Thursday, June 12, 2008

My Secretary

During my recent travels, a colleague with whom I was corresponding required a transaction that I could not complete without access to my physical office, which was thousands of miles away. I was stunned to get an email message that asked me if my secretary could help. Perhaps "she" could scan the necessary item and email it?

Perhaps she could, if she existed. I do have some colleagues who have a secretary or who share a secretary with 1-3 other faculty. I, however, am secretaryless.

It would be nice to have someone help with the technical aspects of managing a research program, but my department isn't going to supply me with a secretary any time soon, and I'd rather spend my grant money on research and students.

My husband occasionally mentions that he wishes he had an office "concierge" to make him espresso 5-12 times/day. For some reason that I probably don't want to explore too much, he pictures this person as a gay man with an Italian accent.

The concept of having a secretary or office assistant is too remote for me to have a mental picture of what my theoretical secretary would look (or sound) like. I personally wouldn't mind having an office tabby cat to reduce the rodent population and to look fierce when people come to my office to ask me to do things I don't want to do, although that wouldn't be too practical when I need help with grant or lab management.


Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde said...

Do you mean to say that you accomplish all your FSP-type things without so much as a part-time lab manager to help you out?

I am starting to think that this blog, rather than encouraging us young female researchers, is only going to make us wail in despair at the disparity between our productivity and yours. Waaah!

Global Girl said...

I have wished I had a secretary so many times. I waste so much time I could be doing research on things a secretary could do. And I'm not talking about eye candy serving me coffee.

Anonymous said...

Would they let you have a cat at work? I knew a guy who used to take his dog into work everyday. The new students used to think he was quite eccentric for it.

RJ said...

A tabby cat would be quite a lot cheaper than the office assistant.

Although then you'd need to feed him or her.

Or assign a grad student to do it!

I can imagine a situation where a TyrannicalProfessorus Rex bestows the favour of being 'honored" to sift the litter tray and feed the cat to a particular student.

But you are a more evolved professor than that!

iayork said...

I want an office tea lady. She would roll a cart with tea, in a china tea pot, around the department at tea time, and offer us cups of tea. here might be little cupcakes, too.

She would call us "Love". Or perhaps "Ducks".

Also, I want a pony.

Jennie said...

I was surprised to learn that the secretary of my co-adviser types everything for him. That is correct, my co-adviser doesn't really know (or care to know) how to type. This really bites because he doesn't use track changes in word and has to write all his changes in a manner I can't read.

however in my department there are only administrative assistants associated with the big money grants-which usually serve multiple professors.

Anonymous said...

It's amusing to read the faculty request forms we fill out for getting assistance from the staff in the office--they clearly date from an earlier era when the staff actually helped the faculty in significant ways (including typing!!). I currently request help four times a year (copying my four exams). The combination of word processing programs, staff resistance to simple requests, general incompetence when asked to do things, and the time required to explain things has gradually taught all the faculty (even the last three Department chairs) to never ask for anything else, despite a form that lists all sorts of possible functions (type papers, send FAXes send reprints!!). I do have some Med School colleagues who actually share a competent adminsitrative assistant and have seen how great that is in situations like that FSP describes as well as at grant time. Ah well, not in my Department.

Mark P

anon said...

A cat is impractical because you need to keep a litterbox somewhere, and when your enemies come to the office, he'll just sit there and let the enemy pet him and scratch him behind the ears. Completely useless.

That said, my department does have some cats living outside. Sometimes the cleaning staff will get a feral kitten and raise it in the building, and it will greet all the professors and students in the morning, but the cleaning staff hasn't done that here yet. It's a good arrangement because the cat always has company (cleaning staff at night and students during the day) and it can disappear for a week to catch mice or whatnot. However, you do have to watch out if your building is used for undergraduate teaching (too many people for one cat) and if the labs contain dangerous chemicals. Then there is always the killjoy who's allergic to cats.

iayork said...

I knew a guy who used to take his dog into work everyday.

The guy I did my post-doc with used to bring his dog in to his office quite regularly.

She (the dog) disliked the guy down the hall, and I was told that at least on one occasion, she tried to bite him when he visited the office. Since he was the head of our department and of the research institute as a whole, and has a Nobel Prize, this may not have been the best move, career-wise.

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised you don't have an administrative assistant for your department in general. It seems reasonable that the person who greets guests, answers general phones calls, etc. could handle an occasionally request like this one. Perhaps this is your chair's assistant?

Female Science Professor said...

Yes, of course, and in fact that is what happened in this case, though it wasn't the chair's assistant who helped (too busy playing online Sudoku), but another person in the office.

Ms.PhD said...

Full-time support staff is a wonderful thing... for people who have them.

My advisor really needs one. When the lab has more than a handful of people, and the PI travels more than infrequently, it's time to get someone full-time, with up-to-date basic computer skills.

'nuff said.

I love all the stories about cats. I wish I had an office cat. That would be very comforting.

I also like the idea of a dog that eats Nobel prize winners. That made me laugh.

Becca said...

Someday, I want a big corner office and a support staffperson... a warm lady who calls us "ducks" or "lovie" or a cordial and dashing gay Italian gentleman would do smashingly.
I want a Nobel-prize eating cat and I'll put up with the liter box myself for that.

And I want two ponies.

Doug Natelson said...

I would really like such a person. In my case, I picture someone more like Jeeves (though that's not so good, since it implies that I resemble Bertie Wooster), or perhaps Sgt. Lewis from the Colin Dexter/Inspector Morse mysteries. Lewis would do important leg work, serve as a sounding board for Morse's ideas even (especially) when they were wrong, and in the end would be a huge help.

okham said...

Yes, I have met excellent secretaries, who greatly enhanced the productivity of a research group in many different ways. They are rare though. The main problem that I see is:

1) If we are talking someone technically competent, that person can make way more money in the private sector, where (s)he will also be normally hired as a regular, full-time employee with benefits, health coverage etc. Many of the secretaries employed in the average university do not enjoy that type of appointment.

2) If we are talking someone utterly incompetent, then (s)he is going to be a liability rather than an asset. Routinely I find myself opting to do "secretarial" type work myself, as I feel I cannot trust that it will be taken care of properly.

ScientistMother said...

I actually want a housewife. so that when i get home dinner is made, laundry is done, house is clean. I know that is so SEXIST and ANTI-Feminist of me, and since does all the laundry and dishwashing I shouldn't complain...

EliRabett said...

"I can imagine a situation where a TyrannicalProfessorus Rex bestows the favour of being 'honored" to sift the litter tray and feed the cat to a particular student."

Graduate students will eat anything

Notorious Ph.D. said...

this reminds me of the classic second-wave essay (I forget the author) entitled "I want a wife." I read it as part of a entry-level English course at the local community college, and immediately related to all of it. So a wife... but a secretary would be great, too.

JRB said...

Thanks to the new marriage laws in California, you can get a wife now!

Assistant Research Cynic said...

Once upon a time, salaries were low and technology was expensive. Now, due to technology improvements and mass production, it's the other way around, which is why we all have computers on our desks and departments have many fewer secretaries (and somewhat fewer lab techs) than they once did. And we do our own typing. Maybe at some rich institutions or places in Europe, they still have lots of secretaries.

Of course, when those jobs existed, many of the people in them were women, and quite a few of them were talented women who could have been professionals, or professors, if they hadn't been held back by sexism.

Sadly, academia was structured around professors-with-wives (with duties like in the "I want a wife" essay that Notorious Ph.D. mentioned) and academia hasn't ever really figured out how to make adjustments to fit modern life.