Wednesday, September 30, 2009

You Bet

How do we feel about graduate advisers betting with each other on the progress of their students?

I am not talking about a vast gambling ring involving misuse of grant funds. I am talking about one professor saying to another (from time to time) something like "I bet you a medium caramel macchiato that Student X will not finish the next draft of the manuscript by next Tuesday" and then the other professor says "OK, I think Student X will finish that draft by next Tuesday, but I don't want a medium caramel macchiato, I want a large extra-hot pumpkin soy chai latte."

Despicable and unprofessional behavior that Student X would find deeply troubling were he/she to find out, thereby preventing the completion of the manuscript draft by next Tuesday owing to emotional turmoil?

Harmless fun between professors who are seeking ways to stay sane after years of graduate advising/cat herding?

I personally do not find the revelation of these professorial gambling habits at all shocking or disturbing. In fact, I think that the Student X's of the world should start to worry only when no one is willing to bet on them because no one believes they will meet their deadlines, ever.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Chill Out

A young colleague in Europe recently told me about some of the problems he has with students who don't treat him with respect. If he shows any sign of lenience, some students take advantage. Other students speak rudely to him.

This colleague is quite youthful looking and is not a large or imposing person. He is extremely nice and kind and thoughtful. It sounds as if some of his students are taking advantage of his niceness and others are testing him to see how he will respond.

In my younger days, I had some of these problems as well. Some of these negative interactions with students were very much gender related (example: A male student who was failing my course asked me if I ever walked alone on campus at night, and, if so, what my personal feelings were about rape. Did I think it was wrong? I found this conversation disturbing.) Other problems were more generic and are a particular affliction of those perceived to be vulnerable in some way: e.g., the youthful-looking and the non-tall.

The colleague in question is of course troubled by his negative interactions with some of his students, but I was troubled by the ways he has responded to these students or is planning to respond to some students. I think it is a mistake to overreact to such incidents or to show that you are very upset.

I did not give my young colleague direct advice because I think it would be obnoxious of me to say "You should do this and that" when I don't really know all the facts and I know little about the culture of his department or university. Also, I think that everyone needs to figure these things out in ways that best suit their own circumstances, personality, and philosophy. It can, however, be helpful to know how others have responded to similar situations, so I told him how I had or would respond in his position. He can use this information or not.

And that is: In these situations, my approach is to remain calm and consistent. It is possible to respond in a very firm and unambiguous way without appearing angry or upset. If the problems are extreme, the response can also be very strong, but showing well reasoned, patient, and persistent authority can be more effective than angry words. At least, this is what has worked for me in most situations of this sort.

Another colleague of mine used to react to student problems with great anger. She found that this was highly ineffective because some students responded by actively trying to make her angry, as if it were a game to see what buttons would get an angry response. This escalated into progressively more offensive behavior (example: Male students would show her obscene photos on their cell phones, just to see her get upset). Requesting help from administrators was not successful (their response: boys will be boys). It's difficult not to get angry in circumstances such as these, but when faced with such problems, I think a calm statement to the students of the (dire) consequences of their actions might work better than yelling. And then follow through with the consequences if required.

As college professors, we don't typically have to deal with the discipline problems of our K-12 teaching colleagues, but we do encounter student misbehavior of various sorts. We can't send these students to the principal or give them a time-out, so we have to use the tools at our disposal. Low-level rudeness can mostly be ignored or dealt with by discussion with the students. For more serious problems, it is worth looking into university policies regarding removing a threatening or disruptive student from a class or following other official courses of action.

Monday, September 28, 2009


Imagine that there is one research group that doesn’t like or respect another. It is perhaps not so difficult to imagine such a scenario. In such cases, the people involved typically deal with the conflict in ways that may include aggressive tactics, passive-aggressive behavior, or simply benign dislike. Some of these interactions stay entirely professional and the disagreeing factions confine their battlefields to the literature and conference presentations. In other cases the disagreements become more personal.

Other aspects of inter-research group conflicts include whether the conflicts involve only the principal investigators or whether other members of research groups are involved, and whether the conflicts are mutual or largely one-sided (e.g. one group feels hostile towards another, but the group that is the target of the ire doesn’t participate in the conflict or even really care).

I recall an incident in which I met a particular person for the first time at a conference. We had both been graduate students at about the same time at different universities with advisers working in a broadly similar field, and had become professors at semi-neighboring institutions. This other person noted that it was unlikely that we would get along very well because my adviser had been his/her adviser’s “nemesis”. I thought that was a strange remark; I had no particular feelings of hostility towards anyone in that group, and I don’t think my adviser did either, even if he didn’t agree with some of their research methods and interpretations. I would call that an example of a one-sided conflict.

Now consider a different situation – one in which a faculty member in Research Group 1 tells a recent PhD graduate of Research Group 2 that the student made a huge mistake in choice of adviser and had probably ruined his/her career by working with this person. This is an example of a conflict that broadens to include various members of a research group, not just the principal investigators.

Is there any circumstance in which this is an OK thing to say? I am trying to imagine someone who may believe that they have sincere motives and deep concern for the newly minted PhD. Even in that case, though, what good does it do to say such a thing after the student has already received the PhD?

And in a specific case of which I am thinking, both recent PhD student and advisers had a mutually compatible working relationship, and the student’s research was very successful and led to interesting job opportunities. In that case, the person making the critical comment about the student’s choice of PhD advisers is perhaps best interpreted as spiteful, as the student’s career has clearly not been “ruined”.

Some colleagues and I were discussing this incident the other day. Responses among my colleagues included:

1. The (former) student can take of his/herself in this situation and doesn’t need any help from the adviser (except sympathy at having to deal with the spiteful person).

2. The former adviser should step in and directly confront the spiteful person, perhaps issuing a threat of some sort, or should take revenge via reviews.

3. The former adviser should say nothing but should refuse to review the spiteful person’s work.

I was a proponent of the first response; I think the student is confident enough to deal with the situation, however unpleasant, and that it would be a mistake to escalate the conflict, as in the second option. The third option should be used if those involved really felt that they could not be objective.

Of course the best thing would be if everyone could find a way to be as professional as possible about their intellectual hostilities.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Mere Woman

This week I have been in a country that uses the language I have been studying for the past few years – for 3 years in undergraduate language courses and this year with a tutor. I am mostly pleased with the progress I’ve made learning the language, though I wish I had more skills, particularly with speaking.

I have found that knowing the language has opened doors (in part owing to surprise that I know some of the language), turned unfriendly people friendly, and of course helped with logistics of travel.

One thing that no amount of language knowledge will overcome is the discomfort that some of the men here have with interacting with me. At times, daily life here is easier if I am quiet and don’t try to spend money directly. I suppose it is a sign of my cultural incomprehension that I cannot really understand why some men here cannot converse with me directly or let me pay for something instead of first handing the money to another man.

The other day during a business transaction with a male employee of a major international corporation in a major city, at each step of the transaction this man handed the relevant item (my passport, my receipt) to my male colleague (also a foreigner in this country), who then handed the items to me. I know enough about the culture to know that his avoidance of direct contact with me was not a sign of respect, but in fact the opposite. This is a situation in which my language skills (such as they are) cannot make up for the fact that I am a mere woman.

Nevertheless, I like being here and working with international colleagues. The research is fascinating and I am willing to endure some unpleasant things to have these experiences.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Team Players

In my youth I had many of those classic experiences in which someone (typically a teacher) selects two of the most popular and athletic kids and asks them to choose their own teams for some activities. The designated team captains took turns picking team members, although there was never any surprise as to the order of the choices. I was usually selected somewhere in the middle; I wasn't the most awesomely popular kid but I was reasonably well liked.

As a professor, I am responsible for choosing team members for a big project. This project will involve a large number of people from many different countries, and I need to devise an effective working group. I have been working hard to come up with a research team that is as compatible as possible. Do I choose my friends? The most popular scientists? Some new kids?

Thus far, I have encountered two types of obstacles to establishing a harmonious team.

One type involves statements like “I refuse to work with X”, in which X = another person who is already part of the group and is already making important contributions. If someone refuses to play with others, they can’t be on my team.

Another obstacle occurs when someone has political reasons for wanting someone else to be invited to be on the team. An example is when a young colleague who is part of the group requests that a senior professor in the same department be invited because otherwise the senior professor might be angry and could make life difficult for the younger professor. Do we invite bullies to be on the team because otherwise they might beat up one of the team members?

It may not be possible to assemblage a diverse group of people who can all get along and contribute substantially to the group effort, but it should be possible to leave out those who don't get along with others and those who aren't interested in the research. For me, it seems that team-choosing is still a part of life and still involves complex social issues.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Please Share Your Worst Accounting Nightmares

It would really cheer me up a lot if some of you would share stories of your worst accounting woes, especially if some of your experiences are worse than those currently afflicting my departmental colleagues and me.

Get competitive. Send in your worst accounting nightmare story. It doesn't even have to be true, though I suspect there is no need for fiction.

Here are 2 contributions to a group-accounting-woe-wallow:

1. A colleague of mine submitted a large number of receipts for several professional trips. All the expenses were on his personal credit card(s) and added up to quite a lot (thousands) because he had also paid upfront for the travel of his graduate students and a postdoc. The reimbursement was delayed and delayed and delayed for months.

Finally he found out why: He had not indicated how many people were in each hotel room. This is not part of the instructions. This is not a line on the forms. This is not something that ever had to be listed before. This is one of those Mystery Traps that accountants set for the unwary. In this case, the travel was within the US, where it doesn't matter if there are 1, 2, or 4 people in a hotel room; the price is the same: SO WHY DO THE ACCOUNTANTS CARE? And if they do care, why not just ask for the information that is holding up the reimbursement?

2. I recently had to approve a form that lists the people who are receiving salary from a certain grant. In fact, in the time frame indicated on the form, I paid the salaries of one graduate student, one undergraduate, and one postdoc from this grant. The form, however, which contains an automatically generated list of people paid, using information in the university's personnel database, indicated that I had hired no one and was paying no one. I asked the accountants about this. Even though all of these people have been paid in the time frame of the form I had to approve, because the effort reporting time frame of the university does not match the reporting time frame of the form, the people whose salaries are being paid by the grant don't show up on the form that is supposed to report how many people received salary from the grant. Apparently this problem can't be fixed and I have to approve a form that is in error. If I don't approve the form so that it can go on its merry way up the approval chain, the consequences for me and my research group are not good. If I refuse to sign the form because it has incorrect information on it, the consequences for me and my research group are not good.

Hence my plea for Your Accounting Nightmares.

*** NOTE: Owing to unexpected circumstances, I will have limited internet access for a few days and will probably only moderate comments once/day. There might also be an interruption in posts until regular internet access resumes. ***

Friday, September 18, 2009

You're Great. Take a Hike.

These are the summary comments from recent reviews for a manuscript of mine:

This is an intriguing and important paper. It will be of great interest and should have a great impact.

This is an interesting paper. It got me thinking.

Editor decision: Reject

This is one of those cases in which I feel intense hostility for a day or three. I set the reviews and editor letter aside. I take them out again when I am feeling a bit calmer. I re-read everything. I look closely at the reviewer comments for substantive reasons for the rejection.

I still feel angry. I wait a few more days, and then I write a calm but forceful letter to the editor who will then tell me that there are lots of excellent papers that can't be published and he has to make some hard decisions and this was one of them and I should take a hike (down the journal food-chain).

And that is exactly what I will do because this intriguing, important, interesting, and thought-provoking paper, of which I am very fond, is getting published (eventually.. somewhere).

Thursday, September 17, 2009

What is it About Faculty Meetings?

There is something extremely annoying about faculty meetings, and I have never fully explored exactly what it is about them that I so dislike.

I do not loathe my colleagues (with very few exceptions). In fact, I like quite a lot of them, and I am quite fond of my department chair. It should not be an unpleasant experience to spend a few hours in a room with these people discussing topics of mutual concern, if not interest.

We have much to discuss that is of great importance to the department and its denizens. The chair has things of importance to tell us about the budget, new policies and procedures, issues he discussed with the Dean at their last meeting. Learning these things in a meeting is a good forum for asking questions and expressing concerns.

Nevertheless, I do loathe these meetings. Here are my top 5 reasons. I am sure that I could come up with 10 reasons, but I am typing this in an airport and the Transportation Security Administration has placed an arbitrary limit on the number of items that can be included in a blog list typed in an airport.

These are in no particular order.

1. Time. I don't have time for these meetings. No one has time for these meetings except the deadwood faculty. Of course we make time (if we are not traveling or otherwise involved in an activity scheduled for the same time as the meeting), but it is hard to lose time that could be spent on other essential activities.

2. Efficiency or lack thereof. Faculty meeting time is typically time that is not well spent. I know that meetings involving any collection of people with disparate views and personalities is unlikely to be efficient, but I wish there were a bloviating quota. Those exceeding this quota will be ejected, preferably forcibly, from the meeting.

3. The Men. Sitting around a conference table with my department colleagues is a vivid reminder of how few women faculty there are in my department. On rare occasions when issues involving underrepresented groups arise, some of the older faculty say that we have no problem with underrepresentation of women because so many of our students are female. Some of the younger faculty agree that we don't have a problem with underrepresentation of women because.. well, I don't know why. The definition of underrepresented is not so difficult to understand, and our department fits this definition. What this means is that they don't think underrepresentation is a problem that needs fixing.

4. The Sports Analogies. In most cases I can figure out from context what is meant, but it kind of annoys me that we are all expected to understand these expressions, which are used extraordinarily often.

5. The insanity factor. Some of my colleagues are really strange. I am really strange, too, so it is hypocritical to list this factor, but thus far my strangeness manifests itself rather quietly. For some of my colleagues, their insanity seems to require them to repeat themselves over and over at every faculty meeting for a decade or more. The effort required for me to keep from rolling my eyes at these repeat tirades is painful and may cause me permanent physical and emotional damage.

No, I don't think we should be more corporate and make faculty meetings efficient in that way. I am willing to put up with some amount of random behavior to preserve our ability to be free-spirited (tenured) professors. And I don't think we should abolish faculty meetings. We faculty would be outraged if the department chair started making decisions without consulting us, even if many of us have nothing useful to say.

Hence faculty meetings..

Because I am a look-for-the-silver-lining kind of person, especially when I am in an airport, I will force myself to list relevant items that make me feel better about having to attend regular faculty meetings:

- faculty retreats are far far more painful
- my spouse hates faculty meetings far far more than I do

It seems to be a short list.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

It's a Female Thing (?)

Many of us in certain fields of science teach Science courses in which male students outnumber female students. When we teach large introductory courses for non-majors, however, we see a gender ratio that is more typical of universities today; i.e., in these classes, female students outnumber male students.

I am not the first to mention that in these settings, female students ask the most questions, have the best attendance, send the most e-mail to faculty, and attend office hours more often than their male classmates. I am not qualified to comment on the consequences of this disparate behavior for the academic success of female students vs. male students, but I am wondering what the effects of this are for the classroom environment.

Maybe there isn't any effect, but a colleague recently wondered whether asking questions in class has become a 'female' thing to do, inhibiting the inclination of male students to ask questions. This is most certainly not the case in science major classes, but in the large classes for non-majors, women rule.

A male colleague of mine who is teaching a giga-class recently commented to me about the number of female students who ask questions. I had the same experience last spring, so it clearly does not relate to the gender of the professor.

I am pleased that these (mostly) young women are being assertive and involved in their courses, even large lecture courses that can be quite impersonal, but of course I don't want to teach a class with interactive female students and alienated male students.

The challenge is (always) to help as many students as possible to become engaged in a class, however large. I like to think that projecting a combination of Awesome Scientific Knowledge and Approachability will help all students be interested and involved in a course. This is my goal -- not yet attained -- but other ideas and hypotheses are welcome for different approaches.

My other goal -- also not yet attained -- is that the large numbers of female students who take intro science classes to fill a graduate requirement will find that they actually love science and want to take more science classes.. and then even more.. etc.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What to Expect When You're Clueless

Consider the situations of two undergraduate students who will be applying to graduate programs in Science during this academic year, in the hopes of starting grad school the following year. These two students are both smart -- neither is brilliant, but both are hard-working and motivated, have had research experiences as undergraduates, and have done well in their classes. On paper, they will have similar records that look very promising for graduate studies.

Student 1 has been talking to graduate students about their research and their general experiences as grad students and has been reading papers in the major journals. Student 1 seeks out professors for scientific and other academic discussions and has been proactive about doing research experiences (for credit) and science-related jobs (for pay). By talking to people and being generally aware, Student 1 knows what steps to take in applying to grad programs. Student 1 probably needs some advice, but overall is pretty savvy about the process.

Student 2 has had a similar number of research experiences and science jobs, but tends to focus on the immediate task at hand. Student 2 does best when told very specifically what to do and doesn't seem to be able to handle a lot of information at once. If general advice is given to Student 2 in advance of a specific task, it needs to be given again when directly relevant. Imagine that Student 2 (S2) has the following conversation with a Science Professor (SP) who advised one of Student 2's research projects.

S2: I've decided to apply to 6 graduate programs and was wondering if you would write me a letter of reference for my applications.

SP: Yes, of course. What are the 6 places?

S2: Do I have to tell you?

SP: Umm.. Yes, you do because each program is different and most programs require me to send or upload my letter to them directly. Aside from that, it makes a better letter if I can personalize it to address your strengths relative to a specific program or adviser. Is there some reason you don't want to tell me?

S2: No, that's fine. I'll come back later and tell you what they are.

SP: Have you already written to some potential advisers at each place so you know they are taking on new graduate students next year and are interested in seeing your application?

S2: No, am I supposed to do that?

SP: Yes, remember we talked about this a couple of months ago. It's a good idea to make some contact and briefly introduce yourself.

S2. Oh, OK. So should I just send my CV? Do I have to write anything with it or just send it?

SP: I was thinking more of an email in which you briefly introduce yourself; for example, tell them you are doing a senior thesis with Professor X on Project A and that last summer you were a research assistant for Professor Y on Project B and that based on these experiences you have developed a strong interest in Z Science and therefore you are thinking of applying to the graduate program at University K because Professors L and M do interesting work in Z Science. Or something like that. You can be brief but informative. Don't send a form letter to all 6 and don't send your CV without explanation.

S2: Oh. This is going to be more work than I thought. Maybe I will talk to you more about this later.

Faculty colleagues who are aware of this conversation with Student 2 have two different reactions:

Type A reaction: Student 2 needs a lot of help figuring out how to apply to graduate schools, so let's give that help.

Type B reaction: If Student 2 is that clueless, there is no way that student will do well in grad school. Let Student 2 flounder and nature take its course.

Professors are always searching for a foolproof way to figure out in advance whether a potential grad student will succeed or not. We all know that an excellent academic record and even glowing letters of recommendation may have no relevance to whether a student has the ability to do well in a research environment.

Can (should) the difference between Students 1 and 2 described above be used as an indicator of potential success in graduate school? Is Student 1 likely to take initiative, be observant and thoughtful, and get things done? Is Student 2 likely to bumble along not really knowing what to do unless told very specifically?

Or is that too harsh an evaluation of Student 2? Sometimes university professors expect that undergraduates will absorb information about how the university, department, and research groups work, but even students involved in research projects may not really be aware of how things work beyond their immediate experience.

Applicants to graduate school are given detailed information about the application materials, but applying to graduate school also involves a system of unwritten procedures that vary from discipline to discipline, e.g. the details of the admissions process and the expected amount of pre-application communication between students and potential advisers (none? some?). This is the type of information that we as advisers can help our students learn as they navigate the grad school application system.

My own conclusion is that Student 1 is more likely to succeed by being proactive and savvy (and smart) but, although it very likely does have some significance that Student 2 is so clueless, I'd rather not judge too harshly. If Student 2's cluelessness extends to research experiences, then it is relevant.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Scientific Overlap

It recently came to my attention that a certain scientist had submitted identical proposals to two different funding sources at the same time. Submitting "overlapping" proposals to the same funding agency is prohibited by some (but not all?) funding agencies.

Scattering the same proposal among different programs in the hopes that one (or more) of them will fund the proposal might seem like an efficient strategy for the PI who invested a lot of time in a proposal, but this practice is prohibited for good reasons. Given the time and effort involved by funding agency employees, panel members, and reviewers to deal with the large number of submitted proposals, a prohibition on overlap makes sense

NIH outlines in detail the consequences of the simultaneous submission of proposals with scientific overlap. I did a rather quick search of the NSF website to try to find a similar document, but didn't find anything. It seems like there must be a policy, though, so maybe I just missed it.

Rejecting proposals for reasons of overlap is straightforward if the proposals are identical or even "essentially identical" (in the words of the NIH document). It might become more difficult to judge overlap when the definition is extended to proposals containing "similar" research, another term used in the NIH document, but I suppose experienced program directors know it (overlap) when they see it.

In the case to which I referred in the first sentence of this post, there was no administrative mechanism by which the "overlap" could have been detected if a reviewer had not been become aware of both proposals. I suppose there is a high probability of a reviewer's discovering overlap in cases in which the research is highly specialized and both funding programs use peer review. The same reviewer(s) are likely to be sent both proposals.

In the first sentence of this post, I used the vague term "funding source" deliberately so that I could consider the ethics and consequences of the following situations:

- Identical proposals are sent to different programs of one funding agency that specifically prohibits submission of overlapping proposals. This is clearly wrong and both proposals would be rejected

- Identical proposals are sent to different programs of a funding agency that does not have specific rules about overlap. Reviewers might balk at this (if the overlap is detected) because it is annoying and seems unethical, but if there are no rules against it, what's to stop a dual proposal submission?

- Identical proposals are sent to two completely different funding agencies, one or both of which may or may not have rules about overlapping proposals within each agency. Again, reviewers might balk at this, but is it wrong?

I have never attempted submission of overlapping proposals and am not really interested in doing so, though I'm not sure why not. There is something appealing about the general concept of sending a proposal out into a broad funding universe to see if anyone would like to give me money for my research. This would reduce the time spent trying to figure out to which one of several possible programs a proposal will be sent, a decision that may involve making likely unfounded assumptions about the scientific preferences and sanity levels of the program officers and hoping that an interdisciplinary proposal won't fall through the cracks between programs.

It does seem wrong, though. And speaking as someone who just reviewed quite a few proposals, I certainly don't want to see multiple versions of any of these, even the ones that were Very Good*.

* In NSF-speak, Very Good is not as good as Excellent but much better than Good, which is not good at all, except when compared to the dreaded Fair and Poor.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Dear Freshmen

In last Sunday's New York Times, 9 academic luminaries provided advice to first year college students.

To summarize the advice: find out who the best teachers are; take a writing course (even though some are not well taught); learn to summarize complex information and state your own opinion; read classic works of literature; do not act bored in class or ask annoying questions; do ask good questions; play to your strengths; seek out intellectually adventurous students; be an activist (this is the best time of your life to get arrested for a Cause); don't just take courses that will relate directly to your post-graduation job; read the newspaper every day; talk to janitors, security personnel, other staff members (and thank them); be open to new intellectual adventures that might lead to exciting discoveries; and know that things might not work out like you expect (and that's OK and maybe even very good).

That's a lot of (mostly) good advice, from cosmic (the world is your oyster) to mundane (don't sigh loudly more than a few times in any one class).

When considering advice to give a first year college student, we tend to think about the amazing possibilities that await them. We want them to have the excellent academic adventure that many of us had.

This general optimism may, however, be sprinkled with a bit of cynicism. For example, in the NYT piece, one educator warns that if you act like you are interested in a class, you will have to "..ignore the looks of scorn and amusement on the faces of [your classmates]." I actually don't see much of this myself: if a student asks good questions in class, the other students seem to be appreciative of this, even in my giga-classes for non-majors. The looks of scorn tend to be reserved for those who ask a huge number of not-so-good (and perhaps strange) questions.

I like to think that I am a mostly positive, optimistic person, but at the same time I am certainly not a stranger to cynicism. For example, I snorted when I read the advice to be an activist in college. As a college student, I found that my involvement with various Causes left me deeply suspicious of many seemingly well intentioned organizations.

But back to the advice. My own advice falls into two categories: (1) cosmic: think, read, write, talk, argue, think again, enjoy using your mind; and (2) practical: go to class, pay attention, do careful and thoughtful work, create opportunities for yourself.

I know that is asking a lot, but it is my most sincere wish for all students.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


In the US, some colleges and universities start the academic year in August and some start in September. I've spent time at both types as a student and a professor, and I know that I strongly prefer a September start.

Perhaps I have lingering childhood memories of the excitement of starting a new school year every September in a place with a dramatic autumn season. Perhaps I don't get excited about the start of the school year in August because I'm not emotionally done with my summer-to-school year transition in August. By September, however, I'm ready for school.

Shopping for school supplies with my daughter, a middle schooler, helps get me in a good mood for the new school year. Despite the fact that Middle School seems to require an insane number of pens and pencils of different sorts, not to mention notebooks with very specific numbers of pages and rulings and margin styles and binders of a certain thickness, only some of which can be easily acquired in local purveyors of school and office supplies, shopping for school/office supplies is one of very few sorts of shopping experiences I prefer to have in a real store rather than online.

I don't know what it is, but I do know that however reluctant I am to see the end of summer, there is something exciting about the beginning of a new school year. I feel it every year in September, just as I always have.

It is a bit of a shock to see campus filling up again at the beginning of the school year, and I gaze in wonder at the flocks (pods?) of freshmen being oriented. I am deeply grateful that I am old enough to have avoided such things myself. I see the freshmen being oriented by means of strange little games intended to promote bonding. I would have hated that when I was a student.

But however unnerving it is to see the campus thronged with people, the swarms are yet another harbinger of the shiny new academic year, when we get to start fresh with teaching and get to know our new graduate students.

How long does the thrill of the new year last? I would guess a couple of weeks in a typical year. It depends in part on when the first faculty meeting is scheduled. Faculty meetings and other committee meetings are very effective at extinguishing my childlike thrill about a new school year.

The beginning of the school year is interesting, but there are also good things about having the term well under way. The beginning-of-term time is always associated with some craziness and confusion, with students adding and dropping classes at various times during the first couple of weeks and being generally perplexed by (or unaware of) various important logistical aspects of a course. It's nice when that part is over and you and your students are in a routine and making progress with teaching and learning interesting things.

And now that it is mid-Septemberish, it is time for the first poll of the FSP academic blog year. For my academic readers:

How are you feeling about the start of a new academic year?
Mostly excited, happy.
Mostly filled with dread and exhausted.
Equal parts thrill and gloom.
Nothing special - it's just like any other time.
None of the above. free polls

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Mommy and/or Professor?

This is part of a comment on yesterday's post:

.. doesn't hauling a child around your workplace just reinforce the stereotypes of you as a mommy and not a professor?

Short answer: No

In fact, I spend much more time trying to convince younger women (and some men) that they can be a parent and a science professor at a research university and have a happy family life and career.

Over the years, I have had trouble being taken seriously by certain colleagues, but in most cases I don't think it is because I am a mother.

I recently wrote about being a "mother figure" to students and how this hasn't always been a good thing for me. At the time of the anecdote that I used to explain my initial thoughts on this as a young FSP, I was a childless 2o-something recent PhD. In that case, the students were in fact stereotyping me (female = mommy but not professor), but I don't think that the reality of my reproductive history would have erased or reinforced their view.

Rather than hiding the fact that I am a mother, I want to show students that women are mothers and professors. Or are professors and not mothers. Whatever. Just like real people not in academia.

Furthermore, I think that others in academia (faculty, administrators, postdocs, and students) should be more, not less, aware of the issues faced by faculty with young children, particularly those faculty without a stay-at-home partner.

And further furthermore, I never have to "haul" my child around my workplace. She loves coming to the office with her dad and/or me, and she is particularly fascinated by our graduate students. We keep a low profile, but we also don't slink through the halls hoping to be invisible.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

No Kids Allowed

On behalf of a reader, today I am seeking information about universities that have banned children from campus buildings 'for safety reasons'. Of course I am not talking about bringing children into labs with hazardous materials or delicate equipment, and I am not talking about whether someone should bring their ill child to campus. The issue is whether all children can and should be categorically banned from offices and classrooms.

If your campus has a such a policy, does it have a negative effect on you or someone you know (such as a colleague or student)? Or do you agree that the ban makes sense, for the safety of the children and/or university personnel who might contract an illness (swine flu!) from contact with child-vectors in campus buildings?

In terms of the health issue, I am not an expert but I think I am more likely to get swine flu from contact with my university students and other campus regulars than from contact with a younger child who happens to be in my department building, even if that child is brought to a class or meeting. As long as labs and other sites with hazardous materials have restricted access, there seems to be no good reason to exclude all children for their own safety.

Do universities fear what might happen if a child is injured in a campus building; for example, if a child slips on a recently waxed floor? I doubt it; some universities aren't even particularly concerned when professors slip on a recently waxed floor.

Bringing a child to a class or a talk might not be a good idea, particularly if the child is disruptive, but I would rather deal with these situations on a case by case basis than have a university ban children from campus buildings.

There have been times when my husband and/or I had to bring our daughter to campus; e.g. on days when she had no school and we couldn't arrange childcare or our schedules so that one of us could stay home. We brought her to talks (during which she sat quietly in the back coloring or reading) and classes (during which she sat quietly in the back, amazed by all the talking/texting students around her). Bringing out daughter to campus allowed us to do our jobs.

Perhaps these bans are not rigorously enforced (has anyone by any chance seen a few dogs in campus buildings in which no dogs are allowed?) but provide the university with some security if there is a problem. Even so, students, postdocs, staff, and untenured faculty would be reluctant to violate such a ban, fearing repercussions.

If someone wanted to protest such a ban as ineffective as a safety measure and harmful to university personnel and students who on occasion need to bring a child into a campus building, what is the best strategy? Presumably the people taking the lead should be tenured full professors (men and women), though it would be good if administrators knew the full range of the problem for students and those with more precarious employment situations.

If administrators realized the many ways in which the business of the university (teaching/learning, research, service/outreach) was being negatively affected by such a ban, perhaps someone with authority would take a calm look at the issue and come up with a sensible policy.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Start Seeing Micro-inequities

Every time I post an anecdote about a possible situation in which I may or may not have been treated in a way that could perhaps be described at least in part as sexist, I always receive one or more comments:
  • giving alternative interpretations of the incident,
  • informing me that I am too sensitive,
  • wondering why I am offended by such a minor incident, and/or
  • telling me that I must hate men (or asking me why I hate men so much).
And there are always comments from women reporting similar incidents that have happened to them.

I agree that any one single minor incident could be interpreted in other (non-sexist) ways. It is important to realize, however, that many of these little incidents are examples of micro-inequities.

Micro-inequities are ways in which people are ignored, disrespected, undermined, or somehow treated in a different (negative) way because of their gender or race (or some other intrinsic characteristic).

A micro-inequity can be very micro. It can involve an action or words or even a tone of voice or a gesture. The inequity can be a deliberate attempt to harm someone or it can be unintentional, rooted in a person's perceptions about others.

Whatever the source and however minor each separate event, over the years the cumulative effect of these little incidents, words, and gestures on an individual and on various segments of society (academia, business, even within families) is not so micro.

There is a complete spectrum between the mini-incidents and the big unambiguous ones that most people would agree are sexist or racist. Clearly we need to eradicate the big unambiguous examples of discrimination, but are some (most?) people willing to accept micro-inequities because the incidents are, in many cases, so ambiguous? Where do you draw the line between deciding that someone is oversensitive vs. the target of habitual disrespect?

Even if most people support the general concept that people should not be disrespected or marginalized because of gender or race, in reality quite a few people are willing to overlook micro-inequities. It is certainly easier to label someone as oversensitive or too quick to see things through the notorious gender (or race) lenses in a mundane situation than to deal with the ambiguity of identifying a micro-inequity.

The conversation I described in my post last Friday was of a type I think of as an I-can't-believe-you're-a-professor incident. For me, this is one of the more micro kinds. I was not harmed by that particular incident. I was not even particularly inconvenienced by it. It was but one of many such incidents I have experienced in the past 20+ years. Any one of them is indeed a micro-incident, and many have multiple possible interpretations.

Over time, however, these incidents are a constant reminder that many people find it difficult to believe that women can or should be scientists and/or professors. They reinforce our sense of isolation, and together they send the strong message that women don't get the same level of respect that men do, even when we are doing the same jobs.

You don't have to believe that every such incident is an example of a micro-inequity, but in the case of FSPs who experience such things routinely, the alternative is to label us all as oversensitive man-haters who feel victimized by the slightest hint of disrespect (which we are probably misinterpreting because we are actively looking for sexism). That doesn't sound like any of the women scientists I know.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Non-traditional Professor

Recently I was asked for my student ID by a young man working at a campus site that provides a computer-related service to students and faculty.

FSP: I don't have a student ID.

Tech guy: Then I can't help you.

FSP: How about if I give you my faculty ID?

Tech guy: Oh.. yeah, OK.

And then we were all set.

Between the ages of late-20's to early 40's, although no longer a student*, I was often mistaken for one** because I looked like I was still young enough to be a student of some sort. In those days, it seemed to me that such things happened more often to me than they did to youthful looking men, but it was difficult to separate the youthful-looking factor from the gender-stereotyping factor.

Now that you can see the wrinkles on my face in Google Earth images, a person asking me for my student ID must be making the assumption that it is more likely that I am a non-traditional student than a professor. That is disheartening because it means that even people in their 20's working on a university campus think it more likely that a woman in her 40's is a student rather than a professor.

I mentioned to the tech guy that if he asked people for their "university ID", it would solve the problem of deciding in advance if an individual is a student or professor. This might not solve the problem, but it would make me happy.

* not counting the fact that I was a student in an undergrad language course for the past 3 years

** even in cases in which there was overwhelming evidence that I was a professor doing professorial things

Thursday, September 03, 2009

H1N1 & U

My university has A Plan for dealing with the H1N1 virus should it become a major problem in the student population this year. And that plan is that faculty should have plans to deal with the H1N1 virus should it become a major problem in the student population this year.

It's a little hard to plan for this. We can tell our students that if they get the flu, they should not come to class. But what else should we do? How much should we plan for massive absences?

For most of my classes (other than giga-classes), I have a system that I use when students miss class or an assignment, and I plan to keep using this system if at all possible. This system involves make-up assignments that require a bit more effort than the students would have to expend had they physically been in class, but not so much more that the assignments are unfair. The system tends to minimize "non-essential" absences without penalizing the genuinely ill, injured or grieving student. Student response to these make-up assignments has always been positive.

Supposedly we should also have a plan for what to do if we the teachers get sick as well. Here again I am thinking of adopting my usual plan of not dealing with such things unless and until I have to. It is hard to build some slack into a syllabus in anticipation of possibly falling ill, though I am sure I could find a short-term substitute or two to help out if necessary (and of course would be willing to do the same for ill colleagues).

I don't mean to dismiss the dangers of this flu by not having an awesome plan in place for my classes this year. I have never had the flu before but I don't suppose that means I would be immune to this one. One of my great-grandmothers died in the flu pandemic of 1918, when my grandmother was still quite young -- in fact, about the age of my daughter now. The loss of her mother was a deep sadness that my grandmother carried with her always.

Even so, I feel somewhat fatalistic about this academic year. I can wash my hands a lot and encourage ill students to stay home, but we professors have to mingle with the student masses and if they get sick, we are going to get sick. They may get sick in great numbers and we have to explore new options for how to conduct the course, but my classes are small enough this term that I think I can get away without major preparations and then deal with whatever happens as the need arises.

So that's my (non)plan for H1N1. I am glad that not everyone deals with crises this way.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Moving Grads

Sometimes grad students change advisers. In some cases this is a brilliant move, saving the student's sanity and academic career, and in some cases this is one more step on the road to flaming out of graduate school(s).

I considered moving to another university partway through my graduate school days. My adviser was OK, but another professor who was on my committee was tormenting me, and I saw no reason why I should continue to put up with that for many more years. There were other reasons as well, all of which added up to motivation to move somewhere else, even if it meant losing time and effort. Then the evil professor died (he was ancient and had been quite ill) and I decided to stay where I was.

As a professor and adviser, I have taken on grad students who have had unsuccessful experiences with other advisers, and I have had a few of my own students switch to another adviser. In most of the cases involving intra-departmental moves, these adviser changes have not had good results for the students or for the advisers. In fact, the students who have switched from working with me to working with another adviser in the same department have ended up failing/quitting, and the one student I adopted from another adviser (at my previous university) also flamed out, after moving on to a third adviser. When I wrote about this topic before, however, commenters told stories of some successful switches to more compatible advisers.

The cases that tend not to work out are when students are looking for an easier adviser (i.e., one with lower expectations) or the students are not feeling motivated by a particular research topic and hope that by changing advisers they will find the motivation they are seeking.

More successful switches involve talented and motivated students who are seeking a better fit for their interests and abilities or who are leaving an unacceptable situation for an adviser who may be more sane.

Every once in a while I see a graduate application involving a student who wants to leave their current university and who indicate, either directly or by omission, that they do no want their adviser to be asked for a letter of recommendation. What to do? Call the adviser anyway (especially if it is someone you know) but keep in mind that you may not be getting a complete story, or just go by the student's record in the application?

In one case in which I was involved, I did not ask the adviser for an opinion but another professor at the other university made a very strong case for the student. This other professor was concerned that the student's application would be undermined by the lack of a letter from the adviser and wanted to make it clear that the student wasn't the problem, the adviser was the problem. The student was accepted, came to work in my department as one of my advisees, and did very well. He lost some time but said it was worth it.

I'm not sure what would have happened without that information from the other professor, but it certainly helped to get a strong positive recommendation. I think it is important that faculty do such things for students if they feel that the students are talented and would do well if given another chance with another adviser. It would also be a good idea for students to seek out such sympathetic faculty and request that the issue of student-adviser incompatibility by addressed proactively and directly in a reference letter or phone call.

Switching advisers is a difficult thing to do. Sometimes it is the best thing to do, but it should only be done if absolutely necessary, given the costs in terms of time, effort, and stress.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009


There has been much discussion recently in these pages about Bad Advisers (BAs): How abundant are they? Who is mainly responsible for the quality of adviser-student interactions, or is responsibility shared equally between adviser and student? What characterizes a bad adviser anyway?

So many questions. Today I want to add a new one for discussion:

Can bad advisers become good advisers?

Surely some can and some won’t, depending on the reason the adviser is considered bad (by someone).

Some bad advisers (and I include myself in this category) don’t mean to be bad advisers. We are unintentional bad advisers (UBAs) and have a sincere wish to have a constructive working relationship with students, even though in some cases we fail at this. We UBAs are not uniformly bad: we work well with some students but not others. We feel varying degrees of sorrow about the unsuccessful students depending on how much, if any, blame we place on ourselves for a student’s failure.

The most likely explanation to account for our UBA status involves conflicts in personality, work ethic, expectations, and goals between adviser and student. The conflict may arise in part from lack of communication and may exist and persist despite efforts at communication.

Some advisers intimidate their students and/or are rather fierce with them. For example, I have colleagues who refuse to answer questions from students who ask questions that they (the student) could easily figure out if they thought about it first. If asked such a question these advisers will say something like “Go think about that yourself before asking someone to solve it for you.” These colleagues are not particularly liked by some of their students, but are they bad advisers? They are trying to teach their students to think for themselves, so if they are bad advisers, they are UBAs.

Can UBAs improve to become universally beloved by students, who will all succeed in their graduate programs? Of course not, but it may be possible for an adviser, with time, to learn to anticipate student concerns, questions, and gaps in knowledge about academic culture. With experience and with increased confidence, UBAs can become less bad by avoiding some basic problems and by learning ways of responding that are forceful but perhaps less fierce. It is unlikely, however, that most of us UBAs will ever become completely user-friendly, nice, and endlessly sympathetic.

There will always be some element of randomness in adviser-student interactions even with very experienced advisers, and even advisers who have a long track record of successful advising will be disliked by some students, who find a certain advising style or research project abhorrent or who have other problems beyond what can reasonably be dealt with by an academic adviser.

According to this definition, most of us are UBAs to some subset of the graduate student population. Another type of adviser, designated here as Truly Bad Advisers or Totally Bad Advisers (TBA), are much more rare. These advisers treat students like worker bees and/or are actively evil, undermining their own students. I knew some of these decades ago, but my impression is that their ranks have thinned over the years. In terms of active colleagues and their adviser-related behavior, I know very few who are certifiable TBAs.

TBAs may not be interested in changing their evil ways, so the real question is whether graduate students afflicted by TBAs have any recourse. When I was a graduate student, the answer was definitely no. There wasn’t even a graduate adviser and the department chair interpreted even a mild adviser-related complaint as a sign of weakness by the student.

In the 21st century, there are graduate advisers and committees and ombudsmen and offices that deal with ethics and conflict resolution. Tenure and promotion files have a component devoted to teaching and advising, including, in some cases, letters of reference from students and advisees. Many funding agencies want proposals to address in specific ways how students will be involved in research and mentored. Our CVs list our current and graduated students. Some award nominations require lists of students and information about Where They Are Now. We are judged in part by our success as advisers.

All of this emphasis on students should provide even TBAs with some incentive, however selfish, to have students who succeed. All of this emphasis on students also gives graduate program directors and administrators leverage if students bring valid complaints to them about a TBA.

So, what recourse does a student have? If a student encounters a BA, particularly a TBA, the options are:

Endure. Do your work, keep some perspective, stay sane, get your degree, and move on to something better. Establish yourself as independent of your adviser as soon as you can. If possible, make other connections while still in graduate school and try to develop good working relationships with faculty on your committee. (Actually, this advice applies in every situation). If you one day become an adviser yourself, try not to repeat your TBA's mistakes (f you still think they are mistakes when you become an adviser).

Try to fix the situation by communicating in a calm and constructive way with your adviser. Do not launch into a list of all the things you think your adviser should change and do to make things better/easier for you (this would not be constructive). Perhaps the communication could be phrased as a question if part of the problem is a lack of understanding of why certain things are done the way they are. Perhaps this can be done in an exploratory way so that a student does not endanger his/her position even if the adviser is unlikely to welcome a discussion of his/her advising style and philosophy.

Try to fix the situation by calmly discussing things with other faculty or administrators. Ideally this will be done after approaching the adviser, unless the latter is an unstable and vindictive person.

Change advisers (or, in extreme cases, departments or universities), realizing of course that, although in some cases this really is the best thing to do, this option comes with possible pitfalls.