Friday, October 31, 2008

Kitten X Gets Tenure

As announced a week or two ago in a comment, Kitten X has been awarded tenure. For those of you who have not followed Kitten X's career, you may want to review the circumstances of his hiring, following a very competitive search and careful consideration of his letters of reference (see comment section for actual letter of reference).

The system by which Kitten X was evaluated for tenure exactly follows that of any tenure-track creature at a large university, with the exception of the fact that, in Kitten X's case, the departmental tenure and promotion committee, the faculty of his department, the department Chair, the college promotion and tenure committee, the Associate Dean, the Dean, the Assistant Vice-Provost for Academic Stuff, the Provost, the President, and the Board of Trustees are all the same individuals and therefore the process is awesomely efficient and fast.

Tenure & promotion committee (note: NOT the same as the hiring committee)

As a result, even though it is only October, Kitten X already knows that he has been awarded tenure and will become an Associate Cat at the beginning of the next feline term, which apparently began this morning.

Top/left photo: Naive Kitten X (pre-tenure);
Lower photos: Smug Associate Cat X (post-tenure)

Note: Any physical resemblance between Kitten X and one member of the promotion and tenure committee is entirely coincidental. They are not related and are tired of being asked about this.

Cat X in his first faculty meeting after receiving tenure.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Third Time's a C..

This is my third year of taking a language class at my university. For two years I was a model student, doing my homework on time and well, getting A's on tests, and making steady progress in the language along with my fellow students. There are three of us who started in the beginning course three years ago and are now in the advanced course.

In the third year language course, however, there have now appeared some new students who grew up speaking this language at home but who have never had a formal course in it. They speak this language extremely well. They do not write or read as well, but even so, a great deal of this year's course involves speaking, and I have fallen behind.

It is a bit humbling to find myself a mediocre student. It can also be frustrating, as the pace of the course has increased by an order of magnitude in terms of what we are expected to be able to say and understand. We are also now expected to speak about and write essays on cultural topics that I have to spend a lot of time researching but that those who grew up in this culture can expound on from experience.

Perhaps being a mediocre student will give me a better perspective on such students in my own classes, and therefore make me a better educator and/or human being. At least, that's what I tell myself when I have more trouble than most of the other students using relative clauses correctly.

Despite the frustration of having to struggle to keep up, I am still enjoying the class, I don't mind being stretched to my limits (and beyond), and I happen to like the curve-wrecking students -- they are nice and interesting people. Also, I am taking the class Pass-Fail.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Amplify Yourself

In the past year or so, I have become increasingly aware of some age-related occupational hazards that professors encounter in their mid-career years. Of course there's the usual diminishing eyesight, hearing, sanity etc., but in addition to those routine problems, several of my colleagues have recently dealt with vocal-chord damage owing to the strain of talking so much and so loud and so long, presumably during classroom lectures (and for some, faculty meetings).

One colleague has had multiple surgeries to repair his vocal chords, and another was advised not to speak loudly or in his normal tonal range for several months. Recovering from vocal chord surgery during the academic year and/or not speaking in your usual voice are both difficult to do when speaking is your job. A temporary solution for one colleague was to teach an online course for a term. Another went to a speech therapist to learn how to speak without injuring himself more.

Professors who teach are like professional singers -- our voices are our instruments. If our voices are damaged, our art (of teaching) is damaged.

The biggest strain on a professor's voice probably comes from teaching a large lecture class. I have always been jealous of my colleagues who can teach large classes 'unplugged' -- i.e., without using a microphone. I can make myself heard in a large lecture hall, but at high volume I can't modulate my voice very well and end up sounding like I am shouting rather than merely speaking loudly. I also end up even more exhausted than I normally would be after a 50-75 minute class. Therefore, I find it essential to use a wireless microphone so that I can speak comfortably in a 'normal' (albeit amplified) voice.

It turns out that what I thought of as a weakness may have actually saved me from injury through all my years of teaching.

There are probably ways to speak loudly for years without injury, but many of us don't know how to do that. Add to the list of things that new professors need to get started in their teaching career: voice coaches.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Female Impact

Every once in a while, there is an offensive statement in a review of one of my proposals. I am not talking about a "This research is not worth doing" type of statement, or even a "The PI has absolutely no qualifications to do this kind of research" type of statement. I mean statements that, in the view of the funding agency, inappropriately comment on an aspect of the proposal or the PI.

Some program directors at funding agencies will redact portions of reviews that they consider inappropriate. I know one program director who deletes such review comments and, in the specific place where the text has been deleted, inserts a statement that this has been done. He also includes an explanatory note that the comments were inappropriate and were not considered in the final decision about the proposal. The comments are not actually deleted from the system, but the PI can't see them.

I think that in some cases these comments are inappropriate because they are offensive, and in others they are inappropriate for technical reasons.

Another option that program directors seem to have is to strike-through the offending text. This leaves the text still visible to the PI but lets the PI know that the program director thought the comment was not appropriate. The overall ranking of the proposal by that reviewer may still be considered, even if particular comments are ignored.

I have seen both types of deletions of review comments in my proposals, but the strike-through method was used in the specific example I am going to mention today.

The specific example I wish to consider involved a review comment on the Broader Impacts section of one of my NSF proposals.

NSF's guidelines for what might be considered Broader Impacts include this statement:

How well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of underrepresented groups (e.g. gender, ethnicity... etc.).

In a one page description of the Broader Impacts of my proposed research, amidst a long summary list of activities of a Broader Impactish sort, was this item in a bulleted list (to be exact: the last item in the list):

and research support for a female faculty member (the PI).

The Broader Impacts part of my proposal was quite favorably reviewed by all but one reviewer. That last statement set off one of the proposal reviewers, who expressed severe disgust and revulsion for this kind of tactic. The program director had put a line through this strongly worded opinion about my use of my gender to get a grant. The reviewer also expressed a similar but less harshly worded opinion in other comments (not lined-through) in the same review, and his/her disgust seems to have affected the overall ranking, which was the lowest of the set.

Of course I didn't need to mention in the proposal that funding this proposal would support the research of an FSP. So why did I include it in my proposal?

I must admit that I didn't give it a lot of thought when I was writing the proposal. To the extent that I had a motive, I suppose I added that last item to my bulleted list summarizing all the Broader Impacts of the project because it made the list complete (note use of defensive font). If someone was pre-inclined to be suspicious of women PI's, I can see why they would be offended by the inclusion of such an obvious statement, although of course one would hope that such a reviewer could ignore their anger and revulsion and at least give an objective review of the Intellectual Merit of the proposal.

In discussing this situation with colleagues, I have heard different hypotheses for the reason behind the reviewer's high level of disgust, which went far beyond being uncomfortable about the concepts of gender diversity or Broader Impacts, but all these hypotheses involve the same central element: the reviewer, male or female, hates the idea that someone might get a grant (or job or other 'privilege') just because she is female, and not because of intrinsic merit, whatever that is.

Somewhere out there is a reviewer who ignored 99.9% of the proposal and got incensed about one item in a summary list in the Broader Impacts section. I hope that the program director will remember that this reviewer is hostile to proposals that mention gender diversity in their Broader Impact statements, at least when it is a woman PI mentioning this.

Perhaps I will leave such an obvious statement out of my proposals in the future, as it doesn't add anything substantive. Even so, most proposals that I review are by male PI's who are involving women students in research, and who mention their efforts to increase gender diversity in the sciences as part of their Broader Impacts statement. Perhaps this is OK with my hostile reviewer as long as these female students don't grow up to become FSPs who write their own proposals.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Who Organizes Seminars in Your Department?

In some departments that invite visitors to give seminars on a routine basis, the seminars are organized by students, in some cases by faculty, and in some cases by staff. I have been a member of departments with all of these types of organizational possibilities, and I have been in departments that changed from one to the other (e.g. faculty used to organize the seminars, now students do; and vice versa).

In departments with student organizers, the philosophy behind this organizational scheme is that students will feel more involved in the seminars/visits and therefore will perhaps attend more of the seminars (without being coerced), and that this is a good thing because going to these talks is an important component of graduate education.

In departments with faculty or staff organizers, the philosophy is typically that this is a service activity and students shouldn't spend their time on this type of thing. I suppose there might be departments that don't trust their students with seminar-organizing, but I haven't encountered this myself.

I have heard both versions of "visitors are more like to accept invitations from students" and "visitors are more likely to accept invitations from faculty". I haven't seen that it makes that much of a difference, but it wouldn't surprise me if some people are more inclined to accept an invitation in one situation or the other. When I get an invitation, my main criterion for whether I accept or decline is "Do I have time for this?".

From my experience of having given > 60 invited talks at other universities and colleges in the past ~ 10 years, I can say that I see no difference in the quality of organization of the visit as a function of what type of academic creature does the organizing: students, faculty, or staff. There may be considerable variation depending on the individual's organizational skills, but this does not correlate with age or academic status.

The answer to the question about seminar organization will vary in part depending on the type and size of institution, but I decided to keep the poll simple. In places with regular seminar series:

Who organizes visitor seminars in your department?
Graduate students
Undergraduate students
Staff (incl postdocs) free polls

Friday, October 24, 2008


Next week I may pursue further the topic of Who Should Organize Department Seminars: Faculty or Students? but today is Friday and I want to talk about zinc.

An oft-quoted remark by Tina Brown, upon becoming editor of The New Yorker in the early 1990's, relates to her decision to destroy The New Yorker's classic tradition of publishing articles such as a "50,000-word piece on zinc." When my husband read that quotation many years ago, he promptly canceled our subscription and wrote a scathing letter oozing with contempt.

I remembered this eventoid when I saw a headline in The Onion this week: Candidates Annoyed to Have To Take Stance on Zinc Mining

What is it with zinc? Why has zinc become code for obscure and insignificant, or even boring? Why not antimony? Why not vanadium?

Before continuing with this discussion, let me first say that I have no particular stake or interest in zinc, scientific or otherwise. I have never taken money from zinc lobbyists or zinc special interest groups, I do not take zinc supplements when I get a cold, and I am equally fond of many other elements.

I have a hypothesis about the zincists, though. First of all, the former editor of The New Yorker may well have been anti-science in general (and/or anti-essays involving topics other than celebrities) and, when she needed to articulate her new editorial philosophy, she mentioned a sciencey-themed article on a topic that sounded obscure to her. Zinc as a topic has the power of being not so common that people won't get your point (e.g. imagine how ineffective it would be to rail against iron, oxygen, silicon, calcium, sodium, potassium, gold, silver, or carbon etc.). Similarly, some elements are rather infamous, so being anti-uranium, anti-arsenic, or anti-mercury, for example, has other implications and therefore these elements don't serve the purpose of signaling that a topic is irrelevant and uninteresting.

There has probably never been an article in The New Yorker on yttrium, and perhaps not even gallium, though I have not checked the archives. That doesn't leave much choice in terms of elements, if that's your choice for a code word category to equate with boring. Zinc is perfect in this respect because everyone has heard of it, but it's not too common. It also has a very succinct and zippy name. For that reason, the element praeseodymium is less effective as a rhetorical device.

Brown went on her anti-zinc spree in the pre-zinc supplement days, so perhaps her statement wouldn't pack quite the same punch today as it did more than 15 years ago. Maybe today people would want to know where their zinc comes from. Maybe today people are more aware that, alleged cold remedy aside, zinc is essential for life.

Maybe, maybe not. I am feeling cynical about this now that The Onion, a venerable publication that is actually only worth reading for the headlines, is taking a swing at zinc.

As long as the presidential candidates themselves don't actually go negative on zinc, I suppose the situation is not so bad. It's a slippery slope, though, from being against studies of DNA in bears in Montana to being a full-fledged zincist.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Need to Know Basis

Subject: your visit

Dear [First Name of Professor @ Another U],

Thank you for agreeing to give a department seminar on DATE at FSPU. Your host will be FSP, and she will be arranging the schedule during your visit. We look forward to your talk and your visit.



From: FSP
Subject: Re: your visit


This is the first I've heard of the visit by SeminarSpeaker1. Fortunately I will be here on the date you arranged for me to host him/her, but in the future please check with me first about available dates just to make sure I will be here. I appreciate your efforts organizing the schedule and I know it can be difficult getting every seminar slot filled, but I think it will save time in the end if you first check with faculty hosts about possible dates.



no reply from GradStudentOrganizer; but then a few days later:

Subject: your visit

Dear [First Name of Another Professor @ Another U],

Thank you for agreeing to give a department seminar on ANOTHER DATE at FSPU. Your host will be FSP, and she will be arranging the schedule for your visit. We look forward to your talk and your visit.



From: FSP
Subject: Re: your visit


I hope you got my email the other day asking you to consult with me first before finalizing dates for seminar speakers I am hosting. I will be doing some traveling this term, and if you invite someone to visit on a date I will be away, this just complicates your organizational efforts because it may involve rescheduling etc. Please check with me before you arrange a visit for someone I am hosting.



no reply from GradStudentOrganizer; but then a few weeks later:

Subject: schedule change


I got an email from one of the seminar speakers being hosted by FSP saying that he had discussed with you changing the date of his visit, but I never heard if you did make this change. The original plan was for DATE, but I am wondering if you changed this to ANOTHER DATE. Has this been finalized? I need to know so I can print the correct schedule.



From: FSP
Subject: Re: schedule change


According to my calendar, you arranged a visit by VISITOR for DATE, but the recent email from Administrative Assistant suggests that you have been discussing an alternative date. This is the first I've heard about a possible change in the visit date. These are things that the faculty host really needs to know about. We should discuss the schedule to make sure that the visitors I am hosting are visiting when I am actually here on campus.



Subject: seminar schedule



From: FSP
Subject: Re: seminar schedule


At what point are you going to ask me if I am available to host the visitor on that date? I have asked you several times to consult with me about the schedule, but you keep arranging visits without first finding out if I will even be on campus and able to host the visitors on the dates you arrange. I used to be the seminar organizer years ago, so I know it is a complicated job, but you need to find out not only when the visitor can come but when the faculty host is available. You need both pieces of information before finalizing visitor dates.


Subject: Re: Re: seminar schedule

If you do not like any of the date I arranged for your visitor you should email them yourself and suggest other dates. Your visitor emailed me on RECENT DATE about possibly switching dates, which is not enough time to send out another wave of invites with the hope that one person can give a talk on one particular date. Thats not fair to all of those invites, and that's not fair to me. That is why I suggested swapping with A LOCAL SPEAKER, as this is the best I can do. I have done my best to accommodate the speakers, which is first and foremost the top priority.



I seldom see this student -- his office is not in the same building as mine -- so it's not easy to talk to him in person and sort all this out. I have not replied to his last email, as I really don't think it is a good idea for a professor to send flaming angry email to a student, however rude the student has been. But I'm not ready to be nice about this (yet).

I also think it is quite sad that a senior PhD student is unable to handle several pieces of information at once: the dates set aside for seminar speakers, the dates visitors can come, and the dates faculty can host visitors. Maybe I should draw a Venn Diagram for the student to help him visualize this.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Leisure Studies

Last weekend, amidst working on a couple of manuscripts and reviews etc. in the office and at home (not to mention doing some overtime thinking), I did some work around the house and garden. While I was rummaging in the garden, a neighbor stopped by to tell me that she works so hard during the week that she doesn't have the energy to work on her house/yard and it must be nice to have an easy job like mine.

I decided not to tackle the issue of whether or not I have an easy job. I just said Yes, it's a great job.

Her job could well be stressful, involve working with awful people, and/or require strict working hours that leave her exhausted on the weekend. My reply to her was therefore sincere. I do have a great job. She has no idea how much or how hard I work, but much of what I do I enjoy, so it could well be that her 40 hours/week in the office of a furniture store is more tiring than my 60+ hours/week in an academic job.

On this particular occasion with this particular neighbor, my goal was to end the conversation as soon as possible, but I was left with the feeling that I had somehow let the side down (← sports analogy!). I may even have reinforced her image of slacker professors leading a life of (smug) leisure.

If one's goal were to generate widespread admiration and respect for the professoriate, is it better to convey the impression that a faculty position:

- is a great job (for whatever reason; flexible hours, interesting work etc.) that leaves one some leisure time, or

- is such an extraordinarily taxing job requiring so many long hours of intense thinking that yard work becomes appealing?

What if both are true?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Mother of All Gender Politics

The phenomenon of 'Palin Dudes' is fascinating, albeit a bit disturbing. Some of the quotations I read in the news recently are amazing, e.g.-

"I'm happy to vote for a hot chick". -- said by a man who no doubt thinks it would be fine for women to vote for the cutest male candidate?

"She's a mom. You can always trust a mom." -- said by a man who no doubt was a Hillary Clinton supporter in the primary elections?

Female candidates' roles as moms are intermittently the topic of discussion during campaigns, and perhaps more so in this election than others once McCain-Palin started making it an issue.

I have written before about perceptions people have of professorial offspring (freaky smart, socially dysfunctional), but I am also very interested in the role that candidate offspring play in elections, perhaps because my mother was involved in politics in our state, starting when I was in high school.

I did a lot of behind-the-scenes work on my mother's campaigns -- e.g. distributing flyers, making lawn signs -- but I was never a part of any public appearances. There was one particular re-election campaign, however, in which I involuntarily became an issue. My mother's opponent was the father of a Beauty Queen, in fact a recent Miss [Our State]*. He mentioned his beautiful daughter and her Miss [Our State] title in every speech and debate. My mother did not believe that the details of her kids' lives were relevant to her political life, and she repeatedly stated that she would like to discuss instead her views on the major issues.

Even at a local level, the reluctance of a mother to speak about her children leads to rumors that There Must Be Something Wrong with the kids, and probably especially the daughter. Was I hideous? Had I no talents whatsoever? In fact, I had recently graduated as valedictorian of my high school and, although clearly not a contender for Miss [Any State, City, Street or Agricultural Product], even had I been so inclined, the rumors that I was hideous didn't persist.

This campaign didn't last nearly as long as more recent campaigns do, but to me it seemed like a long time that a major issue was Beauty v. Brain, in which the beauty queen and the brainy girl weren't even the candidates. The father of the Beauty was widely seen as having an advantage. The beautiful daughter even wore her sash and tiara at some campaign events, whereas I spent much of that summer reading Russian novels and finishing my translation of the Aeneid (note: This was the summer of my third worst job ever).

In the end it didn't matter. My mother succeeded in politics on her own merits, despite having a strange daughter who would never be a beauty queen, and I went off to college in another state, where no one knew or cared that I had never worn a tiara.

* Random additional information: In fact, I knew my 'opponent', the beauty queen, quite well, and, had I a blog then, I would have revealed the (entirely true) story that she had tortured cats during her youth, and that she had often bragged about enjoying this. I truly loathed her, and had never thought her beautiful, having trouble getting past the cat-torturing issue.

I have long wished that beauty contests, if they must exist, would involve a lie-detector test in which each contestant is asked "Have you ever tortured small domestic pets for fun?" If such a test were administered, this particular Miss [Our State] would never have attained the tiara and her father would have had to discuss other issues in his campaign.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Think Work

Not long ago on a Monday, a colleague said to a group of his graduate students something like "I was thinking about this [research project] over the weekend, and had an idea about that problem we were discussing last week." A first year PhD student said, amazed "You work on weekends?".

Aside from the issue of whether it was wise of the PhD student to admit to his advisor that he doesn't even think about his research on weekends (the advisor's interpretation of the question, owing to the emphasis on the word work) or to imply that he is surprised that his advisor thinks about research on weekends (another possible interpretation, if the word you was the intended emphasis): Is thinking working?

Of course thinking is an important part of research, and research is our work, so thinking is working in that respect. I could be very wrong, but I think most people who work by choice in a research environment think about their research on weekends. Even if I spent an entire weekend (or week) doing nothing but recreational activities with my family and cats, it is not possible for me to not think about my research at all.

That doesn't mean I don't know how to 'leave work at the office' in some respects. I have no interest in discussing office politics at the dinner table, for example, and I certainly don't spend every waking hour thinking about work. But I can't imagine not thinking at all about my work (research, teaching, some of the more interesting aspects of professional service) outside of normal working hours, and I can't imagine not wanting to think about these things (i.e. I can't imagine wanting to not think about work).

If you're curious about something and are trying to figure something out, you think about it. That doesn't (necessarily) mean that you are an obsessed monomaniac workaholic, nor is your only other option to be a work-brain-turned-off-when-not-at-work person. I think that being so interested in your work that you want to think about it even when you don't 'have' to is simply a characteristic of someone who enjoys their work.

My response to the amazed student's question would have been similar to my colleague's: Even if I wanted to stop thinking about my work, I couldn't. And even if I could stop, I wouldn't want to.

Someone can get a PhD in Science without working (and thinking about) research 24/7, and you don't even have to feel that your PhD research is absolutely the most fascinating thing in the universe, but I would hope that there would be something about the subject that was interesting enough to think about now and then on the weekend.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Change I Didn't Need

(apologies to the Obama campaign for altering their nice slogan to fit my blog title)

When I was an early career scientist and still writing papers based on research I did as a graduate student and postdoc, I submitted a manuscript on a sort of side project I had done with some other graduate students. The paper had some interesting elements to it and was worth publishing, but it wasn't an awesome piece of transformative research, so I submitted it to a mid-level journal.

The paper was accepted and published, but when it came out, I realized to my horror that the editor had changed the title without consulting me. The title that my co-authors and I had submitted was something like "Moderately interesting topic with some significant implications for processes that people care about," but the editor had changed the title to "Totally obscure topic that 3 people in the world might have some vague interest in if they have nothing better to do". This made me angry at the time.

I just checked the citation index for this paper and it has just ooched into the double digits after ~ 15 years, but several of the citations are by one group of researchers who have recently started working on this topic. So, my pessimistic guess that 3 people would read the paper is an underestimate. The number is probably closer to 5 or 6.

This situation is not especially tragic, my career somehow managed to survive the sinking of this paper into obscurity, and life went on.

I mention it today because this month during some travels I met for the very first time the editor who changed the title lo these many years ago. I had sort of forgotten about the incident, but the moment the former editor introduced himself to me, I remembered. And I felt annoyed all over again -- not hostile, angry (anymore), or bitter; just annoyed in a semi-bemused kind of way.

My good intentions to let bygones be bygones were, however, cast aside because, when introduced to me, this man gave me a hug and a big smoochy kiss on the cheek. Did I mention that I had never met him before and have not had any communication with him whatsoever except for that required for the review and publication process of my manuscript more than 15 years ago? Did I mention that I do not like involuntary physical contact, even of this apparently harmless sort, with people I meet in a professional context, especially if they have negatively impacted my citation index at some point in time?

Instead of changing paper titles, this guy should change how he behaves with female colleagues. I cannot possibly be the first woman who expressed displeasure with his method of greeting and walked away, refusing to converse further with him, so I am not optimistic that he can make the change we need.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Let Us Now Praise Our Advisors Even More

It just so happens that a student asked my advice today about writing a support letter for another professor's promotion evaluation. He wanted to know how long these letters should be and what typically goes in them. Those queries, along with some comments on yesterday's post on this very topic, inspired me to answer some Frequently Asked Questions and to provide a versatile template for students to use when writing support letters for a professor's tenure and/or promotion file.

This isn't quite like providing online term papers, is it?


Dear X (dept. chair/promotion & tenure committee or whatever),

I have known Professor X for _____ ( years; months; weeks) and have interacted with him/her ______ (extensively; a bit; not at all) in his/her capacity as ________ (my MS/PhD advisor; committee member; random professor helping me with my research; instructor in a course; my landlord). During my research/this class, I have come to know Professor X _______ (very well; just a little; not at all), and therefore can/cannot comment on some aspects of his/her _________ (advising; teaching).

Professor X is a ___________________ (select some adjectives: kind, caring, interesting, hard-working, creative, organized, remarkable, self-absorbed, abusive, cruel, despicable, disorganized) advisor/teacher, and it has been a ___________ (pleasure; horror) working with him/her. For example, [insert specific example of how Professor X has helped or harmed you].

An important aspect of Professor X's interactions with students is his/her ____________ (availability to answer questions; interest in his/her students' work; ability to provide just the right amount of structure, yet allow the student some independence; truly random cruelty; petty behavior; propensity to prey on female/male undergraduate students). I personally have ______ (benefited; suffered) from working with/taking a class from Professor X and sincerely hope that his/her efforts as a teacher and advisor will be rewarded by being _______ (promoted/tenured; fired).


Objective Student Z

Note: If there have been particularly memorable incidents involving Professor X's advising/teaching, you could include descriptions of those.


What is the typical length of a student support letter?

half a page to two pages, but most commonly a page (on your department's letterhead, if possible)

Will Professor X see my letter?

In the US, it depends on the state. In some states, definitely yes. In some states, maybe not. You should assume, however, that there is a good chance that Professor X will see your letter.

Can I refuse to write a support letter if writing such a letter makes me uncomfortable or anxious?

Yes, you can. If, however, it also makes you uncomfortable and anxious to refuse, you have some options: (1) talk to the department chair or promotion committee chair about why you don't want to write this letter (note: you should not have to accept or refuse directly to Professor X); or (2) write a very perfunctory and short letter:

Dear Committee,

I am one of Professor X's graduate students and have worked with him/her for n years. I am working on (describe your research).

Professor X has given me advice about my research, and I took n graduate classes from him/her. We have also interacted in the lab and during research group meetings. I am making progress with my research, owing in part to having the opportunity to work with Professor X during my time at this university.


Anxious Student Z

What if Professor X asks me directly if I will write a letter?

You can say OK if you really feel you can't say anything else, but ultimately it is someone else who administers the reference letter requests, not Professor X. The official request for a letter will come from someone else, and you can have a change of heart then. You should be able to deal with the situation without involving Professor X.

Can I write a negative letter?

Yes of course, if you have good reason to write negative things and are quite sure that these negative things are owing to dire failings of your advisor/professor, you can express your opinion. It would, however, be disturbing if your first attempt to communicate your unhappiness were in such a letter. Ideally, you would have had other opportunities to complain about Professor X's advising/teaching, either in teaching evaluations or through discussions with relevant people (Professor X or others). Also ideally, any obvious problems in advising and teaching are detected during pre-tenure reviews and there have been attempts to fix these problems. In some cases, however, this doesn't happen and the tenure review is needed to bring such problems to light.

If you write a negative letter, even if you feel very negative about Professor X, be aware that your letter will have more impact if it is written in a professional way that focuses on major issues. An over-the-top flaming negative letter might be discounted, and your opinion will not be seriously considered. Think carefully about the best way to make your case in writing.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Let Us Now Praise Our Advisors

In the past 10 years or so, it has become common at universities for the teaching part of tenure and promotion dossiers to contain support letters from students and others who have observed the nominee's teaching. This is of course in addition to the 57 letters of reference required from eminent scientists, emperors, and other celestial beings who can comment in detail about the nominee's transformative research.

Teaching is also evaluated using statistical data from the official Teaching Evaluations, but teaching involves more than classroom work; teaching also involves advising graduate and undergraduate students in research, and these kinds of teaching activities are typically evaluated via reference letters as part of the tenure and promotion process.

Some of the teaching-related reference letters are written by current students, including graduate advisees, who comment on their advisor's advising and teaching skills. It may well be that an Assistant Professor doesn't have graduated PhD students in time for the tenure and promotion evaluation, so the only students who can write letters are current (or at least very recent) graduate students.

I don't think it is a good idea to ask current students to write these letters, as it puts them in an awkward position. Furthermore, it is presumably in the student's best interest that their advisor get tenure (or a promotion), so the student may not be able to be objective.

Perhaps the main purpose of these letters is the fact that they exist. That is, the fact that a few students are willing to type out a few nice paragraphs about their advisor might serve the purpose of showing that the nominee is able to function as an advisor of student research. Can we assume that if an advisor is abusive, evil, despotic, and/or corrupt, this would have become apparent by other means before the tenure dossier is constructed? And if we can't assume that, is asking students to write letters for their advisor's tenure file the best way to get this information?

Additional letters for the teaching part of the tenure file come from faculty and others who have attended the nominee's class as observers. Not long ago, I read a teaching support letter from a professor who had visited one class on one day last year. Somehow he managed to write two pages of detailed prose about this one lecture, but I did not find the letter particularly compelling given the limited data base. I think these letters can be useful, however, if there has been a systematic effort to observe the nominee teaching different classes of different sizes and different levels at different times during their probationary faculty epoch. The main purpose of these visits would be to provide constructive advice, if needed, but another outcome can be an informative and authoritative letter for the teaching dossier.

I think the teaching dossier should contain a statement from the nominee, a list of classes taught and students advised (graduate and undergraduate), teaching evaluations, and, if possible, a letter from a professor or staff member who has served as a teaching mentor to the nominee and who can speak from the experience of observing and advising the nominee re. teaching.

It could well be that I have been too long in professor mode to appreciate the opportunity given to students to provide input into the tenure process of their advisor. Perhaps some students want to have this opportunity and do not find it awkward. Unless someone persuades me otherwise, however, I do not think that current or even recent students -- i.e. those who still need letters of reference from their advisor -- should be asked to write reference letters for their advisor's tenure or promotion evaluation.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Random People in Context

Yesterday I described a recent encounter with someone I described as a "random person". I gave this vague description on purpose, so that the focus would be on the content of the conversation, one of many such conversations I have had with many different people over many years.

My main point was that this is a common experience for women scientists, and that these conversations can still occur even when the FSP in question is in her 40's (and looks her age).

If I had provided more details about the gender, age, nationality, occupation, health, attire, and height of the random person, I would have gotten the usual comments along the lines of You should excuse his/her behavior because he/she:

- is of a different generation and didn't mean to be offensive, or

- is from a different culture/country/planet and didn't mean to be offensive, or

- was wearing a McCain-Palin T-shirt and meant to be offensive but that's OK because at least he/she didn't call you a terrorist.

Even so, the specific details about the so-called random person are important for understanding who (still) makes these statements and why they make them, and why they are so slow to let go of their inaccurate assumptions even when confronted with data to the contrary.

My response to these conversations is also influenced by my situation/mood at the time. During the conversation transcribed yesterday, I was extremely tired, kind of stressed out, and on my way from one place to another when I encountered the random person, hence my short answers and lack of interest in having a discussion about my job title.

If you read the transcript of the conversation yesterday, perhaps you made assumptions about the random person and perhaps these assumptions influenced your feelings about the conversation. Now consider the following descriptions of hypothetical random people who might have had this conversation with me. Does knowing more information about the random person change your perception of the conversation?

1. The random person is a science professor from a European or Asian country that does not have many women science professors.

2. The random person is a 60 year old non-academic person with only a vague understanding of academic titles. She/he has read news articles about the prevalence of adjuncts at research universities and knows that many of them are women.

3. The random person is a graduate student or postdoc who has encountered very few female science professors in her/his academic career.

4. The random person is an American mid-career male science professor at a research university in the US.

5. The random person is a technician in a lab at a research university and is used to interacting with male science professors.

6. The random person is an undergraduate in a science class for non-majors. The student's other large intro level classes have been taught by instructors/lecturers and adjuncts of various species. The student may never have taken a class taught by a tenured full professor before.

7. The random person is my mother-in-law.

OK, the random person was not my mother-in-law, but my professorialness has been questioned by at least one example of each of the others at some point in time. Does it matter which one it was this time?

Monday, October 13, 2008


Random person: What is your position at the university? Lecturer? Instructor?

FSP: Professor.

Random person: No, no, I'm not asking if you teach at the university. I know that you do. I mean what is your *actual* title.

FSP: Professor.

Random person (sighing): I'm sure you do the same things as the professors and work really hard, but aren't there other titles for people who aren't professors but who teach?

FSP: Yes.

Random person: So what is yours?

FSP: Professor.

So, all you 30-something FSP's out there, I hope you have better luck than this 40-something FSP does appearing convincingly professorial.

Friday, October 10, 2008


Different graduate advisors react in different ways to the situation in which a student is asked a question during or after a talk or other presentation and the student can't answer the question or doesn't answer the question well or correctly. The situation of interest can be a research talk in the home department, a conference presentation, or any other moderately to very important setting in which the student has to answer questions on the spot.

Let's also assume that the student is not extremely inexperienced, is not being asked random questions about irrelevant topics, and is not being questioned in a hostile way; i.e. the student can reasonably be expected to know the answer to the question or at least to have some intelligent thoughts about it.

Once it is apparent that the student can't answer the question, some advisors will jump in and answer for the student, or will correct a wrong or incomplete answer.

Some advisors will sit quietly and let the student deal with the situation.

Of course the difference between intervening and not intervening relates in part to personality factors -- e.g. some advisors take questions very personally and cannot bear to let there be any doubt about the research. I find it annoying in department seminars (and even, in one case, an oral exam) when an advisor gets defensive about questions that seems to cast doubt on the validity of the research, even though the questioner is merely trying to see if the student can articulate the research motivation.

The decision to intervene or not to intervene can also of course vary with circumstance.

Even so, to the extent that some advisors have an Advising Philosophy about whether or not to intervene when a student can't answer a public question about a research project, the following may be considerations:

Intervening ensures that the question is answered. This can be important in some situations, especially if the reputation of the research and research group might be affected by a student's inability to answer questions about the work. Answering a question may also help the discussion move forward to other (possibly more interesting) topics. Intervening can be done in a friendly and constructive way.

Not intervening emphasizes that the student is a researcher and must take responsibility for the work they present. If the advisor intervenes, this may signal to everyone that the student may be carrying out a research project that he/she doesn't really understand, and that the advisor is the 'real' scientist -- the one who really understands the work. Not intervening might be a respectful thing to do in some circumstances.

There are positive and negative aspects of both, and of course ultimately the specific context of each situation guides the response. I am also not addressing in this discussion the reasons why a student might not be able to answer a (reasonable) question; the advisor and the student may both be partly responsible for a lack of preparation.

I suppose that some students would want their advisor to step in and answer the question, and others would be embarrassed by this, so it's not possible to give general advice about whether it's a good idea (from the student's point of view) to intervene or not.

There is no single answer to the question of whether to intervene or not when a student is flummoxed by a question, but perhaps we can all agree that it is not a good idea for an advisor to say to the student (in front of an audience) "Come on. You know the answer." Sighing loudly, rolling and/or closing the eyes, or gazing forlornly at the ceiling or floor are probably also not constructive.

Lately I have noticed that I have been moving from a slight tendency to intervene to a slight tendency not to intervene, though I don't yet know if this is a real trend (perhaps related to my age) or just an advising fad this year. What I do know is that whether or not I intervene, it is (almost) as painful for an advisor as for a student when the student stumbles during questioning during or after a talk.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Partial Credit Fraud 2

Much to my amazement, especially after writing the post about partial credit a couple of days ago, my daughter informed me that she gets points from her teacher if she doesn't know the answer to a quiz question and only just rewrites the 'question stem'.

Let's say the question on a quiz is: What are the 3 main ingredients of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?

If you write nothing, zero points.

If you write: Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches have 3 main ingredients.. you get a surprising number of points.

If you write: The capital of the Slovak Republic is Bratislava.. you get some points, but not as many.

I think I now understand why my university students are so enraged when I give them no points for making some non-answer markings with their writing implements in the space intended for an actual answer to a question.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

You People

A younger colleague reported recently that an older male scientist remarked to her that "you people" are very "self-possessed these days".

Perhaps it is a mark of our different ages (I am about 20 years older than she is) that I instantly knew that "you people" meant "women", whereas she didn't know what he meant until she asked him. She thought he just meant "young people".

I hope this older man meets so many self-possessed women (of all ages) that he stops thinking it worth a remark, even one that was kindly meant (however awkwardly expressed).

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Partial Credit Fraud

Many students, when faced with a test or homework question that they cannot answer, will attempt to get some credit for the answer using a palinesque approach of “I don’t want to answer that question (because I don't know the answer), but I will answer a different, perhaps even unrelated question, for which I do know the answer and maybe you will forget that I am not answering the actual question and give me some points.”

Speaking as someone who does a fair amount of grading, I know that it is in fact psychologically much easier to give zero points for a question left blank than it is to give a zero for an attempt at an answer. Even so, a totally wrong answer is a totally wrong answer.

I am happy to give partial credit for a partially correct answer, but I do not consider the presence of random markings in graphite or ink sufficient for partial credit.

A related phenomenon is when a speaker (e.g. a professor giving a department seminar; a student giving a talk or oral exam) feels that every question must have some answer, even if the answer if not known (to the speaker). It can be painful to say “I don’t know”, especially in some circumstances, but is giving a bad/random/wrong answer better than saying that you don’t know?

A better alternative to a flat-out "I don't know" might be“I don’t know, but..” and then talking about possible answers or ways to approach figuring out the answer. Or is that like asking for partial credit?

I can understand a student’s wish to write something and not leave an answer blank, on the off chance of getting some points, and I can understand a speaker's not wanting to seem stupid or lacking knowledge in front of an audience. These are facts of academic life. Even so, for some reason the 'partial credit' attempt bothers me when it permeates debates and interviews involving candidates for major political office.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Unscientific Flying Object

A couple of days ago, my husband and I went out to dinner with some friends as well as some friends of friends that my husband knew slightly but that I didn't know at all. The conversation inevitably turned to politics, and the evolution of the presidential campaign.

My husband said that he had voted for Edwards in the primary election, but of course that was before we knew about Edwards' ethical problems. I said that I had voted for Kucinich, but of course that was before we knew about his UFO sightings.

The friends-of-friends exchanged glances and one of them said "I've seen a UFO" and the other one said "So have I", and then they launched into their UFO sighting story. Despite the fact that they were living near a major military base at the time of the sighting, they believe that the flying object that hovered over their house was not military-related and that it was most likely extraterrestrial because it hovered, "displayed curiosity", then left quickly. They did not see it, but they saw its lights.

Well, I wasn't about to argue at a social dinner about what they saw or didn't see, but despite having at least one step-relative who has been abducted (and quickly returned) by aliens, the stereotypical scientist in me just can't accept the deduction of hovering-lights-that-display-curiosity = extraterrestrial visitors. Aren't there more simple explanations?

For me, this was more of a conversation-stopper than if the friends-of-friends had revealed that they held violently different political views than my own. I can talk to Republicans.. but can I talk to UFO believers? I decided it would be worse if they had said that dinosaurs and humans had both walked the Earth at the same time but then the flood came to punish sinners and then much later God sent a tsunami and a hurricane to punish more sinners. That would be worse.

So the evening continued, though we did not return to the topic of politics, it somehow having become connected in a strange way to whether or not we each believe that extraterrestrials hover over our homes at night to study us.

If the aliens are studying us, I hope at least that they are collecting systematic data, taking good notes, making interesting graphs, and publishing their results.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Blank Mom

It has long been a source of great sadness to me that I am not a [fill in the blank with a sport, hobby, or other activity] mom. I told my daughter about this recently, in an attempt to convince her to play hockey or soccer, but no, she refused to take up a new sport just so that I could be part of a voting bloc. This selfish attitude of course only adds to my sadness (wait a minute.. I seem to be channeling my mother-in-law..).

My daughter asked why I couldn't be designated as a professor mom, scientist mom, or even a trains-tabbies-to-do-Lipizzaner-stallion-tricks mom, so I explained that the mom-blocs aren't related to the mom's career or hobbies but to the activities of their offspring. That's why they are hockey moms instead of hockey women, or whatever. My daughter takes piano and guitar lessons, but for some reason piano moms aren't highly sought after as a group by politicians. She also swims, but the term swimming mom just doesn't sound good to me for some reason.

If anything, I probably have the best chance of being in a blogger mom voting bloc, unless the next president doesn't know how to use the internets.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Basic Black

A few weeks ago I had to acquire a new Outfit to wear for a Special Professional Occasion (SPO). Shopping for Outfits is one of the few things that inspires me to procrastinate, and I put off my shopping trip for as long as possible. It is probably best that I procrastinate about shopping, though, because if I went early, my tendency would be to make a feeble effort at some stores and then leave without getting anything, and then I would just end up shopping at the last minute anyway. With my typical method, procrastination actually saves me time; or at least that's what I tell myself.

This particular SPO involved my giving a Speech in front of a scientific group that is overwhelmingly dominated by men. This Speech has been given by someone every year for nearly a century, and although I am not the first woman to give it, I am one of very few. The reason I mention this is that it describes the environment of the speech, my feeling of not really fitting in with the rest of the group, and my uncertainty about what to wear.

So I went shopping, and I ended up in the type of store (and/or the type of sector in a department store) in which the saleswomen take an active interest in the customer's shopping activities. I don't mind this, but I found that in most cases my ideas about what I would want to wear differed greatly from those of the women assisting me. Perhaps I should have just acceded to their possibly superior sense of fashion, but most of the items that they suggested I try were too something (too frilly, too beige/pink, too sleazy, too ugly).

After I had rejected her suggestion of a low-cut blouse that looked to me like lingerie, one saleswoman said: Why don't you tell me about the special occasion that you're shopping for, and that will help me help you better.

So I said: Well, I have to give a sort of speech to a big group of scientists, most of whom are older men. It's kind of a traditional, formal event, but not too formal.

Saleswoman: I'm sorry, I can't help you at all. Maybe you should just wear black.

At the next store, after I rejected a suggestion of a cranberry silk crepe short jacket with merino cami (note: I could not have written that sentence before my shopping expedition), the saleswoman asked me to tell her about the places I would be wearing this outfit, so she could help me decide. This time I tried a slightly different angle:

FSP: Well, I'm going to a dinner for some distinguished scientists and I'll be giving a speech, so I'm trying to find something professional yet comfortable but not too businesslike.

Saleswoman2: Is it like what you'd wear to a wedding?

FSP: No.

Saleswoman2: A funeral?

FSP: Maybe.

Saleswoman2: How about this black dress?

So I found something (mostly black) eventually, and felt happy about that until I realized I needed New Shoes to go with it.

FSP @ shoestore: Do you have this shoe in black?

Shoesaleswoman: No, these only come in toasted pinecone. This is a really stylish color. You can wear these with almost anything.

FSP: I need to wear them with a black outfit.

Shoesaleswoman: Are you going to a funeral or to Europe?

Wednesday, October 01, 2008


Today I was asked to provide some quotations by scientists about science. I'm not sure what the purpose of this exercise was -- perhaps the construction of yet another motivational poster featuring Albert Einstein?

I spent a few minutes investigating, and found lots of quotations by non-scientists about science and scientists. In terms of quotable quotations -- the kind one might put in an email sig file, for example, if one were that sort of person -- I wonder what the quotable scientists : quotable non-scientists is for famous quotations about Science.

If you search the internet for "Who is the most quoted scientist", the answer you get is Bert Vogelstein, cancer researcher. I do not consider being cited the same as being quoted, so, with all due respect to Bert and his gazillion citations, that answer is unsatisfactory.

It wouldn't surprise me if Albert Einstein were the real #1 most quoted scientist, especially since he seems to have spoken mostly in quotations. Richard Feynman is probably high in the ranking as well.

I don't typically find quotations very inspiring, but as I grazed the internet for quotations today I found one I kind of like, mostly because it is a tad more cynical than the average quotation:

If a scientist were to cut his ear off, no one would take it as evidence of a heightened sensibility.
Peter B. Medawar (zoologist, 1915-1987)