Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Jekyll-Hyde Q&A

During the question-and-answer time associated with talks at conferences or in department seminars, have you noticed any difference in how questions are addressed to male vs. female speakers? By "how", I mean things like tone of voice and level of politeness/aggression.

This difference is one of those things that I keep expecting to go away with time as a result of the increase in numbers of women as speakers and audience members. It has definitely decreased in frequency but it has not gone away.

Something I noticed at a conference earlier this year was that audience members were commonly quite polite and encouraging of student presenters (of any gender). The fangs mostly seemed to appear when there was a non-student early-career female speaker: postdocs/research scientists, assistant professors, and even in one case an associate professor.

This is of course a completely unscientific anecdotal subjective observation. Nevertheless, over the years I have observed some mid-career and older male colleagues who consistently go through a sort of Jekyll-Hyde transformation when a younger woman gives a presentation. They are rude, aggressive, patronizing, and make it clear that the answers given to their questions are inadequate and probably wrong. They do not do this with male speakers. Ever.

I know that some male colleagues who also noticed this phenomenon and were uncomfortable about it tried to talk to at least one of these colleagues. I am curious to see if this criticism will somehow sink in and modify behavior.

A concern is that whatever subconscious impressions are triggering these negative reactions to female speakers also seep into reviews of papers and proposals, decisions on hiring and promotion, or any other circumstance involving evaluation of a less public sort. Or perhaps (total musing alert) it is the public nature of the rude questioning of a female speaker that is the (subconscious) goal, and private reviewing of a paper or proposal does not trigger such a reaction. I am just making this up; I have no insights into the psychology of this behavior. I have just seen it in action too many times.

I do not mean to imply that there is an epidemic of disrespect at conferences and seminars; in my academic world, there is not. In fact (silver lining alert) the examples I describe here are perhaps particularly evident today because they have become relatively rare. I am also encouraged by the existence of male allies who notice and speak up.

So: During the question-and-answer time associated with talks at conferences etc., have you noticed any difference in how questions are addressed to male vs. female speakers?

Saturday, November 08, 2014

This is Your Brain on Administration

Certainly I am not the first to realize that a proliferation of administrators at certain levels of academic institutions results in an increasing number of tasks passed down to lower levels. This year, it is like a fire hose spraying a deluge of new administrative tasks directly at my head (and at department staff, without whom I would collapse into an inert heap). It is causing me to face one of my greatest anxieties about being a part-time administrator: losing my research brain (not to mention my blogging brain).

There are many things in life that can encroach on our creative-thinking time and abilities -- babies and illness (to name just two) -- and over time can make it difficult to sustain an energetic research program. I have experienced those; now my major distraction is of a more mundane sort: administrative thoughts are taking over my brain.

It is not just that I have less time for research. Realizing this was a bit of a surprise. I guess I always assumed that administrators who complained about the negative effect of administrative duties on their research were talking about how little time they had for research. The lack of time for research is of course a factor. But now I think that a more insidious factor is what spending so much time on administration can do to your brain.

Administrative work (in my experience) can be broadly classified into two general (admittedly imperfect categories): Stupid Tasks and Other Tasks.

Stupid Tasks are classified as such by me because they are unnecessarily time-sucking. These tasks include things that:

- a robot zombie computer could do;
- are the result of shiny new policies that are meant to change but not necessarily improve anything for anyone;
- are the result of someone else doing something stupid, unnecessary, immature, or unwise;
- are involved in documenting that we are not spending federal, state, or any money on illegal drugs, yachts, massages or alcohol, and -- just as bad -- are not spending this research money on that research project instead of on this research project, and we can prove it by documenting how everyone spends all their time, 24/7, whilst working on this or that research project; oh, and by the way, the system by which we monitor all that is going to change every year or so and in between you will spend a lot of time figuring out the new system, which will have bugs, but there is training you can attend to learn the new system before it is superceded by the next one, which will cost the university a lot of money and will be bewildering;
- require lots of meetings but don't need to;
- involve people who work for the University Facilities unit.

Some Stupid Tasks are actually important, many are urgent, and all are annoying.

Other Tasks are ones that require some higher level of thought or decision-making than the Stupid Tasks. Some of these are stressful and some of them are the only reason why being a department/unit head is at all rewarding (examples: hiring, supporting faculty/researchers/staff/students in various ways, solving problems that are worth solving, being an advocate for the department in the university and the broader Science community, connecting with alumni, and just generally being helpful so that bright and hard-working colleagues and students can do their great work as well as possible).

Being an administrator requires some creativity, and that may help keep the research part of the brain from atrophying too much. But I have found that it is easy to let a focus on Stupid Tasks take over, narrowing my vision and withering my imagination (I fear). And again, it isn't just about time. I can make time for research (most weeks). It's just that during random times when I might previously have been thinking about research -- such as when walking on campus, exercising, or sitting quietly with a friendly cat -- instead of thinking about Science, I find myself thinking about all the Stupid Tasks I have to do that day/week and how to solve a certain short-term problem and so on. Not good.

I recently talked with some colleagues who are or were department heads for a substantial amount of time (>5 years) and whose research careers came to a crashing halt as a result. Talking to them was dispiriting. It helps to think of examples to the contrary (and I know some good ones), so this is what I try to do. Perhaps some day it won't be important to me to have a strong research component to my work and life and I will happily spend my days thinking about parking, plumbing, provosts, policies, and printers. For now, though, I will try to stop thinking so much about Stupid Tasks that don't really require as much brain-space as I have been giving them.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Rejection Rules

Telling people (by letter, e-mail, or voice) that they are not getting a position for which they applied, or are not even being considered (at all/any more), is difficult. Do I even need to bother to say that I understand that it is not as difficult as being the one getting that information? (Probably, so I just did.)

I have written about rejection letters before, and have a blog label for posts on "criticism, rejection, or failure" (22 posts, including this one). I still stand by the approach I described two years ago regarding how to go about rejecting applicants:

(1) just do it -- once a decision has been made, it's better to let an unselected applicant know where they stand than to leave them unnecessarily uninformed and wondering;

(2) be respectful and professional; the rejectee likely does not care to hear that rejecting them is painful for you;

(3) if possible, be informative with relevant data (number of applicants, where the applicant ended up in the process etc.); this is also part of being professional and respectful, even if there are a very large number of applicants to reject.

I am sure that there is a lot of variation in how and when different departments/units inform unselected applicants of their status. For much of the process in my department, I leave communication with unselected candidates to the search committee chair and/or the department administrator, depending on the situation. My personal role as the bearer of good or bad news comes near the end of the process and involves only the candidates who made it to the very-last stages of consideration.

When a search is still underway, my only contribution to the rejection process is to make sure that  someone is informing applicants of their status in a timely way.

Rejection may occur at any one of many points in the process:

First: rejection of those who reflexively submit applications for positions for which they are not qualified -- for example, those who are in a completely different field with zero experience in the research/teaching topics of the open position. I wonder why these applicants even bother. These applications typically arrive soon after an ad is posted, even if this is months before the deadline or target date for submitting applications (not a good sign if you are applying to a research university with expectations of continuing research activity).

Then: those applicants who meet the basic qualifications for the position but, owing to something about their record or field of expertise, are not selected for further consideration.

Then: those applicants who make it to the long-list but not the medium- or short/est-lists. The reasons for non-selection at these points range widely.

Then: those who interviewed but who are not offered a position -- there may be various subdivisions of these depending on how many are interviewed and what goes on in terms of discussions among faculty, administrators etc., so the timing and mode of rejection may vary.

That's a lot of rejecting. In my experience, departments are encouraged to conduct at least some very broad searches rather than narrow searches in the hopes that broader searches will increase diversity. Broader searchers result in larger numbers of applicants and therefore larger numbers of rejections. If the ultimate goal is noble, I think it is preferable to have a larger number of applicants (and therefore rejections) than to have fewer applicants/fewer rejections.

Agree or disagree?

Monday, September 08, 2014

Why Being An Administrator Is (Sometimes) Super Cool

Why can it be very great to be an administrator, at least certain kinds of administrator, such as department heads or program directors or maybe even some dean-like people?

Because, from time to time, you get to offer people excellent jobs, like tenure-track sorts of jobs. Such jobs do indeed still exist. Some people are getting them and that means that other people are making the official offers to those people. I have found that I very much enjoy being one of those other people.

That is: It is of course very thrilling to get an offer of a tenure-track position. It is also super cool to be the one making the offer/s.

I like to think about this when the relentlessly trivial and soul-destroying aspects of being an administrator start to gain on the positive aspects.

Below is a highly schematic graph that I hope I can eventually replace with a graph based on actual data (with a Time axis that has real units). This example graph is just to show in a relative sense how super cool making a job offer is compared to routine administrative tasks and the occasional unpleasant (but not catastrophic) financial or personnel crisis. 

+ = supercoolness; - = suckiness; 0 = neutral; time has no units...

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

3G Women's Colleges

When I started this blog in 2006, my daughter was in elementary school. Now she is starting to think about college -- what type of institution in what part of the country/world and so on. So far the reality/stress of actual applications and decisions has not yet arrived and it is interesting to discuss the options.

One thing that interests me is that my daughter is very serious about applying to women's colleges.

When I was in college-search mode decades ago, I was interested in women's colleges -- for different reasons than the ones motivating my daughter. I was interested in women's colleges in large part because I felt that I would be taken seriously as a scholar in such an environment. I did not want college to be a repeat of high school, where boys were the ones 'most likely to succeed' (no matter that the top 11 students in my graduating class were female). In that sense, my motivation was somewhat negative in that I was seeking a place that was very different from what I had experienced before.

My daughter's high school takes her very seriously as an intelligent, motivated, articulate person and she has every expectation of being taken seriously in college as well. So her interest in women's colleges is more of a positive one: she thinks of women's colleges as places where she would be surrounded by many interesting and ambitious women. She knows that she could also find such communities at other types of institutions but has a particularly positive impression of this aspect of women's colleges. This impression comes from a few visits to women's colleges and also from meeting graduates of women's colleges at various times over the years.

Her interest in women's colleges is also intriguing to me because my mother went to a women's college. In my mother's case she went to a women's college because her parents made her go to one, not because she wanted to. This was in the 1950's. My mother had been a bit wild in high school -- lots of boyfriends, smoking, parties.. mediocre grades -- and her parents didn't want her to go to a big state university (as her calmer younger sisters later did). So she went to a very small, somewhat obscure and quite isolated women's college. She has always spoken fondly of her college and has remained life-long friends with some of the women she met there, so it was a good experience for her despite her lack of interest in women's colleges. [She also met my father on a train during her sophomore year, got married soon after (allowed by her parents on the condition that she finish school), and had two babies within two years of graduating.]

Three very different women from three different generations with three different reasons for attending (or possibly attending) a women's college. Three decades ago I wondered if such places would still be around and relevant in the 2010's. I am pleased that they are and I am particularly pleased that strong and confident young women such as my daughter can have such positive motivation for being interested in them.

Monday, August 11, 2014

"In Science, It Matters That Women Come Last"

Emma Pierson has written a very interesting article titled In Science, It Matters That Women Come Last. The article is filled with data and analysis (and graphs!) about gender trends in publishing in some subfields of the physical sciences and math. She examined numbers of papers and authorship order for male and female authors using 23 years of papers from arXiv.

If you read the article, I recommend that you read it all the way through, including footnotes. As I read it I had some questions such as, "What about fields in which authorship is alphabetical?". These questions are answered. You may or may not agree with the methods but these issues were anticipated and the analysis considers the effects of different authorship-order practices in different fields.

There are many fascinating aspects of this dataset and Pierson's discussion of the data. One that particularly interested me is this:
.. I found evidence that women tend to work together. If a paper has one female author, the other authors on the paper are 35 percent more likely to be female given the share of female authors in the field overall.
It is possible that this is largely the result of female PIs tending to advise/hire more female students and postdocs (Pierson mentions a study that seems to show this). I wonder also about the tendency of women scientists to collaborate as peers and how data/trends related to such collaborations will change with time.

I see changes in my peer-collaborations with time in my own career. For the first 2+ decades, my female coauthors were my students and postdocs, with a few isolated exceptions of female-peer coauthors. More recently (the last few years in particular), I have had many female-peer coauthors. It has become routine. I thought this was because there were simply more women in my field now -- in fact, I am sure that is part of the explanation -- but now I wonder if there is more to it. I guess we'd need to know more about how the authorship dataset breaks down by advisee vs. peer coauthors to understand what it means.

What do you think this particular result (that 'women tend to work together') means, either for you or in your particular sub/field?

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Maybe Definitely Give This Person Tenure

By request, this is a follow-up post on last week's musing about being the external letter-writer for someone's tenure/promotion evaluation. Today I will compare the wording of positive letters vs. not-so-positive (but not killer negative) letters (in the US academic system) to demonstrate the differences; some differences are obvious and some are less so. Although some external letter writers evaluating candidates for tenure/promotion write unambiguously negative letters, most letters are either positive or positive-ish.

I don't think the opening sentence is necessarily very indicative, although letters that start by saying that it is a "pleasure" to write the letter (perhaps even a "strong letter of support") of course tend to be very positive. Letters that start with a basic statement and perhaps a description of how the letter-writer has interacted (or not) with the candidate could go either way.

Positive letters tend to start positive and stay that way, with any quibbles buried deep within them. In my experience, lukewarm letters tend to start positive or positive-ish and then decay in magnitude of positiveness for the rest of the letter. I am not sure that I have seen a letter start negative or lukewarm and end up highly positive, although I have seen letters that I thought were quite negative end with a statement that the candidate would get tenure at the letter-writer's (in some cases elite) institution; that can be confusing.

Unambiguous positive statements that might appear in a very positive letter:

Dr. (or Professor) X is a world leader/pioneer/internationally known and respected specialist in [research field].

Dr. X and his/her students/postdocs have published (many) excellent papers on [topic/s].

Faint-praise statements that might appear in a lukewarm letter:

Dr. X is a specialist in [research field].

Dr. X has made contributions to the field of [topic].

Dr. X's research appears to be quite solid. 

Note: To make those statements even more negative, the research field could be described as narrowly as possible.

Examples of very positive words and phrases:

strong (inter)national reputation, novel, creative, major/significant/signal/tremendous/impressive/insightful/brilliant contributions, rigorous, breadth and depth, breakthroughs, widely respected, widely sought as an invited speaker, key player, true scholar, fundamental/leadership role, taking the lead (etc.), groundbreaking, rising star, international star, exceptional, exceptionally strong case for tenure, original/originality, elegant (referring to research, not the person), high profile, swimming at the top of the talent pool, the world beats a path to X's door, having X on your faculty brings renown to your institution.

Note that the hyper-positive adjective-laden letters tend to come from US academics or those very familiar with the US system. Non-US letters tend to be more restrained (the same is true for proposal reviews) and readers of such letters need to calibrate for this. The statement "Dr. X's research is quite good" might translate into Americanish to "Dr. X is the world leader and pioneer in creative and insightful investigation of a wide range of significant research topics."

Lukewarm (US) letters are characterized by fewer adjectives and of course few/no strong-positive adjectives. They may instead have faint-praise type adjectives such as 'solid', 'good' (with or without some other mild adjectives). The mild equivalent of the very-positive description 'has been extraordinarily/very productive' might be something like, 'has apparently been quite busy'; the positive 'focused' and talk of depth/breadth could translate as a negative-ish description of someone's 'varied interests'. Other not-awesome words are 'reasonably' and 'rather'.

Positive letters may actively propose explanations for some perceived weaknesses in the file:

Dr. X's h-index is a bit low even for someone at this early career stage but [sentences about how the h-index is a meaningless indicator of anything useful].

Dr. X does not have as many publications as one might like to see for a tenure candidate but there is too much emphasis these days on number of publications. Dr X's publications are all of very high quality and are all in high-impact and very selective journals. [This may be accompanied by an anti-shingling rant or opining about how Dr. X is a true scholar who waits to publish high-quality results that will stand the test of time.]

Dr. X has worked on a wide variety of topics rather than focusing on any particular thing but this is remarkable confirmation of her/his versatility, breadth, and boundless intellectual curiosity.

Dr. X has mostly been a middle-of-the-pack coauthor on his/her papers rather than the obvious lead author but I happen to know that Dr. X's senior collaborators are very aggressive about promoting their own work and tend to do this to younger coauthors.

Any of the above can of course be turned into a criticism if the reviewer is so inclined.

Or, lukewarm letters might mention some of the same things listed above but the rebuttal would not be as strong:

Dr. X's h-index is a bit low even for someone at this early career stage but it may increase somewhat in the future. (etc.)

Strong positive letters typically end on an emphatic note:

I highly recommend with no reservations whatsoever that Dr. X be awarded tenure.

I have no doubt that Dr. X would be awarded tenure at my institution.

Lukewarm letters tend to end on an ambiguous note:

I hope that my comments on Dr. X will be helpful to your evaluation of Dr. X for tenure and promotion.

I hope that these comments on tenure and promotion letters are helpful to FSP readers who are curious/anxious about this even if they are rising stars swimming at the top of the talent pool buoyed by their towering intellects.