Tuesday, April 08, 2014


More than 3 years ago, I wrote a post about hiring postdocs. This post seems to have been linked to a site that diverts some traffic to my ancient postdoc-post and keeps the comments coming (intermittently). The most recent comments are all negative: I am an insensitive jerk etc.

OK, maybe so. The point of the original post was to give a PI's-eye-view of the topic of hiring postdocs, and any topic related to the selection of a few and the rejection of most has a high probability of making some readers angry. Nevertheless, given limited funds for hiring postdocs, PIs must make hiring decisions. How do we do that in a situation that is not as structured as the admission of graduate students or the hiring of faculty?

Different fields have different cultures regarding postdocs: for example, regarding bread-and-butter issues such as salary and fringe benefits, the rate of success of postdocs seeking post-postdoc employment relevant to their training, and more cosmic issues related to respect and independence in their work. And even in the best of circumstances, the postdoctoral years can still be ones of anxiety and uncertainty about the future.

Anyway, here are some recent comments on that semi-ancient post, with my further thoughts on the topic:
I think you are a cheap employer that is complaining about the workforce, when the workforce is getting minimum wages to do the most likely irrelevant work that you do. You should consider yourself lucky for having a position, so don't whine about postdocs, you would be nothing without them.
Fact: A typical starting (just-out-of-PhD) postdoc funded by an NSF grant in my field and at my institution makes anywhere from about $42k to $62k per year (salary). At my institution, postdocs paid from a grant also get fringe benefits, calculated as a % of salary and paid by the PI (with indirect costs to the institution). I am not making any judgement about whether that salary is decent or abysmal; that opinion will no doubt vary considerably. I will say that this all adds up to a lot in the context of a typical (for me) grant budget.

Opinion: It is quite true that my work is irrelevant. Conveniently, the work of my postdocs is therefore also irrelevant. Nevertheless, we manage to do some interesting basic science.

Fact: I consider myself very lucky to have a position.

Opinion: I still get to whine.

Fact: Over the years, I have wasted a lot of money on unproductive postdocs. I would like to avoid that experience if at all possible (hence the original post).

Opinion: I have worked with (and am working with) some great postdocs. I consider our working relationships to be mutually beneficial.

(Excerpt) Yet many PI's .. think they're "sorting through the good and hard working postdocs". This is of course false. They are sorting through the leftovers after everyone else jumped to industry. Thus finding bad apples is more common...and really the problem with "lazy" postdocs is that you don't have enough funding to support them...not necessarily that they're crap scientists.
This opinion about "leftovers" does not apply to my field. I don't understand the point about not having enough funding to support postdocs and so that explains why some postdocs are unproductive(?). If someone accept a postdoc and the salary is not as high as the postdoc thinks it should be, does this give them license to be unproductive? Isn't that self-destructive, among other things?

You come across as a completely obnoxious, self-righteous professor. Just remember that hiring a post-doc is a two-way street. You may be judging the post-doc, but the post-doc is also judging you based on the quality of your research and your scientific acumen. Unless you are perfect in those areas, how can your expect your post-doc candidate to be perfect as well?
Of course the applicants are also judging whether they want to work with me; this is as it should be. Nevertheless, with a few exceptions (such as NSF Postdoctoral Fellows), I hire postdocs using funds that I obtained, so I do get to choose which postdoctoral aspirants I think will do well with the project, do well working in my research group, and do well developing their career.

In the time since I wrote my original post about trying to avoid unproductive postdocs, I have had similar experiences to the ones I described. For example, there was the time when an aspiring postdoc who wanted to work on an ongoing project for which I am PI assumed that one of my colleagues was the PI and explained the project to me (in person, at a conference) as if I knew little about it. Did he not even look at the project webpage? Perhaps I would have been more sympathetic if he had at least explained the research well and described an interesting way that he would contribute expertise or ideas. Alas, he did none of those things. This is not about expecting perfection; this is about expecting a certain level of knowledge, initiative, and drive.

I may be an obnoxious jerk but I do want to state here that I think it is important to be respectful, supportive (financially and otherwise), and appreciative of excellent, hard-working postdocs. I hope to be so lucky to be able to continue to do so.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Stress Test

Among the 17* surveys that I had the opportunity to take this week, there was one that involved questions apparently designed to examine how respondents deal with stress: how and whether stress affects one's life and well-being, and so on.

This particular survey was totally flawed in that the assumption of the stress-related questions was that stress is always bad. If you have stress (in your job, in this case), you are going to score low in wellbeingness.

I get that. I think, however, that there should be the possibility of considering a situation in which stress is a normal part of your job, and this is OK. Could we even entertain the possibility that it is more than OK?

Here is an example of a stress-is-always-only-bad survey question:

Select the response(s) that are relevant to how you respond to job-related stress (check all that apply):

o I have trouble sleeping
o I do not want to go to work in the morning
o I am unable to eat a healthy diet
o I am unable to get sufficient exercise
o My personal relationships are negatively affected
o I am frequently ill
o I cannot quit smoking, I binge drink, and I watch bad TV shows

I think that there should at least be an option of 'none of the above', and even better would be

o I thrive on most types of job-stress. Bring it on.

* Note: I did not take all 17 opportunities, and there weren't actually 17, it just seemed like there were a lot. That was stressful.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Ask Not?

The tale of a rescinded-offer of a faculty position, owing to an email from the woman offered the job to the department re. the terms of her offer, has been widely strewn about the internet. I will reprint the email and department/college response below in case anyone hasn't seen these, and then will give my take on the matter (joining the thousands who have already commented online elsewhere).

The apparently dangerous email:
As you know, I am very enthusiastic about the possibility of coming to Nazareth. Granting some of the following provisions would make my decision easier.

1) An increase of my starting salary to $65,000, which is more in line with what assistant professors in philosophy have been getting in the last few years.
2) An official semester of maternity leave.
3) A pre-tenure sabbatical at some point during the bottom half of my tenure clock.
4) No more than three new class preps per year for the first three years.
5) A start date of academic year 2015 so I can complete my postdoc.

I know that some of these might be easier to grant than others. Let me know what you think.
And the harsh reply:
Thank you for your email. The search committee discussed your provisions. They were also reviewed by the Dean and the VPAA. It was determined that on the whole these provisions indicate an interest in teaching at a research university and not at a college, like ours, that is both teaching and student centered. Thus, the institution has decided to withdraw its offer of employment to you.
Thank you very much for your interest in Nazareth College. We wish you the best in finding a suitable position.
This unfortunate event has been seen by some as a cautionary tale for what can happen when a woman tries to negotiate for better pay and working conditions. She is seen as asking for 'too much'. In this case, a woman attempted to "lean in" and was severely punished for it.

I don't know if there is a gender angle to this incident or not, but speaking as someone at a research university, there is nothing in the candidate's email that surprises or offends me. I have been asked for many of the same or similar things by candidates; some of these requests are routine, some of them require discussion. I say 'yes' when I can, and 'no' when that is the appropriate response for my department/university. Negotiations can be constructive and interesting discussions.

I know nothing about Nazareth College's research expectations for faculty and why the email apparently revealed an inappropriate level of research focus that was not detected during the interview. Maybe the moderate number of requests, none of which the college was going to accommodate, was the problem. Whatever the case, it is puzzling why the college didn't simply say no to some or all of those requests and let the offer/decision process proceed. If there were concerns, the department head or other faculty could have had a serious talk with the candidate about teaching expectations and criteria for tenure, so that as much as possible was clear during the candidate's decision-making process. Maybe there is more to the story than just these emails.

I don't want to speculate more about that particular case. My main point is that it would be very unfortunate if well publicized situations like that one made faculty candidates reluctant to ask for what they realistically feel that they need to succeed in the challenging job for which they are potentially being hired.

Even though I don't think anything in the polite list of requests is unreasonable, perhaps a bit more asking around of faculty in the department or institution, or other general digging around, could reveal important information that would avert an 'unreasonable' request before it is asked. Some strategic questions such as "So, is it possible/typical to get a term (or two) off prior to the tenure evaluation year?" or "How many new classes did you prepare in your first few years here? Is that typical?" (etc.) could indicate how requests about leaves and new class preps might be viewed by administrators.

It might also be possible to find out how firm the start date is, and whether the department has a track record of pushing back the start date to accommodate postdocs or other commitments. In my experience at a research university, the asking and granting of delayed start dates is routine. At a smaller institution, however, it might be more difficult for a department to cover essential courses for an extra year; they may want their new hire to show up in time for the next academic year. They might expect a candidate to understand this.

I think the request about salary is entirely reasonable. Candidates for faculty positions should be well informed about salary averages and ranges and should be able to discuss salary with the department head.

In summary:

- I would not have sent that particular list of requests pertaining to a job at a teaching-focused college, but
- I think that anyone (male or female) should be able to do just that as a starting point for discussions (even if the answers are no, no, no, no, no), and
- I would not blink if I saw that same list submitted by a candidate for a faculty position at my institution, and
- in fact, I am interested to know what a candidate thinks is important for succeeding in the job. This is a good basis for discussion and negotiation.

Depending on what your situation is, what, if anything, do you think the 'take home' message of this saga is, in particular regarding the question of whether/how to negotiate after receiving an offer of a faculty position?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

I Was Away From My Desk

A recent post over here reminded me that I have been meaning to write about the sabbatical I took a few years ago. I blogged the entire time I was on sabbatical, although I did not blog about my sabbatical.

When I was just starting to think about going on sabbatical, I mused in a post about the possible differences between going on a sabbatical with an elementary-school child (as I did for my first sabbatical, to an international location) and going on a sabbatical with a teenager (as I was planning for my second sabbatical, to a different international location). There were many comments about positive sabbatical-with-teen experiences, and so it turned out for us. We are very fortunate to have an adventurous and healthy teenager who was willing to leave her school and friends for a while and hurl herself into a strange environment. She loved our sabbatical, and her parents enjoyed it as well.

I know that not everyone can go away for their sabbatical and that not everyone wants to do that even if they can. And for those who can spend some or all of their sabbatical at another institution, there are of course many possible choices in terms of location and type of institution to visit. For me, sabbatical = international location, or at least it has so far (n = 2). At one point in our pre-sabbatical planning discussions, my husband suggested that we spend all or part of our sabbatical at a Certain Domestic University and I thought he was joking. He wasn't, but he was happy to go to an international university that had excellent colleagues for both of us.

For the type of sabbatical arrangement at my institution (50% salary while on sabbatical), it takes a lot of planning and effort to attempt to raise the rest (not to mention the usual summer salary). The reasoning behind the 50% salary is that we aren't teaching while on sabbatical, so we are paid only for the research-component of our job (on the not-so-accurate but what-the-heck assumption that the research-teaching ratio is approximately 50:50). I know that some institutions have better arrangements for sabbatical pay, but so far I have been able to manage with the 50% system.

And what of those left behind -- our students, postdocs, research scientists, others? (see older post here) I was quite unperturbed by my advisor's sabbatical when I was a grad student. Even though he went to an international university for the year, I felt that in some ways I had more of his attention than when he was just down the hall. When he was away, I emailed him and he emailed me back. Sometimes I just sent him an update by email (he told me later that he appreciated this). Sometimes I emailed him a question, and he sent useful replies. I had seldom had his attention like that before. He had many grad students, many grants, many projects, and lots of professional and institutional service activities, and I was not very assertive (in person) about getting his attention.

During my advisor's sabbatical, I also got help and advice as needed from more senior grad students, from research scientists, and from other faculty. The various labs kept running in his absence, and all was well.

I think/hope it was much the same during my own sabbaticals. And of course now, in addition to email, there is Skype, so one can participate in various meetings and other discussions with students, postdocs, and colleagues at the home institution.

Whether you go halfway across the world or stay at home, sabbaticals are great for the very reason they exist -- you have time to think, read, write, start new projects, meet new colleagues, and learn new things relevant to research and teaching. On my last sabbatical, I wrote a long paper that I probably would not have been able to write in non-sabbatical life and I developed a collaboration with some excellent new colleagues. My new colleagues and I are now working on plans to send our grad students to visit each other's institutions -- kind of like a mini-sabbatical for students(?).

If your department gets to keep the half of your salary that you are not getting while on sabbatical, your department head (or chair) might even be very happy that you want to take a sabbatical. He/she might complain about the problem of dealing with your classes while you are away but you need not be sympathetic to this. I know of some cases of people delaying or foregoing sabbaticals because of grumbling department heads. That should be the least of your concerns.

It might sound obvious to say "sabbaticals are great", but sabbatical planning can be very daunting and stressful for a wide range of complex reasons involving family, money, advisees, and research facilities, to name just a few key issues. Nevertheless, it's worth it if you can get all your ducks in a row, even if your ducks are mostly going to paddle around in a local pond.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Time is of the Essence

Some recent e-mails from grad-student readers have concerned the issue of time management and being a teaching assistant (TA) vs. a research assistant (RA). If you are aiming for an academic career, particularly at a teaching-focused institution, is it better to be a TA and get teaching experience or is better to be an RA and get a solid research/publication record so you are more likely to get interviews?

My best answer is 'both', if you have that option -- some TA and some RA/fellowship mix seems ideal so that you have a good balance of teaching experience and focused research time.

In real life, there if of course no one answer, not even a wishy-washy one like 'both'.

Over the decades, starting when I was a grad student, I have seen many people who are overall more productive when they are teaching assistants and therefore theoretically have less time for research. For some, the 'structure' that being a TA imposes on the day/week makes it easier to be motivated to do research in the interstices, whereas being an RA -- with endless time to devote to research -- can be intimidating, resulting in not-much getting done.

Others only get work done when they are an RA. They don't focus on anything but teaching when they are a TA, even if technically the TA is a 'half time' position. You might not know if you fit one of these descriptions until you have been been a TA and an RA for a term or three.

Many people are somewhere between these extremes, of course, and I suppose someone could morph from one to the other (and back?) with time and circumstance.

Some of my grad-readers wonder: Do these traits persist post-graduation or can they be restricted to the grad-school environment for an individual? For example, if you have trouble balancing teaching and research (and other things) as a grad student, are you doomed, or will you figure it out later in a different environment if given the opportunity?

I think overall I would be guardedly optimistic about the chance for learning time management skills with time, as need and life situations (career, family, cats) require.

There is no point generalizing, though; specific experiences (please leave a comment) would be much more relevant and interesting.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Toxic Avoidance

A reader e-mailed with an interesting question: If you are on the job market and interviewing for jobs, how can you find out whether a particular work environment would likely be toxic for you? Can you ask about this during a visit or interview? Can such environments be avoided?

My experiences as an interviewee may be too ancient to be relevant, although I will mention anyway that I accepted a job offer from a place that I had been warned was hostile to women (they had a terrible record of hiring, retaining, tenuring women); it turned out to be a great place for me. I think it is important to have up-to-date information about a department's work environment and to realize that how certain longtime faculty members interact with each other may or may not be relevant to the experiences of a new colleague. (It could be very relevant if everyone in a department hates each other and/or if the last n women faculty members quit or no one has gotten tenure there since 1989.)

Otherwise, if you feel that the department head is supportive and there are some likely faculty allies, that may be a good indication that you will do well in that department/unit. Or not, but maybe it is worth a try. If you do well and want to leave, you may have options.

Perhaps some of you have experiences to share about whether you had any inkling in advance about a hostile work environment or whether it was a complete surprise to find yourself in this predicament.

If you had information in advance, how did you learn this? Did you ask or was the information volunteered? If you did ask, how/whom/when did you ask?

Have any of you turned down a job offer because you learned in advance that the department (or company or whatever) would be a difficult place for you?

Probably it is better to ask some general leading questions such as "So, what's it like to work in this department?" than to ask "Hey, is this place totally toxic?"

Tuesday, February 18, 2014


Several times in the past year or so I have had to combat the suggestion that faculty, postdocs, and grad students "of today", not to mention "of the future", don't want or need their own desks. Of course we all need a "space" to sit down now and then, and maybe we even need a place to put our laptop (or mobile device) for a while. However, we apparently don't want or need our own assigned space. Walls and doors are isolating (and cost money). Cubicles are depressing (no argument from me about that), so let's have open-plan spaces with unassigned desks, "soft seating", and collaborative spaces (a.k.a. tables). I say: Let's not.

Studies apparently show that people are not in their offices 100% of the time, so maybe not everyone needs a designated space to call their own. If the people-to-desk ratio is calculated correctly, most people should be able to find a place to sit (assuming they even want to do that) when they need to. Anyone who happens to have stuff they don't want to carry around can have a locker.

I asked one of the planners for the project in question how I would find my students and others if no one has an assigned space (finding people is not actually my main concern, but I was curious). The answer: when someone temporarily alights in a space, they log in and their location will be registered on a website or monitor that I can check. Or maybe I could just put locator-devices on everyone and keep track that way? I have long wanted to do that for my most adventurous cat (Fig. 1).
Figure 1. Cat without an assigned office.
Need to have a private conversation with a student/advisor/anyone? Go to a "huddle room". Need to work with a group without disturbing others? That probably won't be possible, but at least there will be lots of "collaborative space". Anyone nearby can just put on headphones. Or leave. In fact, maybe everyone will just stay home (because it might be quieter there). It seems to me that an increase in collaborative space might just drive people into isolation because they can't get any work done when at "work".

And yet I am told that this type of office space works well in "the corporate world" because it is "creative" and "flexible". I am told that academics associate the size and location of their offices with status and that is why I am clinging to the antiquated idea of everyone having an assigned office.

I think I shall continue to cling to this idea and argue that everyone -- faculty, staff, researchers, grad students, adjunct/contingent faculty, technicians, lab managers -- needs their own, assigned space, even if it is shared space (and ideally not a cubicle farm).

I think there should also be collaborative, flexible space that people can go to as needed. This can be scattered about: shared within or among research groups and in other spaces generally available to students and visitors etc. I like that idea. I just don't like the idea of not having any other place to go to when someone wants to be (semi)alone and quiet, or have a private conversation without having to check if a huddle room is available.

I am quite sure that eventually this unassigned-space idea will disappear from the project in question, although it has persisted longer than I expected.

Am I being a dinosaur about space?