Monday, November 30, 2009

Broader Impacts R Us

If you are a female PI on a proposal that requires text about "Broader Impacts" (to use the NSF term), which may include the extent to which the proposed research activities increase (broaden) the participation of underrepresented groups, and if you are a member of an underrepresented group in your field, do you explicitly mention in the proposal that you are a broader impact?

Or, if this fact is obvious, do you not mention it and focus instead only on other examples of how your research will fulfill the Broader Impacts criteria?

I get asked about this a lot.

Last year I wrote about how I got blasted by one proposal reviewer who was extremely disgusted by my inclusion, at the end of a list of all my proposed research's broader impacts, that the project would support the research of a female scientist. I don't even know why I mentioned such an obvious fact; I was mostly just being systematic about going through the possibilities.

The NSF program officer put a line through these hostile reviewer comments and said they were ignored, but the overall review, including that reviewer's ranking, was considered. It was the only negative review but it was enough to sink the proposal out of the fundable range.

That was an extreme example, but I have seen cases in which male PIs who write about how they will involve female students in their research get higher marks for broader impacts than female PIs who are broader impacts. Some program officers view as inappropriate the criticism that female PIs are using their gender as a grant-getting tactic, but if one or more reviewers knock their ranking down a notch (or two) in anger about female-PIs-as-broader-impacts, the overall consequences for a proposal can be dire.

Of course there is more to "broader impacts" than involvement of underrepresented groups. And female PIs have to do more than just be passive "broader impacts". As is the case for any PI on an NSF proposal, we need organized and serious plans that recognize the importance of educating and training students and postdocs, that enhance connections with industry or government agencies, that promote the communication of scientific results to the public, and/or that benefit society in any of a number of other important ways. In my research, a significant broader impact typically also involves my close collaborations with international colleagues and students.

I am on board with all that.

I am curious, however, as to whether female PIs (or other members of underrepresented groups) deliberately mention/don't mention themselves as a broader impact. Owing to the lack of women in my field, I seldom review proposals by other women, so I don't know what others typically do. I now leave it off my list of broader impacts in proposals because (1) it's obvious and (2) it might be a magnet for the hostile women-have-an-unfair-advantage reviewers.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Going To Those Lengths

So far I am only about 70 pages into the book by Gail Collins, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women From 1960 to the Present, but I've already decided to get another copy of it for my mother for Christmas.

Although I am not accustomed to comparing some of my male colleagues to John F. Kennedy, this passage felt very familiar (and made me laugh out loud):

.. the publisher Katharine Graham recounted how the president had once demanded to know why Adlai Stevenson, the balding, chubby United Nations ambassador, was regarded as so attractive by his many female friends. Told that it was because Stevenson actually listened with interest to what women had to say, the president responded, according to Graham, "Well, I don't say you're wrong, but I'm not sure I can go to those lengths."

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Ms Pilgrim

Not long ago, whilst traveling, I read The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell. I didn't read it for any particular seasonal reason, but by coincidence I read it close to the US Thanksgiving holiday (today).

Towards the end of the book, after telling numerous stories of the relentless and often violent struggles among many different people of many different origins and faiths, Vowell visits a historical site in Rhode Island and contemplates a plaque that contains the names of men who signed a pledge related to the founding of the little proto-state. One of the names on the plaque is that of the husband of Anne Hutchinson, who was herself left off the plaque despite her having been pivotal in the founding of Rhode Island.

Vowell disapproves of this omission, as she similarly disapproves of Boston Puritan hero-person John Winthrop's distaste for having to argue with a mere female, just before he exiles Hutchinson and her family to Rhode Island. Vowell contemplates the unfairness of Hutchinson's gender having kept her from "pursuing her calling".

She does this contemplating in part in a "women's healing garden" near the park/plaque commemorating the men who signed the pledge. She admits that the words "women's healing garden" give her a feeling of "feminist dread". I kind of agree with her general point about women's healing gardens, if not her choice of words, but then Vowell continues with this:

A potential male magazine subscriber is given the choice of one title, "Mr.", but a female magazine subscriber is given three choices, thereby requiring a woman to inform perfect strangers in the mailroom at Newsweek or Conde Naste exactly what kind of woman she is. She is either male property (Mrs.), wannabee male property (Miss), or man-hating harpy (Ms.).

Well, I don't really like the Miss/Mrs/Ms thing either, and I am of course aware of the association of Ms with feminism, but do many women really equate Ms with "man-hating harpy" in the same way that they equate feminism with man-hatred (as has been much discussed lately, here and elsewhere)? As in, they'd even rather use Miss than Ms because of what they think (or fear) Ms might imply?

And how much does our choice of title indicate "exactly what kind of woman" we are? Perhaps quite a lot, though we may disagree about the connotations of "Ms".

There was an interesting piece in The New York Times a month or so ago detailing the history of Ms and tracing its origin back over 100 years ago to a need for a respectful way to address women of unknown marital status. That's all it is and that's all it needs to be.

So what's the problem? Do we need to start all over with a 4th mode of address for people who fear the meaning of Ms? I think (hope) not.

Ms is clever: it is short, it is convenient, and it refers in a simple way to someone who is female. It is very useful for women like me who are married but who aren't Mrs Husbandname.

When I fill out a form, I leave those Miss/Mrs/Ms check boxes blank whenever possible. I don't really see the point of selecting a preferred mode of address in most of the circumstances in which the information is requested. Do I need mail to be addressed to me by anything other than my name? Sometimes this means I am assigned Mr by default, but in many cases it just means that I get things addressed to me as firstname lastname.

I select Dr (if available) in cases in which I may have to interact with a real person. I discovered the utility of the Dr title years ago in the specific context of interacting with airline and medical personnel. I have found that it increases the chances that I will be treated in a polite and respectful way, although I think that it is unfortunate that the title makes as much difference as it does.

But: If I have to choose among Miss/Mrs/Ms, I definitely choose Ms, even if doing so implies that I am a mythological creature who snatches food from men being punished by Zeus. In this particular case, I am willing to take that risk.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

You Choose

This is another example in the continuing saga of Choosing Excellent Grad Students. Of course, prospective grad students go through a similar guessing game when trying to choose an excellent adviser. On both sides of the experience there are people who are wondering:

Is there a foolproof way to tell in advance who will be a good [student/adviser]?

The answer, at least for me, has always been no, but choose we must, using the few clues with which we are provided. For some advisers and students, these clues start with an e-mail.

This leads to the perpetual questions: How much should potential advisers read into these e-mails, some/many of which display a level of cluelessness that is both understandable and alarming? How much should applicants read into the response/lack of response of a potential adviser?

EXAMPLE: Let's assume that e-mail content may be a significant indicator of the work habits of a student. Which of these students would you accept if you had to choose only one of them?

Student 1's e-mail to a potential adviser contains the following:

If you have papers that you could send to me, I would like to read them to get a sense for what you have been working on.

Student 2's e-mail to a potential adviser contains the following:

I recently read your papers on X and Y and think that I would be very interested in pursuing research related to these topics because [succinct explanation].

If I were in a nice, generous mood, as happens from time to time, I would assume that Student 1 is trying to show me that he/she is interested in my work and is trying to display initiative by expressing a willingness to read my papers. I would factor in the possibility of inadequate advising or inexperience in online search techniques and journal article acquisition. I might also assume that Student 1 doesn't have online access to the relevant journals (perhaps he/she has already graduated) and didn't think that was relevant information to provide. Some of these correspondents use their gmail or whatever addresses even if they are students, so the lack of an edu email address is not particularly meaningful. I may know that their gmail name is angelkissyboo or lemurhead, but I may not know their current academic/employment status (but that's another topic).

Yes, I know that some readers identify with the clueless and are cynical and suspicious of the clued-in. What if Student 2 is merely an obsequious politically-astute operator who is trying to impress me by writing what he/she knows I want to hear and Student 1 is a sincere-but-naive person who, with the right nurturing, will blossom into a creative and productive graduate student?

That may well be, but Student 2 took the initiative to read some journal articles and Student 1 is asking me to do things for him/her. If you had to choose only one of these two students (a not entirely realistic scenario) and had no information other than these email messages and what is typically in an application file (a somewhat realistic scenario), would you choose Student 1 or Student 2?

If both have excellent academic records, they will both have opportunities for graduate research, so I am not talking about giving one a chance and destroying the other's hopes and dreams. I am, however, using this real-life example to highlight the fact that we as advisers have to make choices based on limited and/or flawed information. So what do we do?

If I really had no other information on which to base my decision, even knowing (from experience) that either of these students could be an excellent or dismal student for all I know and can predict, I would choose Student 2.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Open Door Policy

Isn't it time for another poll? I think it is time for another poll. What I would like to know in today's poll is this:

Do you, my faculty readers, have any particular policies or preferences re. having your office door open or closed when meeting with students? For example:
  • no policy (door can be open or closed, it doesn't matter),
  • door always open when meeting with students (because.. why?),
  • door always open when meeting with students of a particular gender (presumably different from yours),
  • door always closed (e.g. to allow uninterrupted conversation)
  • other
Non-academics can answer, too, using whatever scenario is most realistic for your own situation.

And you, my student readers, I wonder whether:
  • you prefer that the office door be open or closed when meeting with a professor,
  • the gender of the professor matters in your preference re. the door,
  • you have a particular preference depending on other characteristics of the professor (e.g., you are fine with a closed door for visits to certain professor offices but want the door open for visits to others),
  • it bothers you if a professor has a different policy for female vs. male students,
  • you even notice and/or care whether a professor has a policy about door position with respect to student visitors
I don't have a policy. My office door is often open just because I prefer it that way. This of course results in lots of interruptions and even interruptions of interruptions, but I still prefer an open door.

When I was a grad student, most professors kept their doors closed. I wish some of them had had an open door policy when meeting with students. Even when I felt nervous about meeting alone with a particular professor, I never asked him if the door could stay open. Instead, I would tell one or more of my friends where I was going and ask them to knock on that professor's door after 5-10 minutes. This system worked quite well. This anecdote leads me to my final question of the day:
  • Would you/did you ever ask someone if the door could stay open while you met in that person's office?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Family Event Productivity Loss

One of the interesting aspects of the recent Center for American Progress report, Staying Competitive: Patching America's Leaky Pipeline in the Sciences, is the recommendation that funding agencies and/or universities provide supplementary funds to "offset family event productivity loss". This recommendation is distinct from those about providing family leave benefits to graduate students and researchers. In this specific case, these supplementary funds would go to the principal investigator of a grant that pays the salary of a person having a "family event" and would therefore (in theory) make PIs less reluctant to hire researchers (e.g., women) who might have such an event (e.g., a baby).

Last summer I wrote about some of the issues for PIs re. paying the salary of someone who has a family leave. The new report addresses some of these issues with the recommendation that PIs receive supplementary funding to cover family leave for their researchers.

I like this idea because it might create a more family-friendly environment for early career researchers: students and postdocs and other research scientists, female and male. I like that it attempts to reduce the problem for PIs who, however well-meaning and supportive, may be harmed by a situation in which grant funds are paid to someone who needs a leave of absence and who is therefore not actively working on the grant's research for a while.

But I wonder how this would work. If I am supervising a graduate student or postdoc who is doing research related to a grant of which I am the PI, and that student or postdoc needs to take time off for a "family event" that will reduce or obliterate their ability to do that research, what would I do with supplementary funding?

Despite the dire world economic crisis, there doesn't seem to be a pool of unemployed or part-time scientists with the necessary training such that they could parachute into a project with a few month's notice, keep the project going for a few/6/more months and then hand the research back over to the returning grad or postdoc to pick up exactly where their substitute left off. Even if such highly-qualified and flexible researchers existed, this scenario wouldn't work for many reasons, including the fact that it involves the undesirable situation in which someone is hired to do some of the thesis or postdoctoral research of someone else.

In a few cases, though, it might work, depending on the project and the stage of the project during the leave. I can imagine some situations in which I could pay a graduate student to do some prep work or certain kinds of analyses, thus moving the project along but not complicating the situation.

In many cases, however, if I were handed the equivalent of the salary of a researcher who takes a leave of absence, the best I could do is extend the length of the project so that the work would get done when the researcher returned, just not in the original time frame of the work plan. That wouldn't help if the research involved time-sensitive activities, but it would help other projects, especially if the extension were no more than 3-6 months.

Are there other possibilities?

If you are a PI, how would you use supplemental funding to deal with a temporary suspension of a research project (or part of a project) during a researcher's "family event"?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Why Don't I Just Quit My Day Job

Sorry for the obnoxious title, but I get a lot of requests via my FSP email. I don't want to discourage people from emailing me: sometimes there are very interesting and important things that come my way via my FSP email, and I try to answer some.

BUT: I don't have time to answer all of the emails, and I don't have the inclination to answer some of them. In real life, I always answer emails. If I weren't (semi)anonymous, I would probably feel more pressure to answer all emails, so chalk up non-answering-of-all-emails as another benefit of anonymity.

Here is an example of an email I am not answering, however much I might sympathize with the situation of the person writing it. Perhaps someone else can be more helpful than I can be with this; perhaps someone who is closer to the caring-for-an-infant stage of life than I am and/or who has a bit more time than I do right now and/or who doesn't find this email quite so.. exigeant?

I would really like to know details of how you managed your schedule (balanced your professional work and your life with baby and husband and fit in exercise etc) when you had your baby years ago. .. I would particularly appreciate specific examples especially of day-to-day and/or typical week activities, including grant writing, teaching, writing papers, advising students/post-docs, managing it to make it to the gym, taking care of a needy baby, etc. .. specific examples and ideas would be most appreciated. I would also really appreciate a personal reply.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

More Co-Advice

Yesterday I attempted to cover a few topics relevant to being co-advised and being a co-adviser. Today's continuation of the general topic of co-advising explores some of these topics further from the point of view of the co-adviser. As science and engineering -- and perhaps other fields of which I know little -- become more inter-multi-transdisciplinary and co-advising becomes more common, it is important for faculty to be aware of the benefits and risks of co-advising with certain people.

Therefore, in an attempt to further evaluate factors involved in a decision about whether to co-advise, I asked the FSP Editorial Board:

Would you co-advise with [insert name of 'difficult' colleagues]?

Answer: No.

But: In one case, an attempt at co-advising with a Very Difficult Colleague was made and, perhaps not surprisingly, was very difficult. In this case, however, being co-advised helped the student a lot because at least one adviser was a reasonable, nice person. The functional co-adviser was glad to have helped the student, a smart and hard-working person, and so paused a bit before answering my question.

Hence my follow-up question:

Would you co-advise with [difficult colleague] if the student was really really really great and you were fairly sure that he/she was well informed about the likely challenges of working with Difficult Colleague?

Answer: Still no.

With this additional question I was trying to assess whether it was ever worth it to co-advise with a rather difficult colleague. It seems that it may not be worth it, ever.

I feel the same way as my colleagues, and would not knowingly agree to co-advise with someone who was known for being impossible. As described yesterday in the post and in the comments, co-advising can be a burden rather than a positive experience if the advisers aren't compatible, especially if the student gets caught in the middle of conflicts.

If at all possible, it's best if everyone involved has some information about the others so as to make an informed choice. I once ignored such common-sense advice and agreed to co-advise a student in an engineering department. I hardly knew the professor with whom I agreed to co-advise, but he seemed quite pleasant, his research was fascinating to me, we had a great project, and I had the funding.

I was lucky in that the other co-adviser and I turned out to work very well together. The student, however, was rather passive and seemed to prefer a low level of research activity, and soon flamed out, blaming both of us advisers for not providing enough advising structure and attention. I thought that the weekly meetings the three of us had together might be considered as providing structure and attention, along with our many individual conversations and meetings, but alas, it was deemed insufficient.

This brings me to the topic of co-advising failures and how to (try to) prevent them. I think in some cases, such as the one I just described, students who are not particularly (pro)active about their research will struggle whether they are co- or mono-advised.

The most problematic cases directly related to the co-advising situation can be classified as:

(1) co-adviser-caused problems: co-advisers who loathe each other or are competitive with each other, who don't communicate with each other, or who have vastly different expectations (which they may or may not communicate) and/or degree of accessibility or interest in the project; or co-advisers who each expect the others to provide funding for the student, resulting in a fundless student.

(2) co-advised-caused problems: students who wait for their various advisers to take the initiative and help them; students who play co-advisers off against each other, thus annoying their advisers and, in extreme cases, losing the trust and respect of their advisers.

I mention here some of the perils and pitfalls, but I have found that co-advising has no more (and perhaps fewer) problems than mono-advising and, if the co-advisers are collegial, the advising adventure becomes very interesting for everyone involved.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


By popular demand (= 3 recent mail requests), my thoughts on co-advising, a topic I have only touched on obliquely before (as far as I can remember, anyway):

One of the obvious benefits for a co-advised student is to have a somewhat high level of interaction with two (or more) professors who can help the student's research, each in a different way. But is that ideal ever attained? How does it work?

My views are mostly from the point of view of the co-adviser rather than as the co-advised. I was briefly co-advised at the beginning of my grad school years, but one professor (let's call him "the sane one") was my main adviser and the other (let's call him "the insane one") was fortunately not so much in control of my destiny. If the insane one had been my sole adviser, I might have quit grad school, or at least left that particular one.

On a few occasions when problems with the insane adviser were particularly severe, I discussed the situation with the sane adviser. He mostly gave me lame advice, but when it really counted (e.g., in an exam), he made sure I was treated fairly.

That's an example in which working with more than one professor can be a somewhat negative experience (it increases your chances of interacting with a difficult person), but as long as one adviser is a reasonable person, you're better off than if you have a single insane adviser.

That's a rather gloomy view of co-advising, so let me hasten to say that as a professor, I have had excellent experiences with co-advising, and I think many of my students have enjoyed being co-advised as well. I co-advised as an assistant professor, but I also made sure to advise some students as sole adviser, because I knew that my department(s) valued this. My co-advising has increased in recent years because I have compatible colleagues with whom I enjoy co-advising.

I think that my co-advising experiences have mostly been successful (says me) in large part because I co-advise with compatible colleagues. I think the experience of being co-advised is enhanced if the co-advisers get along with each other and perhaps even collaborate with each other. This isn't necessary, but it helps create a more interactive research environment for everyone.

For research that is highly interdisciplinary, it can be useful to have multiple advisers in different fields, but if one of your advisers is in another department somewhere else on (or off) campus, it might be a good idea to work out a specific plan for interacting with that adviser; e.g. attend group meetings, take a class, schedule some individual meetings. Also, find out your advisers' research expectations; don't assume that all will have the same ones.

When I co-advise students within my department, both advisers have equal status as advisers. I have, however, co-advised students in other departments with colleagues in those other departments, and in that case the other adviser is the de facto 'main' adviser, although we have equal status on the forms.

There are many possible variations in co-advising relationships, with the main factors being the compatibility of the advisers with each other and with the student (i.e., personality factors), the advising styles and expectations of the advisers, and the student's willingness to take some initiative (but not too much; see below) in communicating with multiple advisers. I think these factors are more important than whether the advisers are in the same or different fields/departments and whether one adviser has more responsibility than another.

The fact that I only co-advise with compatible colleagues doesn't mean that we all have the same approach to advising or that we have the exact same type and level of interaction with our students. In fact, more than one of my co-advised students has said, with respect to a particular colleague with whom I have co-advised, that they wish they could "average" our personalities into one ideal adviser instead of being driven somewhat crazy by our different personalities.

In this case, our students are not saying that one of us is a good adviser and one of us is a bad adviser, but instead that we both have positive and negative advising habits and characteristics and that they wish they could experience mostly the positive aspects and avoid the negative ones in each of us. I sympathize with that, but I can also put a positive spin on it by telling them (and myself) that they are learning important people-interaction skills that might serve them well in their careers.

I think that some of our co-advised students have learned to optimize their interactions with us, going to one or the other depending on their mood/needs. In some cases, our students ask us both the same question and then choose the answer they like better, kind of like asking mom and dad a question and choosing the preferred answer. This is (mostly) fine with me because, despite my differences in personality and advising style compared to my colleague, we are seldom in major disagreement about significant issues related to our students.

At one extreme, students may 'fall through the cracks' between or among advisers. Perhaps each adviser thinks/expects the other(s) to be taking care of their co-advised student, but no one is. Obviously there needs to be good communication among the group, such as might be accomplished during a group meeting of advisers and student to make sure that everyone is in agreement about expectations, priorities, and time lines.

The reason I added "mostly" in an earlier statement is because I recall one student who overdid the ask-both-advisers thing. One of the benefits for a professor of being a co-adviser is that you share the time/work of advising. If a student asks both of you the exact same thing all the time and asks you both to do the same thing so as to choose the preferred result, that is not a good use of our time, especially if we have quite a few advisees.

At some point with this particular student, my colleague and I figured out that he was taking the ask-them-both thing to an extreme. I asked the student to try to reduce redundant effort as much as possible and to use the ask-them-both approach for questions/issues that would benefit from different points of view or for document-editing that really required comments from both of us at the same time. He didn't change anything, so the next time he gave us both something to edit that really only one of us needed to see at the time, my colleague and I sat down together and wrote identical word-for-word edits in exactly the same places with the same pen on each of our copies of the short document. Did the student notice? No, he did not. He was pleased that both his advisers were in such good agreement. He never did stop this habit, but his advisers learned to coordinate with each other so as not to duplicate effort when this was not necessary.

But I digress.

Those students who have previously expressed a wish to average the personalities and advising styles of my colleague and me have said that, once it was over and the degree obtained, they were glad for the experience of working with us both, despite some of the challenges.

There are many different views on co-advising in different academic disciplines and even within different departments of the same academic disciplines. Some may encourage co-advising, some may discourage it. Some may not allow assistant professors to advise a PhD student alone, some may think less of an assistant professor who has not advised a PhD student alone. And so on.

I think co-advising is a good thing, though it needs to be appropriate for a particular student's research and career goals. It's up to professors and students alike to do what they can to make it work well for everyone involved, but when it does work well, I think everyone benefits.

(There will be more on this general topic tomorrow, I think)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Sticker Shock

Many grants come with 'indirect costs' (a.k.a. 'overhead') calculated into their budgets.

I understand why grants have indirect costs; i.e., the money that a university needs to help the grant-funded research to occur. IDC supposedly helps pay for the lights in our offices that are in buildings with climate control and support staff who help us do our research. IDC pays for the libraries that provide resources we need to do research. And so on. IDC pays for all those background costs (but not postage and maybe not photocopying, depending on which accountant is controlling access to the photocopier).

IDC rates at many universities are 50 ± 5%, but significantly higher rates are not unknown. It is not unusual for more than half of a grant to go to the university, not the researcher.

I sometimes wonder why NSF proposals don't report our direct costs as 'the' total on the cover page rather than having the total of direct + indirect costs being the most visible number on the proposal. Is not the total direct costs the relevant number for figuring out how much of the grant will be spent directly on research activities? The IDC rate, whether high or low, is something the university negotiates with the funding agency; the PI is responsible only for the coming up with a budget of direct costs (and some of those are mandated as well).

I wonder if sometimes reviewers balk at the high total of a grant proposal, despite knowing that they should divide the number on the cover page by 2 (or 3).

When writing collaborative proposals, my collaborators and I typically figure out whose university has the lowest IDC rate and then we shift more of the research expenses to that university, thus maximizing our collective grant resources.

Once a grant is funded, I am happy to report the total direct + indirect costs, as that number reflects what is being awarded to the university.

IDC as a concept is simple but in practice it is strange. Why does my university collect IDC on things like my travel to conferences or expenses related to scientific research done in/by another lab at another university? And then there is the IDC tax on fringe benefits, including for summer salary. Perhaps IDC calculations would start to get as complicated as figuring out income taxes, but I wish there were more IDC-free budget items.

All of this adds up to a lot of money. I know that universities need it and presumably are spending it well on essential things like light and heat and libraries, but as the cost of doing research goes up (e.g., travel, analytical costs, salaries of grad students and postdocs), it's hard not to look at the grant budget total and wish that more of that total was for direct research costs.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Advice I Got

The recent post on "Kidlessness" elicted quite a few comments, some of which reminded me of a bit of comforting advice I got from another FSP years ago when I was sort of freaking out about the impending birth of my daughter.

I had absolutely no interest in babies; I thought they were ugly and I had no idea how to take care of one. I had had some traumatic experiences helping out (not by choice) at a local preschool when I was a teenager. I confided my fears to this colleague, who had two kids.

My colleague said "All babies are scary and gross. Except your own." She said she was profoundly uninterested in babies etc., but she loved hers intensely and was fascinated by them from the start. This was immensely comforting.

And prophetic. I couldn't believe it when I saw my daughter for the first time. She was beautiful. How lucky I was to have one of the only cute and fascinating babies on the planet. A few years later, looking at her baby pictures, I realized that she was as hideous as every other baby. Yes I know, some people think babies are cute -- I encountered quite a few of these people and was both grateful for them and alarmed by them -- but I have never thought this about babies, except for one particular one, more than 10 years ago.

I think the biochemical effect that makes us think our own babies are cute and interesting is probably quite useful in general for the continuation of the species.

All this is to say that you don't have to think all babies are cute and wonderful to have a very happy experience with one of your own.

I turned out not to be quite as extreme as my FSP friend. Once my daughter was born, I didn't think all other babies/kids were weird and gross. At whatever age my daughter has been, the other kids her age have been kind of interesting to me. It's fascinating to watch them growing and learning new things. A different, older FSP once told me that every age (of her daughter) has been her favorite. That has definitely been true for me as well.

When I had anxieties about parenthood, it was important for me to be able to talk to these other FSPs. I had been reluctant to talk about my worries with most other people, except a few of my closest friends (who mostly expressed shock that I was going to be a mother; this was not entirely helpful). I worried that my lack of maternal instincts (or at least my belief that I lacked them) would be seen as monstrous in the specific context of being about to have a baby. I felt comfortable talking to these other FSPs, however, perhaps because we shared an atypical experience as women -- that of being FSPs.

(At the time, I only knew well 1 MSP who had been actively involved in raising his kids and had a wife with a career. We often chatted about family-career issues and that was great, but mostly we talked about practical things.)

Now that I am an older FSP, I am perfectly happy to talk about what it was like for me to do my professor job while pregnant (and very ill) or while taking care of an infant (and changing universities) -- perhaps this information can be useful or comforting to others -- but I must say that I loathe it when people assume that I will want to hear their graphic pregnancy/childbirth stories just because I am (1) female, and (2) a mother.

Perhaps that is hypocritical because I once sought out FSPs specifically to talk about baby-related issues, but I think that there is a difference between the type of conversation I had with some FSPs and conversations in which someone (male or female) revels in the intimate details of pregnancy and childbirth: for me, the former is mentoring, the latter is TMI.

Friday, November 13, 2009

See You on the Other Side

At the beginning of the fall term, I could see clear to the other side of it with no apparent break from proposal/manuscript/abstract/committee deadlines, travel, and other time-consuming professional activities. In a rare week, I would 'only' have my usual research and teaching and advising and meetings and so on.

Now that I am deep into the fall term, time has been expanding and contracting. I veer between thinking "How am I ever going to get all this done in two days?" and "I have two whole days to get this done" and then back to "How am I going to get all this done?". Never mind 2007, this past September seems like a very long time ago.

One day this week, I briefly considered grading papers while walking across campus, but then decided that, although grading while walking is probably safer than driving while texting, grade-walking would greatly increase my chance of being hit by a bicycle.

So far, things are getting done (with lots of help from excellent colleagues), but the biggest deadlines are still ahead, I still have some travel (some at a very inconvenient time), and looming committee work will soon dominate my existence far more than I expected.

As a result, blog posts will be short or long depending on whether I am crazy-busy or procrastinating.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

On More Serious Topics

Recently I heard a BBC interview with Stephen Dubner, co-author of Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics. I was very startled when he said this:

"We wrote about the economics of prostitution. But we wrote about some more serious topics, too."

I don't often talk to myself (out loud), but when I heard that I said "What???"

Based on what I heard in the rest of the interview, I think Dubner was saying that he and his colleague write about lots of wacky, offbeat topics (and he, unfortunately, considers prostitution to be one of these kinds of topics), but they also discuss other subjects that are a bit more sobering, like climate change.

Or maybe he was joking and I just didn't get the joke because I am humorless?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


When I was a young professor, I had a brief but transformative experience that still affects my behavior in Faculty Meetings to this day.

I was in a department in which various faculty were having trouble behaving in a respectful way to each other. I got along reasonably well with everyone, perhaps because I had not been there for very long, but I may have been the only one who did.

Even so, I often felt that my opinion did not count as much as that of my senior colleagues. I was new to being a professor, however, and assumed that this was the fate of assistant professors.

Some of my colleagues eventually got to the point where they couldn't even say hello to each other in the hall, so we had a special faculty meeting to discuss ways to be nicer to each other. We talked about the importance of collegiality. We talked about being respectful of our differences of opinion, and we all agreed to try to be nicer to each other.

The department chair said that he strongly believed that each and every faculty member had something valuable to contribute and that he would like each of us to give our opinion on a certain important issue facing the department. We went around the table and each person gave their opinion.

When it was my turn, the chair and another senior faculty member got up and went to pour themselves some coffee. While doing so, they chatted with each other about something else. I wondered if I should wait for them to come back to the table, but another colleague said "Go on, finish what you're saying."

So I did, although the chair and the other colleague clearly had no idea what my opinion was and clearly did not care. They returned in time for the senior colleague sitting next to me to expound on the issue, and gave him their full attention.


What do I do now that I am a senior professor and have been to many many faculty meetings? Do I give each and every person my full attention? Well, no, I do not, but neither do I try to be overt about my attention-straying. I have worked long and hard at appearing to be listening even when I am not giving someone my full attention.

Perhaps this strays perilously close to behaving like my obnoxious former colleagues, but it is a sanity-saving method that I find necessary to employ from time to time in faculty meetings.

I was thinking about this recently during a meeting in which a colleague sitting next to me sighed loudly, shifted in his chair, and rolled his eyes whenever a certain other colleague spoke. I actually felt the same way he did, but I suppressed my sighs, stayed still in my chair, and restrained my eyes from rolling. I did not pay close attention to what the crazy-boring colleague was saying, but I was respectful.

There are certain faculty who, when they start to speak, can safely be tuned out with no danger of losing the overall thread of the discussion. I think that the department chair should develop a polite way to circumvent or shut down their rants. I wish that we as a faculty could find polite ways to make it clear that self-serving pointless rants are not an acceptable way to spend our collective time. I wish that these ranting people would move to a moon of Saturn.

Perhaps my polite passivity in the face of time-wasting speechifying is part of the problem of why faculty meetings are generally useless and annoying. Perhaps, but I do not want to be like my former colleagues who ignored me in a humiliating way in my professorial youth.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Help Me Not Do This

A paper published in 2009 by some people I know contains the statement that it is problematic that a certain dataset does not exist because it would be really important to have such data but alas, such data have not been obtained, so instead they must use an ancient approximation based on a highly flawed technique.

I published just such a dataset in 2003 in a major journal, as the authors of the paper well know. One of the primary authors was a colleague of mine, although we stopped collaborating a while ago, by mutual agreement.

A few years ago, this former colleague asked me to remove his name from my research webpages because he was annoyed that my pages turned up before his in a Google search on his name. I did not think this was a reasonable request, though eventually the problem solved itself when I updated my pages to reflect new research and publications. Even so, I suppose this incident was sort of a clue that he might have some Issues.

Here is my internal debate with myself about the obvious non-citation incident:

Let it go. Their paper is lame and they undermine themselves by appearing ignorant of the literature.

Send them a passive-aggressive email with the relevant reprint attached, expressing regret at not sending the paper to them sooner, i.e. 6 years ago, and expressing surprise that they don't seem to have access to Major Journal, even though they do.

Let it go. Ignore them. Don't even admit that you read their paper.

And so on. Right now I am actually in a "Let it go. Ignore them." state of mind, but every once in a while I veer back to consideration of the insincere email/reprint option. I know I would gain nothing from contacting them and I would not feel good about it. So I won't do that, I think.

Why does it bother me that they did not cite my relevant paper? I am not upset that I lost a possible citation (really). I think I would be less bothered if they had simply left my paper out of a list of possible citations, but the overtness of the lack of citation was a bit shocking. That's what is so strange. And I suppose that is exactly why I should ignore them.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Feeling Harassed

My daughter has been coming home from middle school with tales of being the target of unpleasant attention by a particular boy who boasts about hurting people, threatens to hurt her, makes comments about her physical appearance, and pushes her. Is he just a socially awkward kid who only needs a stern talking-to or is he a pre-teen creep heading towards a lifetime of harassment of women?

When my daughter first told us about the situation, she said that she wanted to try to deal with the problem herself first. She spent a lot of time thinking about the best way to calmly tell him what the major problems were and how things needed to change. She talked to him but the problems continued.

The next step was for my daughter to apprise the teacher of the problem. The class in which the problems were occurring involved some unsupervised time during which my daughter was sent off with her 'team' (the problem boy, who is actually 2 grades ahead of her, and another kid, who is frequently absent owing to illness) on various excursions around the school. There were many opportunities for the boy to display a wide array of unpleasant behavior out of range of the teacher. The teacher therefore had no idea what was going on.

So she told the teacher, but she didn't want to make a big deal out of it and she only mentioned vaguely that she was having a problem with one of her teammates, and the teacher said something vague in reply and took no action. In the next class, my daughter was again sent off alone with this boy on various excursions around the school. The problems recurred.

She wanted to try again to talk to the teacher, being more specific this time, but at this point my husband and I decided it was time for parental intervention. The types of things this boy was saying and doing had us worried, as was the relentless nature of his unpleasant behavior. We were unable to arrange a meeting with the relevant teacher, but we talked to two other teachers.

They were great. They leaped into (administrative) action and told her that they respected her for speaking up. They told her that the school has zero tolerance for this type of behavior, which they consider sexual harassment because some of the incidents were specifically related to gender. They told her she was brave and mature for how she had handled the situation.

I know that the school will also try to help the boy, rather than just punish him.

This situation has apparently been resolved, but the fact that it happened at all is sad.

Something that is interesting about this, though, is that my daughter's primary reaction has been anger. She has been to dozens of "bully awareness" workshops over the years, and apparently these focus on kids who blame themselves for being bullied and who feel anxious about complaining. These kids may become withdrawn and fearful. My daughter says that this didn't describe at all how she felt; she felt extremely angry and she didn't know how to deal with this anger.

One possibility is that her anger stemmed from her feeling powerless to stop the harassment on her own. She appreciates that the teachers supported her and took actions that solved the major problem, but she hated not being able to deal with the situation herself. She likes to talk and debate and argue about things, and it was frustrating for her that she could not convince this boy to treat her with respect.

One of the great things that the teachers did, once apprised of the problem, is to make her feel that she solved the problem by speaking out. I think that was very important and gave my daughter a good perspective on how a supportive community can try to solve problems like this.

Friday, November 06, 2009

First & Foremost?

An interesting question that arrived by email involves the issue of being the very first graduate student of someone who has never before advised a student. What are the advantages and disadvantages?

Probably in most cases the adviser has not yet advised a student because he/she is a new professor, but there are other possibilities, such as a research professor who can advise students but who chooses not to until a particularly enticing candidate comes along.

I was my adviser's gazillionth student, so I don't have personal experience with being someone's first advisee.

When I was a new professor, my very first graduate advisee left after a year to follow her husband (a postdoc in another field) when he got a position in a faraway place. This was very bad for me. Students of new advisers may be taking a risk by signing on with someone inexperienced (who may or may not get tenure), but new advisers are also vulnerable to the vagaries of students whose priorities change and whose abilities and motivation may or may not match expectations.

But I digress. Back to the student point of view: there are some general advantage and disadvantages of working with an assistant professor who has never advised students before:

ADVANTAGE: New professors may be very energetic and are likely to be working on new and interesting research in emerging fields. It can be a good career-launching move to work with an early-career professor and be part of their first projects as a professor.

DISADVANTAGE: How do you know which new professors are on track to succeed and get tenure and acquire fame that will rub off on you vs. those professors who will not get tenure and who will therefore not be much help to you when you need letters of reference and a good reputation for being an excellent researcher?

Answers to questions about the advantages/disadvantages of a new adviser also depend a lot on the specific personality and advising style of the adviser in question. For example, consider the following possibilities associated with working with an early-career adviser:

ADVANTAGE: A lot of interaction with someone who is very interested in helping you succeed.

DISADVANTAGE: A lot of interaction with someone who is very interested in having you help them succeed.

Again, how would a student know in advance which situation was more likely?

A potential danger in a lab-based science is working with a new PI who has funding and projects but who is in the process of building a lab using a lot of student labor. Is it an advantage for a student to learn how to build a lab and be part of something innovative or is it a huge time-sink that detracts from their ability to get their own research done?

A possible way to maximize your chances of having at least one nice, sane adviser is to have co-advisers, although being co-advised has its own issues and perils.

I think that unless you have specific reasons based on specific information that leads you to be anxious about the advising skills and motivation of a particular professor, the advantages of working with a new professor outweigh the possible disadvantages. And if you're worried about the they-might-not-get-tenure issue, you could get to know some of the senior faculty as well so that there will be someone around to support your career should your adviser take a hike.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Time to Teach

In yesterday's post, I explained why I like a flexible system of assigning teaching loads. The balance between research : teaching is an important factor, but so is the time required to teach a course. If I am teaching a new course, I can do a better job if I am not teaching another course in the same term. This is not always possible to arrange, but sometimes it is, and it's good to have that option.

Imagine a professor who is reasonably conscientious about teaching: not someone who devotes themselves entirely to teaching but also not someone who just phones it in and might as well be standing in front of the class reading the textbook aloud. This is a person who is going to spend time organizing the course, preparing each lecture, being accessible for help outside the class time, and providing timely feedback to students.

Imagine that this professor is you or someone you know fairly well. Place the items, currently listed in no particular order below, into an order from TAKES THE MOST TIME (top of list) to TAKES THE LEAST TIME (bottom of list) for teaching, considering time for all teaching-related activities within and beyond the classroom. With apologies to colleagues who teach classes + labs, this list is mostly geared towards a university setting in which faculty are unlikely to teach labs but are more likely to teach giga-classes with hundreds of students. Feel free to add course formats that are missing but relevant to you:
  • graduate seminar in your field of expertise
  • graduate seminar in a field you want to learn about (so you teach a class on it)
  • graduate or senior-level course (lecture format)
  • small freshman seminar type course
  • large intro non-majors survey-style course
  • medium-sized course for majors in your field of expertise (TA teaches lab)
  • medium-sized course for majors, topic not in your field of expertise (TA teaches lab)
In your list, assume that you have taught all of the courses before. Then consider which of the above would take the most time to teach as an entirely new course. Would the order of your list change?

And then let's throw team-teaching into the mix. It might seem that team-teaching reduces the time required to teach a course, and this is generally true. However, I recently team-taught a new course, and the newness of it dominated the team-taughtness of it. Teaching the course took an order of magnitude more time than a similar sized, non-team-taught course I'd taught before. Other team-teaching time factors are the work habits and sanity level of your teaching colleagues. Team-taught classes are a mixed bag (for faculty and students).

I have found that the emotional energy required to teach some classes is also an important factor. Perhaps the prep time for a large intro course is about the same as for a smaller course for majors, but the emotional energy necessary to teach an intro class, including dealing with a large number of students with complex lives, is definitely a factor in the overall equation of the "effort" required to teach a class. And as we all know, effort and time are very different things.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

45 : 45 : 10

A visiting colleague and I recently discussed a perennial topic of obsession among some academics: how our departments/universities assign teaching loads.

Some departments (either by choice or by requirement from an external source) have rigid teaching loads that are the same for all faculty. Some departments assign different teaching loads to different faculty as a function of seniority; in recent years, I have seen some departments assign less teaching to assistant professors and more to associate and full professors, but in days of yore, it was the other way around (and may still be in some departments). Some departments assign different teaching loads to different faculty as a function of faculty research activity.

Even if the ratio of research : teaching : service (for example: 45 : 45 : 10) is specified, there is still quite a lot of room for variability in the required or expected teaching load, and there is variability in how courses are counted, as not all courses require the same number of student contact hours.

Both types of system, rigid and flexible, seem to result in resentment about how teaching loads are apportioned.

I've touched on this topic before and am not going to repeat previous posts, but I will give an updated view of my opinion of teaching load distribution methods at universities and colleges that have both research and teaching expectations of faculty.

It was interesting talking to my colleague because his department has recently evolved from a rigid system in which everyone taught the same amount to a more flexible system in which teaching load varies with research activity level. In the past, faculty with grants and grad students taught the same number and level of courses as faculty with no activity other than teaching and service, resulting in some resentment among colleagues. More recently, my colleague's department, in response to both internal and external forces, has moved to a system in which those with active research programs teach 1-2 courses less each year than those who don't have active research programs. This system can also result in resentment depending on how research "activity" is quantified and what the consequences are for low research activity.

If the research-active faculty teach less, the question is whether the research-inactive faculty will teach more or whether new faculty/instructors are hired to teach the courses that were formerly taught by the research active-faculty. I suppose the best answer to this question for each department is related to the expectations of the department/university for the ratio of research : teaching : service .

If there has been a research expectation all along and it was not being met by some faculty, I think is fair to expect them to teach more than faculty who are fulfilling the research expectation. Furthermore, graduate advising is a hybrid teaching/research activity, and should be considered in the research : teaching equation for those who advise grad students.

If the focus is on teaching, however, then it is not fair to add to the work load of those who are already fulfilling their job expectations with their present teaching load.

I have always preferred a flexible system because it gives faculty the option of negotiating the best arrangement of teaching : research : service for any particular academic year. For me, each year is a bit different in terms of number of graduate students, how many are new vs. more senior, whether I will teach a graduate seminar in addition to my undergraduate courses, whether I am writing an unusual number of proposals or need to do an unusual amount of travel (e.g., as a traveling lecturer), and many other factors. I would rather teach more in a non-insane term or year and less in an insane term or year, and a flexible system at least allows this as an option.

It is not always possible to work out an optimal arrangement because of course each individual professor is one of many faculty, each of whom may have complicated professional lives and urgent deadlines. It works out often enough, however, that averaged over time, my research : teaching : service load balances out to what it is supposed to be.

In a typical academic year, the optimal teaching load that best allows me to focus on teaching my classes well; to have sufficient time to advise my grad students, postdocs, and undergrad research students; to do a decent level of research and writing (papers, proposals); to participate in a moderate/high level of department, university, and professional service; and of course to spend some time with my family is: 2 regular undergraduate courses per year + 1 graduate seminar or other specialized course.

Ideally, one or two of those classes will be team-taught, and I will teach 2.5 courses in an academic year.

Some years I teach more than that, some years I teach less than that, but an average of 2.5 courses in a year -- including a mix of big/small and non-majors/majors/grad courses -- allows me to do as well as I can with my various responsibilities.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

On Kidlessness

Yesterday's post contains some interesting data that the author of the survey will no doubt have fun contemplating and interpreting, keeping in mind of course the limitations of such surveys and the inferred demographics of this particular blog's readership. I will not summarize the data -- though I hope we will get a summary eventually! -- but I will note that I found it interesting that the majority of respondents are women (not surprising) with no children (perhaps also not surprising, depending on the reason for the lack of children).

There is no information about age of respondent, but would it be safe to assume that many (most?) of my readers -- or at least the survey respondents -- are at an early career stage and are childless now but plan/hope eventually to have children? Or do the data indicate an inclination towards childlessness, at least among this subset of female scientists and engineers?

At the risk of upsetting my ethically inclined bio-colleagues with another survey, I hope that some of the childless respondents from yesterday (female and male), or anyone willing to share their personal data, will leave a comment today that completes this sentence:

I am [female/male] and I do not have children because.. [rest of sentence]. which [rest of sentence] might indicate age/relationship status and/or might indicate whether you eventually would like children, whether you would like to but don't feel you can because of career issues, whether you just don't want to have kids (by choice), whether you think it has nothing to do with career issues, or whatever else is relevant to your life.

If I were answering a survey like this at any time before I was in my early 30s, I would have answered that I had no children because I didn't want any. It wasn't because I didn't think I could balance career and family, I just wasn't interested in being a mother. And then I was interested, had a kid, and have always been very happy that I did. Go figure.

Monday, November 02, 2009

High School Senior Thesis Survey - Women in Science Careers

A high school student conducting research on women in science contacted me for assistance with a survey, the results of which will be used in her high school senior thesis. The student wrote:

At my school, students are required to conduct a year-long senior thesis project in which they research a topic of their choice. I chose to research the current status of women in science careers.

Part of my methodology is to distribute a short survey to men and women in science careers to determine their attitudes toward their field and their work.

Perhaps because I am a physical scientist and therefore deeply ignorant about the ethics of surveys, I see no reason not to post this survey on my blog and request that anyone who is interested fill it out and help this student with her thesis project. Also, I am impressed that a high school student would select this topic, so I'd like to help her out.

Survey answers can either be posted as a comment to this blog or sent by email to

High School Senior Thesis Survey : Women in Science Careers

[ ]Male [ ]Female

Level of Education:
[ ]Undergraduate [ ]Postgraduate [ ]Postdoctoral

[ ]Astronomy [ ]Biology [ ]Chemistry [ ]Engineering [ ]Geology [ ]Physics
Specialization: _______________
Occupation: _________________

Why did you decide to pursue a science-based career? (Check all that apply.)
[ ] Love of science
[ ] Personal ambition
[ ] Interest in monetary gain
[ ] Lack of other options
[ ] Encouragement from others
- Who encouraged you? ____________
[ ] Inspiration from others
- Who inspired you? _______________
[ ] Other reasons
- Please specify: __________________

Have you ever strongly considered leaving your field or career? [ ]Yes [ ]No
- If so, why were you considering to do this? ______________________
- Why did you decide to remain in your field or career? ______________

How accurately do the following statements describe your experiences?
1 means "very inaccurately", while 5 means "very accurately".
- I love my field of science.
1 2 3 4 5
- I am happy with my career.
1 2 3 4 5
- My career can be overwhelming at times.
1 2 3 4 5
- I have loved science since high school or younger.
1 2 3 4 5
- It has been easy for me to balance career and family responsibilities.
1 2 3 4 5
- How many children do you have?____