Friday, December 22, 2006


Today was one of those fun days when the department was devoid of stressed out students and deadwood faculty, the number of emails and calls from students unhappy with their grades trickled off, and there was time to socialize with my favorite department people in a more leisurely way than is typical.

The halls were dimly lit but there were pockets of light and frivolity, including my office, where a group of us gathered to (1) celebrate with a junior colleague who was submitting a paper (she clicked the submit button, always an awesome event, from my computer, and we all cheered!), (2) compare the strange little gifts that some of us had given to and received from each other, (3) discuss and sign off on one of my grad students' papers, which she will submit next week and which is very great, and then (4) decide which cafe to spend the rest of the afternoon in to talk about science and other things.

The day was also particularly great because of the arrival of a friend and colleague from Europe. He says that he thinks that working with me has opened his eyes to some things that his department does that are very family/female-unfriendly, and I am of course happy to take credit for such eye-opening. He recently brought up with his colleagues the possibility of changing their faculty meetings from the evenings to the afternoons to make things easier for faculty with children or other commitments outside work, but his colleagues thought that was a bizarre idea. There are no women in his department, and the guys are happy with things the way they are.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

My Christmas time Birthday

I am one of those lucky people who has a birthday squashed in between Christmas and New Years. We late December birthday people are getting more and more company all the time. There is a news article today about how that week is becoming the most popular week of the entire year for births, and that statistically significant numbers of parents are having births induced just before the first of the year so as to get tax breaks. In fact, that's what my very practical mother did lo these many decades ago.

I like my birthday, though that doesn't mean that I have not at times felt scorn, disgust, and disappointment with those who treated it like an inconvenience or as an opportunity to efficiently combine Christmas-birthday celebrations. In fact, I hope there is a special place in hell reserved for the creator of "For Your Christmas Time Birthday" cards (especially the ones with birthday cakes surrounded by poinsettias and holly).

Given that we are fast approaching late December and the Holiday Season, I would like to provide parents, other relatives, and friends of people with late December birthdays with some helpful hints for how to be more sensitive about the situation.

Hint #1: If you sigh and say "I'm just too busy dealing with gifts for Christmas and planning my holiday parties to think about your birthday now, but I'll try to send you a card in January" or otherwise act like we are burdening you with our inconvenient birthday, we will hate you.

Hint #2: If you give someone a card/gift and say "This is for Christmas AND your birthday", we will hate you.

Hint #3: If you take your own useless Christmas gifts and stick birthday wrapping paper on them and give them to us, we will hate you.

Most - but not all - of that was meant as a joke.

In recent years, I have become exceedingly fond of my birthday because it is during the semester break. Many years ago when I was celebrating a Milestone Birthday, I decided I wanted to spend it in an ancient place, surrounded by ruins and History and beautiful landscapes and culture, so my husband and I went to Greece. Then life got busy with a baby and new jobs and getting tenure and stuff like that, so I didn't really do anything exciting for my birthday until my next Milestone Birthday. Then I decided I wanted to spend it in an ancient place, surrounded by ruins and History and beautiful landscapes and culture and so on, so my husband and daughter and I went to Italy. We had so much fun that we have gone somewhere fun and interesting every year since. Next week: Portugal.

My relatives will just have to regift their unwanted toasters and embroidered Santa socks to someone else. Five of my relatives have birthdays in January..

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Academic Rankings of All Sorts

This is perhaps not the best time to write about anything, having just emerged from a 5+ hour meeting in which I and fellow members of an awards committee attempted to compare excellent philosophers with excellent aerospace engineers. It was kind of fun, but I am not as lucid as I could be. The ancient science guy who annoyed me so much last year was not on the committee this year -- this is the person who said I was biased and showed favoritism to women because I had 2 women in my top-10 list (he had 10 men in his top-10 list but this was not showing favoritism to men, though I can't remember why he thought not). This was a much more congenial committee, but we still had an impossible task. It was interesting to see how everything came together. We have been toiling in isolation for 2 months, poring over lengthy files, and then today we got to see how our individual rankings and opinions compared with the others. For some reason, my rankings correlated most closely with those of an historian and another physical scientists on the committee, and were most disparate from the biomedical faculty.

And I see in the newspaper today (NY Times) that we at public universities are all striving to be in the top 10. This is not news to those of us who live with endless strategic (re)positioning initiatives exhorting us to provide deliverables to our student-clients so that we shoot to the top of the rankings.

And to continue the theme of ranking: I have just finished grading. Grading final exams is gratifying and depressing, involving violent mood swings from exam to exam. How can Student X have gotten that question wrong even though it was on the practice final and we went over it in class several times and I clearly identified it as a major concept? Why didn't he/she come to talk to me before the exam? But then in the next exam.. Student W writes an amazingly clear and perfect answer to a difficult question, and I feel really pleased for them and for myself.

Maybe now is a good time to finish up some reviews.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Science Women

Women in Science as an Issue is in the news again; or at least, women-in-science is in the weekly Tuesday Science news section of the New York Times in an article by Cornelia Dean. Even if it's not on the front page of the newspaper, the article's existence means that someone still considers the lack of women to be news. One engine driving the frequency of news coverage of the topic is the frequency of conferences and reports about the issue. Let's keep those coming and keep the topic in the face, if not the collective mind, of administrators, legislators, and others with the power to change things.

The part of the article that resonated with me was about how women are perceived:

Because people judge others in terms of these unconscious prejudices, she said, the same behavior that would suggest a man is collaborative, judicious or flexible would mark a woman as needy, timid or flighty.

And because science is still widely viewed as “a male arena,” she said, a woman who succeeds may be viewed as “selfish, manipulative, bitter, untrustworthy, conniving and cold.”

So true. Men who collaborate are open-minded and generous. Women who collaborate do so out of weakness because they are not capable of conducting research independently.

There was also a quotation about how successful women are not liked. I don't know about that. This could be yet another sign that I am delusional, but other than a few chunks of petrified wood, a.k.a. senior faculty in my department, and OK, maybe that guy who really wanted the faculty position that I got instead of him, and maybe just maybe a few people whose papers and proposals I did not give high ratings, but other than those guys, I think that most departmental and other professional colleagues like me (and by the usual objective measures of our profession, I am 'successful'). I don't think successful men are necessarily liked, even though they are respected and/or revered.

And then there is "the aggressiveness question". My take on that is that it is important to be assertive, but that is not the same as being aggressive. I am not aggressive in the least, but I am very assertive. Being assertive can be effective, and assertiveness is much more elegant than aggression. It requires persistence and being articulate about what you want or need for your research. It does not necessarily require social skills (which I do not have in abundance), but humor helps. It also requires that someone at some point listen to you and take you seriously, and that can be the tricky part.

A female colleague said to me recently "I am not thick-skinned enough to write as many proposals and papers as you do." I don't know that I am particularly thick-skinned. I hate getting negative reviews; they can really upset me. But I don't let them stop me. Being persistent is another way of being assertive.

The article says that "the idea that women are somehow unsuited to science is widespread and tenacious", but we can be tenacious as well.

Worse Than Sports Analogies

A female colleague of mine attended a long meeting today during which the meeting leader assumed that everyone in the room was a parent and would relate to his extended analogy involving raising children. She says he went on and on about parents and kids, and he kept saying things like “As we all know from raising our own children..” until finally she couldn’t stand it anymore and pointed out to him that she and perhaps others in the room did not know what it was like to raise a child, so should they leave the meeting since they had no clue what he was talking about? She thinks the group now considers her to be oversensitive and high-strung, but I think she made an important point.

I can understand why someone leading a meeting might want to use an analogy or a reference point to try to move the discussion forward, but it seems that so often the chosen device unnecessarily excludes people. I think my colleague was right to point out to him that he should cut off the extended parenting analogy and get on with the main task of the meeting. When my sports-analogy-loving department chair goes into sports analogy mode, I tune out or ask for clarification, depending on my mood. However, if an entire meeting depended on knowing the rules of football, I would either do what my colleague did or I’d just leave.

Quick comment on another topic: In an article in the business section of the NY Times last Sunday, a woman executive noted that having one woman on a corporate board didn’t have much effect because the lone woman was so concerned with not appearing to have a ‘female agenda’. Having two women wasn’t much different, as they mostly tried to avoid each other and not appear to be a voting bloc. Three women was critical mass for everyone acting like the businesspeople they are without regard to gender. I think the situation is similar in academia, but ideally there would be at least 3 women in each academic rank rather than several female assistant professors in a department dominated by tenured men.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Examining Students

We are still in the midst of final exams at my university. I refuse to do multiple choice exams, so I have to come up with just the right number of unambiguously worded questions that relate to my course's most central concepts and that ideally will challenge the students to integrate among concepts, but not in a way that is impossible within the time limits of the exam or that is unreasonable given the format and content of the course. I can do this, but it takes a lot of time. In fact, it takes me so much time that I will do almost anything to avoid having to make up more than one test. Fortunately, my class this semester is not so huge, and the students will likely all show up for the scheduled exam. And then I have to grade the exams and scientifically/magically convert number grades into letter grades, but I am not ready to think about that yet.

My husband is teaching a large course for non-majors this semester, so he is dealing with the usual end-of-semester chaos. One interesting thing about his course this semester is that 99% of the students who come to his review sessions and 100% of the students who come to his office hours are female students. His class reflects the gender balance of the university, which is similar to the nationwide trend of being 55 female : 45 male or thereabouts. I had a similar experience with the big non-major class I taught last year, and we have been musing about whether talking to the professor has become a female-associated type of activity.

In the course for science majors that I taught this semester, males outnumber female students by a lot. So far, the only students who have contacted me for help about the final exam are the male students, so any trend is confined to the non-majors classes and not upper level science classes.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Social Morons

It boggles the mind, but there are some people who are even more socially inept than I am. At a conference this week, I was talking to Famous Professor X, and we were having a very interesting conversation about a topic of mutual interest. A man I don't know and didn't recognize walked up and started talking to Famous Professor X, completely ignoring me and ignoring the fact that he interrupted a conversation. Famous Professor X glared at the interrupting man and said "I am talking to Professor W (me)", made a wonderful little shooing/dismissing motion with his hand, and turned back to me so we could continue our conversation. The interrupting guy slithered away sadly. It kind of made my day in a strange way.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Daily Stereotype

Example #57,892: My husband and I were riding in a taxi in a major west coast city and the taxi driver said to my husband "Are you in town for the science conference, sir?". My husband said "Yes, we are." The taxi driver said "Since you brought your wife, it looks like you'll be mixing science with being a tourist." How nice that my husband 'brought' me to this conference with him! Maybe while he is doing whatever it is scientists do at these meetings, I can shop! My husband needs a new sweater and I'd like to get some new kitchen utensils for myself. If I weren't chairing a session, going to other talks, meeting with my fellow journal editors, attending my students' talks and posters, and meeting with colleagues, perhaps I would have time for that.

Academic Starette

Someone told me today that I am an "academic starette". I don't even know how to spell that. I suppose it could be starrette (?). I suppose I am being ungrateful, oversensitive, and overanalytical, but what does that mean? Is that one of those 'you're a good female scientist' kinds of comments? Memo to those who wonder why I 'spin' everything to be about gender: I am constantly reminded that I am a 'female scientist' and not a regular scientist like all the men.

Monday, December 11, 2006


In the past few years, I've participated in several national workshops on teaching in my field of the physical sciences. At all of these, discussions are primarily geared toward the situation in which the professor teaches both lecture and lab sections to a small group of students they know well and interact with frequently. At one workshop, a group of college professors gave presentations on active-learning exercises that integrated lecture and lab time. It was interesting to hear about these activities, but, with a few exceptions, these activities would be difficult (or impossible) to implement in a university environment of teaching a large group of students 2-3 times/week, with the labs taught by graduate students.

I am of course aware of the huge differences in teaching environment between colleges and universities, but I was surprised that it mattered so much in terms of the topics of these workshops. I thought we would spend a lot of time talking about the content of our courses, and would share ideas of how we prioritize what information we teach and how we incorporate new ideas in our field into the undergraduate curriculum. That was part of the workshops, but not a major part. I suppose part of the reasoning for the small college focus is that that is the environment in which professors have teaching as their main focus. When you consider the vast numbers of students that take science classes at large universities, though, it's clear that science education initiatives shouldn't ignore that environment/population.

I am generalizing here, but from what I saw at the last workshop I attended, the small college professors either went the route of throwing textbook-based teaching out altogether and using an active learning approach, or they stuck very close to the textbooks. In the latter case, if information wasn't in the book, it wasn't taught. This was either because 'students hate it when class material isn't in the textbook' or because 'there's so much stuff in textbooks anyway, who has time to teach even more?'.

In contrast, the university professors, although dominantly using a lecture format in classes, were teaching new things that weren't (yet?) in the textbooks and jettisoning more of the textbook material. That may sound patronizing, but I think it is an example of why it was good to have a workshop that involved both small college and large university professors. Those of us at universities learned about teaching strategies from those who had time to construct and experiment with those, and we in turn showed how new research could be integrated into teaching classic subjects. I don't think this view was generally shared, though -- some of my workshop experiences have been very much one-way streets of 'let us teach you how to teach because we are the experts'.

In one particularly illuminating discussion in a small working group, we all listed the main topics of sophomore-junior level course we all taught. I was the only university professor in the group, and I was the only one whose list of main topics deviated from the rest. There were 2 concepts in particular that I teach that no one else in the group did. Professor Z said "But those concepts are too new and have nothing to do with any of the other concepts we teach", and everyone nodded. Hmm. I said that, in fact, those concepts were more than 20 years old (coincidentally? when Professor Z was a grad student), were among the most important advances in our field in the last few decades, and could easily be well integrated into the broadest possible view of our subfield of the physical sciences. I elaborated and gave examples, but don't know to what effect.

I think the most valuable part of the workshop involved talking about course content (as opposed to all those pedagogical techniques with cute names like think-pair-share and jigsaw..). There was a faction of the workshop that favored omitting vast amounts of course content and focusing instead of learning activities centered on a few concepts. I don't agree with that approach when it is taken to an extreme. I am sure there are better ways to teach than just lecturing for 50-75 minutes at a time to a class, but it's a mistake to go too far in cutting content. It's analogous to teaching kids to think about numbers and different ways to consider a math problem, and finding out years later that they don't know what 6 x 7 is. And 'new' topics that some of us think are central to a modern understanding of the physical sciences get omitted.

I have found that part of the divergence of opinions occurs because some people think of course content as 'facts' to be memorized, whereas others think of them as ideas and concepts (and, yes, facts) that are fundamental to understanding how the world works.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Multi-tasking & the Weight of Guilt

So much to do, so much to do before the week starts. My daughter had a piano recital today, and I brought some grading to do during the recital. Her part of the recital was about 2.5 minutes, but then there was the rest of the hour. I sat in an inconspicuous place, I looked up during all the introductions and bows, and I clapped for each kid (I was listening to the music as I graded..). Even so, I felt a microgram of guilt at not giving the event my full attention. But no more than that. It was necessary, my daughter didn't mind, and my students will be happy to get their graded assignment back before their final exam.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Grad-Time Continuum

How much grad students 'should' work (other than the 20 hours of teaching/research on which their salary is based), is one of those unanswerable questions that varies with the student and the research and whether the equipment gods are happy and so on. I've known and advised grad students who worked 9-5 (or 8-6), had a life/family, and did quite well. This is very rare; these people are super-efficient and have well-defined projects that don't rely on balky equipment and less efficient co-workers. Much more common are research projects that require some (to a lot) of night/weekend time. There are also many examples of students who tried to work 9-5, weren't super-efficient, and who flamed out because of their lack of progress with research.

With the exception of one of my current students, I work more hours than any of the others, and (with one other exception) this is OK with me. I have one student who works an insane amount because he wants to, but (with the one other exception) my other students have more of a balance between time at the department and time off campus. They are always telling me about concerts or crazy parties they went to, or a weekend trip they took, or a hike/bike-ride they went on, or a non-science book that they read, and I like hearing about their other interests. They are doing interesting and productive research and they know I am satisfied/happy with their work.

As for the one who isn't currently working much or well, we have an appointment to discuss the situation next week: is it a time-management problem, family/health etc. problem, lack of interest, lack of something else? I can deal with some of those in terms of adjusting the student's research program and/or my expectations. If it's a lack of interest or motivation, I want to know sooner rather than later.

Friday, December 08, 2006

TA vs. RA

I never had a Research Assistantship (RA) when I was a grad student. I had a Teaching Assistantship (TA) my entire graduate career. I was lucky enough to get teaching jobs in the summer as well, so I never lacked for funding. In my grad program, TA's were definitely second class citizens compared to RA's. We were expected to get just as much research done as the RA's, but we had all these other responsibilities as well. In addition, RA's got the best offices and were favored for awards and fellowships, I suppose the thinking was that because these students were RA's, they must be great(er).

This situation didn't bother me too much. I didn't like that I was given the lowest priority in the analytical labs, despite having a more restricted schedule than the RA's, but in the end, I felt that I got more respect for being a successful TA and researcher. This only happened during the final year of my grad career though.

At one point, doing the successful TA-research thing backfired on me: my advisor told me that he had considered rewarding my productivity with an RA, but then it occurred to him that being a TA would slow down his RA's, but it wouldn't slow me down, so he decided I should continue to be a TA. So I did, but it paid off. He wrote me an awesome letter of reference, which I didn't see, but which someone later told me had a nice part in it about my ability to balance teaching and research. This letter was important in my getting a faculty position. The year I got my first tenure-track job, there was only one position in my field available at a research university. When I got the job offer, the hiring committee told me that my extensive teaching experience gave me an edge over the candidates who had never taught before.

Also, my teaching as a grad student led me to collaborations involving education-related activites. I have maintained some of those connections and activities for decades, and it's an interesting and important part of my career.

Nowadays, I don't think TA's are valued less than RA's. At least, not in my department. Education has become such an important part of the mission of research universities, and it is well known that grad students need broad training in research and teaching. Most of my grad students do some of both. I try to give my students a mix of RA and TA depending on their interests, abilities, career plans, and grad program schedules. When one of my RA's finds his or her research a burden and has trouble finding time to get results, I am always amazed. I've never told my students that I was never an RA. It would sound too much like saying "When I was your age, I walked 17 miles through snowy monster-infested woods to get to school..".

I'm sure it affects my advising philosophy somehow though, or at least accounts for my difficulty being sympathetic when an RA doesn't function well.

I should say, just to end on a positive note, that when an RA does function well, as my current group of students do, it is really amazing. For one recent proposal, one of my grad students helped provide the preliminary data and participated in the writing, and when it was funded, he was justifiably extremely proud. Now he gets to do all sorts of interesting new things with his research, he is totally funded for the rest of his grad career, and he's doing really well. When it's time for him to apply for jobs, I will prominently state in my letters that he has participated in a major way in writing a successful NSF grant proposal. Win-win.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

This Post Contains "Words"

For weeks now, I have been reading research statements by faculty from many different departments on campus. Each statement is supposed to be as devoid of jargon as is humanly possible, and if one must use a technical term, the term must be defined. Most faculty from science and engineering departments make an obvious effort to avoid jargon in their research statements (though there are some spectacular failures at this), perhaps because we are aware that much of what we do is incomprehensible to most people.

And then there are the research statements from humanities faculty.. Nothing makes me more aware that I am a Scientist and have moved far away from my liberal arts roots than reading research statements by faculty in English, history, philosophy, and so on. I find most of the humanities statements very hard to understand. Fortunately there is a diverse committee evaluating these, and I learn a lot from discussing the files with colleagues from other departments.

My 2 main problems with comprehension of the humanities statements are: (1) when an unfamiliar term is defined, it is typically defined using one or more other unfamiliar terms; and (2) the extensive use of "quotation" marks "around" so many "words". Worse is when both occur in one sentence: e.g., Professor X has developed the novel idea that the literature of the Baltic states was strongly influenced by the unconscious retransfixation of "trees"(that is, the trans-identity of the arboreal "mind"). [note: I made that sentence up] I suppose that the quotation marks signal that a "word" might have lots of meanings for different people from different cultures or experiences and we don't want to limit ourselves to a single meaning as that would be "confining" or even hegemonic.

Eventually, we work these issues out in discussion -- the committee has broad representation from the sciences and humanities. One of the reasons this is a committee I actually like being on, despite the major time commitment, is because it is one of the few opportunities I have to meet and talk with faculty in other departments/colleges. Despite my lack of comprehension of some of the research statements, I do rather like reading them and getting a broad view of what's going on at the university. That's part of the fun of this professor job.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

It's All My Fault

Today a particular event triggered a memory regarding a former graduate student of mine. This student wasn't doing well with his research, but he was such a nice guy that many of us worked hard to keep him going for as long as possible. That was a mistake, as it dragged out an experience that became increasingly stressful for everyone. It's always hard to know when to call it quits with a student, though -- except in extreme cases, I am always optimistic that things will work out and that if we can just find the right level of structure, encouragement, and experience, things will work out. In his case, nothing worked.

He blamed me for his failure. That is rather classic behavior, I suppose, but his explanation for why I was to blame shocked me. He had an M.S. degree from another university, and he told me that one reason he did well there was because his advisor [a single, childless male] would go out for beers with him, and they'd chat about stuff, and this was very helpful to him overall in motivating him to work on his thesis project. But now he had an advisor [me] who was always rushing off to pick up her daughter from child-care and who never hung out with the grad students in the pub in the evenings. Needless to say, once he expressed this sentiment, it was the end of our advisor-advisee relationship. I asked him if he really meant what he'd said (he also wrote it in an email message), he said yes, and I cut my losses, which were considerable in terms of grant $$ and time. He tried to find another advisor. No one would take him, and that was that.

His M.S. was from a small regional university, his former advisor has no research profile whatsoever, and yet he felt that his success there and his lack of success here at this major R1 university must be because I am a mom.

You would think that these guys would self-select out of having a female advisor if they feel that way, yet I've had other male students who couldn't deal with having a woman as an advisor, though not recently. It gets easier now that I'm much older than my graduate students. In my first tenure-track job, I was the same age or younger than some of my grad students. One male student kept saying to me "We're the same age, so why do you think you know so much more than I do?". Maybe it was because he was a first year M.S. student and I had completed grad school, a postdoc, a visiting professorship, and was a professor at a research university? Somehow I had acquired knowledge in that process despite my gender. What a mystery. That guy didn't last long as my student. He told me that he'd be more "comfortable" with an advisor who was "more similar" to him. (stupid and sexist? no no no, I thought that, but did not say that). The weird thing is I didn't force him to be my student. He sought me out as an advisor. I guess he didn't realize how humiliating it would be to have a knowledgeable female advisor.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Species of Reference Letter Writers

I have just finished reading the 99th letter of reference I've had to peruse in the past week, and I happen to have a few opinions about what I've seen. My opinions are also based on the approximately 57,832 other letters of reference I have read over the years. I am going to list various reference letter 'types', in order from what annoys me most to what annoys me least, just because that's the mood I am in right now. Reference letter 'type' probably says something profound about the referee's character and/or personality, but I am not qualified to evaluate that (not that my lack of qualifications stops me from commenting on other things).

The worst: this reflects my own interests/biases, but I hate the letters that say things like "She is among the best young female scientists in her field". I don't need to point out that one never sees similar statements for male scientists, do I?

Tie for second-most annoying: the "I'm so great that just my sending this piece of paper back to you with my signature and CV is a royal seal of approval even though I have written nothing of substance because I don't have time and I don't really care" reference; and the "He's great because his advisor is in the National Academy of Science and/or Engineering and that's all I need to say", or even, "He's great because his advisor's advisor got a Nobel Prize". Wow. It's so cool that brilliant, award-winning people's students are also all brilliant. [note: I used 'he' in the example because all the examples of that I have seen have been male]. I am perfectly willing to believe that talented people had talented advisors etc., but give me more information!

Quite annoying: the "I really can't bring myself to say anything too nice because it would imply that this person might be better than I am". These can be quite odious, in fact. I saw this recently in several letters. For example, a referee wrote something like "Because I have won This Award and That Award, I have the authority to state that candidate X [a woman in this case] is showing signs that she might one day be at the level of someone who could also win these awards." Amazing.

Semi-annoying: the self-serving "this person is great because he/she does research closely related to my own and therefore his/her research is immensely significant". Well, OK, that's nice. I could be convinced with some additional information other than a statement to that effect, but sometimes that information is lacking entirely.

OK to good letter of reference: clear statement of how well (or not) the reference writer knows the person in question, and opinion with examples regarding research quality or potential in the context of the field.

Best: The above, but with some examples or descriptions that make the person in question stand out in some way. If a committee is reading hundreds of these letters, they really can all start to look the same after a while, so the really well-composed letters stand out.

Alas for the person requesting letters of reference, there may be no way to know what kind of letter-writer your referees are. And, for early career people, you might not have much choice anyway. Fortunately, committees (in my experience) can be very forgiving about poorly written reference letters that are otherwise positive recommendations.

I am leaving out of my list the case of reference writers who are insincere and who, in some cases, lie about a person's abilities. That's another topic. The candidates whose letters I have been reading recently really are all excellent, so it's a (difficult) matter of ranking the most excellent from the merely excellent.

I recently read a letter written by someone who didn't know the nominee well but who had been impressed by his work over the years. This letter was written from the heart and was so well written that it was very moving to read. It was a truly great letter. I wish there were more letter-writers like that. I aspire to write letters like that.

So far this fall, I've been writing tenure/promotion letters for various people. Now the faculty application/grad application season is getting into high gear, so I will try my best to write the kinds of letters that I find most useful and interesting when I'm the reader rather than the writer.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Manuscript Reviewing & the Fate of Human Society

A few days ago I wrote this as one reason why I would decline to do a manuscript review:
"I've already reviewed the manuscript for another journal, it was rejected, and I can't bear to read it again in its resubmitted form to another journal even if I feel that humanity will suffer if this paper is ever inflicted on the world."

If I get a manuscript to re-review for a journal different from the one in the first go-round and the manuscript looks like it has been substantially revised, then I will review it. BUT, if I see the exact same (or very similar) awful manuscript again, it means the authors have ignored my comments completely and are just going to try again in the hopes that they find an editor who will either not send it to me or who will ignore my comments and recommendation.

It's just not a good use of my time. I used to do it, but some manuscripts work their way down the journal food chain and appear somewhere, in some cases with an acknowledgment section in which I am thanked for my input (but no mention that my input was that the paper should never be published and that I violently disagree with the methods, data, interpretations, figures, title, punctuation, citations..).

I should mention that I almost always sign reviews, but being acknowledged in papers I think should never have been published is one time I wish I'd chosen anonymity. When I read a really awful paper, I always wonder "Who reviewed this thing?" and I check the acknowledgments..

I have a colleague who keeps a list of people whose papers he reviews and who don't take his comments into account when revising the paper. If he sees a published paper that does not show that the author revised according to his major review comments, he refuses to review a paper by that author again. I am not that extreme, and am not so far gone that I think all my review comments are so great that a paper revised without them is fatally flawed. But I can sympathize with the feeling that doing the review was a waste of time, so why waste more time?

From the point of view of an editor, I know that most authors provide a detailed and thorough response to reviewer comments, and seldom are major reviewer comments 'ignored' without a reason.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

My Nanosecond of (mostly anonymous) Fame

Life got a bit strange last week because some research I was involved in got noticed by the mainstream media. I was co-author on the paper that is generating the interest, and most news reports don't mention me by name, and some that do got part of my name wrong. I am happy to let the first author have all the glory because the few media interviews I did were very disconcerting. It's very different from teaching -- when you teach, you have lots of opportunities to say things in several different ways until you are sure you get the point across. In an interview, you get one shot to sound intelligent. Or not.

A common question I have been asked is how I got involved in this research. It is actually quite far afield from what I typically do, but a year or two ago a friend of mine from grad school realized that some of the types of analyses that I do for very different purposes might be useful for something he was working on. We tried it just to see if it would work, and it turned out to be really interesting. This was a nice example of collaborating across fields.

When asked that question about how I got involved in research with this researcher at another university, what I really want to tell the interviewers is that this colleague, a former collegiate football player, was my bridesmaid at my wedding. It is true, he was, and he was a lovely bridesmaid. I only had one bridesmaid, so technically he was my maid-of-honor as well, but he has said he prefers to be referred to as my bridesmaid, and I just have to respect his choice.

Friday, December 01, 2006


I have been proposal-writing lately. Mostly I have been working on the thorough revamping of a proposal that wasn't funded in a previous submission -- 'wasn't funded' sounds slightly better than 'was rejected', does it not? In the intervening time, I have been working on the project to acquire an awesome set of preliminary data because one of the main criticisms of the first proposal was that I didn't have enough preliminary data. This brings up two issues:

1. How much preliminary data is enough? It's a well-known conundrum of proposals that you have to do some of the research before you can get funded to do the research. informFortunately, many universities recognize this and provide small grants for pilot projects to acquire the necessary data to write a big proposal. For some projects, however, it can be difficult to know how much preliminary data you need before the proposal will fly.

In the past year or so, I actually did a lot of the research that I proposed in the earlier submission, and published 2 papers on this work. There are still a lot of interesting things to do, and the pilot study has resulted in some new and exciting directions for the work. I hope that my preliminary work has strengthened my new proposal by showing that the proposed work is feasible, and that the project is very cool.

BUT, I have had reviews for other proposals say that I had "too much" preliminary data. Figuring out what is too much and what is not enough and what is just right is a moving target because every reviewer is different. I've had other reviews by reviewers who basically wanted see all the results before they would believe the work was possible. This leads me to my next point:

2. When submitting a new, revised proposal for a previously rejected proposal, how much attention should you pay to the previous reviews? There is no one answer to that of course, but I will say that I don't think there is much point to including a 'response to reviewer comments' section in a resubmission. The worst of these sound defensive, and even reasonable ones typically focus on details and don't impress anyone. I think it's better to revise the proposal in the most compelling way possible and let it be reviewed as it is, without reference to previous incarnations. I am sure there are divergent opinions on that issue.

I know that in some countries, the project director can write a rebuttal to reviewer comments. I rather like that idea, but it's probably not practical for a system the size of the U.S. NSF. Lacking such a system, I think it's a waste of precious proposal space to write a rebuttal.