Queer Peer Review

March 21, 2014

Dear Colleague, Dear Mentee:

What’s in a Queer Peer Review?

Over the course of my career, there are many things I learned the hard way.  Herein, I hope to spare you some of the grueling lessons I learned by trial and error. 

Identity Disclosure

Dear Colleague: I am a multidisciplinary research scientist and educator, and I enjoy bringing my whole self to work. In terms of productivity, my output level is self-driven, but it positively correlates with both my excitement and my investment in research. In addition, my collaborative nature is exponentially proportional to my institutional pride. Thus, you will find that I am more valuable and successful when I feel safe and comfortable. Oh, and by the way, I'm a gay, white, cisgender male person (born male and currently identify as the same), but if given the opportunity, I would really prefer to identify as queer on your institutional surveys. (Please consider me a resource if you elect to revise surveys.) Finally, knowing that my trans mentees and colleagues are equally safe and comfortable also boosts my productivity. A sincere thank-you for permitting this disclosure, so that I may focus on research and funding. And, of course, I invite you to continue reading.

Ins and Outs of Academic Processes

During my final days as a doctoral candidate, while I was approaching committee members to sign my dissertation, a colleague told me a “secret”: Getting a Ph.D. is like being handed your "Old Boys Club" card. (Of course, this depicts a network of elite colleagues who proudly select and cultivate the brightest students to one day fill the ranks.) At once, I was both relieved and terrified; this affirmed how I felt during my seven grueling years as a graduate student, but it also begged a few questions.  

Who designed the process of awarding doctorates? Do they know it is multivariately oppressive? Does this process repeat? My instinct tells me that the "Old Boys Club" might balk at the first two questions and respond to the third with: Does it matter? (Gasp.)

Practically speaking, none of these questions matter during your publication, grant, or tenure reviews. We want to believe that, in most cases, scholarly communities participate in practices that produce good research, independent of the biases that peers might associate with someone's identity(ies). For publications, peer review is intended to evaluate the accuracy and value of your work. For grants, committees review a number of proposals and evaluate which are most valuable and achievable, also considering your proven skills and resources. For the tenure process, I am told that department committees are assembled to decide your value to the department, university, and the discipline.

Consider a few additional aspects of these review processes: (1) not all of your reviewers will be proficient in your field; (2) not all reviewers will fully read your publications/proposals; (3) the peer review of publications is not always blinded; (4) the winning grants will usually showcase a plethora of completed studies; and (5) your past successes (reputation and credibility) will help you to garner more funding. It may also be useful to highlight the criteria used by promotion and tenure units (PTUs), which traditionally involve a workload assignment of something like 40 percent teaching, 40 percent research, and 20 percent service (with research counting much more at research universities and much less at teaching institutions); in this case, service is recognized if it is involves college and university committees, local/regional/national governmental bodies, or academic contributions to the local community.

Oh yes, and one final thing. In many institutions, the tenure process hinges primarily on a department vote.

That's right, a vote by your colleagues carries the most weight for your pursuit of tenure. If the previous list didn't grab your attention, then I hope this one did, because you cannot advance in your field if your colleagues do not like you. In fact, every peer review process ends in a formal or informal vote.  Given this inextricable reliance on variable standards, it would seem that the most important things for early career academics might be (1) effective socialization as well as (2) mentorship and guidance in your career. How else will you empower yourself to maneuver your university and discipline infrastructure? Clearly, if you have successful faculty on your side who are directing your development, then you are more likely to be successful with each review process. And it follows, then, that simply by following the established and expected norms, academics both construct and preserve institutional bias, such that they will always vote for colleagues they find agreeable.

By the way, I should qualify this – I have yet to endure a tenure review, but I anticipate it may be a more rigorous version of the Ph.D. process.

Strategizing: Academia, Activism, and Service that "Counts"

Given the intrinsic institutional biases of peer review processes, I would be irresponsible if I did not offer advice for managing identities, activism, and service within the academic landscape. Unfortunately, these appear to be specific to each discipline, career level, and institution, much like the frequency with which you should publish.

Career reconnaissance. Whether you are seeking a job or pursuing a career, you should first identify an institution you will enjoy. I will assume that you want to enjoy safety and comfort, so you should choose an institution that elects for your safety and comfort. Before interviewing, review the institution's equal employment opportunity and nondiscrimination statements. Prior to the interview, learn about the mechanisms and the history behind their partner benefit programs (sometimes called "plus-one" programs), carefully weighing what it means if the programs are open in states without marriage equity provision to same-sex partners. You might also inquire how the institutions address dual-career partner placement (frequently called "the two-body problem"). Also ask about their health care policies, learn about any financial programs for new employees, and of course, make sure that the surrounding town and county have policies that support the needs of everyone in your home.

Coming Out

(In case it needs to be said, "identities" should not normally come up in an interview process; it isn't an appropriate topic.) In the end, coming out really depends on you and your loved ones, and you should do what is most beneficial. Fortunately for me, I am most comfortable being out, and it is easy to out myself in job applications; my C.V. lists several LGBTQA publications and service positions, including a quantitative study on LGBQ STEM faculty, university service to LGBTQA communities, and my role as president of oSTEM Incorporated (www.ostem.org), a national society dedicated to educating, advocating for, and fostering leadership for LGBTQA students in the STEM fields. Considering my ongoing leadership with LGBTQA communities, it is illogical to exclude them from my C.V., and doing so would detract from my overall value as a candidate. If you feel it would not benefit you to list your social and political activities, it may help to seek advice from people you trust with longtime experience in your field of research.

Activism as Service

This is a key discussion point. If you are like me, then you are proud of your activism and the history we have changed for the better. We fought a conservative climate, we countered homophobic and heteronormative decisions, we changed both policies and laws, and we led LGBTQA organizations. Unfortunately, mentors have told me it is essential for career-seeking LGBTQA academics to separate activism from their identity. In the current academic landscape, you will note that conflict often makes people uncomfortable, as does quantum institutional transformation. This topic seems especially relevant for departments that rarely participate in difficult personal conversations. 

During interviews I recommend you stick comfortably to your relevant strengths. Advancing LGBTQA rights is essential and involves difficult community work, but it usually is not considered relevant to academic departments that are searching for someone who can garner funding and produce high-quality research. That being said, this is one reason to invest in organizations like oSTEM Incorporated, which is inherently relevant to STEM departments, in terms of its dedication to developing the LGBTQA STEM community. With this in mind, I challenge both future academics and activists alike to invent mechanisms that empower your co-curricular work with local, regional, or national LGBTQA communities. For scholar-activists who thrive in both worlds, I hope you will mentor others in the art of navigating the challenges.

Inclusion in STEM Fields

It is important to start this topic by acknowledging that heteronormative and homogenous work climates can be intrinsically unsafe to outsiders, and hosting meetings that lack diversity at the highest ranks will inherently highlight institutional biases. The majority of STEM faculty neither recognize nor value this, because it takes time and resources they could otherwise use to win grants. Thus, STEM departments do not value discussions that specifically address this topic. (Challenge to STEM departments: host discussions or forums on the multivariate impact of an inclusive academic climate.)  Mentees and students, you will quickly learn the importance of having a close mentor who provides you with the resources to succeed, imparts the ability to successfully publish and win grants, and will vie for your success. Unfortunately, there are few out LGBTQA faculty, so you may need to develop personal relationships with mentors by deliberately focusing on the few things in their lives that actually align with your own, though there are certainly exceptions to this statement. Also, as you apply for grants to advance your career and those of your peers or mentees, remember that grants are peer reviewed, and the identity of LGBTQA communities holds no value to public funding organizations. There are no data to justify that LGBTQA people are underrepresented or underserved in the STEM fields, as compared to heterosexual communities.

Service That "Counts"

Most tenure positions involve about 20 percent service. Hopefully you gleaned, or will invent, some ideas to serve LGBTQA communities while advancing your own academic career. Beyond this, I'm sure you will have no trouble finding other ways to volunteer within your discipline, such as serving with national professional societies for your discipline.

Closing the Door on Tenured Positions

If you are not interested in pursuing a tenured faculty position, then please excuse my weighted focus on them. Many who pursue careers with peer review processes oftentimes feel as though they are blindly jumping into a shark tank, so the advice helps.

Certainly, there are plenty of job opportunities throughout the academic landscape. At some point, you will know whether a tenure-track career is right for you. If you decide to close the door on tenure, then you will likely turn to a rather fulfilling role that invaluably contributes to the entire community. You will probably have more control over your free time, more freedom in pursuing activism, and you will undoubtedly have more flexibility overall. While I can only speak to the academic climate for professional employees, there is always room for climate improvement at any level, and I encourage you to pitch in, whenever you find a job that is right for you.



Eric V. Patridge is a natural products research chemist at Yale University and the president of oSTEM Incorporated.

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