Thursday, July 31, 2008

For Crying Out Loud

Although I have not been keeping close track, my best guess for the number of crying students I encounter in a typical year is 5 ± 1. The number is higher if I teach a large class or if I'm on a committee that deals with student issues, but in most years, the numbers are in the mid single digits.

I can think of 4 crying incidents so far this year, including two this summer. I suppose female students are more likely to cry than male students, but I encounter both male and female crying students.

Crying is a perfectly acceptable way of expressing emotion, even in a 'professional' setting such as academia, but I seldom know what to do when a student cries. I am not particularly effective at comforting weeping or teary-eyed students. My maternal feelings begin and end with my daughter, though I of course feel sympathetic when a student is in distress.

The reasons for the tears vary tremendously, but typical reasons are:

Grade-related sorrow. Some (most?) of these tears are real, though I had a particularly theatrical student last year whose tears were very effective with the TA's, resulting in extended deadlines for assignments. My typical response to grade-related weeping is to give calm advice as the situation requires. In some cases, students are more upset than is warranted by the situation. In these instances, I can comfort the student with facts, showing them that their panic is unfounded. In other cases in which there is nothing I can do (e.g., at the end of a term after the grades are filed) and/or in which I am unsympathetic (e.g., if a student just assumed they could pass even if they didn't attend class or turn in assignments), I give a neutral but polite response.

Research-related anxiety. Two student-crying episodes this summer involved undergraduates who were starting to get involved in research and found it frustrating and confusing at times. In the most recent case, I was surprised that such a small setback resulted in tears, but maybe there were other things going on beyond the realm of academia. My response was to solve the research mini-problem as quickly as possible, give some brief words of encouragement, and let the student get back to work. Perhaps I should have been more comforting or sympathetic, but at the time I just wanted to help solve the problem, demonstrate some strategies for overcoming an obstacle, and get the student back on track. There seemed no point in dwelling on being emotional about a minor glitch that could be fixed.

Sensitivity to criticism. Some people cannot handle criticism, real or implied, however constructively worded and intended, and academia is an intrinsically criticism-laden environment. I have written before about how difficult it is to work with students and colleagues who are easily devastated by criticism, and I have mused ineffectually about whether ultra-sensitive people can get over this unfortunate condition while in an academic setting.

During a crying episode, it is probably clear to my crying students that I am not entirely comfortable with the situation. When my daughter cries, I know what to do, but the reasonable options available to a professor when a student cries are of a different sort and are rather limited. I suppose I could pat the student on the shoulder and say "there, there", but somehow that doesn't seem very useful.

Despite my discomfort, I don't try to rush the students out of my office or tell them to go away, unless they are in the midst of a grade tantrum to which I am unsympathetic. I tend to go into problem-solving mode and talk or work through the issue, though this may reinforce the view of scientists as unemotional robots who are uncomfortable with emotions. Even so, I find that talking through or solving the problem is the best comfort I can give, other than handing out tissues as needed.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Travel Fiends

On September 2, 2007, I wrote: Next summer I will organize things differently so that my travel is more spaced out, and I might say no to some invitations to participate in workshops and conferences..

Last summer I traveled much too much, and at the end of the summer I didn't feel rested and ready for the new term, and I didn't accomplish as much as I'd wanted to over the summer. In fact, as I was returning home from my most recent major, long-distance trip a few weeks ago, I felt very tired of traveling and being away from home and my family (and, yes, my office), and was happy at the thought of not going anywhere for too long or too far for a few months. I love traveling, but even I have my limits. Or, at least, I thought I had limits.

The day after I got back from that trip, I was invited to travel far far away for a very intriguing workshop later this month, and I instantly said yes. My daughter will be away at camp at that time, and the opportunity was too interesting to pass up. I think if I had got the invitation on the very day I was doing a lot of traveling, I might have said no, but I guess it only takes me 24 hours (or less) to forget about the annoying and exhausting aspects of traveling and to be willing to do it all again.

I am not the only one with travel amnesia. My husband is the same way. He was going to turn down some invitations to speak at conferences in a couple of months because he is tired of conferences and tired of so much traveling. Furthermore, some of these conferences, although juxtaposed in time, are on opposite sides of the world from each other, and he'd also agreed to serve on a panel that met at about the same time in yet another place. Somehow, however, he ended up searching online for absolutely insane travel itineraries to get him from one side of the world to the other so he can attend most of both conferences. He just told me he got his tickets.

Overall, I am traveling less this summer than I did last summer, so I hope to emerge from the summer feeling recharged for the fall term despite my upcoming wanderings, which may result in sporadic posting and comment moderating.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Textbook Syndrome

The number and length of the comments incited by yesterday's musings about textbooks illustrate my main point: people have strong opinions about the purchase and use of textbooks. With all due sympathy for those who have been afflicted with expensive and useless textbooks, I find this strong emotional reaction to textbooks very interesting. For this discussion, I will refer to the collection of feelings, many of them negative, surrounding the purchase of expensive college textbooks as Textbook Syndrome.

I have no particular opinion as to whether Textbook Syndrome is a legitimate affliction (and possibly highly infectious) or psychosomatic. I am not a real doctor.

As in the discussion yesterday, I am going to ignore some major aspects of the issue; for example, university bookstore policies regarding new textbook pricing and buy-back value. Instead, I want to focus in particular on student knowledge and perception of the role of professors in triggering the Textbook Syndrome. Some possible triggers of this syndrome include:

Professors who write textbooks and assign them as required reading for their students

I don't want to make excuses for faculty whose motives and methods in writing and assigning textbooks are not pure and whose classes are boring, but consider the following complaints and responses, in which the latter are written from my biased professorial perspective:

(1) The professor is making a profit from students and this is not fair.

If a professor writes a textbook and then teaches a class on the subject of the textbook, do you really expect them to use another book? Wouldn't that be kind of weird? Wouldn't that be like saying "I spent years pouring buckets of knowledge into this book and thinking about the best ways to illustrate some really essential concepts related to this topic that I am going to teach in this course, but maybe I should use someone else's book just because I will make $3.57 from my class if all the students purchase new copies of the latest edition of the textbook and that would be unseemly?". And if professors don't write textbooks on the subjects of their expertise, who will write these books? Other professors, just not yours?

Most textbook authors I know wrote their book out of a sincere interest in explaining to students how some aspects of science work. I am sure that some textbooks are lucrative for the authors, but most professor authors are not getting rich off their students. They spent years on these projects, writing mostly in their 'spare' time, and they are proud of the resulting book despite the lack of financial rewards.

That said, I personally feel uncomfortable requiring that students buy a textbook with which I am associated, but neither do I feel comfortable using another (inferior!) book. My discomfort is part of my motivation for being accommodating about student textbook purchases.

(2) If the professor wrote the textbook, the class will be boring. Students can skip class and just read the textbook, which will also be boring.

When I first got involved in a textbook project, I worried about the effect on my courses of using a textbook that had my name on it. If I put some of my best anecdotes and illustrations in the book, and then I assigned the textbook for the course, would my class automatically be boring? Would students stop attending lectures?

I suppose if my teaching consisted of standing in front of the class and reading from the textbook, attendance might dwindle substantially. Of course I don't teach like this (does anyone?), but the question remains how using your own textbook affects course dynamics and attendance.

My anxieties about assigning a textbook with my name on it were unfounded. Science is dynamic, so there is always something new to talk about, or at least a new perspective on a fundamental concept. I am always changing how I teach and what I teach, and I can always bring something new to a class.

That's nice, but despite the dynamic new material I present in class, the textbook is not irrelevant. The basic, classic concepts are in the textbook and I teach them in class as well. These form the core of the class, around which I present new examples and ideas and topics to discuss. In theory, the in-class experience and the textbook reading reinforce and complement each other.

It's fine with me if textbook materials (text, illustrations) are provided by some means other than the traditional printed (expensive) textbook, but until there is a good alternative for the classes I teach, I will keep assigning textbook reading for those classes that will benefit from this.

Professors who require the purchase of expensive textbooks but hardly use the books in the course

There are several possible explanations for inadequate textbook usage:

(1) The professor might be disorganized and/or evil and assign an expensive book for students to buy, not caring if this is a financial burden.

If students in a course believe this to be the case, it is important to try to fix the situation. Students who are upset or concerned about inadequate use of a required textbook could politely question the professor. Alternatively, they can wait and write angry comments on the teaching evaluation at the end of the term.

In theory, a large number of negative teaching evaluations for more than one course will trigger corrective action. This is becoming more common that it used to be. For example, if significant numbers of students provide articulate comments in teaching evaluations regarding problems of textbook usage, the professor might be motivated or forced to fix the problem. Random negative comments about hating the textbook could easily be attributed to grumblings of slacker students who don't like to read.

(2) The students might think the textbook is useless, but in fact it is not.

I've gotten a few random "the textbook was useless" comments in teaching evaluations from time to time, and I find this comment puzzling. I assign specific textbook reading for each class, and these readings are listed on the syllabus. I discuss the relevant concepts in class, and I use illustrations and examples from the textbook, supplemented by other illustrations and examples. I do not cover every topic in the textbook (nor could I, even if I wanted to), and I do not ask exam questions on textbook information that I have not discussed specifically in class. I do, however, refer often to the textbook reading.

Given all that, what does it mean if a student comments that the textbook was useless? Without additional information about the student's reading habits or specific problems with the reading, I have no way to evaluate the criticism. Owing to the rarity of this comment, I conclude that I don't have a problem, but if I got this comment consistently, I would rethink my textbook choice and use.

I think that if students have difficulty reading a textbook, do not spend the time reading a textbook, or have a problem integrating textbook and in-class information into a coherent understanding of the course topics, their response might be to blame the textbook as being useless, and therefore a waste of money.

(3) The professor might have no choice in the required textbook.

For some large courses, departments have a committee that selects the textbook. Individual professors teaching a section of a large course might not have had any input into that selection, and may have a teaching philosophy or preference for course content that is different from the textbook's. This situation might also arise when one professor inherits a course from another professor, and hasn't yet had time to select their preferred textbook.

You might think that the professor should just follow the textbook no matter what, but in many cases, courses are best taught if the professor isn't forced to follow a textbook they think is boring or strangely organized. This opinion is based on the assumption that the professor isn't teaching old, outdated material because that is easier to do, or is insane and wants to spend the term ranting about some bizarre obsession. Most professors who deviate from a preselected textbook do so because they think they can provide a more interesting class by not following the textbook closely. I don't think the main decider in teaching philosophy and course content should be 'following the textbook closely', even knowing the rage that lack of good use of a textbook ignites in many students.

In these cases, it is best if, early in the term, the professor clearly explains the course content and expectations with regard to textbook use, and gives students options with respect to textbook purchase.

Maybe textbooks will one day be obsolete. Like many professors, I am fond of books and still have most of my college and graduate school texts, in addition to all the ones I have bought over the years. However, I am willing to consider other options for textbook material delivery, as long as these other options still require that students read and understand written information.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Textbook Case

Textbooks are expensive when compared to the cost of most other books. The expense of textbooks can be a burden for some students, especially if a course requires a new textbook that is not available as a somewhat cheaper used edition.

I am not going to try to evaluate whether textbooks are overpriced compared to what it costs to produce them and what the author(s) are paid and how much the college bookstores profit. I've read articles on the issue of textbook economics, but other than stating that I am not making a profit compared to my efforts with textbook-writing, I have little knowledge of the various components of textbook pricing. I am, however, interested in the phenomenon of the perception that textbooks are overpriced.

When I teach a large class, I put copies of the textbook on reserve in the library, and I tell students that they can acquire any edition they want -- the latest one or older ones, and I provide reading guides on the syllabus for the two most recent editions. In addition, I have a raffle on the first day of class and give away a dozen textbooks.

In my medium-sized classes for Science majors, I expect the students to buy the textbook or borrow a copy from me or the library. I recommend that they buy the book if at all possible, as they will use it as a reference for future courses, but I keep extra copies on hand for lending.

In my smallest class, I buy used copies of the primary text (a paperback with abundant inexpensive copies available) and give them to the students. They can keep the books or give them back at the end of the term, whichever they prefer.

So, in general I consider myself to be fairly accommodating about the issue of textbook expenses, but I must admit that at heart I don't really understand why textbook prices cause quite so much anger.

Whether or not someone is making an obscene profit at the expense of students who are struggling with the rising cost of higher education, the high cost of textbooks clearly makes some (many?) students angry. There are now textbook piracy websites that contain scanned copies of textbooks, and these websites are apparently motivated by a wish for 'revenge' against someone or something (e.g., publishers, professors, bookstores).

Why do textbooks in particular make students angry compared other high-price items involved in the cost of higher education or compared to other essential items such as computers?


- Other types of books are not nearly as expensive, so it is shocking to have to pay so much for something that is, after all, just a book. Students therefore assume that someone is making an 'unfair' profit at their expense.

- Many students buy their own textbooks, or at least do the selecting/ordering, and so are very aware of the price. If the price were included with the bill for tuition and fees, the amount wouldn't have such a visceral effect.

- The people making the students pay these high prices -- the professors who select and require the textbook -- are visible to the students in a way that, say, college presidents or computer manufacturers (or oil companies) are not.

I am just musing here, but whenever I read an article about the high cost of textbooks making people angry and upset, I wonder if part of the problem is that textbooks are books.

I wish that textbooks weren't so expensive and I support innovative efforts to make texts available at lower cost, but I think that student anger at professors for assigning (or writing) expensive textbooks is misplaced.

Friday, July 25, 2008

One Man's Flunky..

If you ask others to comment on an aspect of your work (research, teaching, or service), some people will think that you are being collaborative and others will think that you are showing a lack of confidence or an inability to work on your own.

For a recent professional service activity (for which I volunteered), I sent a a draft of a document to a small working group associated (by choice) with this project. I came up with the idea for this project and have done all the work (as agreed), but I wanted to show the others what I'd written, and, if these colleagues were so inclined, to get their input and have a discussion. I made it clear that advice was welcome but optional.

I was pleased to get rapid and interesting comments from some of these colleagues. Although I didn't agree with some of their suggestions, in all cases their advice was phrased as "See what you think about this, but ignore it if you don't like the suggestion." Their advice was mostly constructive and some of it was useful. I was already happy with the document, but now it is even better.

A colleague not involved in this project said "Who cares what anyone else thinks? Why did you even ask them? By asking for advice, you are being their flunky. Just do what you want." He thought it was a sign of weakness that I sought advice. Am I afraid to make decisions on my own?

No, in fact I am not, and what I want to do is seek input and encourage discussion. I do this because I think this will produce the best results.

My colleague who made the flunky comment noted that I am the only Female Science Professor involved in this project. He asked "Would any of the others have asked for input if they were in charge of this project?". In other words, is my inclination to seek advice a female trait?

Maybe it is and maybe it isn't. Does it matter? It's just how I like to work.

As Eleanor Roosevelt once sort of wrote (but that I have somewhat modified for the occasion): No one can make you feel like a flunky without your consent.

Or, how about this: One man's flunky is a woman collaborating.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

So They Had To Hire A Woman?


Eons ago, I wrote about suggested phrases for obnoxious questions commonly asked of Female Science Professors. In the past 2+ years, I have made intermittent additions to this list. It occurred to me to collect some of these (with thanks to commenters), expand the list, and request additions of both questions and answers.

For each of these questions and comments, there are many possible answers that vary in their degree of sarcasm, politeness, and profanity, depending on mood/context.

Question: So they had to hire a woman..?
Answer 1: Yes, but only because a woman was the most qualified for the job.
Answer 2: Yes, but only because all the male applicants were mediocre.
Answer 3: Yes, they finally realized they had hired enough mediocre men.
Answer 4: No, but they did anyway. Why do you think they did that?

Question: So you're going to get a Ph.D.? Couldn't you find anyone to marry you?
Answer 1: Why would I want to get married when so many men are just like you?
Answer 2: That's right, and I want to be a professor so that there are fewer people like you saying things like that.

Question (said to male person): Who takes care of your kids when your wife travels?
Answer: The cats.

Question (said to married/partnered female person): Who takes care of your kids when you travel?

Answer: The cats.

Question (said to academic couple): Which of you is the trailing spouse?
Answer: Our cat.

Comment: You don't look like a professor. (variations: You don't look like a scientist. You don't look like an engineer) * thanks to commenter Helen for this suggestion *
Polite answer: But since I am one, I must look like one.
Somewhat rude version of polite answer: B
ut since I am one, I must look like one. Welcome to the 21st century.
Somewhat polite answer that is too subtle for some people: I don't? What does a professor look like? (pretend to be confused, making the questioner realize that it was a rude question based on a stereotype)
Rude answer that is not highly recommended but that may be useful and satisfying in certain circumstances: And you don't look like a [insert unflattering word such as moron, sexist, ignorant fool], but you are.

Question: Are you a real professor?

Answer: (said while pinching yourself) Ouch! Yes, I guess so.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Postdoctoral Multitasking

A colleague recently complained to me about a postdoc of his who is still spending most of his/her time working on manuscripts related to Ph.D. research, even after being a postdoc for 2 years, and seems unable to do that and postdoctoral research.

I certainly spent postdoctoral time writing papers from my Ph.D. research, but I also worked on my new research projects and I enjoyed doing both. This fondness for having simultaneous projects at different stages of 'completion' has been a characteristic of my career, but I first discovered this during my postdoc.

For me, being a postdoc was an excellent time to do research and learn new things, without the time-consuming ancillary aspects of being a student (classes, exams) or the time-consuming administrative and teaching responsibilities of being a professor. (For this discussion, I am ignoring the harassment and discrimination I experienced as a postdoc; I enjoyed my work, but I did not like my work environment.)

I like having some research projects that are at the initial (crazy idea) stage, others that are just getting underway (with all the promise of discovering something interesting yet to come), others that are deep into the data/analysis stage (with all the intrigue and confusion of figuring things out), and others that are at various stages of being written up and coming together as manuscripts.

None of this is linear. Some projects go in unexpected directions. Some projects sprout one or more new projects. Others end up being kind of circular. Some terminate (after months, years, decades).

When I was a postdoc, I learned that I liked this, but I also started learning how to do this. Whether you end up balancing multiple research projects and teaching and administrative tasks, or some subset of research-teaching-service, being a postdoc is a good time to get more experience with multitasking of the sort required for your later career.

I don't believe that you have to work 24/7 to do this, but you do need to find a way of making progress on various projects simultaneously. The process is probably similar to the way that we figure out how to balance career and personal life.

As for my colleague, I told him to talk to his postdoc and make sure that his expectations are clear. They can probably work out various short- and long-range goals that will help them both. Most postdocs work on projects from previous positions -- Ph.D. research or a previous postdoc -- so this is an important issue that postdoc and supervisor should work out through discussion, ideally at the start of the postdoctoral appointment.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

On Resubmission

What do you do when your manuscript is rejected and you want to resubmit it to another journal? Let's assume that the manuscript is publishable (perhaps with some revision), but for some reason it wasn't accepted by the first journal.

Perhaps the first journal has a one-word name and has an extremely high rejection rate. In that case, it is expected that the manuscript will be submitted elsewhere. Even if the resubmitted manuscript is sent to some of the same reviewers, they may view the manuscript more kindly in a new context.

No matter how many words are in the name of the journal that first rejected your manuscript, you don't have to tell the editor of Journal #2 that your submission is a resubmission. There may, however, be some circumstances in which you want to provide this information, as it can be very useful to the editor. There is no shame in revealing that the manuscript has previously been rejected. Sending information about the prior submission and review history of a manuscript can help an editor make an informed decision about new reviewers.

When you make your decision to resubmit a manuscript, you presumably are either moving down the journal food chain and/or selecting a more specialized journal. Presumably you have made whatever changes are necessary to reflect the focus and format of Journal #2, and have taken into account whatever reviewer comments were useful. These types of things can be explained to the editor of Journal #2 in a brief summary in your cover letter.

If you do send reviews and other materials to an editor, it's helpful to provide an executive summary and not dwell on all the details of what you have changed or didn't change from the first version. If you feel very strongly that the comma in line 329 should stay, go ahead and keep it (and keep this information to yourself), but if you changed something major about your manuscript, you should indicate what those changes were.

If you decide not to send reviews and other information about the first submission, in my field this would not be seen as an ethical lapse, just a personal choice. Some people might not think that the first submission is relevant anymore, and others might not want to admit that the manuscript was rejected.

There have been two recent cases in which I was involved in a manuscript resubmission, and in both cases I chose to tell the editors about the manuscript history.

For Manuscript #1, I was a minor co-author although I had been closely involved in some aspects of the research. The first author was a graduate student (not mine) and he did a great job of putting the manuscript together. He sent it to an appropriate journal for the topic, but the manuscript was negatively reviewed by some people who worked on a similar topic and were rather savage about something we considered a detail but that they considered a fatal flaw. It seemed to me that they held our work to an unreasonable standard that they had not been able to meet in their own work (perhaps because it was impossible), but they convinced the editor that the manuscript should be rejected.

The student did a thorough and thoughtful revision. Even so, there was this one issue that we couldn't do anything about, and it had been a deal-breaker on the first submission. I thought it would be a good idea to face this issue head-on in the resubmission. We described the issue in a cover letter to the editor, and provided the reviews from Journal #1 so that the editor of Journal #2 could see that this one particular issue had been considered the fatal flaw. This editor told us that he had no objection a priori to this issue, and selected different reviewers.

For Manuscript #2, I was disgusted by the unfair comments of one reviewer who had obviously discussed the manuscript and his review with other people while taking a very long time to do his review. This reviewer's comments were strange and kind of rude; he cast aspersions on some data without any justification. This manuscript spent a year in review for this journal. In fact, I wrote about this case last year, including the editor's decision, which I paraphrased as:

You should revise and resubmit and fix your deeply flawed data table, and also please rethink your interpretations because I think the most likely explanation for your data is that there are swarms of tiny purple kangaroos living on the moons of Jupiter. [I made that last part up completely to indicate how bizarre the editor's comments were]

When I wrote about this review experience last year, I was still trying to decide what to do. In fact, I withdrew the manuscript from further consideration by that journal, although it was painful to have lost that year in review, and resubmitted the manuscript to another journal. I sent the editor of Journal #2 the reviews and information from Journal #1, the manuscript sailed through review, and was published.

In some cases if you provide reviews and other information about a rejected manuscript, the editor can see that problems were fixed in revision or that the reviews were unfair, and make decisions accordingly.

I think the content and tone of the information you transmit to the editor of Journal #2 is very important. For example, I have recently reviewed some manuscript that were previously either rejected or sent out for additional reviews owing to major problems with the original versions, and the editors also sent along the first reviews and the author's rebuttal/cover letter. I was surprised to see that in at least two of these cases, the authors spent more time arguing in their letter for why the first reviewers were wrong and stupid than they had in re-thinking their work. Their arguments had little content. Example: "Reviewers X and Y say we are wrong, but in fact we aren't. They are." And so on.

In fact, I agreed with the first reviewers in most cases, and the negative tone and rude comments in the authors' letters made me feel even more negative about the manuscripts. If the authors weren't going to consider any criticism, however constructively worded, why should their flawed and poorly written papers be published? They seemed to care more about appearing to be right than they did about the Science, and that was disturbing.

Executive summary: Don't send reviews and other information about rejected manuscripts along with your resubmission if you really don't want to, but realize that sending this information might actually help your resubmission, not harm it, especially if you provide a calm and sincere explanation of the relationship of submission #1 to submission #2.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Mean Reviews

You spend years working on a research project, you get results, you write a manuscript, you think it’s really good, you submit it to a journal, and you get back Mean Reviews.

Do you:

• Quit because clearly you are too stupid to publish?

• Cry/scream and consider finding a career that makes everyone love you (e.g. proprietor of a lemonade stand)?

• Descend into paranoid bitterness because the reviewers and editors are morons and may be plotting to steal your ideas and/or squelch your manuscript so they can scoop you?

• Ignore the reviews completely and resubmit the same manuscript to another journal?

I personally wouldn’t do any of those things, although maybe I would do a bit of some of them first before calming down and dealing with the situation in a constructive way.

I have been thinking about this lately not because I got Mean Reviews (recently) but because I am working with a few people who have clearly been affected by reviews they have received in the recent past. Writing (different) papers with them now means having to navigate the psychic effects of past mean reviews.

If you get Mean Reviews, after screaming and being bitter for an hour or two or 168, look at the reviews closely. Some bad reviews have nothing of value in them and are just basically mean, but many contain some constructive criticism that can be used to improve the manuscript. If I’m going to resubmit a manuscript somewhere – to a different journal or the same one – I revise it in light of whatever review comments I think are useful. Submitting the exact same manuscript, even if to a different journal, might be a mistake, especially if it goes to the same reviewer(s).

It’s worthwhile reading reviews in a calm, dissociated way, especially if you don’t yet have much experience with reviews. I have written before about how, on several occasions, one of my grad students or postdocs has gotten reviews back and has been devastated by how negative they are. I look at the same review comments and think “This is a great review! These are nice comments!”. You can’t expect reviews to tell you that you are brilliant and that your science is perfect. Reviews are intrinsically critical, and if the system works as it is intended, this criticism will improve your work and your writing and help you publish the best paper possible.

I think that some disappointment stems from an unrealistic expectation that if you work extremely hard on an interesting paper and have excellent data, well-written text, beautiful figures, and all the rest, that the reviews will all be entirely positive. With reviews, you don't get an A for effort, but critical reviews are not the end of the world (or your career). And it's good to keep in mind that not all criticism is negative.

If the reviews are negative (as opposed to critical), in some cases a thorough and calm-but-firm rebuttal letter to the editor can be very helpful, especially if you can point out in a compelling way that the negative review is (1) in error about the perceived flaws of your manuscript/research, or (2) mean but vague (i.e., not specific about why the reviewer hated the manuscript).

In other cases, the negative reviews sink the manuscript. Maybe the reviewers were not objective, careful, or nice, but you still need to deal with the reviews and think about the comments carefully.

Not every paper can or should be published, but if the paper is (or will be) good, any disappointment with critical or mixed reviews should be short-lived as you dive back into the paper to fix it up so you can resubmit it and eventually have the thrill of seeing it published.

And in terms of how mean reviews affect your approach to other papers, I think it's important to keep some perspective and not become an ultra-perfectionist who focuses so much on cosmetic details that might be targets for scathing comments that completion and submission of the manuscript never actually occurs (Fig. 1)

Friday, July 18, 2008

What an Insult

A few weeks ago I pondered ways in which professors try to insult each other. Today I feel like adding to the list.

A particular comment that, when phrased in certain ways, can be like a knife to one's academic heart, concerns the extent to which other people have heard of you and are aware of your work; that is, have read your publications.

A particularly direct and impolite way of expressing this sentiment is to say simply: "I've never heard of you."

I used to hear this when I was a young professor, and I do not believe that this phrase is typically recommended for use upon meeting someone for the first time. I suppose it was meant to signal that I must not publish much or that I published only obscure and boring papers that were not worth reading. Even a professor who is not seeking awesome fame as a scientist at least aspires to have some of her/his papers read, so this statement could be quite devastating.

One specific example that I recall was when I had just arrived at my university as a new Assistant Professor. When first introduced to a grad student whose research was in a field closely related to mine, the student said "I've never heard of you." Then, in case this comment was a bit too subtle for me, he added "You must not publish very much."

At that point in my career I had published at least 20 papers, including ones in all the major journals of his (and my) research specialty and also a few in a high-impact general journal that is rather widely read by researchers in and beyond our specific field. Some of the topics of my papers were highly relevant to his research.

I was confident in my publication record, so I said "You must never read any scientific journals. I find that surprising for a senior graduate student. Is that typical of this department?"

In that situation, the student was trying to insult me. Saying "You must not publish very much" to an academic is not just bad manners, it is an insult. In other situations, though, polite variants on "I've never heard of you" can be a way to start a conversation about someone's work, or can be an expression of unfortunate ignorance.

When I was a graduate student, a fellow grad student once asked a Very Famous Scientist "And what do you work on?" when introduced to him at a small meeting. I was amazed that he had not heard of the Very Famous Scientist, whose work (in a field similar to that of the grad student's) over many decades was widely cited. The Very Famous Scientist was extraordinarily polite and answered the student with a list of the main topics he had worked on in recent years. I was impressed by the grace with which he answered the student's question.

It is important for those of us who are old enough to hope that at least some people have heard of us to remember that it can take many years to get to know the names and topics of researchers in a particular discipline. Therefore, if confronted with a polite variation of I've-never-heard-of-you, especially from a student, this should not be taken as an insult.

Even so, I recall another time when I saw from a distance a Very Famous Scientist talking to one of my students at the student's poster at a conference. This scientist was the person in the world whose research was most closely related to my student's work, so I assumed that they were having an interesting discussion. By the time I got there, the VFS had already moved on to other posters, so I asked my student about their discussion. My student said "That guy? Who was he anyway?".

Well.. if my student had remembered the 57 papers by this scientist that we had read and discussed in recent years, or if he had picked up on conversational cues that this person knew a fair amount about the poster topic, he might have had a different conversation with "that guy". As it was, because he didn't recognize the man's name (which is rather distinctive), my student didn't take advantage of the opportunity to have an in-depth discussion with an interesting person with relevant expertise. If I'd gotten there sooner, I could have helped my student connect the dots, but it was entirely reasonable to expect that he would recognize this man's name on his own.

We read the literature so that we learn new things and find out what is going on in Science World, but we also read so that we get to know the people in the field and perhaps have interesting conversations with them at conferences or other scientific gatherings. For those who are not good at remembering names and faces, perhaps it would be advisable to develop a strategy for making connections between research and researchers without resorting to the potentially treacherous "What do you work on?" types of questions.

In the case of the rude grad student who insulted me when I first arrived at my university, imagine my surprise when he contacted me a year or so later to say he had seen my ad for a postdoc and was wondering if he could apply. It was tempting to write back and ask "Who are you?", but I resisted, though I did not hire him; he had only one publication, and it was boring.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

FSP, Jr.

As a professor/parent, I have found that a typical assumption is that the offspring of professors will be somehow unusual. If a child happens to be the offspring of two professors, and if both of those professor-parents are Scientists, there is an even greater chance that people will assume the child is "freaky smart", unsocialized, and/or destined (doomed?) to be a Science Professor.

For example, I have heard various myths and rumors about my daughter:

- She spoke in complete paragraphs at [insert absurdly young age]. This was not the case. She started saying single words at a rather typical age, then started putting two or three words together, eventually working her way up to short sentences, and so on, just like most kids do. Her first complex sentence was "Let's go home to warm cats".

- She read The New York Times when she was 3 years old. This one makes me laugh. She has always loved books -- reading and being read to -- but I can assure you that The New York Times was not on her syllabus at age 3 (or 5 or 8).

And so on.

She is smart and articulate, perhaps fueling the rumors of precocious reading and speaking, but mostly I think that people assume that our daughter started speaking early and reading Paul Krugman's op-ed columns because this fits their idea of professorial offspring.

Many of us make these assumptions. Recently my husband remarked how strange it is that one of our daughter's friends is not interested in computers even though her father is a computer scientist. I said: Why should a daughter have the exact same interests as her father (or mother)? [If that were always true, my daughter would not have a favorite Beatle]

I have struggled with my own preconceptions about professor offspring. On a few occasions when professor-colleagues have told me about their young-adult kids who are failing chemistry in college or living in their garage while working in a restaurant, my first reaction is surprise. How can the daughter of such a brilliant scientist fail chemistry? How can the son of such a brilliant scientist not even go to college? But of course it is possible. Our kids are not us, and this is a good thing.

There are days when my daughter has to come to the office with me, but on these occasions, we keep a low profile. I vividly recall incidents when the wife of one of my Science professors in college would bring her two young sons to campus and even into some of the laboratory sessions. She delighted in showing that her 7-year old knew more about Science than some of the undergraduates in the class.

Needless to say, she and her offspring were rather well loathed. I don't think I am in danger of perpetuating this type of behavior. However proud I am of my smart and interesting daughter, I have not been even the slightest bit tempted to humiliate any of my students.

Years ago, my daughter had a serious talk with me and gently broke the news to me about her career plans. She said "Mommy, I am interested in science and I am glad that you are a scientist, but I do not want to be a scientist." I said that of course this was fine with me and I just wanted her to be happy and find something that interested her and of course I didn't expect her to like the same things as her dad and me blah blah blah, but I asked her, just out of curiosity, why she had decided at such an early age that science was not for her. She said "I am more interested in people than in science things."

Her thoughts have evolved somewhat over the years as she has realized that some scientists do research involving people, but I think it very unlikely that she will be a scientist. I hope that she will always know something about science and be interested in it, but of course it is fine with me if she isn't a scientist, as long as she instead becomes President of the United States.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Out of Pocket

On Monday, I discussed the difficulty of paying for certain research activities from grants. In some cases (e.g. postage) the easiest solution is to pay from personal funds. If I save a lot of time by paying myself, it's worth it to me to pay cash or use my own credit card.

Every April when I prepare my tax returns, I am aware that my non-reimbursed professional expenses add up to thousands of dollars each year. My husband typically has a similar amount. What are we spending all this money on? Stamps?

Professional expenses that I pay for myself (not from grants) include:

- Postage, photocopies, office supplies, computer supplies, peripherals, ink cartridges, printer drums, software etc. We used to be able to set up an account at a campus bookstore and purchase some of these things, but alas, those days are gone. I am not very good at keeping track of all these expenses, but I can figure some of it out from credit card receipts.

- Research expenses after a grant has expired; e.g. conference travel to present results of the research, or page charges/color printing fees for an article published after a grant has expired. In some cases I can deal with post-grant conference travel by also presenting results from research related to an active grant, or I can put the page charges on a related grant (or use the mysterious IDC funds that are allocated to faculty at random intervals). In some cases I just pay for it on a credit card and don't get reimbursed.

- Travel expenses not anticipated or not possible to budget in a grant. If I made a realistic budget that included travel to 1-3 national and international meetings and workshops for me, most or all of my graduates students, a postdoc, and some undergraduate research assistants, the travel budget would be insanely large. Therefore, for some trips I pay my own way. I can use frequent flyer miles for some travel (though this is becoming more difficult and expensive), and I can use ff miles to send some members of my research group to conference sites. Frequent flyer miles help, but using them comes with fees, especially if the ticket is for someone else. And then there is the cost of the conference registration (expensive), lodging (expensive), and per diem (food) for my research group. I don't tend to reimburse myself for per diem expenses, mostly to save grant money.

- Teaching materials. The supplies budget for teaching materials in my department ranges from sufficient to zero. When it is zero, my choices are to teach with incomplete and scruffy materials, or to purchase items myself. The amount of breakage and loss and general damage is rather impressive in some of the lab classes, so there is a constant need to replace some of the teaching supplies. If these are not replaced, the students are cranky, the TA's may be cranky, and my ability to teach well is compromised (as are my teaching evaluations). It is worth it to me to buy some items myself if that is my only choice.

- Professional society memberships, journal subscriptions, books.

- Costs associated with entertaining visiting colleagues, prospective students etc. (although these expenses are in a different category for tax purposes).

There are also some pseudo-professional expenses that I don't typically count for tax purposes but that are related to my professional activities:

- Expenses related to taking language classes. I have been taking these classes specifically because learning this language will help with some long-term research projects and international collaborations, but I don't have to take these classes in the same way that I have to do other research activities. As a faculty member and non-degree seeking 'student', I don't have to pay tuition (just a nominal fee), but I do of course have to buy textbooks, CDs, and other materials related to the language course.

- Expenses related to bringing my daughter to conferences. If my husband and I attend the same conference, our daughter comes with us. We pay her airfare, of course, and when she was younger, we paid for on-site child-care (if offered) for at least part of the time.

It all adds up somehow to thousands of dollars for each of us. With the exception of the teaching materials, some of the rest is quite reasonable to expect us to pay ourselves, though I do wish it were easier to pay for research-related travel. With the huge airfare increases this year, my travel budgets for existing grants are taking a big hit.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Women In Science - extra edition

Tuesday - extra edition - Women In Science Summary Statement

Those who are visiting this blog via links in the online comments to the TierneyLab ("Male Bias or Female Choice?") in The NY Times today may not be particularly interested in this week's rants about bizarre and unwieldy accounting procedures that afflict university researchers with grants. For tomorrow's post, I was planning on writing about how much -- and in what circumstances -- faculty use their own money to pay for research expenses. The majority of my posts are about basic Science Professor issues.

I write about life as a Science Professor, but my experience is profoundly affected by the fact that I am a woman. I am never just a Science Professor, as I am constantly made aware that I am a Female Science Professor (hence the name of this blog). Throughout my academic career, I have had negative experiences directly related to being female, and I know from discussions with female colleagues that I am by no means alone in these experiences:

physical: grabbed, touched, pinched etc.;

verbal: told I was/am stupid, told that women can't be scientists, told that I'm not a 'real' professor because I'm a woman, told that I am not objective because I am a woman, told that I am not as qualified as men who have the same credentials; and: whenever I attain something (a job, a grant, an award, a position of responsibility in a professional organization), I am asked "Did they have to select a woman?" or told "They must have had to select a woman".

economic: paid significantly less than male peers, given less lab space, given lower priority for leaves/matching funds/other requests related to $$ and my research program;

other: burdened with service work but never given a leadership role; I am forever serving as the low-level but diligent member of committees and/or as the token woman.

Additional examples are detailed in this blog.

Summary: Discrimination, bias, and harassment of women in subtle and non-subtle ways are pervasive in the physical sciences.

The academic culture is set up in a way that makes it difficult (but not impossible) for women to have families and a successful career; academia is not alone in this, of course. Nevertheless, despite endless studies of why women drop out of science, the culture of bias and the family-unfriendly organization of the typical university make it unlikely that the situation will improve any time soon.

The question of 'female choice' -- as in, do women choose not to be scientists -- is not a relevant question; it is a diversion based on flawed data. Those of us who teach at universities have long had significant numbers of women in our undergraduate and graduate science classes. Many of these women are passionate about science, and they are very smart. It is bizarre to ask a question about whether women decline to pursue scientific careers because they aren't interested or whether they drop out because they don't want to work hard enough. The women are there, they are interested, and they are able.

The relevant question is: How can we change things to encourage these smart, motivated, hard-working women to stay in science?

If this blog had not been mentioned in the comments of the TierneyLab, I probably wouldn't have bothered writing about John Tierney yet again.

I have written about him before: first when he questioned the NAS study "Beyond Bias and Barriers" based in part of the fact that the NAS committee was mostly comprised of women. I noted the many committees I have been on that have been dominated by men; in fact, for many committees I am the only woman. Some committees at my university are entirely composed of men (including a recent hiring committee that recommended hiring .. a man!), and no one seems to be doubting their objectivity.

I later commented on an even stranger op-ed piece by Tierney, in which he wrote about how liberating it must be for women in Civil War reenactments to wear bulky, sweltering clothes. I was disappointed that he did not take his essay to its natural conclusion of considering the liberating effects of wearing a burkha.

There are young women science students, researchers, and faculty today who have not personally experienced or been aware of bias or discrimination, and this is extremely encouraging. Clearly, though, there are not enough women having these positive experiences to increase the participation of women in science. Something has to change.

Making an Effort

Astute commenters on yesterday's post noted that effort reporting at universities is another bizarre aspect of grants management. This is so true. I alluded to this in a previous post on summer salary, but perhaps the topic of effort deserves its own discussion.

Back in the day of effort statements that were printed on paper and that required faculty to sign them so that the forms could be returned to some office where they were no doubt lovingly filed and stored in a special room in the financial nerve center of the university, one of my colleagues used to sign his statements as "Mickey Mouse", just to see if anyone noticed. No one ever did, or at least no one ever mentioned it. As an Assistant Professor, I dutifully signed mine with my real name in my best handwriting, certifying that I had done my professor activities in the proportions stated, even if I hadn't.

In my more recent experience, there are two particularly absurd aspects of this kind of 'effort':

- The % effort assigned to each of my job activities has changed somewhat dramatically with time, but continues to bear no relation to my actual effort. As far as I can tell, these numbers were selected by a random number generator in an accountant's computer. The annoying thing about this is that the university accountants insist that I use their numbers in my current-and-pending support forms for grant proposals, even though these numbers are misleading and typically make it appear that I have more summer salary than I do, making it more difficult for me to request what meager summer salary I hope to eke out of my grants.

- Now that effort reporting is web-based, I am asked to certify the effort of my students, including undergrads who do part-time work for me. Because each person gets one effort statement, I am asked to certify all of their effort, even if they also work part time in the dining hall or a parking garage. Then I am asked to check a box saying that I know for a fact that this person did all the work that the statement says they did. I have absolutely no idea if my undergrad research assistants even show up to work in the dining hall or parking garage or wherever.

I therefore refuse to sign off on the effort statement of someone for whom I have only partial information as to their effort. A possible explanation for why the accountants are reluctant to give me accurate information about my grants and budgets is that they are getting revenge for how difficult I am when it comes to effort statements (and a few other things).

Also, once you have been a co-PI with a colleague at the same university and once you have paid a student (grad or undergrad) from a grant, they are never removed from your effort list even once the grant/work is done. If I one day felt overwhelmed by an urge to sign effort statements, I could sign the statements for the department Chair, a number of other colleagues, students who are now in other departments, and all sorts of random people. I have not yet been visited by such an urge, but it could happen (but no one would even care).

The accountants have stopped pestering me to sign the effort statements of people other than my own and that of grad students and postdocs who are funded entirely on my grants, but I did lose the battle to have my NSF budget forms match my actual effort instead of the bizarre university numbers. The university will not even submit my proposals if I don't use their stupid numbers, and I decided it wasn't worth the effort to fight the accountants on that one.

Monday, July 14, 2008

No Man's Land

Despite the presence of the word 'Man' in the title, this is not actually one of those Gender Lens-y FemaleScienceProfessor posts. It is about research grants and what we can and cannot use them for, and in particular the phenomenon of having a legitimate research activity that falls between the cracks of funding agency restrictions and university restrictions. The subtitle of this post could be: The Accounting Gods Must Be Crazy

Grants obtained from federal agencies and other sources place restrictions on the types of things for which the grant can be used. This makes sense. If there weren’t these restrictions, professors might spend grant money on crystal vases for their yachts instead of on research. OK, so maybe I wouldn’t be too tempted to do that, but I might get jeweled collars for my cats.

The annoying – and at times surreal – part of grant restrictions is when a certain type of material or an activity is caught in the no-man's-land between funding agency and university restrictions. Examples:

Postage/Mail: As part of my research activities, I need to mail research-related items. I don't just mean that I need a few stamps now and then and am too cheap to buy them myself. The amount I spend on research-related postage is on the order of few hundred dollars per year for items that can be sent by regular (non-courier) mail. I think that NSF thinks that the university should provide postage from the indirect costs (IDC) that universities receive from every grant. The university, however, does not think it should pay for postage. I can see why funding agencies and universities don't want to pay this; the total sum for all investigators would be large.

In any case, my options for mailing are:

- Pay the postage myself if I want to use regular USPS mail;

- Use a grant and send the items by courier, even though this is more expensive and speed may not be necessary.

- Attempt a complicated (but ethical) third way that involves the small % of IDC that the university transfers to the department, which then transfers a minute fraction of this fraction to individual investigators and puts this money in an account that, with effort, I can learn exists. The funds are not transferred at any predictable time during the life of a grant, and we are never notified when a transfer occurs. In some cases, no IDC transfers are made within an entire year. If I ask nicely, the accountants might tell me whether I have such funds, and even how much I have in an account, and, if I am lucky and the accounting gods are happy, maybe I can even use the funds for mailing a package.

Photocopies: For one of my grants, I knew that I would need to photocopy some documents and images in a particular size and resolution that would require a specialized copy facility, so I budgeted for this in the proposal. A couple of months ago when it was time to make the copies, I found that I couldn’t. A university accountant had deleted that item from my budget and had transferred the funds I’d requested to another budget line. I didn’t notice it because my total budget didn’t change, and I didn’t get a line-by-line breakdown of the revised budget. [note: the budget we submit to NSF and the budget that the university goes by can be slightly different in terms of budget lines; this adds to the fun of proposal writing and grant management].

I discussed this with the accountant and explained, as I had also done in my budget justification submitted as part of the proposal, why I needed photocopies. He said “Oh, OK, that’s definitely allowable. I thought you just wanted to make regular photocopies.” Well, I do sometimes want to make regular photocopies, but I know better than to attempt to request funds for that. He sighed and said that he could, with effort, create a new budget line that would allow me to make the photocopies and charge the expense to the grant. And in fact he did so at my request and the problem was eventually solved.

More difficult and serious than mail and photocopies is the purchase of some necessary but prohibited items for labs. For example, a colleague of mine is writing an equipment grant. He has identified lab space, he has the necessary promise of matching funds from the college and department, and he has quotes for the analytical equipment, but he is not allowed to request funds for a table on which to put the equipment. He can’t just haunt garage sales or order a table from Ikea – he needs a sturdy, stable lab table of particular dimensions and materials. Tables, however, are considered 'office furniture'. What if he used the funds to buy a mahogany credenza for his office? He tried calling it 'lab supplies', but this type of grant proposal also prohibits that type of budget item. And he can forget trying to get funds to buy a chair for the lab. I said “You won’t need a chair because you’re going to have to put the machines on the floor”.

I have complained before about the many hours of useless ethics training faculty must endure, even if I support the general concept of ethics training. I have complained about how we are told that we cannot use a printer to print a document for a project that is not related to the grant that purchased the printer, so if we have several grants we should buy several printers, or, one ethics instructor once admitted under torture, we could probably get away with one printer if we keep separate ink cartridges and printer drums (for laser printers) for each project.

I am not going to say that faculty are forced into unethical behavior by absurd rules that leave a no-man's-land in which we can’t acquire or use grant funds for items we legitimately need for our research, but I will say that we have to go through bizarre financial contortions just to get some really basic things done.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Data Fiend

Tonight at dinner my husband referred to an incident from ~ 10 years ago that he described as "the most fascinating psychological window into your soul", meaning my soul. I hadn't really thought about it that way, but I can kind of see what he meant. So here it is:

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I had a very severe case of gestational diabetes. This was a big surprise because I had no apparent risk factors. I wasn't overweight and had no family history of diabetes. Doctors were also surprised by the severity of the diabetes. I had to take rather massive doses of two types of insulin by injection twice a day. I followed an extraordinarily strict (boring, depressing) diet exactly, but it took weeks of monitoring and ever-increasing doses to get things under control.

At various times of the day, I had to prick my finger and do a blood sugar test with a small monitoring device at home. Between these jabs and the twice daily injections for 10 weeks, I was a total pin cushion, and I was not always very cheerful about it.

I had a little booklet in which I recorded my blood sugar level, but I also started keeping track of the results in a spreadsheet and I graphed the results every day. I got interested in the shape and magnitude of some of the blood sugar highs and lows, but my initial sample spacing (in time) was too rough to get a satisfactory graph of these spikes, and there were other aspects of the data that I didn't understand when I did the minimum number of recommended tests.

So, despite my loathing for jabbing myself in the finger with a sharp object, I started collecting more data. I tracked the blood sugar spikes so that they were defined by more than one point and I could really see their shape and I was certain of their maximum values. I collected data day and night. I dreamed of a device that could provide a continuous readout of my blood sugar and make perfect graphs. Even with my primitive data collection techniques, however, I made beautiful graphs and I did things with the graphs in terms of how I analyzed them over different time periods and how I displayed the data. I was obsessed with these graphs.

Part of what fascinated me about all this was the fact that I had so much control over the data. In my research, acquiring data can be a very time-consuming and expensive process, and it is not always immediately clear what the results mean. With my blood sugar data collection project, I could get as much data as I needed and the only cost - other than a bit of pain and some scarred fingers - was the price of the test strips.

The first time I brought my graphs and spreadsheet to a doctor's appointment, the doctor was stunned. He called all the other doctors and nurses over to look at it. He asked my permission to make copies and fax them to other doctors. He asked me to start sending him my graphs between appointments. He stopped talking to me like I was a slow child and started discussing with me what the data might mean. He gave me suggestions for ways to get more useful data. All of this helped get me through a difficult time.

Although the anxious and painful aspects of having severe gestational diabetes are not something I want to remember, I very clearly remember the excitement of acquiring and graphing the data. I think that is what my husband meant about the "window into my soul", which I suppose must be a scientific soul.

My daughter was born completely healthy at 7 pounds 10 ounces, although there were some difficult moments at the end. I've heard that most women forget the pain of childbirth (and hence are willing to have more children, ensuring the survival of the human race), but it is difficult for me to forget because my daughter was born at exactly 5 pm and the doctors were listening to NPR news in the delivery room. My daughter arrived as the NPR top-of-the-hour theme song snippet played, so every time I hear this song (i.e., almost every day), I am reminded of that moment.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

I Like Feeling Stupid

Earlier this summer I read the excellent essay by Martin A. Schwartz in The Journal of Cell Science (May 20, 2008, doi: 10.1242/10.1242/jcs.033340) on "The importance of stupidity in scientific research." He describes how even very smart people might not enjoy research because they don't like feeling "stupid" all the time. Some of us who love research and the academic life, however, are used to feeling stupid and may even enjoy it in a weird way.

In this case, feeling stupid means that you are placed in situations in which you don't know something (or anything). That's what research is all about. There are things we don't know but want to know, so we try to figure them out. It is rare that the path to the solution, if there even is a solution, is a simple one of following obvious step A and then obvious step B. It is easy to feel stupid when you spend a lot of your time working on difficult problems that you might not ever be able to solve. Some people hate that feeling of being lost and confused (= stupid) and others find it interesting and accept the frustrations as a natural part of doing research.

I like the way Schwartz puts stupidity in the context of the discovery aspect of scientific research. His last paragraph is particularly good:

Productive stupidity means being ignorant by choice. Focusing on important questions puts us in the awkward position of being ignorant. One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time. No doubt, this can be difficult for students who are accustomed to getting the answers right. No doubt, reasonable levels of confidence and emotional resilience help, but I think scientific education might do more to ease what is a very big transition: from learning what other people once discovered to making your own discoveries. The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries.

I was also struck by his point that we as advisors (and the academic system in general) don't do a good enough job of teaching our students how to view this type of "stupidity" in a positive and constructive way. I think he's right, but it is challenging to teach someone this.

When I read the essay, I immediately thought of several people I thought might be interested in reading it, including some students who might benefit from this perspective. For example, I know one hard-working and talented student who says he feels stupid much of the time. He is working on a very difficult problem that has no real end to it in the sense of a simple elegant solution that explains everything. Even so, his research is very important in its own right and has made some significant advances in our understanding of the problem. Just as Schwartz describes in his essay, this student also asked a more senior researcher how she would solve the problem he is working on, assuming that someone else must know the answer. The answer: I don't know.

I was reasonably confident that he wouldn't interpret my sending the essay as a backhand way of telling him that I think he is stupid, so I sent him the article. He liked the essay, thought it was interesting, and understood that I sent it to him as encouragement, not disparagement.

I have not yet sent the article to some of the other people I think should read it. If someone is profoundly lacking in confidence and has shown irrational tendencies to interpret neutral comments or interactions as devastating criticism, how would such a person react to being sent an essay on stupidity? Even if I sent the essay as part of an email to a group and not to targeted individuals, I think it would still be taken the wrong way by some. That would be stupid, but perhaps there are other ways to get the same point across without actually using the s-word.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Often Constrained

A common minor writing problem is the misuse of 'time' words like while, when, and often. Often is often used to indicate commonly or typically or in most/many cases, but often implies time and the other words don't.

In fact, I saw an example in a New York Times op-ed essay this week: ".. they are often elderly." Are these people elderly on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, or for certain hours of the day?

This is not the worst writing error in the world. If someone uses often to mean commonly, the reader knows what the writer intended to say.

(Mis)use of constrain is of a similar order of magnitude minor error. If you say that you (or your data) constrained something, everyone will know that you mean that you measured or determined something or that you have reduced the number of reasonable interpretations by figuring something out. Technically, however, constrain means to compel, confine, restrain, inhibit, or limit by force (physical force or more conceptual force). Even if you have wrestled (metaphorically) with your equipment, data, or graduate students to get a result, it is unlikely that you have constrained anything.

When I edit a manuscript written by someone else, my first priority is to make the text understandable. The extent of my editing depends of course on circumstance -- what is my role in this manuscript (editor, co-author, reviewer, advisor)?, is it better to provide advice rather than major edits (e.g., for someone who can learn from a general comment and make the necessary corrections)? does the author need help writing in English? have I edited this document before? how much caffeine have I had today?

In situations in which it is required or appropriate for me to be an active editor, I make corrections of minor things like often and constrain in manuscripts that need the most and the least editing, and I don't bother to make such minor corrections in manuscripts that need a medium amount of editing.

Why the worst and the best and not the middling manuscripts?

The worst manuscripts (in terms of writing, not content) need total rewriting, so I fix everything. The entire effort can take a lot of time, but it doesn't require additional time to fix the trivial problems.

The best manuscripts are a pleasure to read and edit. If, however, I see something not-quite-right, I can't help but fix it. I think writing/editing is the only thing for which I have some perfectionist tendencies, but I'm probably not the one to ask about that.

Manuscripts that require an intermediate level of editing are those for which I don't need to rewrite many many sentences and paragraphs and pages, but they may require a substantial amount of fixing of writing errors such as lack of subject-verb agreement, inconsistent verb tense use, misplaced modifiers, vague or ambiguous wording, lack of topic sentences at the beginning of paragraphs, or lack of parallelism of items in a list, like I just did in this list. If I have to fix things at that level, I let the minor problems slide as long as the meaning of the text is clear.

Some of my colleagues and students would probably disagree with this assessment -- they would likely say that I comment on everything, no matter how minor -- and in some cases that is true (but not as often as they may think).

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

In Your Facebook

In fall 2007, I contemplated the issues that confront a faculty member re. involvement in the Facebook culture, especially in terms of interacting with students on Facebook. I was - and am - skeptical that Facebook is something I want or need to be part of, but the number of requests to join and be electronic friends with my actual friends made me relent.

At first it was very strange to go to a webpage and be informed that I have 3 friends or some other low number. And then I started getting requests from students. And then I got requests from random colleagues whom I sort of know and sort of like but don't consider friends in the old-fashioned sense of the word. These are not people with whom I would correspond by email to chat about my weekend or the extraordinarily cute thing my cat did this morning.

Following the advice of my Facebook-savvy colleagues, I always accept a friend request from a student but I never make a request. I never look at a student's Facebook pages unless a student writes and says "Take a look at the photo album of my amazing trip to Sardinia" or something like that.

I have accepted most friend requests from colleagues and acquaintances, but I have declined a few (or in some cases just not responded, which is maybe sort of the same thing as declining, just more lame?). For example, I declined to 'friend' a sort-of colleague who emails me at least once a week asking me to do things for him (send him papers, write his papers, do his analyses, give him research ideas). I am not eager to increase my level of interaction with him, and the thought of his being part of my Facebook universe is too grim to contemplate seriously. Yes, I know I could adjust my privacy settings to limit his access, but I just can't bring myself to be his friend.

I also declined a couple of requests from friends of 'friends'; in each case, student friends. I know this goes against the Facebook/internet social networking philosophy of being friends with as many people as possible, but why would I want to be 'friends' with someone who knows someone I barely know? I am not using Facebook to connect with people I don't know, and I really don't want to have hourly updates about the doings of random students.

I have very little information in my profile -- just my name and location. Somehow, though, Facebook seems to know my age. My 'friends' range in age from 18 to 65, but FB has my age figured out quite well, if the ads that pop up on the side of the page are any indication. One ad is an invitation to join a social networking group for people in their 40's, and today I learned that exercise won't help me lose the extra weight I have no doubt acquired in my 40's, but drinking some sort of green tea concoction will. Another ad was for real estate, and it annoyed me because the ad text said "your" instead of "you're". I wish that Facebook would figure out that I am a professor and not show me ads with typos in them.

The best part for me has been the opportunity to reconnect with some friends from college and grad school. These friends weren't so close that we stayed in contact over the years, but are close enough that I am happy to have some way of interacting with them and seeing how and what they are doing now.

My collection of Facebook friends is a crazy mix of students, colleagues, and (real) friends of varying degrees of closeness to me, and I find that kind of interesting even if I am not taking full advantage of all the Facebook interaction possibilities. I am also pleased that I am now in double digits in terms of my number of friends. That makes me happy, although I wish one of my student 'friends' would stop sending me requests to play Facebook Texas Hold 'Em poker.

Monday, July 07, 2008


Sometimes when things don't work out between a student and advisor (no matter who is at fault, if anyone), the student may try working with another advisor in the same department*. This situation typically involves graduate students, but can also involve undergraduate research students. In some cases this is a neutral situation in which the student and advisor mutually and amicably 'divorce'. In other cases, however, this parting-of-the-ways creates a tense situation for at least some of the individuals involved: the student, the former advisor, and/or the new advisor.

The most tense situations are when the first advisor feels that the student has been given ample opportunity to show their abilities, and changing advisors isn't just a matter of exploring new research interests, it's shopping around for an easier project. If the advisor feels the student has demonstrated a lack of ability for Ph.D. research, for example, he or she might be annoyed if another advisor doesn't respect that opinion and agrees to advise the student. Of course the student's point of view might be that the first advisor or research project was deficient in some way, and so they want to try working with another advisor.

The very first graduate student I advised started working with me through an amicable arrangement between her former advisor and me. When I showed up in my first tenure-track position, this student was just starting her second year of the Ph.D. program. She'd spent most of the first year taking classes (and doing well in them) and thinking about what her research focus would be. Her interests matched mine well, and it was fine with her first-year advisor that she work with me. This was an ideal situation. In fact, I think it is by far the best 'inheritance' situation in which I've participated.

The second graduate student I advised started working with me through an amicable arrangement between his former advisor and me. The student said he couldn't get interested in his first advisor's research, but said he was very interested in my work. I took him on as an MS student, though it quickly became apparent that he wasn't interested in much of anything involving science or research. After trying, and failing, to work with me**, he said that he would probably do better if he had an advisor who had the same religious-ethnic background as he did. Remarkably, the graduate advisor allowed him to switch advisors again, but the student continued to fail and eventually left graduate school.

In both cases, the inherited student proclaimed an interest in my research field, but only one was sincere about it. Could I have figured that out and saved myself the stress, lost time, and wasted resources of Student #2? Unless we want to start giving lie detector tests to students, I think not. And even if we did have Research Interest Lie Detector Tests, they would be unlikely to work, as I think that some students may sincerely think they are interested in something, when in fact they know nothing about the topic and are just being hopeful or deluded.

I've also had several other students decide that they would rather work with another advisor than with me. In most cases, the students were failing and in danger of being forced to leave the graduate program. In these cases, no other faculty were willing to advise the students and the students had to leave. In at least one case, however, a failing student was allowed to switch advisors. In that case, the student didn't do any better with his new advisor than he did with me, and had to leave the grad program.

If there is any indication that a student is doing well or could do well with a change of academic scenery (e.g., the advisor and research project), a department has the responsibility to do what it can to help the student succeed. Certainly there are evil and/or negligent advisors, and students should be given assistance in those cases, including the option of changing advisors. If the student is failing or being unproductive, however, in the vast majority of cases this means that the student won't do well with any advisor. I've heard students say "If only I had a more interesting project, I would be more motivated and then I would do better", but in most cases that is delusional thinking.

There may be situations in which a student is locked into a specific project and has to do boring tasks A, B, and C, and nothing more. In that case, perhaps the answer is a change of projects/advisors. In most cases with which I am aware, however, the students have the opportunity to take some initiative with their research and make it interesting to them. If they don't -- and continue complaining -- then it may be an indication that it's not the research project and the advisor that aren't right for them, it's research in general.

* See also Firing Your Advisor (Jan 2007 post)

** This is the student I have mentioned before who, in his first year of graduate school, asked me "Why do you seem to think you know more than I do?" (in reference to my research specialty)

Friday, July 04, 2008

Rock Star Scientists, II

Yesterday's post and some of the comments reminded me of an incident I had completely forgotten about until now:

Many years ago when I was a young FSP, I spent summers at the university where my husband was a postdoc. This was back in the days when we needed physical access to libraries that contained bound volumes of journals, and internet access was rare outside of academic institutions. Fortunately for me, my husband's institution gave me a desk, an internet connection, and access to the library during my extended visits.

Late one night, I was sitting in a big, comfortable chair in the small library that was in the department, alone and reading journal articles. On this particular day, I was taking it easy because I had injured my back somehow (I don't remember how and have not ever injured my back in the years since, so it was a one-time bizarre injury thing). As I sat and read, in walked an Extremely Famous Scientist who was famous for the excellence of his research and for using his work to improve life for all of Humankind. In fact, he was more than just a Famous Scientist, he was a Science Hero, and there are not many of those. I taught about him in my classes. And as if that weren't enough, he was also well known for being a very kind person.

When I encountered him, he was also very ancient and frail. He looked around the library, saw that I was the only person there, and walked over to me. I was thrilled to have the chance to meet him. After apologizing for interrupting my work, he said "The trunk of my car is filled with many very heavy books and I am not allowed to lift anything. Would you be willing to carry them to my office for me?".

It was like something out of a Greek myth in which a random god appears and asks a mere mortal to do an impossible task, like carry an anvil up a mountain. If the mortal fails, he or she is turned into a sad type of tree or a loathsome invertebrate. Was I being tested?

Why did I have to have an injured back on that day of all days? Any other day I would have been able to help him easily, but on that day, I wasn't sure I could carry a trunk-load of heavy books from the parking lot to his office. Carrying the journal volumes from a library shelf to my nearby chair had been an effort.

But how could I say no? Every person on Earth benefits every day from his research. Could I really say "No, sorry, I can't help you with your books, but thanks for saving the planet and its people."?

I said "I'll be happy to help you" and got up to follow him out of the library.

Just then, the gods relented and, although I had not seen another person for hours, two grad students appeared at that moment and offered to carry the books. The Science Hero thanked me graciously for being willing to help, and I collapsed in my chair, immensely relieved.

Why had I been willing to risk further injury and possibly fail at the task he required just because he was a Famous Scientist? If a random Big Shot had wandered into the library and asked me for help carrying books, I probably would have explained about my injured back and declined to help. In this case, however, the Big Shot was someone who had done more than just be a brilliant scientist, and I sincerely wanted to help this person.

What about other types of famous people? What if my fellow artist Paul McCartney had asked me to carry heavy books? I think I would have said no. I think I lack the capacity for routine celebrity worship. Some evidence for this is the eternal struggle I have with my book co-author, who reads this blog (sometimes? always? perhaps I will find out now?) and who is much cooler than I am and who likes to insert mainstream cultural references into the book; e.g., mention of popular movies and famous movie actors. Even though I ultimately accede to his superior knowledge of popular culture and his instincts for writing books that people might actually read, in the text drafts I can't help deleting "Brad Pitt" and replacing him with "Orhan Pamuk", even if I know the change is temporary.

Now, if Orhan Pamuk asked me to carry heavy books from his car to his office..

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Rock Star Scientists

Earlier this year, I made a compelling case for how science professors are like rock stars. I was reminded of this today as I walked near campus with my daughter. We passed a person who was singing a Beatles' song to himself, and my daughter asked me:

"When you're in a cafe and you see someone reading that book you helped write, I wonder if you feel the same way that Paul McCartney does when he hears someone singing one of his songs."

I, for one, am convinced that we feel exactly the same, despite a few differences in Paul's and my situations with respect to our artistic creations. (One example: people sing his songs by choice.)

I assured my daughter that Paul and I share this experience. Perhaps I did so because I want her to value scientific creativity as much as other kinds.

Perhaps I want her to know that if her rock band, which practices about twice a year, doesn't work out, there are other appealing options in life.

Perhaps I wanted to make up for the fact that, much to her disappointment and disbelief, I don't have a favorite Beatle. She asks me every few months, but the answer is always the same. Although she continues to hope, I figure that if it hasn't happened yet, I am unlikely to acquire a favorite Beatle at my advanced age.

Mostly, however, I knew that she would know I was joking if I compared myself to the Beatles, and that we would have fun talking about the analogy between musical and scientific artistes. Now if only I could get the rest of my family to believe that I might be as creative as my cousin who majored in Ethnic Dance more than 10 years ago and who has a favorite Beatle.