Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The More Things Change

Recently I was talking with a friend/colleague from the university where I was a professor before I was a professor at my current university. He said "Do you remember how in hiring committee and faculty meetings the old guys used to question whether female candidates had done their own work and had their own ideas, but they never brought this up for male candidates?" I said YES, startling him and all people and animals within a 1.5 km radius.

Yes, I most certainly remember that. I told him that I use those experiences in my discussions with early career women scientists when we talk about publications, authorship, applications, and interviews. How could I forget?

The first time I heard one of the old guys say something like that in a meeting, I was so stunned, I slammed my pen down on the table and shouted No, startling him and everyone else within a 1.5 km radius. I don't think anyone there had heard me even raise my voice before, so it got people's attention. I pointed out how unfair it was to raise this issue for female candidates - on the basis of nothing -- and not for male candidates. The old guys seemed surprised. They were not evil -- in fact, they were unfailingly supportive of me when I was an assistant professor -- but they were sexist to the core in other ways, and nothing I said really had much effect on their opinions about candidates. That place had and has a problem hiring and retaining women faculty.

So I wondered why my former colleague was bringing this up. Surely it was ancient history? The old guys had all retired, and I only knew of one, maybe two, remaining faculty who still needed ethics transplants -- like the one who had asked me about my husband during my interview lo these many years ago -- but they haven't been allowed on hiring committees for a long time.

My colleague sighed and said that now some of the younger generation do the same thing. He sits in hiring committees and hears young male faculty question whether female applicants are capable of having their own ideas and working independently, but these issues are not raised for male applicants. He has been fighting this attitude for so long, he was discouraged that it wasn't something that went away as younger faculty were hired.

I told him that it isn't so much of a problem at my current department. There are other problems, but I have not seen anything like what I experienced on hiring committees at his university. Why is it still a problem there? Were the young guys so influenced by the older faculty that they came to believe that women's qualifications were to be doubted more than those of their male peers, or did they arrive with that belief? Did the old guys somehow select new colleagues who shared their views on academic culture? Is the lack of women self-perpetuating in perpetuity?

I don't know, but, depressing though this conversation was, my colleague thinks there is still hope for change. A new, more enlightened dean and chair are finally taking a look at some of the problems in this department re. hiring, and might be willing to make some dramatic changes in how the department conducts its hiring, promoting, and retaining of faculty. It would clearly take some top-down action, as it doesn't seem likely that the department will change on its own.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Garbage In?

Let's say that you are a grad student or postdoc and you are supposed to supply the first draft of a manuscript to someone, perhaps your advisor. Let's say that you miss the first (self-imposed) deadline, and then the second and third and (n-1) deadlines (some of which are imposed by your advisor), and time is going by. Let's say that there is no drop-dead deadline as with a grant proposal to a funding agency that cares not for the reasons why you didn't get your grant proposal in on time*, but if you don't write the manuscript, your career prospects diminish.

So, you are up against your nth deadline and you still don't have the manuscript in acceptable form and you have been unwilling to accept your advisor's offer to help you with intermediate stages of writing and constructing the paper because you want to show that you can do this.

Do you send your advisor garbage -- a rough rough rough draft that has huge holes in it and essentially no discussion other than some topics in outline form, causing him/her to question your abilities and to wonder what you have been doing for the past few months/years -- or do you send nothing (again) and hope that nothing now is better than garbage now?

The best answer is, of course, neither. Send a decent draft, even if it isn't perfect. Don't send garbage and don't send nothing.

But what if you can't come up with a decent draft? The answer (in my opinion, speaking as an advisor-like person) is still neither. Ask for help: from your advisor, from peers who can help you with whatever obstacles are keeping you from writing, from your therapist, from your pets -- just do something constructive if at all possible. Do not make excuses -- that doesn't count as doing something constructive.**

* Except once I found out that the proposal deadlines at federal funding agencies are not so drop-dead as they may seem. Several years ago, I was traveling far from home and working on a proposal during my travels. I planned to submit a proposal online but then there was a natural disaster that cut off the internet connection of one region of the world from the rest of the world. By phone, my nice program director gave me an extension on my proposal and I successfully submitted the proposal 5 days after the deadline, and the proposal was funded. I would not recommend this in general, but it's nice to know there is some flexibility.

** I seem to be very emphatic this week. I am not sure why, but this weekend I went to a cafe to do some work, and as I walked across the cafe to visit my daughter, who was curled up in a chair reading nearby, a large metal bar dislodged from the high ceiling and fell on the place where I had been moments before. Perhaps this has put me in a somewhat severe mood, at least temporarily. Perhaps it should have put me in a philosophical mood, but it didn't.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Crazed Types

Friday's musings and comments about the random people who call, write, visit, or haunt academic departments bring up the issue of there being different types of these people. I feel an overwhelming urge to classify them:

1 - People with a question or problem. They need an expert for something, maybe just to answer a question, and don't know how else to get their question answered. They call their local institution of higher learning, and that's fine, especially if the question or problem can't be solved easily by other means.

It's nice if the request or question is politely phrased and acknowledged. It's not nice if the person making the request gets angry if they don't get the answer they want or if they have a you-work-for-me (because you're a state employee) kind of attitude or if they expect you to drop everything you are doing and spend vast quantities of time helping them. Such rude people are rare, but pop up from time to time.

I personally prefer email correspondence so that I can respond when I have time, rather than the cold-call or drop-in situation, at least for the first contact. I get emails from kids doing school projects, from teachers who need help with something, from writers who want to get the science right in their work of fiction or non-fiction, and from random people who just have a question. That's all fine with me. Most of us don't have time for this, but we make time anyway.

Or, at least, we make time in some cases. For the past five years or so, I've been getting occasional email and voicemail and visits from a very insistent person who absolutely needs me to help him write a book about a topic with which he is obsessed. He wants me to put a graduate student on this project because he doesn't have much time himself, and doesn't seem to believe me when I say that my students and I have no time and will never have time for this project.

2 - Local people who have an interest in a particular academic discipline and who enjoy attending seminars and other talks. This is great. Life-long learning is a great thing for those who have the time and interest.

3 - People who have Big Ideas about something (Science, Philosophy, Religion, Whatever) and who want to discuss, share, or impose their ideas on local professorial people. The local professorial persons will either recognize the genius behind these Ideas or be unable to recognize the genius owing to narrow academic training and myopic world view. These Big Idea people are either:

A: Very insane, or
B: Somewhat insane

and can be further classified by whether they:

I: Briefly interact with academic departments, or
II: Lurk for years/decades, attending department seminars, visiting/emailing/calling, and trying to get professors to read their essays, notes, or books.

The Type 3 people can be harmless to the local department inhabitants if the Type 3's don't require much time and if they are not too scary and persistent. They can wreak havoc , however, on visiting speakers, including candidates for faculty positions, if the speakers are not warned about the questions that might be forthcoming after a talk or seminar. As a grad student, I recall some horrifying examples when candidates for faculty positions were faced with insane questions from a Type 3 person and took the questions seriously, not knowing if their questioner was a random loon or a Nobel laureate, thereby causing the faculty to question their judgment.

Sometimes young colleagues say "No one ever told me I'd have to do [X]" (as a professor), where X typically involves time spent serving on committees, managing a group/lab, or doing some sort of professional service. Add to the list that no one ever tells you that your assistance will be requested and/or demanded at odd times for odd projects by odd people other than your students and colleagues.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Someone Should Study This

This week I've had to spend time in the department office to read files relevant to some committee work. These files are printed and filed in hanging folders rather than made available as pdf's, and I have to get out of my office chair, leave my office, walk all the way to the department office, and sit there reading pieces of paper. It is very traumatic.

It's also kind of fascinating to spend some time in the department office. One staff member in particular has to handle a lot of random phone calls from people asking random things. Non-university people often call university departments with questions and requests. Fortunately for the people who call my department office, the first person they talk to is nice, patient, and helpful, even when the caller is bizarre and/or not as polite as they could be. Some of these calls are then passed along to a professor in the field most relevant to the question, or perhaps (for bizarre/rude calls) to the professor who has most recently annoyed the nice staff person who fields the call.

Perhaps it is similar at private colleges, but I think that because professors at public universities are state employees, the citizens of our states view us as public servants who are available to help them. They are probably a bit more reluctant to call the doctors at the university medical center for free medical advice, or the football coach for advice on athletics, but mere professors are seen as fair game.

In some cases, the questions are easy and quick to answer -- for example, some people call with a question about something they heard on the news. In some cases, people stop by the department (with or without calling first) and expect assistance. At least 62%* of these people are very strange. On several occasions, I have had random people call me and tell me what I should study in my research. Apparently I have been studying the wrong things. I have not yet, however, been tempted by any of these new and creative ideas, 100% of which have been bizarre.

From talking to colleagues in other departments, I know that it isn't just science departments that attract random people who want to discuss their new ideas that Explain Everything or who want to expound on their obsessions, 37%* of which involve unusual religious beliefs. For example, a friend of mine in the philosophy department occasionally encounters local citizens who want to share their philosophical ideas, some of which are written in tiny illegible letters on all sides of grocery bags.

I think that many (76 ± 12%) professors are reluctant to turn away these random people. Part of our job is to teach, and some of us aren't comfortable saying (effectively) "I'm not in the classroom right now and you are not a registered student in my class, so I am not going to help you with your insane question." It would go against our professorial nature, even if our professorial natures should perhaps be gone against more. Example: I once knew a young assistant professor (YAP) who spent a lot of time helping a random person. The YAP was too nice to say no, and got deeper and deeper into a project that involved time and analytical work in what turned out to be an absurd and useless quest.

Do some departments attract more wackos than others, or do all/most academic departments have their own special kind? Someone should study this. What is the ratio of people who call the nation's English departments to discuss their hypothesis that Shakespeare was an extraterrestrial vs. those who call their local astronomy professor to talk about extraterrestrials who quote Shakespeare?

I don't mind some of these random interactions with the scientifically curious and/or confused public. Some (0.4%) of these interactions are interesting and useful. Most are not, but you never know.

* 80% of the so-called statistics in this post are completely made up.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

This Just In

If you happened to check your email moments before a conference session was about to begin and saw that the reviews had just arrived for a manuscript, and your co-author on that manuscript was about to give a talk on the research that is described in that manuscript, would you tell him/her that the reviews had just arrived? Would your decision depend on whether the manuscript had been accepted or rejected and/or on your co-author's pre-talk state of mind?

For example, one might imagine that saying "Hey, our paper was just accepted by The Journal of Awesomely Important Science" might be a bit of a morale boost just before a talk, whereas "Oh, too bad, our paper was rejected owing to some fatal flaws in the data and interpretations, but good luck with the talk anyway" might be a bit undermining.

Most reviews and editorial decisions are more complex; e.g. the manuscript is possibly acceptable pending revision of this and that (and that and that and that). It might be interesting for a speaker to know what flew and what didn't prior to speaking about the work, but perhaps not immediately before speaking about the work. One might imagine that being told "You know that graph you're going to show at the end of the talk? Don't.." could be a bit stressful for a speaker, even if the advice is kind of useful.

And then there's another possible scenario for this situation, which is not, by the way, hypothetical, but another True Life Academic Tale: the co-author announces that the reviews just came, but doesn't provide any more details.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

What We Sound Like

Owing to my recent travels, I had to take a make-up exam in the language class I am taking. I teach my own class exactly during my instructor's two office hours, both of which occur in identical time blocks on Mondays and Wednesdays. Memo to instructors: If you set your office hours like that (at the same hour on M W or T Th), any student who can't go to your office hour on one day owing to a class conflict will likely be unable to attend either office hour.

The instructor kindly allowed me to come to another class she was teaching and take the exam then. She thought it would be less distracting for me if I sat in the corridor just outside the classroom, rather than in the classroom while the other class was in session. This was a good idea, but neither of us realized that the professor whose office is across the hall would talk extremely loudly for an entire hour at one of his graduate students.

The sound of this professor speaking loudly and continuously bothered me at first, but then I realized that he wasn't saying anything that I understood, and I was mostly able to tune out the sound. He was speaking in English, but he had a strong Humanities accent, and he spoke a Cultural Studies dialect containing many words that were unknown to me in the context in which he used them.

When the hour was up, it was time for my own language class to start, and some of my classmates arrived. As we waited in the hall for the classroom to disgorge students from the previous class, one of my classmates said "Oh no, did you have to listen to That Guy for the entire hour? [points at office of Loud Professor]. I hate it when I come early and have to listen to him for even a few minutes." "Yes", I replied wearily, "He's been talking like that for an hour." Another classmate said "I hate That Guy too. He thinks he's so smart, but he isn't."

Hmm. At the beginning of the conversation with my classmates, we were on the same page, marveling (in a somewhat unkind way) at a certain professor's ability to speak loudly for an extended period of time about an obscure topic, never giving his student a chance to do more than murmur in assent. But then my allegiance shifted.

Why did my classmate think this professor wasn't smart? Do my students think this about me when I am talking about my research? This professor clearly had comprehensive knowledge of something, as he was able to expound on who had written what in various texts spanning centuries of literature in his chosen cultural specialty. I suppose my classmate just didn't like the tone of his voice, which could perhaps be interpreted as oozing with I'm-smarter-than-youness and you-have-nothing-interesting-to-say-but-I-doness.

I still empathized with him, though. Do our students want us to be unsure of our expertise and say things like "I don't really know what I'm talking about even though I've spent the last 20 years thinking about this, but one possible interpretation is that .."? Would that make us seem smarter?

I suppose there is some ideal middle ground in which we can converse in an articulate and confident way about our passionate intellectual interests without making everyone hate us and doubt our intelligence. And I suppose also that, ideally, one should let students ask questions or make comments now and then -- at least once every 30-40 minutes or so, when we pause to take a breath.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

I Give Up (Today)

Arguing in an effective and persuasive way is not a skill I possess in abundance, particularly when the arguing and persuading involves (1) speaking rather than writing, and/or (2) meeting a solid wall of resistance from someone whose ego towers over mine.

For the past few months, I have been trying to persuade a Famous Science Guy to do a particular minor thing for the good of Science. This minor thing would involve very little of his time, but would involve his adjusting an inelegant technical detail that he has clung to for decades. If he changed or even just compromised a tiny bit, the world would be a better place and people in our field would rejoice at being able to cast off the cumbersome chains with which he has shackled all those who need to use a particular bit of software.

I have a reasonable working relationship with this person, but my first entreaties were met with a solid wall of resistance to his changing anything. I then sought the assistance of some friends and closer colleagues of his, as they were similarly convinced that he needed to make this change for the good of the scientific world, and they had similar lack of success. One of them told me recently, however, that after months of discussion with me and others, the Famous Science Guy (FSG) was finally coming around and might just budge a bit. That gave me reason to hope.

My hopes were destroyed today when the FSG wrote to me and said "I see no reason why I should change anything." Well, it's his work and he can do things however he wants, of course, but it would be nice if he were willing to compromise on this small thing. One of his close colleagues says that for the FSG to change even this small technical detail would be like admitting an error, and this person does not Err.

So I decided to give up and go ahead with a related project, even if the results won't be as elegant or simple as they could be. I saw no point in further delaying the project, which, by the way, is not a research project, but a sort of professional service activity that needed doing.

When I told another colleague that I was giving up on convincing the FSG, he became incensed. He was a angry with the FSG for being a "short-sighted narcissist", but he seemed even more angry with me. He told me that I was like all those people who let George W. Bush do whatever he wants just because George W. Bush is aggressive and insists that his way is right even when it's not and that's how we got into this war.

Some days are stranger and more difficult than others.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Vex Ed

Last week I chatted with the editor of a science journal -- a different journal from the one for which I do some editing -- and we compared notes on the more vexing aspects of the job.

One thing we talked about was: Who are the most disgruntled people we deal with as editors?

The answer is not the most obvious one: the authors of rejected papers. No, the crankiest people -- or perhaps the people who hesitate least about sharing their anger -- are those who did a review, recommended rejection or major revisions, and then are angry when they see the paper published, or published without all of their suggested revisions accomplished.

This makes sense. Although some authors of rejected papers do indeed indicate their displeasure in a less than polite way, most do not, perhaps because they hope to publish in that same journal at some later date, or perhaps because they recognize the awesome wisdom of the Editor.

Reviewers, however, have performed a free service for a journal, and may have devoted quite a lot of time to a review. To have that review seemingly ignored can be infuriating. I have felt that way as a reviewer, though I can't imagine angrily confronting an editor about it.

My editor-colleague has experienced this angry jilted-reviewer situation a lot more than I have, and I was curious about that. He has been an editor longer than I have, and that may be the explanation. Nevertheless, I couldn't help wondering whether he ignores or disagrees with reviewer recommendations more often than I do. To go against a substantive review and recommendation to reject by a reviewer, I need to be very sure that the reviewer criticisms are unfounded or excessively negative.

It is seldom the case that highly negative reviews are without basis, although it does occur. Some reviewers hate every manuscript they review (but nevertheless provide valuable comments, so editors continue to solicit their reviews); some reviewers are less objective than one ideally hopes a reviewer will be about particular topics; and in some cases a reviewer misunderstands a manuscript (e.g. owing to poor writing by the author or careless reading by the reviewer).

In some cases, one reviewer hates a manuscript but another thinks it is excellent and fascinating. In those situations, at least one of the reviewers is going to be annoyed no matter what the final decision is. That's not what matters, though. An editor has to take every substantive review seriously, read the ms and reviews carefully, and make a decision, possibly after seeking additional reviews.

I just looked at my editorial statistics for 2007, and my acceptance rate is in line with that of a peer group of editors. There may be some vexed reviewers (and authors) out there, but for the most part I think my little corner of the peer review ecosystem is functioning in a fair and efficient way.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Helicopter Parent Crash

The concept of helicopter parents is mostly an abstract concept to professors at big public universities, though colleagues at small liberal arts colleges and other private institutions of higher learning (large and small) report that these people do exist in ever increasing numbers, and they are as annoying as we might imagine. They are not shy about calling their offspring's professors to chat about things that should only be discussed by the professor with the student.

A colleague who directs an internship program at a big public university recently had his first experience with a helicopter parent (HP). Perhaps not surprisingly, the child of this HP attends a small liberal arts college. The parent wanted to know whether his daughter could apply for the internship program even though the deadline had passed. If she could still apply, he would tell his daughter (and maybe write her application for her?).

My colleague wondered whether the daughter knew about her father's activities on her behalf. If she doesn't know and doesn't approve, she needs to have a talk with her father. If she knows and approves, she needs to have a talk with herself and stop relying on dad for things that are her responsibility.

My colleague did not reply to the HP's email because he was annoyed by it and because the answer was no, it was too late to apply for the program. (If you're going to be an HP, you should at least keep track of deadlines). He said that even if the answer had been yes, he wouldn't accept this student. He thought the incident showed that she didn't have the independence or maturity to do well in the program. Of course, that conclusion assumes that the daughter knew of her father's efforts on her behalf.

I would have replied, but it would be difficult to find an effective way to explain to the HP that his efforts were harming his daughter's opportunities, not increasing them. It would be tempting to pretend that the email was from my father, although that would not be the most mature response.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

You Reviewed My Paper

Explanatory note: Although many manuscript reviews in my field are anonymous, in most cases I choose to add my name to reviews, so authors of the reviewed manuscripts know that I was a reviewer. There would be little reason to be anonymous anyway, as the nature of my comments and the style in which I write them identifies me in most cases.

When I am at a conference, I have come to dread the statement "You reviewed my paper." I don't dread it because I am a nasty reviewer and have created a trail of hostility and loathing owing to negative reviews. Even when my review is overall negative, I try to keep the comments constructive and polite. No, I dread it because I review a lot of papers and I edit a lot of papers, and my aging brain does not have a compartment from which I can readily access information about which papers I have reviewed over the years. When someone tells me that I reviewed their paper, sometimes I remember the paper and review, and sometimes I don't.

In some cases, I don't remember because the review was many years ago. Reviews may be memorable to an author, but after 3 (or 7 or 12) years, my memories of reviews I have done are typically faint to non-existent. Recently, people I was conversing with expected me to remember reviews I did in 2002 and 1995. These people did not initially provide me with information about the date or paper topic, but simply said "You reviewed my paper", and expected me to be able to discuss this.

If I can get away with making a vague and ambiguous sound in response to this statement, that's fine. Maybe the author is thanking me for my constructive and positive review? Maybe they want me to apologize for being so misguided as to think their results or interpretations were in error? Sometimes it is difficult to tell.

If the author wants to discuss an ancient review and paper, then I'm in trouble. I have to admit I don't remember, and one interpretation of my failure to remember is that I am arrogant or careless. Saying "I review so many papers.." isn't very effective because it implies that the reviewed paper was unmemorable, pedestrian, too boring to make a lasting impression.

FSP's Guide to Academic Etiquette now has a new entry. If you ever say to someone: "You reviewed my paper", assume that they might not remember this event as well as you do. Provide some supplementary information to help your former reviewer evaluate your statement; for example, ".. and I want to thank you for your useful comments." or ".. and I want you to know that the ignorance displayed by your review is truly staggering." [note: in FSP's Guide to Academic Etiquette, it is permitted to tell someone that they display staggering ignorance, as long as this is said politely and in context.]

Information about the approximate review date and manuscript topic should also be provided if you wish to elicit anything more than a vague and ambiguous sound from your former reviewer. The following statement is therefore highly preferred over the vague "You reviewed my paper":

You reviewed my paper on Topic X in 1995, and I just wanted you to know that you were wrong to doubt my data and interpretations and I have recently been awarded the Nobel Prize for this work.

Once the context is clear, a more substantive, interesting, and lucid conversation can proceed, or not, depending on other factors (duration of conference, alcohol intake of conversants etc.).

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Working With Jerks

In the comments on yesterday’s post, a number of people said that I shouldn’t bother working with a particular obnoxious person. This made me think about the issue of working with jerks. It is unrealistic to believe that one can spend one’s entire career working only with nice, sane people, and there are certain circumstances in which working with jerks is necessary.

First, a definition: In this context, a jerk is someone who behaves in a consistently rude, manipulative, or unethical way. I am sure there are other adjectives, but these three cover a fair amount of ground. It is important to note that I am not talking about difficult people, or cranky people, or people who work at a different pace or in a different style than what I prefer. I am talking about people whose conversational style involves insults or threats and who lie about issues important to research collaboration (for example).

Why work with jerks? When is it necessary or even (on balance) preferred for a professor who has a lot of independence in choice of research topics and colleagues to work with a jerk?

Example: Early in my career, I chose to take my research in a new direction that required me to work with someone who had particular expertise and contacts. He turned out to be a high-level jerk (rude, manipulative, and unethical), but he helped me get started with this research. I benefited from working with him because I launched a new research project, and he benefited from working with me because I added him as a coauthor on many papers and supported some of his research funding with my grants. He does not publish much on his own, and these papers helped his career. Nevertheless, owing to his ghastly behavior, once I had attained a particular level of expertise in this research field, I jettisoned him. I felt that I had repaid the favor he had done me of sharing his knowledge, and it just wasn’t worth the continual stress and trauma of working with him any longer.

Now that my research career is well established, I don’t have to work closely with such people if I don’t want to. Nevertheless, in some cases, research collaboration involves working directly or indirectly with people who have one or more jerkian characteristics. If they are low-level jerks (rude, but not unethical), it might be worth it. Or not. It’s a choice that can be made in each circumstance.

Regarding the jerk I described yesterday, I help him or not as my time and inclination permit. I get to choose, and sometimes I choose to help him with his research or manuscript editing. His being a jerk is of no consequence to me. I don’t know him and I don’t have to work with him. So why help him? Helping him helps his students and is compatible with my philosophy of helping scientists in less fortunate circumstances than my own. I have chosen not to apply a jerk filter when deciding whom to help. That is a far different situation from one in which you have no choice and your career depends on a jerk.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Editing for World Peace

Every so often (4-8 times/year), scientists at a university in a non-English-speaking country will ask me to edit the English in a manuscript that they either hope to submit for review or that has been reviewed and criticized for its poor English. I am happy to help because, in theory, this simple assistance can have a positive impact on someone’s career because publication in international journals may be essential for advancement.

As an editor/reviewer, I have struggled to understand the meaning of some manuscripts written by non-native English speakers, so I think it's a good thing for authors to seek technical editing assistance prior to submission. Furthermore, on a personal level, I benefit from the fact that the international literature is in my native language, and on a cosmic level I think that science as a whole will be the better owing to participation by more scientists, so it makes sense for me to do this simple thing to help.

Some of my colleagues think I should refuse to do this editing, as it encourages people to think of me as a glorified clerical worker. That is, if the manuscript authors really respected me as a Scientist, they wouldn't ask me to edit their manuscripts, and therefore the requests are sexist. I don’t agree with that opinion, but there is an element of truth to it. Some of those who ask me for help have been rather patronizing over the years, are not necessarily very gracious, and tend to respond to my efforts by asking me to do more for them (e.g., doing literature searches for them).

Most of these editing requests come from scientists who are not at well-equipped research institutions, and who are already facing major challenges to do the research and publish the results. At the risk of sounding patronizing myself, I am sympathetic to how difficult it must be to do research at the level required for publication in international journals at an institution that lacks major research facilities. Add to that the challenge for some of communicating in a foreign language, and there's the basis for my philosophy re. agreeing to these technical editing requests. If I can help in some way, shouldn’t I do so? Or am I perpetuating a stereotype about women as assistants who can be asked to do low-level tasks?

In this post, I am discussing the issue of technical editing of manuscripts on which I am not a coauthor, i.e. for scientists who are not research collaborators. I have international colleagues with whom I collaborate on research projects, and that is an entirely different situation.

Some of these scientists ask me to comment on both the writing and the science, but recently I got a couple of requests asking me to confine my comments to the writing. I thought that was kind of odd, but I wondered if the scientists were trying to be polite and not take up more of my time than necessary. I should say that I have never met some of these scientists, and others I don’t know well, so I figure I might as well just help them rather than figure out the motivation for this request.

In one such case I had no trouble complying with the request to confine my comments to the writing. The manuscript topic wasn’t particularly close to my field of expertise, and I zipped through it, fixing the writing. In another case, however, I couldn’t help but comment on some errors, in addition to fixing the writing. I felt that the manuscript was publishable if these errors were fixed, and not publishable without the corrections. The author wrote back to say (essentially): “Thanks for your comments on the science but I am going to ignore them all.” The manuscript was rejected, and I am curious to see what the author decides to do next.

In fact, rejection is a common fate for quite a few of these manuscripts. I said above that correcting the writing in a manuscript can, in theory, have an impact. The impact is theoretical unless the manuscript is published. In some cases there is nothing that I can do to save these manuscripts, however excellent my subject-verb agreement. If the topic is somewhere close to my research expertise, I can, in some cases, help with the content. For example, last year I edited a manuscript that clearly needed data that were easy for me to acquire but impossible for the author, owing to lack of facilities in his country; it took me only a few hours to get the data for him.

If the topic is further removed and there is no reasonable way I can help make a manuscript publishable, my editing efforts are pointless. Even so, I can’t imagine declining to help even when I’m fairly certain of the fate of the manuscript.

There is one particular scientist, whom I have never met, who requests more of my time than all the others combined. He typically includes in his request a casual mention of the fact that it is my responsibility as a scientist in a rich country to help poor, struggling scientists such as him, and that should I decline to help him, my selfish actions would seriously erode tenuous relationships between our two countries and besmirch the pure ideals of scientific collaboration.

I would prefer a simple “Will you please help me with X?”, but despite his obnoxious and manipulative attempt to extract my assistance, this colleague is right that I do have some responsibility to help. But how far can I / should I go with my help? My ability to work with international scientists (other than my collaborators) is constrained by time, funding, and the limits of my expertise. Even so, I figure that the least I can /should do is help edit some manuscripts, with an occasional foray into more substantial assistance.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Competitive Whining

One of my fellow students in the language class I am taking has been trying to register for a class that she wants to take this summer, but the class is already full. She missed her assigned registration time slot, and by the time she remembered, all she could do was get on a waiting list for the class. It must be a popular class because she said the waiting list is fairly long. She wants to take this class in the summer so that she can organize her fall schedule to have all her classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays so she can sleep late the other days.

We were talking about this before class the other day, and she was upset because she had been trying to convince the professor to let her into the class but the professor is refusing. To her, this indicates that the professor is mean and unreasonable. I said "But there are other students on the waiting list. How could the professor let you into the class and not everyone else on the waiting list?" She said "But I begged her. I really want to get into this class."

I said that I hoped she got into the class, but that professors don't make these types of decisions based on the quality of begging. Why would we? How could we? Count up the number of reallys in an email saying that a student really really really wanted to take our class? Let in students who make the most dramatic pleas? My mind and soul will be riven with grief if I cannot take your class.

And furthermore, I said to the student, if she was going to beg, I recommended that she give an intellectual reason for wanting to take the class. She just sighed. Professors..

Friday, April 11, 2008

Penny For Your Thoughts

A colleague recently had the hard drive from his desktop computer completely erased by an intruder who went to his locked office on a day when his university was closed for a holiday. There was nothing of obvious value on the hard drive -- just manuscripts, proposals, presentations, data, images and so on. That is, just his work.

Everything was backed up, so nothing was lost, but even so, it was an evil act. There's no way to know what the malicious person did before erasing all the files and installing a new (pirated) operating system, but the IT people were able to determine that the computer was accessed at least 4 times. I would not be surprised if files were copied.

Years ago, an intruder copied files from my desktop computer. The computer was in my locked office, and the intruder copied the files late at night on a weekend. The files were of the usual academic sorts -- papers, proposals, data and so on, as well as email files that were saved on my computer.

There are many possible motives for this type of malicious behavior: outright theft of intellectual property for personal gain, a desire to inflict severe inconvenience, or an attempt to find some confidential or embarrassing information. When my files were copied and I had a meeting with an associate dean about the situation, she told me that she had dealt with cases like this before. Furthermore, she also dealt with cases in which someone placed incriminating materials (e.g., child pornography) on someone else's computer. Who are these people?

When my files were stolen (copied), the chair and deans were sympathetic to my situation, but it was very difficult for me to convince them that this theft of intellectual property required them to take action against the thief to try to retrieve the stolen information. The type of research I do has no commercial value, and will not result in patents. The same is true for my colleague who more recently had his hard drive compromised.

In my case, the thief also took some research materials that had been purchased with a grant from a federal funding agency. I contacted the university legal office to see what my options were for trying to retrieve my tangible and intellectual property, although I didn't have a clear idea how to retrieve the latter. The thief had made copies of files, so I didn't lose any intellectual property, and the research materials that were taken had a value of about $1000. Small change for a university.

One of the lawyers in the university counsel's office wrote a strongly worded letter to the thief, who had been proven beyond a doubt to have possession of my files and other research materials and who had by that point been fired from the university. I saw a draft of the letter before it was to be sent, and did not find it particularly compelling, but at least it recognized that someone had done something wrong. But then the letter was never actually sent because the university counsel balked out of concern that it would appear that the university was harassing someone who had not actually stolen anything of value to the university. What if the thief got upset by the letter and sued? Then the university would have to spend more than the cost of a piece of letterhead and a postage stamp, and that would not be worth it.

Nothing of value was taken, just my work.

I have written before about people who borrow (steal) ideas from proposals or talks, but somehow it is worse when someone physically breaks into your office and takes stuff, even if the result is about the same.

How do you put a value on basic research? You can't. I bring in grants (+ indirect costs) and I support students and pay their tuition, so I could put a number on how much money I contribute to the university. My research materials, however -- my ideas, my proposals, my manuscripts, and my teaching files -- have no street value.

Does that mean anyone can break into my office in the dead of night and help themselves to whatever they want as long as they don't take anything of actual worth (e.g. computers, research equipment, my first edition of Flattened Fauna)? Sometimes it seems that way. Of course, anyone who does that will be fired and will have to move to the ends of the Earth, but at least they will have my old manuscript drafts to keep them company. Those, of course, are priceless.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

My Primary Job Activity

Every once in awhile when filling out an online registration form, I am asked to select My Primary Job Activity from a pull-down menu of options. I get to select one item, and I have to choose between Research and Teaching.

I am employed at a research university, so I suppose I should choose Research. A major part of my job, however, is Teaching. Depending on my teaching load, it can be the primary activity of my job. In real life, I do research and I teach: they are both my primary job activities.

It doesn't really matter what I select from these lists, but if I could, I would select both Research and Teaching and not choose between them.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Waiting Lists

The previous post mentioned the concept of a waiting list for admission to graduate school. A similar concept applies to summer internships and other application situations as well.

It would be incorrect to think that all or even most of the applicants on a waiting list aren't as 'good' as the ones who are accepted in the first round. Many programs get more excellent applications than there are available positions, and it can be somewhat random as to which applicants get the first round offers.

When first round applicants decline their offers of admission to work with my research group, in many cases I would like offers to be made to students on the wait-list. This becomes tricky, though, because (1) students on the waiting list might (reasonably) feel like they are 'second choice' candidates and might not feel comfortable with that; and (2) in many cases it is too late -- as I wrote yesterday, by the time I find out about some applicants' decisions to go elsewhere, many students on the waiting list have accepted offers elsewhere (as they should).

I have advised some very excellent students who were on the waiting list but who eventually got offers that they accepted. I don't know if these students carry the memory of their wait-list experience or if they don't think about it again once they start their graduate studies. I hope the latter -- I certainly don't think about it once a student is here and working with the group. It's not relevant.

Waiting lists may inflict emotional turmoil, or at least disappointment, but are a necessary evil, as it is seldom the case that the number of outstanding candidates exactly matches the number of available positions. In addition, of course, the number of available positions doesn't typically match the number of first round candidates who accept their offers.

Better communication on all sides would improve the situation for students, faculty, and administrators involved in the admissions process. Perhaps once application websites become more user-friendly, the flow of information will become more efficient, but direct communication is best in some circumstances, especially since admissions decisions can be so emotional and stressful.

There are always going to be communication glitches though. Just this week I got an email from a student applicant taking me to task for not replying to his email. He re-sent the email he says he sent to me a month or so ago. I have never received any email from this person before, have never heard of him, have not seen his file, and although I can understand his frustration if he thinks he sent me email that I ignored, the tone of his email was rude. I wrote back explaining simply that I had not received any email from him before, and he replied that he had been having trouble with his email in recent months. OK then..

But I digress.

Regarding other kinds of Waiting Lists in academia: Is a student wait-list similar in some ways to a short list for a faculty position? One similarity is that all or most of the faculty candidates on a short list may also be excellent, and the decision about which one to hire may come down to details that don't have anything to do with qualifications or excellence.

Even if you know that rankings have an element of randomness, there is something magical about being First Choice and something unmagical about being Second or Third or Seventh. I heard of a recent case in which the first candidate offered a faculty position turned it down owing to having a more attractive offer elsewhere, and the second and third candidates turned down their offers because they didn't want to work at a place where they were not the first choice. The fourth place candidate accepted the offer, knowing he was fourth choice, and as far as I've heard, everyone seems happy with this situation.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Behind the Scenes at the Recruitment

Every year a colleague at another university and I find ourselves trying to recruit some of the same prospective graduate students. Some of the students come Here, some go There, some go elsewhere, and somehow it works out that we both get some new students. Recently I heard from this friend/colleague that a student we were both trying to recruit will be going There for grad school rather than Here.

This colleague and I have been joking with each other during our most recent mutual recruitment efforts. For example, although in reality we both said nice things about each other to prospective students, it's more fun to pretend that I told students about my colleague's sadistic philosophy of advising and that my colleague told students that I am highly unstable. (note: In real life, my colleague has none of these negative qualities, and I only have a few)

It is not uncommon that a visiting prospective student will say to me "I'm trying to decide between the graduate programs Here and There." So then I say nice things about my colleague and outline what I think the main differences are in the graduate programs at the University of Here vs. the University of There. My colleague does the same. We both think it is important that (1) students know that both places are great; and (2) students should weigh all the information and decide which place is a better fit for their interests and preference for work environment.

My colleague and I were recently discussing the fact that when we have these conversations with prospective students, we both have the same thought: If I say too many nice things about the other place/advisor, will the student think I don't want them to come Here and are trying to get them to go There? That is, are we being too nice?

I think that as long as the conversation is kept fairly general and I don't say something like "You know, now that I've met you, it is clear to me that the University of There would be the best place for you. Have a nice life. Goodbye.", it should be fairly clear that I am being sincere in my praise of a colleague I like and admire and not trying to send a coded message that I want the student to go somewhere else. To reduce ambiguity, I have started inserting the phrase "Of course, I hope you come here, but.." somewhere in these conversations about how great my colleague at the University of There is.


I realize that it can be hard for a student to tell a potential advisor about a decision not to work with her/him, but it really is best to tell us as soon as you have made a decision. For example, in the case discussed above, I know from my colleague that a certain prospective student has decided not to come to my university to work with me. Until this student tells my department formally of this decision, however, I cannot recommend admission for any of the applicants on the waiting list, and there are some excellent applicants on the waiting list. The drop-dead date of 15 April is fast approaching, at which time everyone at the top of the waiting list will have made decisions to go elsewhere.

If you wait until the last minute to inform a department of your decision not to attend that program, you are eliminating opportunities for students on the waiting list.
If you really didn't decide until the last minute, that's fine. If you know your decision but don't send the official declination of an offer until the last minute, that is selfish, however unintentional.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Merit Review, Senior Edition

'Tis the season for annual reviews, even for tenured faculty. In my case, I turn in a list of my papers, grants, awards, service activities (department, college, university, professional, outreach), invited talks, and teaching information (classes taught, evaluations). Since I am on the department committee that evaluates these things, my report is dealt with primarily by the chair. The only feedback I get is what I can glean from the size of my merit raise, though I can request a chat with the chair if I have questions.

Looking my list over just now, I feel good about what I've accomplished this year. It was a good year for papers, grants, talks, teaching, and service, and I feel that I have the right balance between all the various components of the job.

When I look at my annual report, however, and in particular at the list of my professional and community activities, it feels like something is missing -- this blog. I don't want or need credit for it from my department, so that isn't the issue, but it feels like the list of my activities is incomplete without it. Perhaps I can add to the list something like:

(5) Anonymous online writer of random opinions and factoids about academia and cats, occasional focus on women-in-science issues and insane colleagues.

If I added that, perhaps I would find out if the department chair actually reads the list of activities on the last page of the reports.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Inspired Lunch

During my recent travels, I had lunch with a friend from college. She is a very smart and interesting person, but hasn't always known that about herself. Nevertheless, although her science career has taken several detours and had some rough spots, she persevered.

I recall previous conversations with her over the years when she was so demoralized by grad school or other academic/work experiences that she thought of quitting. When she got a tenure-track job at a major research university, she wasn't sure whether she was up to the job.

But she was. She thrived in that job. She was an excellent teacher, and she successfully balanced research-teaching-service while setting up a lab and dealing with some insane colleagues. In this blog, I have previously discussed whether someone can recover from a confidence deficit and succeed, and here is an excellent example. Grad school was a setback for her, but being a professor gave her confidence.

Not long ago, she left her tenure-track position owing to the impossibility of keeping that job and a relationship in another city. It was immensely difficult for her to leave a job she loved, but leave she did. I was devastated when she quit her professor job. I felt that it was a huge loss for science and for women-in-science, and I worried about her as a friend. If she left a job that had given her such confidence in herself, what would happen after she left?

What happened was amazing. She has done impressive things in her new job involving science policy. She is having an impact. The rest of us are doing our obscure research in our labs, but she is out there, talking to people and legislators and government officials and the media, and she is traveling the world talking to government and education officials in other countries. And she has even more confidence, somehow finding in herself the ability to be an effective communicator on a huge scale. Perhaps she started on this path when she discovered that she had talents as a teacher and advisor, but now she has taken those skills to an entirely new level.

I think her experiences demonstrate several important things:

- Being stubborn will get you far. Stubbornness can see you through the bad times and out the other side to better things.

- Lack of confidence need not be a terminal condition. I think in many cases it is, so it is important to tell stories about cases in which it was not.

- There is life after being a professor. There are many times when I have thought that I could never do anything else, and I probably never will do anything else, but I think it is important for us happy professors to know that someone can have a happy life doing something else.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Professor-Student (again)

It's time to start registering for classes for the fall term, and I have been trying to decide whether to sign up for the third year of the language class I have been taking.


This class meets 5 days/week and there are buckets of homework assignments and quizzes and presentations and such, and some weeks the last thing I need is to study for a midterm exam. (Students reading this will not sympathize, I know..).


I really love taking this class (and the ones I took the previous 3 semesters). Although my speaking ability in this language lags behind my comprehension, reading, and writing skills, I have made a lot of progress and I feel great about that. After nearly two years, I can't imagine not taking this class. Can one become addicted to language-learning?

A third year course in this language has not previously been offered, but my fellow students and I lobbied for a third year course, and it looks like we were successful. Even though I'm not a real student in the sense of working towards a degree, I do register for the courses (pass/fail), so I count in the enrollment numbers.

OK, I will probably sign up for the course. I've managed so far, I am enjoying it, and I'm making (slow) progress. I feel like I'm using a different part of my brain in these courses, and that feels good to me, though I don't know why.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

My Two (Anonymous) Cents

The topic of Anonymity is perennial -- see the most recent discussions of anonymity in The Chronicle of Higher Education and subsequent web-discussions (e.g. Zuska). I briefly mentioned the issue last year.

Is there anything new to say on the topic?

Some of the brave souls who rage against us Anonymous Ones say that we are damaging the public image of Academe. According to the anti-Anonymous writer in the Chronicle, Peter Plagens the Painter, we "skulk" (in fact, some of us simultaneously skulk and gripe, perhaps indicating a talent for multi-tasking?), we fear our stories might not "check out", and those of us with tenure have "no excuse whatsoever".

The particular examples in the Chronicle piece are perhaps not the best ones to choose for debating the reasons why an academic might choose to be anonymous. A thorough, thoughtful discussion of the anonymity issue would at least mention some concerns beyond fear of mild reprisals for saying, just as an example, that the Dean of my college is a robot.

Here's one of my many reasons: Safety. Every week I reject (delete) a number of obscene and/or threatening comments that are sent to me via this blog. I don't delete comments that say that I am a selfish, exploitative, cheap, racist man-hater, as long as there is some content to those comments beyond the criticism and epithets. I delete only the truly obscene and hateful comments whose only purpose, as far as I can tell, is to demonstrate that there are immature and sick people out there.

What if I weren't anonymous? (or, I should say, semi-anonymous, as some readers know who I am). Do I only get these comments because I am anonymous? I don't believe that. And why would I want these sick people to know exactly who I am, where I live, where my daughter goes to school? In my real, non-anonymous academic life, I have dealt with enough unstable people, including one who threatened my child, to know that I'd rather not expand my personal encounters with such people, even if most of them are just jerks who would never do more than try to post an obscene (anonymous) comment on a blog.

The anti-anonymous Chronicle essayist says that we anonymous writers might reinforce the view that academics are "fragile, frightened creatures". That sounds like the point of view of someone who has never been truly threatened. I don't spend my days feeling frightened, and I really would rather not. The fragility and fright mentioned in the article seem to refer to fear that one will be reprimanded for complaining about a lack of chalk in a classroom, not fear that someone will harm your child.

The obvious way to reduce my exposure to threatening people is to not have a blog, but I am not so fragile and frightened that I want sick people to control what I do.

I have picked a rather extreme reason to discuss today, but I chose it in part because I think that people like Peter Plagens the Painter are being unrealistic and sanctimonious in criticizing anonymous writers. Also, he chose to title his commentary "The Dangers of Anonymity", but he didn't discuss any real dangers, just trivial ones.

I probably sound angrier than I really am, but I think it is bizarre to suggest that anonymous writers are endangering Academe. I worry more about people who don't think through their arguments before piling on ridicule and accusations, and who can't imagine that anyone has a different experience than their own.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Doesn't Compute

In the olden days, way back when not everyone had a laptop, many students used research group, department, or university computer facilities. I was always buying computers: I provided a few computers for general use by my group, I bought desktop computers for postdocs to have in their offices, and I purchased a laptop or two for use by students and postdocs working on particular projects.

All that was fine, but I also had to pay the university a fee every month for network connections in the offices of my students and postdocs and in my lab, and also for the ones in my office, other than one 'free' port that the university provided for each professor. Faculty were not allowed to use funds from federal granting agencies to pay these network fees, presumably because this kind of thing was supposed to be covered by indirect costs (overhead), so we were always trying to get additional funds from sources that didn't have rules against paying for internet connections.

In theory, we were not even allowed to use hubs to make more efficient use of our network connections (e.g., for connecting to a printer), and there were always vague rumors that there would be inspections for hubs and we would be forced to relinquish them. We lived in fear.

If one of my postdocs or students were assigned space in an office that did not have a network connection, I also had to pay for the additional cost of having the university telecom people thread cables through the walls. In the deepest darkest part of this era, I felt like the department's hostile zombie administrative assistant was moving my research group members around to different offices each year so that I could pay for the networking of the building. Paying for installation of a network connection in an office did not guarantee that one of my students or postdocs would be put in that office the next time the office became vacant.

The point of all this reminiscing about ancient computer and internet history is to note the contrast with the situation today. I still buy postdocs desktop computers if they so require, I still keep some computers around in a research space for general use, and once in a while I buy a laptop on a grant and give it to a student to use, but I spend a lot less than I used to on computer and internet related costs and fees. Now there is no monthly fee for network use, wired or wireless, and most students have their own computers.

I suppose I have become complacent about my reduced commitment to providing computers and computer-related things for my group because I was taken aback recently when a grad student asked me if I would pay for the cost of getting his personal laptop repaired. He uses his laptop for research related computing, in addition to recreational uses. It is going to cost nearly as much as the price of a new laptop to recover the files from his crashed hard drive, which was not sufficiently backed up.

I don't have a budget line for paying for the repair of a student's personal computer, and I am not sure how I would pay for it even if I thought it was an appropriate expense.

Is it an appropriate expense? He uses the computer for his research, though I have no idea what the ratio of research : recreational use is, though I hope it is high. His not having his research files backed up has caused a delay of at least two months in finishing a manuscript that should have been submitted long ago, and I am annoyed by that.

The advisor-angel sitting on one shoulder tells me that maybe I should share the expense (somehow) because it is in the best interests of the student and his research project to help him fix this problem quickly. I benefit from the fact that most students acquire their own laptops, so perhaps I should share in the perils? The advisor-devil sitting on the other shoulder tells me that if this student had been using one of the computers I had purchased for my group, of course I would pay for any repairs, but why should I pay just because he didn't back up the data on his personal laptop? His co-advisor and I paid for the data to be acquired, and he had a responsibility to keep the data and other important files safe, for his own sake as well as for that of the research project as a whole.

At the moment, the advisor-angel's voice is very soft and intermittent -- perhaps she has a weak signal or a bad connection? -- but the advisor-devil's voice is loud and clear and uploading advice directly into my head.