Friday, August 29, 2008

Minding the Extraordinary Gap

One of my uncles recently told me that one of his daughters had discovered that a newly-hired man at her workplace (a state institution) was being paid an "extraordinary" amount more than she or other women at the same level. My cousin initially assumed that this man must have some extra credentials or experience, but she did some quiet investigating and found that he did not.

My cousin talked to her boss to ask him why the new guy was being paid so much more than women who were his equals in experience and credentials. She assumed there was a good reason, but wanted to know what it was. It turned out there was no good reason, and my cousin and the other women were given "extraordinary" raises so that they were making the same (or more) than the new guy.

My uncle was shocked that his daughter had questioned her boss, but was impressed with her for getting such a big raise. He said to me "What I can't figure out is why she and the others got such a large raise when all she did was ask why this guy was being paid more." I told him that I thought my cousin and the other women could have sued and won, and that would have cost the state more and gotten the supervisors in trouble. In the end, the women probably would have gotten the big raises anyway. I said "You can't pay men more than women for no reason." Well, OK, you can, but I didn't feel like saying that.

This really surprised my uncle. He said he assumed that the salary you were paid was the salary you "deserved". I don't really know what he means by "deserved", and he couldn't explain it. He said it wouldn't have occurred to him to question why a man was being paid more than some women ("girls").

In many jobs, including some academic jobs, you get the salary that someone else thinks you deserve, and they may think someone else deserves more, but not for any particular reason that makes sense.

The mechanism for determining academic salaries varies widely from institution to institution. For state universities, the mechanism varies from state to state, and may also vary within a state if there is more than one university system. Even in systems that have salary ranges for specific ranks, there are ways that these ranges can be adjusted.

On two occasions I have acquired the salary data for faculty in my department. All of the highest paid faculty are men, but these are all men who have been or are administrators and/or are the department superstar. There is one outlier that makes my gnash my teeth when I think about it.

If you consider my individual salary compared to my department colleagues, there are some senior men who make less than I do (owing to their long-term lack of productivity), and there are coeval men who make more than I do (owing to nothing obvious). In the latter case, the difference is enough to make me annoyed and to point out the disparity to my department Chair, but not enough to make me call a lawyer.

In response to my query, the department Chair gave me a significant raise, in part from supplementary funds provided for this purpose from higher levels of university administration. This raise was nice but not enough to bring me to the same level (or even within spitting distance) as the more highly paid coeval men, but it did close the gap a bit. I think the Chair wants to lessen the chance that I will leave and/or be very unhappy about the inequality, but he isn't about to do anything too daring.

What impresses me about my cousin's case is that her boss brought her and the other women up to salary parity. I think a lot of people in the same situation would toss the women a bit of money to make them less likely to sue but not do anything too "extraordinary".

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Rename the Professors Poll

As you may have seen, there is a new poll in the sidebar to the right. The poll will be live for a week. I suppose I can add to it if any new exciting nominations are made. The perceptive reader will note, on reading the poll list, that I have failed to come up with a serious list of viable alternatives, but went ahead with the poll anyway for its entertainment value (such as it is).

As I have been discussing this week (and a few other random times in the past), the motivation for this effort is the unsatisfactory nature of the current terms for professorial ranks. "Assistant Professor" is particularly annoying and kind of demeaning as a term, and "Associate Professor" isn't much better.

I realize that some people think that becoming Chair or Dean or Vice-Assistant Provost represents career advancement, and although I will not argue that Dean > Professor in terms of the academic power structure, becoming an administrator represents taking a different career path and is not necessarily the only way to advance your career as a Professor.

Some of my close colleagues have some extra words they can put in front of their Professor title -- e.g. endowed chairs (either the permanent or the folding chair sort). These titles are nice to have, especially since some of them come with some unrestricted research funds. Even if the title name consists of a couple of extraordinarily long or strange names (+ middle initials and/or nicknames) of the benefactors of the chair -- e.g., the Hildegaard Z. ("Muffin") and Llewellyn O. ("Smurfy") Erlenmeyer-Foo Distinguished Chair -- these are still nice positions to have.

One of my Endowed Chair colleagues has recently discovered that he gets more rapid and positive responses to his e-mails if he put his Endowed Chair title in his sig file than if he leaves the title out. He doesn't want such title-impressed people to exist, but, since they do, he appreciates that he can at least get their attention now.

For the un-endowed and administratively disinclined Professors facing the long stretch between final promotion and retirement, perhaps there are some adjectives we can add to make life a bit more interesting. The poll at right focuses on the Big Three (replacements for Assistant, Associate, and "full"), but some of the categories are versatile enough to permit some fine-scale additions to the Professor rank.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

No Assistants Required

Let's do away with the existing adjectives used to describe the professorial ranks. These terms are inaccurate, somewhat annoying, and they do not inspire confidence in our non-academic friends and relations. We need more awe-inspiring adjectives.

Even once you become a Professor (as in, a so-called "full" professor, although "full" is not technically part of the title) and you lose the demeaning adjectives, all is not perfect. When people ask me my title and I say "Professor", I am then asked "What kind of professor? Do you have tenure?", as if I am leaving out some information by not including any adjective. In some situations I am reluctant to say "full professor" because I am quite tired of the "full of what?" question that inevitably follows. We all need better adjectives.

I do not think we should adopt a military style system. Many of the names of ranks are unintuitive in terms of their relative significance. For example, I think my brother's rank sounded more impressive when he was a Commander than a Captain, but I'm pretty sure he was a Captain after he was a Commander. I suppose everyone knows that an Admiral or a General is a highly ranked officer, but the rest of the names are kind of obscure. And I can never keep track of whether my Marine Colonel uncle is more highly ranked than my Army Captain uncle. I don't really care, but apparently this controls who gets what chair at the dinner table.

I suppose we could add 'stars' to our professorial ranks, as that is a simple concept that would instantly convey status. If we are going to keep some adjectives for the pre-full professor ranks, though, we need some better adjectives.

So: Send me some adjectives and I will construct a poll of the top choices.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

No Opportunity for Advancement

Recently I returned briefly to my ancestral home and spent time with various relatives. I’ve described these experiences before. The women cook, the men sit and drink and talk about war and religion. All of the men have been in the military and/or are ministers (some both).

I have also complained before about how my family thinks I am kind of a loser relative to my brother, who is in the military. I was reminded of this again (and again) on my recent visit.

Army Uncle: So, you don’t seem to have been promoted in a while. What is the next rank you could attain if you are ever promoted again?

FSP: Professors only have 3 ranks: Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, and Professor. I’m a Professor.

Army Uncle: So you have no more opportunities for advancement? You’ve gone as far as you can go with your career? That’s it until you retire?

FSP: I can advance in my career without getting new titles every few years. As a Professor, I'm still doing research and making advancements with that.

Army Uncle: Huh.

I can see how, from the outside, being a Professor (as in, full Professor rank) might seem like a career plateau with no major expectations and no major changes until retirement, and there are surely some professors who coast along from promotion to retirement. Most of us, though, are still interested in our work, pursuing new ideas and research directions, obtaining research funds, advising graduate students and postdocs, and "advancing" in our careers in terms of the discoveries we make and, yes, the recognition we get for doing so.

I am glad that we don't have dozens of promotions and titles, though I am considering inventing some that professors can use in discussions with non-academic family members. For example, I think that given the length of time since my promotion to Professor.

Monday, August 25, 2008

(Un)welcome visitor?

Note: Comment moderation/posting may be intermittent this week.

Those of us who teach at large universities typically teach the 'lecture' part of the course, and the laboratory part is taught by graduate student teaching assistants. The success of the class as a whole involves both parts, so the integration of lecture and lab and the interaction of the professor and TA are important elements of the course.

When I discuss teaching issues with colleagues at peer institutions, one of the questions I ask is: "Do you visit the lab sections for your course?"

I am not talking about the large introductory courses that may have tens of lab sections taught in remote buildings at all hours of the day and may contain students from various sections of the course. When I teach a large introductory level course, I like to know what is going on in the labs in terms of topic/activities each week, but there is no way I can visit the labs.

The courses for which the question about visiting is most relevant are those that typically have 1-2 lab sections that are held in a location not too distant from faculty offices. There may be 1-2 teaching assistants, in many cases the instructor's own graduate students. Most of my courses have more than one lab section (and in some cases more than one TA), so I don't really have time to visit the labs, but it would at least be humanly possible for me to visit the labs. But do I visit the labs?

I have found that there are pros and cons to visiting the labs for my courses.


If I spend enough time in the lab, I can get a better sense for how the students (individually and as a group) are doing in the class. Who is struggling? Who would like more of a challenge? What concepts are not getting through via in-class lectures and activities?

Students have additional opportunities to talk to me and ask questions, and there is time to answer questions at length.

I can refer to lab activities in a more informed way in class. It is better to be able to say in class "As you saw in lab on Tuesday.." rather than "As you may have seen in lab on Tuesday.." or (worse) "As you were supposed to have seen in lab on Tuesday..".

Students will have additional evidence that I care about the course and my students.


The TA may feel undermined. Am I visiting the lab because I don't trust the TA's teaching abilities or knowledge? Perhaps I am a control freak.

The students may feel nervous if I am looking over their shoulder and popping in at unexpected times. They might feel more comfortable around the TA, but may be anxious if I see them being perplexed by a lab activity. Will I think they are stupid?

I don't have time to visit the labs.

Ideally, the pros will surpass the cons, I will have infinite time to stroll into the lab sections, I will have a comfortable working relationship with the teaching assistants, and the students will all be happy and motivated seekers of knowledge. If only.

I used to visit the labs for my courses, but I found that the cons of doing this were outweighing the pros. Some teaching assistants definitely felt undermined, and thought I was checking up on them or not trusting them to explain things correctly. Also, some students were reluctant to admit they were confused when I asked if anyone had questions. Perhaps they were only temporarily confused, and the moment I chose to visit the lab was just at that time. This caused stress. So, my visits became less frequent, and in some (most?) terms, I don't visit the labs at all. This fact shocks some of my friends who teach at small colleges and who teach both lecture and lab (or make no distinction between these two elements of their courses).

I am, however, very involved in construction of the lab activities, and I try to integrate class and lab each week so that lab is not a random disconnected activity that the students go off and do in another room in the building.

This works OK, and this is also what most of my colleagues do. Most of us don't visit the labs, primarily owing to lack of time. Those who do visit labs do so because (1) there is one lab section that immediately follows or precedes the lecture part of the class, in some cases in the same room, making it easier to be involved in the lab; or (2) the TA really is inadequate. I have never been in situation #1, and, in my experience, situation #2 is extremely rare.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Barely Writing

There is a nudity analogy that describes why some people have trouble writing manuscripts and proposals, hate the entire process of writing, and struggle with this important aspect of academic life despite the dire consequences of not writing well or enough. Note that writing problems apply to those who do not write well and to those who can write well but have difficulty writing.

The analogy/hypothesis is: People who hate writing and are reluctant to write feel as if they are "undressing" in front of other people. By writing, they are baring a private part of themselves, and this is extraordinarily difficult and painful for some people. When they put words in a document, they are standing naked in front of other people.

When I first heard this analogy, I laughed a lot because of the implications of this analogy for people like me who love to write and do it fairly easily.

There are surely complex issues involving brain function and emotions when we write, and it is fascinating how different writing is from speaking and how some people can be good at one but not the other.

Writing involves creating a tangible record of what we are thinking, and, in academic writing, it shows other people what we know (or don't know). That can be intimidating. You can listen to a discussion or a talk or a lecture and understand what is being told to you, but when you write a manuscript or a proposal, it's just you and your computer and a seemingly infinite number of ways to go about selecting and organizing the words. For some reason, although word choice when speaking also has a large array of options, most people are less intimidated by this than they are when writing.

The local environment has to be perfect for some people to write. Imagine what the world would be like if we only spoke once we had the right music in the background at the right volume and we were neither hungry nor thirsty and the cat was asleep in the other room and we hadn't received any interesting email in at least a few minutes.

Scientific writing has certain requirements in terms of style and content, and some people are overwhelmed by thinking about all the mysterious rules that they believe must be followed as you type every word, even in the first draft.

Some people may also be intimidated by the "unknown audience" aspect of writing. A student may discuss something with me and be entirely articulate and demonstrate a complete understanding of the topic, but if I say "OK, now go write that down", they are flummoxed. By writing it down, they are making a record of their words and thoughts in a more permanent way, and what they write might be read by other people -- perhaps a group of very wise and judgmental people somewhere out there in the scientific universe. This group is in possession of a large stamp that says LOSER. If you write something less than perfect, even in a first draft, they put a giant red LOSER stamp in permanent ink next to your name and you are forever labeled as stupid. They might even write to your mother. The only one who will still think you are clever is your dog. By writing, you are baring your soul, perhaps with long-term consequences, and overcoming a fear of that means being willing to "expose" yourself to others.

There is clearly more to it than what I have described. Some of my students have been so impaired at writing that even if I give them a fill-in-the-blanks template (a kind of Mad Libs for Doctoral Students), they can't even do that.

Writing can be highly technical, but writing even seemingly dry descriptions of methods and results involves making decisions about what to include and what to leave out, what logic and organization to use in presenting data, and what words to use. I try to remember this when I encounter someone who has trouble writing even the most basic description of their research methods and results.

I like using writing in many different ways, both technical and non-technical. My major writing activities involve manuscripts, proposals, email, and this blog, and this summer I also did a different kind of writing that I very much enjoyed: writing letters, on paper, to be sent by mail in an envelope with a stamp.

My daughter was away at camp for part of the summer, and our only communication was by letters sent via regular mail (no email, no phone, no fax allowed). Not wanting to write boring letters about how the tomato plants were doing and what the weather was, I sent her newsy notes but I also sent her a piece of a story in each letter, each letter containing the next part of the story in sequence. In some letters, I also sent cartoons I had made using photos of our cats with speech bubbles over their furry heads. Fortunately she is still young enough to really like this kind of stuff.

Doing different kinds of writing flexes different brain muscles, and I found that this letter-story-cartoon writing inspired my scientific writing as well. I didn't start drawing cat cartoons in my scientific manuscripts (though maybe I should), but after writing a story-letter, I often felt like working on a manuscript. I seldom have to force myself to write, so the effect was not dramatic, but there was an effect. It felt like when you've exercised and you feel really good and kind of energized and you want to go out and do something else active.

Maybe I should encourage my writing-challenged students to write short stories and poems, and this will help ease them into their science writing. As long as their manuscripts and thesis chapters aren't haiku or horror stories, this might be a way to make writing less of a difficult obstacle. And as long as our scientific writing doesn't become total fiction, we might all become better writers in the end.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Convergent Evolution or Unnatural Selection?

At the recent workshop I attended, one of my colleagues remarked that all the members (past and present; male and female) of a particular research group resembled each other: they were all fit, attractive, had short hair, and most of them were tall, just like the professor who heads this group.

Over the years I have observed other examples of research group members resembling each other. For example, another research group with which I am familiar is mostly comprised of thin men with beards. Just like their supervisor, all of the students and postdocs are runners, though some became runners after joining the group.

The ones who previously had no interest in running are the ones who concern me. I can see why they don't want to be left out, but what if someone doesn't want to train constantly to run 10k races? Would such a student be less likely to be accepted to work with this group?

As a postdoc, I was in a research group in which I (the only woman) was the only one who did not have an interest in a particular extreme sport. My lack of interest in this sport (and certain death) didn't exclude me from being hired, but I was definitely left out of the reindeer games at which scientific discussion occurred. That's a classic problem experienced by anyone who doesn't share the characteristics or interests of the majority, but in the case of sports or hobbies, in theory you can become part of these activities.

In some cases, research group resemblance stems from the fact that group members dress alike (= convergent evolution). For example, I recall the vivid sight at a conference of numerous turtlenecked male graduate students gathered around their turtlenecked advisor. They all had their hair cut in approximately the same way and none had facial hair. They looked like they were in some kind of dorky cult.

When I was a graduate student, one of my fellow students took to wearing the same kind of tweed jacket-turtleneck combo as our advisor wore (what is it with turtlenecks?), and he attempted the same style of facial hair. I thought this was bizarre. I never figured out the motivation for this type of mimicry, and don't know whether it was done deliberately or subconsciously.

The question is: Do members of some research groups 'evolve' to look like each other (typically by altering their clothing and hair style and perhaps acquiring certain hobbies) or do some advisors tend to select advisees who have certain characteristics and interests?

I think the answer is both, maybe.

If 'selection' occurs, it may involve people with similar interests gravitating towards each other because they feel most comfortable with this situation. The danger of this of course is that 'other' people might be excluded, even if not deliberately, and that many of these other people may be women or members of other underrepresented groups.

I suppose it is natural to want to feel like part of the team if you're working in a research group, and perhaps dressing alike is a benign part of that effort, as long as the team is diverse in other ways.

Some of this type of superficial resemblance can be unintentional. I was once walking with 2 of my grad students, when we suddenly realized we were all wearing the exact same kind of rain jacket. I immediately thought of the Cult of the Turtleneck and felt anxious. It turns out we had all gone to the same sale at a local store. At least we had each selected a different color jacket. In fact, one of my students asked me if I had gotten to the sale late, perhaps in reference to my unusual color choice. And he was right.

I don't think I selectively accept grad students who share characteristics or interests with me, but maybe it is hard to escape from this tendency entirely. I was once taken aback when meeting a prospective grad student at a conference. She was wearing a Winnie-the-Pooh shirt, and I wondered why someone would wear something like that at a conference. But then I thought: Is that any more juvenile than a young man wearing a baseball cap? Why does it matter what she (or a baseball capped guy) is wearing? I had to talk myself into this, though, but in the end I think I convinced myself. I don't want to work only with people who are just like me.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Keeping up with all the angry women

Letter to FSP:

You are an anomaly. Why be so bitchy about that? Give it up. Men AREN'T trying to "hold you down." You are a woman in a male-dominated field.

What is up with all these angry women? Men have it rough too. You think we all are bright enough and have the financing to get a PhD. I am a man and have found life to be very very very very very hard.

Give the hatred a rest.



Dear Anonymous:

I have good news for you! Women don't think men are all bright enough. That's part of the problem. Men who are no smarter than we are somehow are respected more, paid more, and given more resources and opportunities in general. When we do attain something (e.g., a job, a grant, an award, a position of responsibility), a common assumption is that we don't really deserve it. That kind of makes some of us angry. So, that's what's up with that.

I am sincerely sorry that your life is so difficult for you. However, although I of course have absolutely no insight into your life, I will point out your tendency to leap to quick and inaccurate judgment about people ("hatred"?), your self-pity, and your complacency about the lack of women in science. These are not good things.

Thank you, though, for providing me with another entry for FSP's Guide to Academic Etiquette:

When corresponding with (or talking to/about) a woman, try not to describe her as "bitchy". It is not a very creative term, and might undermine the point you are trying to make.



P.S. - One of my colleagues, who is a bright enough man, thinks your letter is a joke. I hope he is right, but I fear he is not.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Book Preview

If you look at the preview option of the FSP Book on, you don't see much, if anything, past the table of contents, so, as requested, here is a preview of some random text -- the introduction to a chapter on being evaluated as a professor.


Most non-academics probably think that the life of a tenured professor is fairly easy and low stress, and I am certainly not going to complain about having the job security that comes with tenure. However, one aspect of academic life that few people (including graduate students) seem to appreciate is just how often we are EVALUATED.

Our teaching is evaluated. Teaching evaluations may consist only of the anonymous survey that students fill out at the end of each course, but may also involve classroom visits by more senior faculty.

Our research is evaluated in many ways:

• Manuscripts are reviewed and criticized; based on reviews, they are accepted or rejected.

• Proposals are reviewed and criticized; based on reviews, they are funded or not.

• Conference presentations or talks in other professional setting are open to criticism, questions, and comments in a very public setting.

In addition, untenured faculty are evaluated every year or two or three prior to the big evaluation that comes during the tenure process. Associate Professors who are considered for promotion are re-evaluated. Professors are also evaluated, in some departments every year, as part of the post-tenure review and consideration for merit raises.

If you are devastated by criticism, you might well be very unhappy in academia unless you can develop a thicker skin and become receptive-but-impervious to criticism.

Every spring I fill out an annual report detailing my publications, grants, conference presentations, awards, teaching activities, and students advised/graduated. I typically feel pretty good about this, as most years I have a good number of activities to report.

A friend of mine at another big research university told me that in his department, the bar for research expectations is set at a level corresponding to the highest-performing faculty members – the ones bringing in millions of $$ in funding and running big labs that produce a lot of papers. If the bar is set there, most faculty get lower evaluations, even if they are doing really well by almost any normal standard. My friend says this system is bad for morale, especially for Assistant Professors. Hearing that made me feel grateful for my department's more mysterious but more holistic system. By the standards of this other department, I might be considered a failure or, at the very least, underperforming, even though I’m a fairly productive researcher. I definitely would not feel so positive about my annual report.

Teaching evaluations are part of the annual report, and we are also evaluated as to whether we fulfill the ‘service’ part of our job. The former is fairly straightforward, but the latter is more ambiguous because we never really know what the expectations for this are.

It is easy to specify that faculty need to teach a certain number of courses each year, but I don’t know of any place that tells faculty how many committees they should be on. Part of the mystery has to do with the fact that service involves such a wide range of possible activities, each of which requires a different amount of time: department/college/university service (committees), professional service (reviewing papers and proposals, serving on panels, being an editor, holding office in professional organizations), and outreach (visiting schools, judging science fairs etc.). Are all of these equal in value? What about giving invited talks at other universities? Is that service, research, both?

I think these issues are particularly important for Assistant Professors who need to know what the tenure criteria are, and for senior professors facing a negative post-tenure review. For example, should early career faculty agree to serve on administrative committees and teach a graduate seminar in addition to their regular teaching load and is it OK to decline to do some reviews? For early career faculty, department and university service should be minimal, but professional service activities that provide visibility can be important.

If some department/university service is expected, there are some committees that can be more useful and interesting than others. I have found that the graduate admissions committee and hiring committees are examples of service work that can be worth the time and effort.

Everyone has to find their own balance in terms of what they can manage, but the priorities are to be a productive researcher and to be a good teacher. You need to be a good academic citizen, but within reason.

Other parts of the chapter include further discussion of teaching evaluations, including comparing online evaluations to in-class evaluations.

And so on. Thanks to all who left nice comments on the book announcement yesterday.

Monday, August 18, 2008

FSP : The Book

Part of what I have done with my summer vacation is compile some FSP blog essays into a book-like object. I have long had requests to do something like this, but I have ignored all such requests and suggestions because I didn't think it would be interesting, as in not interesting for me to do and not interesting for anyone else to read. But then my fading short-term memory increasingly made me consult the FSP archives to see what I'd discussed before and what I hadn't, and I got interested in seeing what it would look like if I strung together posts on related topics; e.g. publishing, advising grad students, teaching, being an FSP.

So I started organizing old posts, discarding the ones that I didn't like or that were boring, and putting others together. It was sort of like doing a puzzle, but only sort of because if there were any pieces of the puzzle that didn't fit, I changed them. For example, I added text to make transitions between blog posts and included some entirely new material to help pull the main topics together.

I also made the essays more 'timeless'; e.g., I changed posts that were about something that happened 'today' to something that happened in an unspecified or more general time frame.

There are some posts that I would write in a somewhat different way if I were writing them now, so that's what I did -- I rewrote anything that I wanted to say in a new or different way. And somehow it all came together as a book-like object.

The book-like thing is organized into chapter-like parts. In fact, much of the challenge and fun of this endeavor was figuring out what the chapters would be and in what order they would go. Within the chapter-like things are a mixture of old and new text, but mostly the sub-sections are blog-like bits of text.

The order of the chapters and sub-sections has no relationship to any chronological order inherited from the blog. I reordered topics and posts to make the book-like thing as coherent as possible.

I am not sure if this blog-to-book conversion works, so that's why I refer to it as a book-like thing.

At the suggestion of a reader, I used the self-publishing, print-on-demand website If so inclined, you can order a print version of the book (trade paperback, black and white interior, graph paper glossy covers) or you can download it as a pdf. Both of these involve a modest fee (and the printed version involves paying shipping costs to Or you can just read the FSP blog for free.

This all took a lot of time, but the biggest challenge was finding a title. I never did find one I liked, and ended up going with unwieldy and somewhat pretentious (with a colon; something I try to avoid in titles of my scientific articles). I considered various titles involving FSP-type keywords, but only some of my posts are about women-in-science issues, so I decided to keep the title general:

Academeology: Random Musings, Strong Opinions & Somewhat Bizarre Anecdotes From An Academic Life.

For the 2 or 3 of you who actually read this thing, please let me know what you think. Did I leave out anything important? Are there errors? Is it readable in terms of content and format? Is it an evocative and beautifully rendered portrait of life as a Science Professor?

That last question is an unsubtle request for BOOK BLURBS. To be a real book, this thing needs some blurbs. At present, the book is blurbless, though I could add some to a Second Edition. I can also just make some up; e.g.:

If my cat could read, this is the one book I would want him to have!

A Kafkaesque groves-of-academe satirical work of non-fiction written by a gender-lens-wearing anonymous female person!

"Catch-22" meets Strunk & White's "Elements of Style"!

An academic life stranger than fiction! This book makes the goose scene in Russo's novel "Straight Man" believable!

Friday, August 15, 2008

FSP's Guide to Academic Etiquette

From time to time, I find myself giving advice or making strong suggestions via this blog, although I am not much of an advice-giver in real life. As issues arise in the blog, however, I have been randomly numbering snippets of advice and referring to an imaginary guide to academic etiquette. I decided to scroll through the archives and extract some of these, giving them more realistic numbers and lining them up to see what I've suggested in the past.

A glance at the list shows that this is not a comprehensive list of all the things one might want or need to know to navigate through the academic environment, nor is it even a particularly sane list. Some of these items are probably more useful than others. Some are more serious than others. Some are simply strange. In any case, here it is:

FSP's Guide to Academic Etiquette

1. (for academic job applicants) Don’t write about your spouse in your application unless this information is relevant. Otherwise it is obnoxious.

2. (for interviewees) Don’t patronize young people, women, and/or staff during your interview unless you are a jerk. If you are a jerk, go ahead: this is important information.

3. After an interview, send a brief follow-up letter to the hiring committee and/or department Chair to emphasize your interest and to note any updates (new publications, thoughts based on your interview and interactions with students and others). Don't be too schmoozy – just be succinct and sincere and professional. If you don’t send a letter, that’s fine too, but a letter can cement the impression that you are serious about the job.

4. (for interviewers): Don’t ask illegal/unethical questions. If you don’t know what is permissible, find out in advance.

5. (for students and postdocs): If you are paid a salary, you should do the work.

6. (for students visiting a professor in his/her office): If you are going to ask a professor a question and you need to refer to your notes or a book, have these within easy reach, with pages marked.

7A. If someone writes a letter of reference for you, let them know the outcome of your applications.
7B. You don’t have to write to prospective graduate advisors to tell them you’ve decided to go elsewhere, but you should.

8. (for grad applicants) 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.

9. Don’t tell your advisor (or colleagues or students) what your therapist says about them.

10. Run a spell-checker before giving someone a manuscript or other document to read.

11. If you 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.]

12. When writing a review, even if you think the authors are wrong and you think that they have incorrect or inadequate citation of your work and you don’t like their data or their font or their interpretations or the way that they say that your work is flawed, write your criticisms in a constructive and professional way.

13. If you are a co-author, you should respond in a timely way to requests for comments, or at least provide some communication to work out a reasonable timescale within which you can provide input.

14. Before submitting anything for review, notify all co-authors and give them a chance to respond.

15. Only insult people who really deserve it.

16. Don’t be sneaky. Get your own ideas or collaborate. It’s fine to be inspired by someone else’s work, but there is a difference between inspiration and copying.

17. Don’t assume that women are their husbands. [note: that one might be cryptic without the accompanying anecdote]

18A. Don’t threaten or pinch people, even if they disagree with you.
18B. Don’t try to publish after you’re dead. [note: in the original post, these items were actually related]

19. Before introducing a speaker, ask them if they have a preference about what is said during the introduction. Most people won’t, but some may have some general (or specific) preferences about what to mention (e.g., dates, places, awards, crimes).

20. Thank people who help you, even if it is their job to do so.

21. Don’t assume that someone lacks ambition just because they don’t want to be a professor at a big research university.

22. Don’t boast about firing students. It is unseemly. You can of course talk about it, but don’t use these incidents to establish your hard-core credentials.

23. (for teachers) If someone gives you course materials, give some back when you get a chance.

24. Don’t make faculty meetings last longer than necessary unless you have something really important to say.

25. Don’t treat Female Science Professors as a lesser sub-species of Science Professors.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Summer Bonanza

In the summer, some faculty spend a lot of time in the department, some come and go, and some disappear for the entire summer. I am in the middle category: I'm here a lot, but then I travel, then I'm here a lot, them I'm away again.

I have written (complained) before about how those of us who are in the department in the summer get asked to do 'volunteer' service work. The university doesn't pay our salaries in the summer, but administrative tasks must be done and someone has to do them. Those someones are the ones who are in their offices and labs in the summer.

But every once in a while, something good (in the administrative sense) happens to those of us who lurk in our offices for at least part of the summer. In fact, something pretty good just happened to me today.

I was sitting at my desk and the Chair walked into my office. I admit that my very first thought was "Oh no, he's going to ask me to do something." But no. In this case, my cynicism was unfounded, though in 99.57% of cases it is not.

The Chair reminded me that last spring I had compiled a list of requests for teaching supplies that various faculty desired. These supplies were all of a related sort that could be ordered from one vendor and that would benefit a variety of classes. I was motivated to compile this list in part out of frustration with the sad state of some teaching materials I was using and also because a new faculty member will soon teach a class that I have taught for many years, and I was feeling bad about handing over to him some ancient somewhat-wrecked supplies. I thought he should have nice new materials for his first experience teaching this class. It occurred to me that other colleagues might also want some similar items, so I made a spreadsheet/wish-list. Alas, the funds for teaching supplies vanished, and we were unable to order anything.

Funds for teaching supplies have reappeared and must be spent this week or the Dean will take the funds away. The Chair was wandering the halls looking for faculty who had made requests last spring, and he found me. The other people who made requests are not here, so he told me to give my list to an accountant and the items will be purchased.

I am feeling very lucky that this happened this week (when I am in my office) instead of last week (when I was far away). My colleagues who are away this week missed out on an opportunity, but I don't feel too anguished about my random luck because the funds that just fell from the sky will benefit many colleagues, not just me, and because the windfall is for teaching materials, not for a new espresso machine for me office (I will have to use grant funds for that*).

* Note to NSF program officers: That was a joke. Really.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


August is typically a bit of a feeding frenzy for the forming and filling of committees with participants. I've received numerous requests in the couple of weeks from committee chairs with invitations to spend various amounts of time doing university or professional service work.

I said yes to two. I am cycling off some other committees, so I felt I could take on some new ones. I said no to the rest.

I have a pretty good sense for what I can take on and what would be too much, though sometimes it's hard to tell just how much time a particular committee or other service activity can take. And of course some service activities can fill all the time you have if you let them. Deciding what is worthwhile and learning how to balance time spent on service vs. research vs. teaching are things you figure out with experience (and/or good mentoring early on if you're lucky).

One positive aspect of being such a popular target for committee membership is that I have options. I can pick the ones that look like they might be interesting and a potential good use of my time. And, since I am doing a fair amount of service work, I don't feel (too) bad about saying no to the others, though I sympathize with the committee chairs who are trying to round up volunteers.

In the past 10 years or so, I have been on at least 6 university-level committees, some for 3-year terms, and I just got invited to be on two more; I said yes to one and no to the other. My husband has never been asked to be on any committee above the department level.

Of course there are many Male Science Professors who do a lot of committee work; I have never been on a committee with more women than men. Even so, that's what he gets for being a dime-a-dozen MSP -- he is much more likely to be a committee wallflower, uninvited and uncommitteed.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Science-Wrecking Diversity-Mongers

In the midst of an otherwise bland Chronicle of Higher Education essay by Peter Wood (8 August issue) about why there are more foreign-born graduate students in science and engineering than there are US students, were these amazing statements:

The science "problems" we now ask students to think about aren't really science problems at all. Instead we have the National Science Foundation vexed about the need for more women and minorities in the sciences. President Lawrence H. Summers was pushed out of Harvard University for speculating (in league with a great deal of neurological evidence) that innate difference might have something to do with the disparity in numbers of men and women at the highest levels of those fields.


A society that worries itself about which chromosomes scientists have isn't a society that takes science education seriously.

.. a statement that is backed up with this example of awesome logic:

In 1900 the mathematician David Hilbert famously drew up a list of 23 unsolved problems in mathematics .. Notably, Hilbert didn't write down problem No. 24: "Make sure half the preceding 23 problems are solved by female mathematicians."

Presumably these views are why P. Woods is the executive director of the National Association of Scholars, whose website proclaims that the association strives to

.. uphold the principle of individual merit and oppose racial, gender, and other group preferences.

where "group" = any group comprised of people other than neurologically superior white men.

A society that systematically discriminates against people owing to their chromosomes or other irrelevant characteristics, genetic or otherwise, is corrupt.

If the National Science Foundation and other agencies, institutions, and people with power to change things are "vexed" about the lack of some "groups" in science, engineering, and math fields, maybe smart people who don't happen to be male and white will enter these fields in increasing numbers and, in league with a great deal of neurological evidence, make the significant contributions of which we are more than capable if given a fair chance.

And then, if the day comes when the chromosomes of scientists truly don't matter, maybe sad little essays by men clinging to questionable studies showing their neurological superiority will only be published on their own webpages and not in mainstream academic publications.

Monday, August 11, 2008


There are some clear Conflicts of Interest (COI) that exclude one from reviewing proposals (and, though not enforced to the same extent, papers) by particular people: advisors, graduate/postdoctoral advisees, close colleagues, relatives. These are obvious COIs, but more and more I find myself encountering a COI gray zone: former undergraduate students.

The number of ex-undergrads I have taught in classes or advised as interns or research students of various sorts and who are now proposal-writing faculty increases every year. Of course, not all (or even most) of them are writing proposals in my same field of research, but some of them are.

When asked to review a proposal by a former undergrad I had advised and/or taught, I used to write to the program director who solicited my review and say "I advised X as a summer intern" or "I advised Y's senior thesis" and ask "Do you still want me to do the review?", and they always replied "If you feel that you can be objective, please do the review; if you can't, don't."

So, the decision is up to me.

I don't really see why former undergrads, especially those who did research with me, aren't official COIs. If I work closely with a student on a research project for a year or more, how is that different from, say, a former MS student, which is an official COI relationship? I want (most of) my former students to do well; does this cloud my judgment?

The semi-COI is most obvious in cases of advisor-advisee relationships, but in some cases I have strong, possibly not-objective opinions about former students who only took classes from me. In one case that I can recall, I was placed in a situation of evaluating a former undergraduate student who had been extremely rude and obnoxious in two of my classes. I guess he's brilliant, but he's a jerk, and I did not feel I could be objective in that particular case.

So, I do the review or not, and, if I do the review, I write the potential COI information in the box provided for this purpose on the reviewer website and let the powers-that-be sort it all out. I assume that I am not wasting my time writing a review that will be excluded owing to a semi-COI.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Greasing the Skids

When I arrived at my small but fashionable International Hotel yesterday, I was dropped off by two of the European Professors who were at my workshop. We stood in the lobby chatting for bit before parting ways. The three of us were perhaps a notch or three below the typical level of stylishness of most people who stay at this hotel, and I got a rather frosty reception from the front desk clerk. I was beyond caring about details like that, and was just glad to be in a quiet, relaxing place.

Today the same front desk clerk continued to be politely disapproving when I had a brief conversation with him, but again, it's not exactly going to punch a hole in my day if I don't get a cheery good morning from everyone I meet.

I had to deal with some administrative issues before leaving the country, and this turned out to be somewhat complex. I approached the issues in my usual Scientific way: I collected data on my options, used the internet and made a phone call or two, took notes, and was mulling what to do. Just then, miraculously, a college friend of mine who works at the American embassy here called the hotel looking for me.

I asked her some questions and she said she'd call back in a little while. She did, calling via the front desk of the hotel. She mentioned the embassy, dropped a few names, sort of implied that I might be a relative of the American ambassador (a contention that for various bizarre reasons was plausible), and voila: all my problems were solved.

In addition, the front desk clerk became my best friend. Now he beams at me when he sees me and asks after my health. I think I liked him better when he was terse and glaring.

I had lunch with my diplomatic friend and, in addition to getting caught up on the usual stuff (mutual friends, kids etc.), I asked her about her job. Not surprisingly, a lot of it is 'political'. Academics involves politics of a sort as well, but most of us academics aren't very good at this aspect of our jobs. I am in awe of my friend who gracefully navigates through a political universe. I want to name a scientific object or process after her.

Hooray for college friends. In the years since graduating from college, 98.57% of the friends I have made are academics, and 99% of these friends are Physical Science Professors. With all due respect and affection to my professor friends, I am glad that I also know some interesting people -- my college friends -- who have interesting non-academic lives (and not just because one of them helped me to untangle administrative complexities in a foreign country and to become the recipient of insincere affection from a hotel desk clerk).

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Lady of the Workshop

The workshop I have been attending is over. I am in a nice quiet hotel room in a metropolitan area filled with wireless internet connections, and I am feeling completely wrecked after an intense week. Hence a short post today.

The workshop was very focused, and our small group spent a lot of time together, talking and discussing and eating and so on. On the second or third day, I noticed that scientists from a particular country were unable to call me by my first name. Everyone else was on a first name basis, and these men had no trouble calling the other men by their first names, but they only referred to me indirectly as "she" or "the lady".

I tried saying "Please, call me [my real name]", but they just couldn't do it. Since everyone else was on a first name basis, they couldn't call me Mrs. or Dr. or Professor, so they settled on calling me "the lady".

As with the example I described a few days ago, these are all extraordinarily nice people. I got along great with them and we had many interesting conversations. They clearly respect me as a scientist, but they are unable to think of me in the same way as the other (male) scientists. I was hoping that by the end of the week we spent together that they would have made some progress with this, but until the very end, I was "the lady".

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Nearly Useless

At the end of each day this week, in the approximately 20 minutes between finishing my day's tasks and falling into a deep workshop-induced sleep, I have been reading an MS thesis. I am on the MS student's committee, and he sent the thesis to me just before I went into an internet-challenged zone for a few days.

I understand the theoretical value of having committee members read and comment on the thesis before the defense, but in reality it is harder to know the best way to proceed as a committee member/reader.

This student has given informal talks in the department over the course of the research, so I have had opportunities to comment on the work long before the thesis is written. Now the research is done, so there is no point in making any more comments about the research design or methods. It is even too late to comment on the interpretations and conclusions. It's August, the student is defending, and unless there some major fatal error is discovered, the thesis isn't going to change much based on committee comments.

I refuse to do technical editing -- the advisor can do that. If I see something that I don't think the student or advisor will catch, I will comment, but I don't think my role as a committee member is to spell-check the thesis.

So, what is left for me to do, other than read it and draw a smiley face on the cover page to show that I approve of the thesis? The most useful thing I can do at this point is comment on places where I think the thesis is not clear in its explanations or logic. Presumably the thesis will soon be a manuscript or manuscripts, so perhaps this type of comment can be useful beyond making the thesis *perfect*.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Will Work For Females

At the international workshop I have been attending, I am the only American person, and as usual, I am somewhat exotic in other respects as well.

When I was introduced to a senior scientist I had not met before, we talked about scientific topics of mutual interest at first (I seem to have reviewed two of his papers, apparently positively, because he thanked me and seemed pleased to talk to me). Then he told me: “I once worked with a Female Scientist.” In fact, I think she may even have been his advisor, or at least on his Ph.D. committee.

It’s kind of hard to know how to respond to that. He was trying to make friendly conversation, and perhaps he feared that I had preconceptions about him based on stereotypes of male scientists from his country. But what can I say?

- Me too!
- How did that go?
- I’ve worked with a male Scientist.
- Do you think it will rain later today?

The challenge was increased when he added, somewhat randomly “She’s taller than I am.” Now what to say?

- Most people are.
- How did you feel about that?

I decided to avoid a direct response and return to discussing Science, including the work he did with the Female Scientist.

In the days that followed that conversation, I have found this person to be extremely friendly and good-natured and happy to discuss scientific topics of mutual interest. Even so, as usual when I have one of these FSP moments, I long for the day when such a statement would be considered too bizarre to occur in sane conversation.

Monday, August 04, 2008


When I asked the organizer of the workshop I have been attending in a somewhat remote non-US location about internet access, he said that when he is not in his office, he never checks his e-mail or connects to the internet, so that is how he has organized this workshop.

Well, OK, I survived being disconnected for a few days, though at times I felt a bit faint and short of breath. I can see the benefits for a small workshop of staying focused and not having people checking their e-mail constantly, but I think there should have been some provision for occasional internet access, especially since phone access, although at least possible, is not easy for various reasons.

Just because the workshop organizer revels in being internetless when away from the office, does not mean he should have imposed this philosophy so completely on the rest of us. Even once/day access would have been fine.

Having internet access isn’t just about checking on things at the office. When I travel, the internet is how I stay in touch with my family and friends. While at the workshop, I could be easily contacted in an emergency, but there are non-emergency but still important reasons to connect to the rest of the world.

The day I arrived at the workshop, my husband’s beloved aunt died. I want to know how he’s doing. I want to check my daughter’s camp website and see if there are pictures of her having fun in a canoe or around a campfire. I want to check on my cat, who, just before I left, fell (or was pushed..) from a very great height in a tree. Yes, he landed on his feet, one of which then spectacularly broke. [They never mention the broken bone part of the cats-landing-on-their-feet thing, nor how much it costs to get cat femurs surgically fixed]. And so on.

I said to Professor I-never-check-email-away-from-the-office: “But don’t you then return to hundreds of e-mails that you have to sort through? Isn’t that very time-consuming and annoying?”. He admitted that this was indeed the case, but still thought it was worth it to have some internet-free days. That’s fine of course, but that’s not my preference. I’d rather stay connected to family and friends, delete the stupid e-mails and department memos day-by-day, and not return to a scary e-mail inbox.

I am still at the workshop, but I have finally managed to find a wireless signal that I can access once (maybe twice) day.