ideological debate on government control as opposed to markets. The editor decided to publish it, but I realized as you get more and more into policy problems that are highly political in this country, you’re going to get criticism. So you have to have a fairly thick skin, I guess if you’re in a policy area where there are very powerful ideological divides.



Good Cast of Mentors Justin Denney, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, Sociology, Rice University

I think that if I were to talk about anything that I’ve done or any place that I have gotten to it’s because of a long line of people and mentors that have helped me get here and that certainly started with my family and with my parents and with my wife who consistently provided the support and said you can do any of these things, you can pursue these things if these are what interests you. But then as an undergraduate I went to a very small liberal arts college, the sociology department was one professor, and he happened to be a wonderful person who also was very motivating and inspiring and was very supportive of me. The mentors who have shaped who I am today and what I am interested in today were in graduate school, and there are a number of them. I guess they saw potential in a very raw form and really encouraged me to challenge myself 19

intellectually more so than I had ever done before. I think that’s at the heart of any really good graduate school experience—is that challenge beyond what you think you can handle, and you grow leaps and bound. And I knew that I had a good cast of mentors to assist me when I ran into problems, to assist me when I couldn’t get over a particular hurdle of some kind, and that’s just what they did, they were there to assist me doing that—not to provide me the path but to provide options and to stimulate me to think about things in very different ways and to try to come up with solutions to them. In graduate school I had a core set of mentors throughout my experience that were extremely influential in me making progress in the program and I guess in getting here.



Get Back in the Game Margaret Beier, Ph.D. Associate Professor, Psychology, Rice University

The transition from the business world into academia was huge. I had a house, and I was making a lot of money. By the time I quit I was running my own business. When I was at the company in Minneapolis, I was a manager. I was managing the usability lab there, and I was making a lot of money. I just decided as I was headed towards 30 that I needed to take control of what I wanted instead of just letting life happen. That’s when I decided I wanted to go back to school. And my husband and I sold our house, and we moved. We went down to Georgia Tech, and we were always from the North. I went to school in the Northeast. And we had never been to the South before. We just decided that we were going to make some changes. And it was a huge adjustment. 21

A lot of graduate students will complain about the work in graduate school. Since I had worked for so long, the adjustment wasn’t that. It was about being in an academic environment, understanding what’s valued there different from what is valued in the business world. How to communicate. Having to write paragraphs versus bullet points for example was difficult. I think in some ways I have been blessed by having a personality where I don’t take a lot of things too personally. I think that has really helped me. I think in graduate school, especially, you have to learn to accept criticism and feedback. A lot of this job is different from corporate America. In corporate America, when somebody reads a memo that you wrote, and they don’t like it, they just throw it away. They don’t tell you. You don’t get feedback. People just won’t hire you or they won’t ask you to be on their project anymore. But it doesn’t impact you the way direct feedback does. In academia, we submit papers for publication. 22

People tell us what’s wrong with them. People critique our talks. You’re constantly being evaluated. If you’re somebody who doesn’t develop an approach to feedback where you welcome it—because basically the common denominator is you—you have to be willing to do that in this business. Having thick skin is really helpful. And then I married a coach—my husband is a high school teacher and a coach. Every time I would go home and complain he would just tell me to get back in the game. But it was great. It was a very conscientious choice for me. So whenever I would complain about it my husband would just say, “Get back in there. We sold a house for this.” So I was very motivated because I had really given up a lot to make it worth it. To do well.




Constructive and Productive Criticism Melissa Marschall, Ph.D. Associate Professor, Political Science, Rice University

I think for me it was maybe not as hard as it might have been for others. Being an athlete, I grew up in a very competitive environment. And being a tennis player, in particular, which is a sport that requires a lot of mental toughness, you’re just out there by yourself. You don’t have a coach, you don’t have any other players, so you know every match is a test. You win, you lose. You failed or you didn’t fail. You learn to develop your own criticism of yourself and so you can take other people’s criticism better or with a grain of salt. Like, “I know I’m better than that, and it’s not going to get me down.” Of course no one likes being rejected. But you know, I think it is partly discerning what’s constructive and productive criticism and taking that as opposed to what else is just fluff. 25



Five Obstacles of Academics Mikki Hebl, Ph.D. Professor, Psychology, Rice University

There are a lot of obstacles in academics.


it’s the letting go of great students who become surrogate kids. It can be really hard when you’ve taught graduate students who are in their fourth or fifth year, and they’re outstanding. You’ve trained them and really helped them grow, and as soon as they are just ready to be incredibly helpful colleagues, they’ve fully grown their wings and fly off, and you have to start again. You start with people who are back in that initial state of, “I don’t know what I’m doing here in graduate school. I don’t really know how to write a scientific paper. I don’t know how to do this or that.” And after a while, it’s a little tiresome. It’s a bit like Groundhog Day movie—here we go again at square one! Second, another major obstacle comes from within— 27

I’m too spread out and overinvolved. I made a list of the research projects I have going on, and I have 48 of them. That’s way too many since it involves all of them in all different stages, from idea generation to page proofs. Some of them will take years and years and years to do, but I’m way overinvolved, and sometimes I just become way over exhausted. Luckily, I do recharge. That’s what Starbucks is for, as well. And good colleagues help. Especially good colleagues who like Starbucks and can sympathize. You find out that they’ve got 49 projects going on too, or they have chapters that are three months overdue. And, you’re like, “Yeah, okay. So it’s you too, it’s not just me.” It’s not this isolating feeling. Third, a lot of times people don’t really understand academia. They’re like, “You only teach two classes, what are you doing the rest of the week?” You’re like, “Here’s my schedule, have a look.” Fourth, the tenure process is stressful, and it’s stressful to watch your colleagues go through too! You want to make sure that if you’re working this hard, you get to stay. That can be a little 28

disconcerting. I think it’s hard too—sometimes you have graduate students who you work really hard with, and they find out that graduate school wasn’t for them, and you’ve spent a lot of time with them, and it’s a little bit of a bummer when you’ve trained them so hard, and they leave. But then you realize graduate school is hard, and it’s not for everyone. Finally, I feel like academics is a lot of waves. It ebbs and flows. I go home and think, “How could I possibly get all this done?” And then I think, “I’ve always gotten it done before. I’ve got 14 years on my side, and it’s never not happened.” Or, you get nervous getting some presentation, and you selftalk your way through it. I think it’s like running marathons. It’s really daunting. It’s 26.2 miles. There are times in a marathon where I go, “Man, I’m only on mile 13, and I’ve got half way to go still.” But you go, “You know what though? I’ve done it 55 other times!” At this point in time, I’m old enough now to look back and say, “I’ve made it before.” If I look back at my past, I’ve always gotten through it. You selftalk your way through it and say, “You’ll get through this one too.” Whether it’s a phase where you’ve got 29

so much work to be done and you don’t know how you’re going to do it, or whether it’s trying to balance family and children or whether it’s running that marathon.



Feedback Loop Phillip Kortum, Ph.D. Professor-in-the-Practice, Psychology, Rice University

I think one of the best things the academic community does is it pushes you towards excellence. I think the peer review process for obtaining grant funding and for doing publications drives you to be the absolute best scientist or researcher you can be. I think that’s a feedback loop that is extremely valuable. I think sometimes you can step beyond what you thought your initial capabilities were because you’re getting all this positive feedback. And the interactions that you have with students helps you understand what’s going on in the world, in terms of what’s important. You get lots of feedback from students—“This was really valuable for me. What we did here really helped.” And so I think that reinforcement also sort of shapes you to say, “Okay, if I want to train people better, I need to become a 31

better teacher. I need to cover material that’s relevant and pertinent.” You get that feedback, and that sort of shapes you as well. I wouldn’t say I’ve had any struggles. I would just say that sometimes it’s difficult, as in all things, when you put your best foot forward, and people then criticize that work. Sometimes that’s hard to take. But I think it’s done in a way that you recognize people aren’t doing this on a personal level, that it’s all about the science, it’s all about the clarity. And so long as you step back—and that’s certainly a skill that I had to learn—and say, “I understand what they’re saying, this is not personal, and I can take what this reviewer or this granting agency has said and incorporate that.” So when I submit it back, it’ll be that much better. And not only is it better so that they can accept it, but then my audience will pick up that paper and say, “Oh, this is very clear. I understand exactly what they did.” But you do have to get used to continued criticism. That’s what the peer review process is. And so you rarely get a review back that says, “This is the greatest thing I’ve ever read, don’t make any changes.” And so you just have to get used to the fact that people are trying to help you improve your product. 32


Giving Talks Randi Martin , Ph.D. Professor, Psychology, Rice University

Giving talks has been one obstacle. I was really nervous about it in undergraduate school. I remember it was a huge thing to give a class presentation. They were fairly big-sized classes most of the time and so there wasn’t a lot of time for individual presentations. When I was in graduate school, we didn’t do a lot of presentations there, either. We would give presentations to our own lab group, but that would be five or six people. The first real practice I had at giving an academic lecture was when I was about to go to my first job interview and so I gave a talk to the department at Hopkins with 30 or so people who were in different areas of other departments. I remember my knee was shaking. I hadn’t really done this before I got a lot of feedback indicating that I had covered way too much and went way too fast. Then while giving interviews, I 33

got a lot better, across seven interviews. I got better at doing this just from experience.



Making Your Case Richard Stoll, Ph.D. Professor, Political Science, Rice University

One of the things I do in the political science department is run a course that’s really just a weekly meeting that all of the teaching assistants in the department attend. A lot of what we do is talk about how their classes are going. But I also try to talk about a series of issues that you don’t have to worry about as a TA. As a TA, your primary focus is on leading discussion in the classroom. And that’s not trivial; it’s important. If you teach for me, you also help make up the exams, and you do most of the grading. But you don’t have to worry about the rest of the structure of the course. When you start teaching, I think that’s great because you can focus on a small set of important things. But when you do your own courses, you have to be concerned about a number of additional things. So what I try to do is acquaint the TAs with some of the broader 35

issues that they have to deal with when they run their own courses. One of the things I emphasize is that in political science, most of the students in your lower or intermediate level courses may not even take another political science course, and the odds of any student in you class deciding to get a Ph.D. in political science are almost astronomical. You’re dealing with a voluntary audience, an audience that wants to be there, but what they want to understand is what is happening right now in the world. I had a TA one time who told me that in her first section she talked about the difference between dependent and independent variables and other important issues relating to conducting political science research. I told her to never do that again. That’s not why people are in that course. I do slide research findings into my lectures and try to get students to think about formulating research questions and encourage them to believe that we can do research to learn something about the real world. But I don’t tell you the r-squared for a particular piece of analysis is 0.43. Boring… I start the teaching course by telling students this: 36

figure out what four or five things you want your students to remember a number of years after they take your course. And then design the course to maximize the chances that students will remember those things. I realize this sounds incredibly obvious. But then I ask them how many courses they have had that didn’t do this. Then they realize that that this is not as easy as it sounds‌




You Can’t “Slide By” Rick Wilson, Ph.D. Professor, Political Science, Rice University

When something gets rejected, I’ll look at it, and the first thing I’ll ask is, “What didn’t I make clear?” I usually assume it’s the fault of my ability to communicate what it is that I wanted to do. Sometimes it turns out that it’s just plain wrong, so it’s time to shelve that and throw it away. But typically it’s the way in which knowledge gets transmitted. People cast judgment on what you do, and, in a sense, the best way to prepare yourself for that is to be your own best critic. Or probably your own worst critic is the best choice in writing or doing your work to anticipate what weaknesses and holes you have and try and fill those the best you can. And if you do that, you’re going to be more successful than if you just assume, “Well, hopefully they’ll let something slide by.” So I think there aren’t many Rice students who’ve taken courses from me 39

who’ve succeeded in the “I’ll just slide by” strategy. They learn very quickly that that’s not going to work. And I think that’s a standard that you should hold for yourself as well as for your students.



Having a Thick Skin Robin Sickles, Ph.D. Professor, Economics, Rice University

I responded horribly to criticism; you know, it is not fun to be told that what you’ve written is not interesting or worse. You just have to have a thick skin. There is absolutely no way that I could have had this career if I actually believed what people had written about my work, but it took time to learn that. I remember when I got grants turned down. I’d get on the beltway and drive around a couple times. When I’d get papers rejected, I would be in a serious funk. I’d look at the cover letter, and I would see rejected, and I wouldn’t look at it for a month. Because I couldn’t, I remember it got so bad that I couldn’t stand to look at the journals sometimes since the people I had been competing with had published a particular paper on a topic I had written a paper on that had not be accepted. It’s a terrible 41

thing to admit but we all go through that. It’s just a process of getting confidence in what you do. I have published over a hundred articles. I’ve got books and a variety of things I’m doing the profession. I am an editor of a journal. I am on editorial boards of others. These things have a way of sorting themselves out over time. But early on, it was not easy. I remember early on being at a conference as a discussant of a paper. The people giving papers and discussing them were a very high-end group of accomplished academics. I thought I had done such a horrible job as a discussant that my professional career was over (I was 26). I finally got the nerve up to ask somebody about the job I had done and he said, “You did just fine, we just couldn’t hear you real well from the back.” You lose perspective sometimes on what you are doing and how you are coming across. And that’s something else you have to learn. Some people learn it quicker than others.



Listen to Criticism Ruth Lopez Turley, Ph.D. Associate Professor, Sociology, Rice University

What would I say I’ve most improved at? Taking criticism. That’s a big one. For me, it used to be really hard to take criticism because I wanted to be perfect at everything, and it turns out the best way to get better is to really embrace that criticism. I had trouble with it at first because I would work so hard and then get slaughtered, especially in graduate school. In graduate school, you really get slaughtered. And that was very hard at first. I mean, I would cry when I would get papers back, and they would be shredded to pieces. But I eventually learned that this actually is a really good thing, and, especially now that I’m a professor myself, it’s ridiculous that I can’t believe I didn’t think of it this way as a student. But students sometimes forget to see things from the perspective of the 43

professor, and I should have been flattered that my professors spent so much time giving me feedback. It takes a long time to give someone careful and extensive feedback. Instead of being all hurt that there’s red ink all over every single page, you should see this as a really good thing. You should be flattered that they bothered to do this and listen to their suggestions. I think I really started to develop that in graduate school, and, of course, I’m still working on it when I get rejection letters from journals or something, when I try to publish something and then I get rejected. I still have that initial gut reaction, and then I take a deep breath and get over it, and I’ll listen to their criticism so that I can improve it for next time.



Half-Asleep, Half-Awake Ruth Lopez Turley, Ph.D. Associate Professor, Sociology, Rice University

When I look for creativity, I talk to a lot of people not just in academia because people in academia tend to think a certain way. When you’re looking for creativity, you need to go to outside sources. Don’t get me wrong, I think that academics are brilliant, and they’re also very useful to talk to, but I also—I know this sounds really strange—like to keep a notebook and pen in my nightstand. Because I’ve found that sometimes I wake up, especially in the early morning hours when I’m sort of in the halfasleep, half-awake stage, and I start thinking about work-related things. Usually research questions and things that I’m trying to solve. Sometimes I get the best ideas when I’m half-asleep, half-awake. I don’t know if there’s anything to it, but I’ve found that I’ve had some really interesting ideas. Like I said, it doesn’t happen often, but it has happened regularly 45

enough for me to actually keep a notebook. So I just jot things down and then I go back to sleep. And then sometimes I forget about it, and the next morning I see what I wrote down, and I’m like, “Fascinating!” And then I end up pursuing that.



Research and Publication Records Siyang Xiong, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, Economics, Rice University

One struggle I’m facing is that the research I’m working on is very specialized. Not many people can really understand what I’m doing. Only a small group can understand. For those who do not truly understand my research, when they judge me, it is only by my publication records. Then I have a tradeoff. Should I maximize my publication records or should I just enjoy my research and do the research that is the most interesting to me? Sometimes they match, sometimes they are different. So what should I do? I don’t know. I am facing this struggle. But I read an article by a Nobel Prize laureate, Eric Maskin. He said that you should not consider how people judge your publication records. You should do the research that is most interesting to you. If you do interesting research according to your standards, 47

then your research will eventually be appreciated by other people.



The Objective Answer Ted Temzelides, Ph.D. Professor, Economics, Rice University

Sometimes research that comes out in economics does not directly feed the intuition and the opinion of the majority of people outside academia. For example, there are large groups of people in the U.S. who would like to see research in renewable energy, would like to see renewable energies being very heavily subsidized, and who have argued that renewable energy subsidies are the only thing that stands between where we are now and having a renewable energy-driven economy takeover. My research does not support this. My research says that there is a place for subsidies when it comes to renewable energy, but also that these technologies need time to mature. Before that time passes, we’re not going to see as wide use of renewable energy as much as the majority of people would like. In particular, for the U.S., my research shows that 49

while renewable energy will be an increasing part of energy production, what will really take off in the short run will be natural gas. We’ll see natural gas be the transition fuel from a mainly coal and oil energydriven economy to a renewable regime, which will probably take place at least twenty years from now, if not later. We’ve viewed a lot of our energy needs coming from natural gas, with a good implication that this might give us energy independence, since there are a lot of natural gas deposits in the U.S. Certainly, this conclusion is not to everybody’s liking. When I do research, I go there with an open mind. I’m not looking for a conclusion. If I have any priors, I leave them aside, and I only use the tools of economics to try to find the answer—the objective answer. Whether I like the answer or not, that’s what it is.



John Ambler is a Professor of Political Science. He has published a number of books and articles on French politics in comparative perspective. His recent work has focused on comparative social and education policy in Western Europe. In both 1994 and 2002, Dr. Ambler was recognized for his outstanding teaching with the George R. Brown Prize for Excellence in Teaching. Alumni have also chosen Dr. Ambler for the George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching four times. Dr. Ambler earned a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley. Margaret Beier is an Associate Professor of Psychology. Her research interests broadly focus on adult intellectual development, working memory, domain specific knowledge, gender differences in cognition, and predicting success for adults in organizations and educational settings. Dr. Beier’s work includes examining the role of cognitive ability, personality traits, and demographic factors in learning. She earned a Ph.D. in industrial/ organizational psychology from the Georgia Institute of Technology. Justin Denney is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Associate Director of the Urban Health Program within the Kinder Institute of Urban Research. As a health researcher with sociological and demographic training, he is principally interested in identifying individual and structural conditions that jointly contribute to health and mortality inequalities. His publications have focused on both domestic and international settings and have


addressed topics such as the effects of family formations on individual suicide risks, neighborhood contributors to obesity, and the effects of nation-level social and economic development on socioeconomic gaps in unhealthy behaviors such as cigarette smoking. Dr. Denney is currently involved in multiple projects aimed broadly at clarifying the effects of context on individual health and mortality prospects and hopes his work can inform public policy and ultimately lead to healthier populations. Elaine Howard Ecklund is an Associate Professor of Sociology, the director of the Religion and Public Life Program in the Social Sciences Research Institute, and a Rice Scholar at the Baker Institute for Public Policy. She is interested in how individuals develop cognitive schema—ways of interpreting the world—that are at odds with institutions that constrain them. She then examines how individuals use such frameworks to bring changes to these larger institutions. Her research addresses this theoretical topic in the areas of religion, immigration, science, and civic life. Ecklund is currently directing an international research project on Religion among Academic Scientists in International Context (RASIC). Her most recent book is Science Vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think (Oxford University Press, 2010). Mikki Hebl is a Professor of Psychology. She is an applied psychologist who is part of the industrial/organizational program at Rice University. Her research focuses on issues related to diversity and discrimination. She is particularly interested in examining subtle ways in which discrimination is displayed and how such displays might be remediated by individuals and/or organizations. Research in the Hebl Lab focuses on issues related to identifying,


understanding, and remediating discrimination. She blends a social, interpersonal with an organizational perspective to investigate discrimination. Dr. Hebl has earned numerous teaching awards throughout her career, including the George R. Brown Prize for Excellence in Teaching in 2003. Phillip Kortum is a Professor-in-the-Practice and Faculty Fellow of Psychology. His research is focused on the development of user-centric systems in both the visual (web design, equipment design, and image compression) and auditory (telephony operations and interactive voice response systems) domains. For the last twenty years, he has studied hands-on human factors in the telecommunications and defense industry. This work was performed across a wide variety of human interfaces, from telephones and television set-top boxes to assembly aids and jigs. Dr. Kortum earned a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Ashley Leeds is an Associate Professor of Political Science. She specializes in the study of international relations and particularly in the design and influence of cooperative agreements and international institutions. Much of her recent research has focused on the politics of military alliances. Dr. Leeds’ recent articles have appeared in American Journal of Political Science, Journal of Politics, International Organization, Journal of Peace Research, and International Interactions. In 2008, Dr. Leeds was the recipient of the Karl Deutsch award, which is awarded annually by the International Studies Association to a scholar in IR under age 40 who is judged to have made, through a body of publications, the most significant contribution to the study of International


Relations and Peace Research. Jessica Logan is an Assistant Professor of Psychology. Her research interests integrate both behavioral and neuroimaging (fMRI) techniques to explore episodic memory formation and retrieval in healthy younger and older adults. In manipulations of memory formation (encoding) and retrieval, she has used a variety of materials (word fragment completion, paired associates, facename pairs, and foreign language vocabulary words) to explore how basic principles of cognition can be applied to improving learning and retention in younger and older adults. Dr. Logan earned a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Washington University in St. Louis. Ruth Lopez Turley is an Associate Professor of Sociology. Her research focuses on educational inequality in the U.S., with the aim of closing socioeconomic gaps in achievement and attainment. Her work includes the study of the transition from high school to college, college expectations, the Hispanic-White college application gap, college proximity, parents’ contributions to college costs, living on campus during college, K-12 educational outcomes of immigrant youth, the evidence-based school interventions movement, student mobility, and relations of trust among parents and school personnel (social capital). Dr. Turley currently serves as the director of the Houston Education Research Consortium. Melissa Marschall is the Albert Thomas Associate Professor of Political Science. Her research focuses on local politics, educational policy, participation, and issues of race and ethnicity. Her book, Choosing Schools: Consumer Choice and the Quality of American Schools


(Princeton University Press - coauthored with Mark Schneider and Paul Teske) was recipient of the Policy Studies Association Aaron Wildavsky Award for the Best Policy Book in 2000-2001. She is currently working on a project investigating immigrant parent involvement in schools, communities and politics (with Katharine Donato, Professor of Sociology at Vanderbilt University), which is funded by The National Science and Russell Sage Foundations, as well as Vanderbilt’s Center for Nashville Studies. She is also continuing work on a largescale study of minority incorporation in local politics. Randi Martin is the Elma Schneider Professor of Psychology. Her research focuses on the cognitive mechanisms involved in language comprehension and production in people with brain damage as well as in people with healthy brains. A long-standing research interest in her lab is the relation between short-term memory and language processing. Dr. Martin also studies speech production and the processes involved in word, phrase, and sentence production. She conducts research on the structure of reading and writing systems as well, examining patients with different types of reading disorders to test models of reading. She currently serves as Editor-in-Chief for the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. Dr. Martin earned a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. Fred Oswald is a Professor of Psychology. His substantive research focuses on personnel selection issues in psychology, particularly the issues of (a) understanding and predicting multiple dimensions of job performance and (b) improving the conceptualization and application of person-job fit. His work provides important contributions


to personnel selection in both academic and employment settings. His most recent research contributes to understanding and predicting multiple dimensions of job and academic performance. Another area of his research contributions is in advancing the conceptualization and application of person-job fit. Dr. Oswald earned a B.A. in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin and an M.A. and Ph.D. in industrial/organizational psychology from the University of Minnesota. Robin Sickles is the Reginald Henry Hargrove Professor of Economics. In his consulting practice he has focused on complex damage assessment, intellectual property, product markets and market structures, collusive behaviors, and conditions for natural monopoly in a career that spans over 30 years of consulting and litigation support. Dr. Sickles is the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Productivity Analysis, a leading economics field journal specializing in a range of applied topics including regulation and industrial organization. Past engagements by Dr. Sickles have included consulting for AT&T, the Air Transport Association, the Department of Justice, the United States Postal Service, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the United States Agency for International Development, the World Bank, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Expert testimony has been provided in a number of his cases. Dr. Sickles is a Fellow of the Journal of Econometrics and the Handbook of Economics. Richard Stoll is the Albert Thomas Chair of Political Science and Professor of Political Science. An accomplished scholar of international conflict, he has used computer simulation techniques and statistical analysis


to study topics such as arms competitions, comparative foreign policy, and political realism. Dr. Stoll recently participated in a ten university effort funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to collect data on militarized interstate disputes. Along with Devika Subramanian of Rice’s Computer Science Department, Dr. Stoll is engaged in an effort to create events data from online news sources and to predict the outbreak of serious international conflict. This research has been supported by the National Science Foundation. Ted Temzelides is a Professor of Economics, a Baker Institute Rice Scholar, and the master of Martel College at Rice University. He has consulted for the Federal Reserve as well as the European Central Bank. His research concentrates on macroeconomics and energy economics; he currently studies the effect of R&D in renewable energy sources on economic growth and the design of emissions trading mechanisms. Dr. Temzelides’ research has received funding from the National Science Foundation and has been published in some of the leading academic journals in economics, including Econometrica, the Journal of Political Economy, the American Economic Review: Papers and Proceedings, and the Journal of Monetary Economics. Dr. Temzelides regularly serves as a referee for academic journals and is on the editorial board of the journal Economic Theory. Anton Villado is an Assistant Professor of Psychology. His primary research interests involve individual and team training; the acquisition, retention, and transfer of complex skills (e.g., those used in the military and medical industry); personality; measurement of job performance; personnel selection and quantitative methods (meta-


analysis and multi-level modeling). Dr. Villado earned a B.A. in psychology from California State University at San Bernardino, an M.S. in industrial/organizational psychology from California State University at San Bernardino, and a Ph.D. in psychology from Texas A&M University. Rick Wilson is a Professor of Political Science. His research focuses on human behavior. In the past his work focused on political history and the design of political institutions, especially the U.S. Congress in the pre-Federal and early-Federal period. His current work focuses on human cooperation and conflict. Of special interest are the evolutionary, biological, and neurological foundations of human behavior. Dr. Wilson teaches courses on the U.S. Congress, Common Property Resources, Institutional Analysis and Design, Evolutionary Psychology, and Behavioral and Experimental Politics. He currently serves as Editor of the American Journal of Political Science. Siyang Xiong is an Assistant Professor of Economics. His research interests focus on microeconomic theory. His published work has appeared in the Journal of Economic Theory, Theoretical Economics, and Games and Economic Behavior. He is the recipient of the Econometric Society World Congress’s Travel Grant for Young Economists, Northwestern University’s Dissertation Year Fellowship, Northwestern University’s Distinguished Teaching Assistant Award, and the Northwestern University Graduate School Travel Grant. Dr. Xiong earned a Ph.D. from Northwestern University.



Special thanks to all Rice University School of Social Sciences faculty who made this project possible by sharing their career experiences and educational life stories with the Gateway students through one-on-one interviews. Much appreciation goes to Dean Lyn Ragsdale for her continual support, counsel and encouragement. Our heartfelt gratitude to the Gateway Associates and supporters of the Gateway programs for making projects like this possible. Many thanks also to the Turning Points team and Gateway Study of Leadership fellows for the tremendous amount of time and effort in bringing this series to life.


Overcoming Obstacles  
Overcoming Obstacles