Friday, February 26, 2010

Fulfilling Furloughs

If any of you academic readers have been furloughed, what did you do during your furlough time?

Were there certain prohibitions (e.g., you cannot go to your office, you cannot answer e-mail from students)? Did you follow the rules?

Did you work anyway or was there absolutely no way you were going to do anything work-related while not being paid?

If you had a choice, did you take furlough days when no one would notice or did you try to make your furlough times a bit more visible to the academic community? (even if you aren't allowed to cancel classes for a furlough day)

If you have students and/or a laboratory facility that can't manage without you, what did you do? Or are we all less essential than we think we are..?

As many of us explore the reality of being paid less to do our jobs, which in some ways are becoming more difficult to do, I was thinking of what I might (unilaterally) do to rebalance my time and effort. It makes no sense to decrease my research or teaching efforts, even if I wanted to, so the most obvious thing would be to quit some committees and spend less time doing service. I wouldn't quit all my committees or service activities -- some of these are a necessary part of my job -- but I do a lot of service and I could reduce this. Has anyone else done this or something else in direct response to changes in their salary/schedule?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Is This Right?

To continue with the theme of student-professor interactions..

When students are working on a problem set or taking an exam, some will ask the professor or TA: Is this right? (pointing to a particular answer on their assignment or exam).

A variant on this is when as student points to their answer and asks if that answer is sufficient or whether they should write more.

The correct answer is: I'm not going to tell you if it's right or not.

But in reality, I find it difficult to say this without qualifying it a bit. Even though it would be quite reasonable for me to refuse to give a yes-no answer to their question, it always makes me uncomfortable to do so because I've seen the answer, I know whether it is correct or not, and it's hard for me to pass up an opportunity to help the student. It makes me particularly uncomfortable if I see that the answer is wrong and I don't say anything.

But some of the other options aren't necessarily good or fair.

If the answer is correct, I can say "Yes", which may help a student who knows what they are doing but just lacks confidence. That's nice, but is it fair to students who don't ask for this confirmation before handing in the assignment/exam? It is not.

If the answer is not correct, I can say "No", and then the student can try again, perhaps with some hints or other information. From the nature or magnitude of the wrong answer, I can probably discern where the student went off track and give them help to get on track. Again, is this fair to students who don't get this kind of information? Again, no.

Therefore, for problem sets, my general approach is to say "I'm not going to give you a direct answer, but.." and then I either:

- give the student some general questions to think about to see if they understand the logic of the homework question and the problem-solving process; or

- I ask them to rephrase the question so that they ask me about concepts.

That works pretty well for homework assignments, although I have had a few students over the years who repeatedly asked "Is this right?" for every homework assignment, despite my telling them that this question is inappropriate. Do some professors routinely answer this question with a yes or no? Are some students are perpetual optimists, hoping that I will just give in and give a direct answer? Most likely, some lack confidence. In that case, I think it is fair to ask a series of leading questions that will help the student answer the is-this-right question for themselves.

For exams, I tell the students that I will only answer questions involving clarification of the exam question, but some students find my unwillingness to provide syn-exam feedback frustrating, as if I am wasting their time with my inefficient system ("I'm not asking you for the answer. I'm just asking you if this is right.")


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Thoughtful Student

Note: Comment moderation will be erratic and infrequent for a day or two, hence this rather uncontroversial post today.

There are a lot of examples in blogs of the stupid and annoying e-mails that students send to professors. I have posted some of these, and admit to finding them somewhat entertaining when posted on other blogs. But let's not forget that many students are thoughtful and responsible people who don't send these messages. And let's also appreciate the times when a student does something very nice.

I recently found this heartwarming note stuck in my office door:

Hey FSP,

I was just in [your building] dropping off flyers and thought I'd drop by and say hi. Unfortunately you aren't here, but just wanted to tell you that I'm missing [your class from last term]. Thanks for the awesome class!

Your Student

That makes up for a lot of grading agony and other of less savory aspects of teaching.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Not Qualified to Judge

A not-uncommon complaint of tenure-track faculty, particularly during the tenure decision year, is that some of those who are deciding their Fate would not get tenure under today's rather rigorous system of evaluation. How can the process be fair if people unqualified for tenure today participate in decisions about the tenure of others?

It's a complicated question because, although the tenure bar has definitely been raised with time, you can't know whether someone who had too-low-for-tenure-today productivity way back when would rise to the challenge of today's standards or not.

I am working very hard here to be fair and balanced about this topic. I certainly have done my share of grumbling about certain senior professors who seem to have succeeded for mysterious reasons. These particular senior professors have published only a few no/low citation papers, got few or no grants, and mostly got by on their charms, which in some cases are not considerable. How did they even get tenure back then? These extreme cases are, however, the exception, and becoming more rare with time.

I am cynical enough to think that some tenured professors can't be trusted to make a fair evaluation of their more junior colleagues, whether because they have no idea what it is like to be constantly working on manuscripts and proposals or for their own nefarious reasons. In some departments, there seem to be a few professors who reflexively vote no in tenure cases; perhaps not so much in an aggressive effort to deny the candidates tenure as to make a point that no one is good enough to deserve an easy tenure process (even if they themselves had this luxury when they got tenure in the Jurassic).

This is probably related to the phenomenon in which some spectacularly unproductive professors are particularly aggressive about questioning the superior records of younger scholars (faculty, researchers, applicants for faculty positions). These people clearly have Issues.

In my limited experience, however, these unpleasant individuals have been vastly outnumbered by more reasonable people. Perhaps I have been fortunate, but this conclusion is consistent with what I have seen during my interactions with the tenure process in many other science and engineering departments, at my own university and beyond.

In most cases, I think the system itself has enough checks and balances to keep these unfair naysayers in the minority. I am not saying that the system is completely fair; every year, deserving candidates are denied tenure and others with similar records attain it. But I do think that the process of frequent evaluation at 1-3 year intervals, although stressful, provides a lot of data and accountability to somewhat demystify the process.

It's not possible to deny a vote to all those tenured professors whose scholarly records fall below the current standards for tenure, but it is possible and necessary for everyone voting on someone else's career fate to think very carefully about what standards are being applied, whether these standards have been clearly and fairly communicated from Day One, whether the candidate has had the time and resources to fix any issues revealed during the 1-3 year reviews, and whether the candidate has met the standards for tenure according to the norms of the discipline, the department, and the university. If these requirements are emphasized and openly discussed by the department leaders with the tenured faculty, perhaps it will be more difficult for the unjustly critical to cast a hypocritical no vote.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Like a Business

At some point during my early years as an Assistant Professor, the university at which I was employed started making sounds about how the institution should be more "like a business". We should all care more about "customer service", for example. Students and others became "stakeholders". At some point the term "deliverables" appeared on the scene.

I think most people are on board with the concept that universities should not waste anyone's money or time, should treat students (and faculty and staff) with respect, should have a positive impact on the community (and the planet), and should do a good job at what they are supposed to do (producing educated citizens, discoveries, lively debate of ideas).

But can and should a scholarly community be run like a business? Many professors don't like the concept, and perhaps neither do the other stakeholders:

Study Finds Public Discontent With Colleges
Tamar Lewin
Published February 17, 2010

Most Americans believe that colleges today operate like businesses, concerned more with their bottom line than with the educational experience of students..

When my (previous) university started the like-a-business chant, what effect did this have on my daily life as a professor other than being forced to read memos with new jargon? In reality, not a lot, but from time to time we had to provide information or produce a report or other document that justified our "mission" in this new context.

That might not sound like a bad thing. Shouldn't we all be able to explain why we should continue to do what we do? Yes, but many of us didn't trust the university to make a thoughtful and fair judgment about what was valuable to the university and the broader community, and what was not. If I, as a science professor, was getting grants, publishing papers, being invited to give talks, getting positive teaching evaluations, and successfully advising students who subsequently found gainful employment, wasn't that pretty good evidence that I was doing my job? And doesn't the system already have mechanisms for evaluating whether I was doing my job or not?

I think so, but at various times new requirements rained down from on high. At one point, although this was a top-ranked university that attracted students from all over the US and beyond, each faculty member had to write a brief report explaining how our research directly benefited the state in which the university was located. There may have been political reasons for this, but the motivation was also tied to the drive to be more like a business, accountable to its stakeholders.

My research had absolutely nothing to do with anything specific to the state. I was teaching some of its citizens about Science and I hoped I was contributing to the excellence of a university that was located in that state, but was that enough? And what of those professors who were studying other galaxies? The literature of other times and places? Diseases that afflict people living on other continents? Would these contributions be recognized?

Perhaps the university was seeking a balance between research on a more cosmic/global scale and that which directly benefited the community surrounding the university's physical location. That would be fine. I think that there should be strong connections between a university (public or private) and its local community. But so should our research universities also be places where scholars investigate the planet and its inhabitants across vast regions of space and time.

The problem was that the university never said that such a balance would be considered or appreciated. That was stressful to me as an Assistant Professor who was doing state-irrelevant research.

In the end, nothing happened re. the state issue; the administration changed, priorities were realigned, and new committees produced new reports about how the stakeholders should be best served. Perhaps that was very business-like, such as what might happen when there's a new boss or manager with new ideas about how things should be done.

There may be some positive aspects of the like-a-business model. Perhaps the increasing emphasis on quality of teaching, even at a major research university, is in some ways related to a recognition that universities should provide good "customer service". As long as universities don't go so far as to adopt a policy of "the customer is always right" (imagine the grade inflation!), improved teaching could be a positive result of the drive to run universities more like businesses.

There are other aspects of the like-a-business concept that are less acceptable, such as demonstrated by my anecdote about how one university veered towards harming the scholarly mission of the university. Creating an environment in which scholars and students can discover and communicate freely is paramount; the economic and social benefits of such creative environments are evident in communities that have universities and colleges in their midst.

Are there some ways in which universities should be even more like businesses? Would this be a good time to mention my disenchantment with the university accounting system? Surely no real business could operate for long with the complex accounting systems of some universities. Or perhaps it is the drive to be more like a business that has resulted in the hiring of ever more staff and administrators, some of whom decided that the university needed an all-encompassing and all-enraging system for managing people and money, even if that system has made some aspects of the administration of grants and personnel nearly impossible.

Or perhaps that is part of an evil plan to save money and focus on the bottom line. Just last week I paid for some lab supplies with my own funds rather than dealing with the accounting system. Except.. there's a flaw in that evil plan. I spent my own money instead of charging the items to my grant, and therefore did not save the university any money.

I think that as the economy continues to be weak and access to higher education continues to be a challenge for some (perhaps many) people, universities and "stakeholders" within and beyond the university will all be very focused on the bottom line.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Good, the Bad, and the Bizarre

If you are having a difficult time in your particular part of the academic ecosystem and are maybe even wondering if it is worth it to continue, do you seek out fellow sufferers (in the blogosphere or in real life) or do you look for those who have survived academia, or who at least think that academia is survivable?

Which is more useful to you: the disenchanted, unlucky, and beleaguered; or the it-can-be-done types?

The answer can, of course, be both, but I'm guessing that many people find one or the other more comforting and helpful.

I don't know which I would have preferred had blogs or other forms of e-networking existed when I was a grad student and postdoc. As I have described in various posts about my early years in academia, I had a difficult time with strange, unfair, and even abusive faculty, I had to work harder than many of my peers to get respect, and at various times I was close to quitting (or being ejected). Obviously I didn't (and wasn't), and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to develop a very satisfying career as a researcher and teacher and to find friendlier realms in the academic community.

During the darkest days, I didn't seek out others who were struggling, quitting, or failing, and I didn't find it comforting to commiserate with the bitter and paranoid. Neither did I enjoy being with the oblivious golden ones whose success seemed predetermined, whether deserved or not. Instead, I found a supportive community in friends and others who were passionate about Science and who had a good perspective on (and sense of humor about) some of the more bizarre aspects of academia. And I was lucky.

Even so, one of the reasons I started this blog was because I was feeling particularly dissatisfied with some aspects of academia, so I looked around online to see if there were other mid-career science professors (women in particular) writing about some of these issues. I didn't find what I was looking for, but I was certainly searching for fellow travelers.

This question of what kind of community you find most supportive or inspiring goes beyond blogs, of course. It also relates to what makes a person or a group of people be effective role models, as opposed to annoying outliers who, perhaps by mere luck, succeeded in a particular activity or career.

At various times in recent years, I have been told "You're not a good role model because.." (fill in the blank with something that emphasizes how lucky, carefree, or strange my life is, e.g.: You and your husband both got faculty positions in the same place. You only have one child. You like to work long hours. All your cats are extremely large.)

Similarly, as FSP, I get comments along the lines of "I hate your blog because you are so positive about academia* and it's just not like that."

To which I say: Whatever. It is and it isn't. Everyone should be able to find a community or role model or blog(s) that provide the needed or desired type of emotional support or practical advice, whether your preferred academic guru is a ruthless optimist, an erratic chronicler of academic antics, or a relentless raincloud of negativity.

* except the accounting system and men

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Waste of Time?

A comment on yesterday's post got me thinking about something: If a non-recent journal article gets a low number of citations (say, 0-2), was the research that went into that paper a waste of time (and money)?

My gut reaction is to say no, of course not. Surely something was learned during the research that led to even the most forgettable or forgotten of papers? And surely the researcher didn't know in advance that the paper would never be cited, and did the research for a good reason?

And perhaps citations are not the most perfect judge of what is or is not worthwhile. It's not difficult to think of examples of highly cited papers that aren't that great, and barely cited papers that are overlooked (especially our own).

At the same time, a paper with zero citations, even after more than 10 years, might mean something..

.. such as:

- no one else in the world is or will be interested in this topic;

- others are interested, but they never publish;

- others are interested, but they only cite other papers, not yours (for various possible reasons), creating a snowball effect of subsequent citation of papers other than yours on this topic. With time, it becomes ever less likely that your paper will be cited.

Publishing something widely believed to be wrong or stupid isn't necessarily a barrier to citations, nor is publishing something obvious, so I am not including these in my list of possibilities.

Since I am in a quantitative mood this week, I tried to decide whether there is a minimum number of citations, above which we can say that the research was worthwhile, and below which we might have good reasons to doubt this.

My musings on this topic made me dive into my citation index to look at some of my low-citation papers to see if I could reasonably defend them as worthwhile in some way. My favorite example of a deservedly ignored paper in my oeuvre has surprised me by being cited in the low double-digits. Does that mean that the paper is more worthwhile than it was a few years ago because it has now received (slightly) more than 10 citations (none by me!) instead of 2 (or zero)? No, I don't think so. The difference between 14 citations and 2 citations really isn't that significant in terms of gauging the worth of a paper. And yet, although I am well aware that it was a fairly insignificant paper, I am reluctant to say it was a waste of time.

Further rummaging in my citation history shows me that some of my most highly cited papers do not represent what I consider to be my most significant work but that happened to be on topics that are of more widespread interest than the core of my research. Does that make these more-cited papers more "important" than my others? I am not objective about this, but I don't believe that citations correlate with significance, though I admit that it depends on how you define "important" and "significance".

One more personal example: A paper that has received a very modest number of citations is frequently mentioned to me as a paper that is read and discussed in graduate seminars. I am very pleased about that. The paper is being read and used (perhaps as an example of how not to write a paper..), although it is not cited very often. I consider that paper to have been worthwhile.

So, although I agree that zero citations is not a good thing for non-recent papers, and my papers have thus far avoided this fate (though in some cases not for any good reason), I have trouble casting aspersions on papers that have received a modest but non-zero number of citations.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Magic Number

How many papers do you need to get tenure in a Science field at a major research university today?

Let's start by considering the minimum number: What is the lowest number of peer-reviewed articles that you can publish and still get tenure today in a Science department at a major research university in the US?

How about 6? Could someone get tenure with 6 publications, as long as these papers were in respected journals and weren't Least Publishable Units?

(I am referring here to Science fields in which journal articles are the main form of publication. To extend the question to some Engineering departments, perhaps this could also include reviewed papers for highly selective conferences.)

I think 6 publications might be sufficient if the funding record was very strong and there were indications of an upward trajectory now that funding was plentiful and students were on track and the teaching record was good and there had been invitations to speak at conferences and other universities. Sometimes the system will give you the benefit of the doubt, even if your publication record is thin.

Institutions vary on policies about whether the relevant n is the number of publications that represent new work accomplished since the time of the tenure-track appointment or whether n is an all-inclusive number going back to the candidate's first publication as a student. Ideally, both will be good numbers, but even if all publications count towards tenure, n(tenure-track) is more important. In my musing about n = 6 above, I was assuming that the 6 was n(tenure-track) and that the total number was higher.

There is of course a lot of focus on n, but the quality of the papers and journals does matter. If you are a minor co-author on 30 papers in journals that will publish anything, or if you have attained a high n by providing bits of data that others use (but without much involvement by you in the overall research, interpretation, writing), your impressive numbers might not seem so impressive when scrutinized.

So, if you don't want the tenure evaluation to be more stressful than it already is, you shouldn't publish too few papers or too many of the wrong sort. You should therefore figure out the magic number of substantial papers expected for your institution and discipline and that is just right for the amount of funding you have and the number of students and/or postdocs you are advising.

What is that number in your field?

Note that the magic number is not the same as the aforementioned lowest number. The magic number is the number of publications that would make the attainment of tenure fairly certain but that is, at the same time, a number that can reasonably be accomplished by a human being who occasionally sleeps and eats and has the usual amounts and types of logistical problems with students, facilities, colleagues, life. Assume that all or most of the publications are in respected journals and are more substantial than least-publishable-unit types of papers, and are therefore not the kind you can just write in an afternoon in a cafe no matter how many double espressos you have.

Is n <> 10?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Too Mean for Tenure?

Years ago I participated in a panel discussion involving the topic of Tenure. The panel speakers consisted of faculty and at least one Dean, and the people asking questions and listening were administrators, citizens interested in the workings of the university, and some local media. It was an eye-opener for me because it hadn't occurred to me that there were university employees and others closely involved with the university who did not know that research productivity was a requirement for tenure at a major research university.

The most interesting question was: Do you have to be liked to get tenure?

The Dean fielded that one and said, emphatically, no.

I suppose that's true. I am sure we can all think of some colleagues who are not particularly likable or liked but who have tenure.

But perhaps there are limits? Perhaps, if someone is slightly vulnerable in some respect (publications, grants, teaching) and they are bizarre or unlikable, the personality factor can tip the scale? As long as the decision can be justified in terms of the usual "metrics" and not rest heavily on the likability or eccentricity of the candidate, this may well occur.

I think this can also go the other way. I can think of people who are well liked or have some other personal attributes that are seen as positive (one of my colleagues has a favorite hypothesis about Tall Men, for example) and who might therefore see the scales tip in their favor despite having a less-than-awesome record of publications or grants.

The process of evaluating someone for tenure is overall a fair process with many checks and balances, but unless a case is completely obvious, either for or against tenure, by all the usual measures, there are ways that issues like personality can creep in.

I know that some tenure-track faculty worry that if they aren't part of the dominant faculty culture (for whatever reason), they will be at a disadvantage for tenure. Such issues can have wider impact if they affect a faculty member's ability to function in some important way (e.g., access to resources, professional networks, advice) and therefore can ultimately affect a tenure decision, even if not in an obvious way.

At the other end of the spectrum from faculty who feel isolated are those who are very outspoken about controversial issues. The tenure process should be oblivious to such things.

You don't have to be liked to get tenure, but you do need to be able to function in your job. You need to be able to interact with people, especially students, in a positive way. If the reasons someone is widely disliked are related to how they treat students, postdocs, staff, or, in some cases, colleagues, then this characteristic may well be a valid tenure issue.

Monday, February 15, 2010

No Excuse

Some readers want to know my take on the Amy Bishop Anderson tenure-denial mass murder, but I don't think there is much here that speaks to any general academic issues, not even those related to the anxieties of tenure denial or the travails of a female science professor (and mother of four children) or the 'pressure-cooker' environment of biotechnology (about which I know nothing).

I think this was the tragic action of an insane person.

This has been my opinion since I first heard the news, and has only been strengthened as more details emerged.

The initial news reports were incomplete and/or misleading. Some made it sound as if Dr. Bishop had just found out that moment in the faculty meeting that she had been denied tenure. I doubted that. It doesn't work that way.

Then reports were that she had been denied tenure the year before and had, earlier on the day of the murders, learned that she had lost her appeal to reverse the decision. Clearly this was a woman who had been under a lot of stress for a long time, but to shoot up a faculty meeting, including some people who clearly had no vote in her tenure decision, is insane and/or evil.

Even if the tenure denial had been extraordinarily unfair, reeking of sexism or anti-Harvardism or the petty dislike of an outspoken and difficult colleague, there is of course no justification for these murders. Even if the department chair had sprung the news on her in the faculty meeting, he didn't deserve to die. None of them did. Even after losing the appeal, she could have sued, she could have done a number of things besides get a gun.

Then I heard that she had shot her brother to death in 1986, allegedly by accident, but apparently during an argument. She has a history with rage and guns. Insanity.

The media coverage of this sad event has thus far followed the usual formula in the wake of such tragedies. Did anyone see this coming or was the murderer just a normal hockey-and-soccer mom until she snapped?

He and others who knew Dr. Bishop described her as a normal person, perhaps a little quirky but no more so than most scientists
. (NY Times, 2/14/10)

Was the murderer one of the scary quiet types?

She was a very outspoken person,” Mr. Reeves said, “and outspoken people don’t bottle things up." (NY Times, 2/14/10)

And that is a good thing?

But there have also been some unusual aspects of the coverage, owing to the fact that Bishop was a professor. For example, soon after the shootings, some websites/blogs reprinted Bishop's evaluations. I suppose it makes sense to look for any information possible to try to figure out what kind of person would have done such a thing, but can the twisted personality of a murderer be discerned from teaching evaluations?


Horrible teacher!

She is an excellent professor!

And these:

All she does is read information from the book.

She is smart, talks about more stuff than just the book.

She reads straight from the book.

Bishop uses the online stuff, the internet, powerpoint, from the book and some stuff not from the book.

Well, which one is it? Are these students talking about the same professor? Of course they are; these are typical evaluations. The New York Times and various bloggers writing about the incident decided to mention only the she-reads-from-the-book type evaluations, as if this shows there was something wrong with her. There was something very wrong with Amy Bishop, but this is not evident in her teaching evaluations nor in other reports of student complaints about her teaching.

No, we can't use teaching evaluations to predict who among us is capable of killing, but perhaps there were other signs, including what happened in 1986, and perhaps there is a way (though I doubt there is a will) to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them.

Friday, February 12, 2010


A few weeks before my last birthday, my husband said to me "There's something I want to get you for your birthday, but I think I need to ask you a question about it first" and I said "I'd like the global wireless version". And then I laughed because I could tell I'd guessed right.

So I have a Kindle now. I thought I would primarily use it when traveling so that I didn't have to carry around so many books and worry that I'd be stuck somewhere without a good book to read. I have had some traumatic experiences related to not having an adequate supply of (good) books on trips.

For example, there was the time when my daughter was a baby and, by coincidence, every book I brought with me on a trip somehow involved a young child either dying or being orphaned. There was an even earlier time when I ran out of books while backpacking alone through Europe and the only English book I could find was Shogun, which was so awful that I ripped out each page after I read it and threw the book away, piece by piece, as I made my way through the former Yugoslavia. And there was this harrowing experience (skip to last paragraph for relevant info). There have been other such experiences, despite fervent attempts to avoid them.

For trips that involve long flights, my personal formula is to bring 5-6 paperback books for each week of professional travel, and more if there will be leisure time. I also bring along an issue of The New York Review of Books because the interesting content/gram ratio is very high. If I really like a book, I will also bring it home, so some books make the entire trip with me. On multi-week trips, I can sometimes acquire books during the trip, but on some trips I just end hauling around a lot of books.

But not anymore. I still need 1-2 physical books for the times when electronic devices must be stowed during takeoff and landing and in case the Kindle needs recharging at an inconvenient time, but otherwise I have all the books I need in the Kindle.

I miss the beauty of real books and the the variety of fonts and book designs. And I miss having a physical sense for how long a book is. The Kindle method of reporting the % of each book read is deeply unsatisfying. However, I find the Kindle pages very easy to read and navigate, and clicking to turn the page can be extremely handy when you have a large cat pinning down one your arms.

I still read physical books because some of the books I like to read are not well represented on Kindle, especially in the obscure (to Americans) international fiction category. But I use the Kindle for non-travel reading far more than I expected.

Mostly I read Literary Fiction on my Kindle, but I am contemplating branching out into non-fiction; in fact, I just put the new book by Rebecca Skloot on my Kindle.

As I write, there are 41,454 books listed in the Science category of the Kindle webpage. This is more than are available in Arts & Entertainment (34,360), Business & Investing (35,468), and Sports (a paltry 5,841). In fact, Science is the biggest non-fiction category.

My excitement at this factoid was somewhat diminished when I realized that many of the Science books are actually "science" books; for example, Freakonomics, Omnivore's Dilemma, A Short History of Nearly Everything, and some of those books you are supposed to read when you are pregnant but that mostly just freak you out. If you search on these books by name, you never find out that they are classified as Science, but if you search on Science as a category, there they are.

I'm OK with including these "science" books as Science books. I'm not a purist about what constitutes Science and what doesn't. Science is everywhere, we can't live without it, and I think it's a good thing if many non-technical books are classified as Science in recognition (even if for mercenary reasons) that science is part of everything. As long as we don't take the broad definition of Science too far, I'm all for it.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Good Riddance

During a head cold induced lull today, I read a thing in in which various women discussed which wedding tradition they would each like to see discontinued. It's not difficult to think of abhorrent wedding customs, but what if we play this same game with Academia?

What tradition or other general characteristic of academia would you like to see eliminated completely?

According to the rules, which I just invented, the things to be eliminated have to be of a general nature. So, for example, the answer "my department chair" or "my university's moronic president" are unacceptable unless you want to eliminate the general concept of department chairs or university presidents.

The candidates for disposal can be anything to do with academia, from the most momentous of traditions (tenure) to the most bizarre but inconsequential (academic gowns).

To get things started, I think I will nominate the ever-controversial Big-Time Collegiate Athletics and, since I am making the rules and therefore get to choose two (2) things to eliminate, I wouldn't mind seeing an end to those boards (known by various names) that some universities have to have and that are populated by political appointees and others who don't necessarily have much experience with or affection for universities.

My horror of these boards started to develop when I met by chance a Regent of a university with which I have never been associated, and discovered that he had absolutely no idea what professors did, what graduate students did, what postdocs were, what tenure was, what a professor had to do to get tenure etc. He knew that undergraduates took classes, some of which were worthwhile but many of which were not, and that professors stood in the front of these classes and talked about whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted (which wasn't often). Yet this man had a vote in major decisions that influenced the operation of that university. I became, and remain, anti-Regent.

Does anyone have other suggestions?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Fatal Flaw

All this talk of grad school admissions, reasons for rejection, and whether it is possible to be rejected in a good way reminds me of an incident from my academic youth, when I applied to grad schools.

When I first started looking at grad school possibilities, there were two main areas of focus that were both very interesting to me, so I looked at schools that had strengths in one or (ideally) both of these subfields. As my senior year in college progressed, I tilted strongly towards one of these based on a very positive experience I had with a research project that fascinated me. In the end, I went to work with a professor who was the world expert in the particular topic of my undergrad research and was therefore quite happy with the way my grad school search turned out. Before I made that fateful veer, however, I was very interested in another university.

I visited that university and met its Famous Professors and was very impressed with the facilities I toured and the graduate students I met. I assumed that my visit was organized because my application was at least within the acceptable range for admission. I had good grades at a good school, high GRE scores, had some research experience, and presumably had positive letters of recommendation.

Near the end of my visit, I met with one of the most Famous Professors there. He had my application on his desk. He did not waste any time and told me directly that my application was outstanding, with the exception of one little thing, and if it were not for that one little thing, I would likely be accepted. However, because of this one little thing, my application had a flaw in it and was therefore going to be rejected.

The flaw? During a year spent studying abroad at an international university, one of the professors never gave me a grade for one course. All attempts to communicate with that professor were unsuccessful, and I therefore had an incomplete on my record. Fortunately, I had enough credits to graduate without that course, and it was clearly an outlier compared to my overall academic record.

I explained the situation to the Famous Professor, but he said that there were many excellent applicants who did not have a flaw in their record, as I did, and who would also be rejected. So I had no chance whatsoever of being accepted.

I sort of understood, even though I thought it was a stupid reason to reject my application. It didn't matter in the long run, as I got into the graduate program that was the best fit for my research interests.

I was sort of thinking of this incident when I wrote at the end of yesterday's post that we hope our rejected applicants will succeed elsewhere and eventually make us regret not accepting them. I was thinking about it because I sometimes encounter the Famous Professor in my professional life and I am quite sure he has no recollection of our very first meeting. I was just some random undergraduate -- one of thousands -- who applied to that graduate program over the years. And I have never mentioned it to him, not even when that same university approached me about possibly luring me away from my current university and offering me a senior faculty position.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Dear Applicant

Dear Applicant,

All indications are that you will do very well in a graduate program in Science. Your academic record shows that you have worked hard for many years, did well in a range of difficult classes, and acquired the research experience that is essential preparation for graduate studies in Science. Your personal statement was well-written and focused, your grades are excellent, your GRE scores are very high, and it is clear that your reference letter writers are impressed with your intellectual abilities, motivation, and maturity. You have clearly met or exceeded all of our criteria for acceptance to the graduate program in Science at Major Research University.

We regret that we cannot offer you admission to the Department of Science this year.

Why can't we accept you, and all other qualified applicants? We can't owing to factors that have nothing to do with the quality of an applicant's academic record. For example, we have to consider how many graduate students are interested in particular fields of Science relative to the number of faculty in those fields, the number of current advisees these faculty have, and their interest in (and funding level for) advising new grad students. As it turns out, you expressed interest in a field that had the highest number of applicants this year.

In addition, our budget is being slashed and we are no longer able to provide a guaranteed financial safety net for as many students as we used to, in the event that an adviser doesn't have sufficient funding to cover a student's graduate program in its entirety. We are therefore admitting fewer students overall than usual.

To some extent, it is random bad luck that you aren't getting an offer of admission and a few others, with similar excellent records, are. That may make you feel better, or worse, but we wanted you to know that the reason you aren't being offered admission has nothing to do with your academic qualifications.

We have no way of knowing if you were serious about wanting to join our Department or whether this letter is a disappointing blow to you, but either way, we hope you are soon able to launch an interesting and successful career in Science at another university. In fact, we hope that you will do so well that you will make us regret not accepting you into our graduate program.


The Admissions Committee

Monday, February 08, 2010


You might think that I have exhausted the topic of Letters of Recommendation, and perhaps I actually have and don't know it, but something else that caught my eye in the LoRs involves the attempt by a LoR writer to praise a candidate by stating that the candidate is smarter than the person writing the letter.

Perhaps some will find this refreshing. Professors being modest! Professors admitting that some students are smarter than they are!

But there's a potential problem with this approach. It's not that we don't believe the letter writer. The problem is that we do, and this might undermine the writer's attempt to praise the applicant.

The context is important, of course, in how the letter is evaluated at the other end. Is the not-as-smart-as-the-student professor someone we all know and respect as a scholar? In that case, we are impressed.

Or do we not know this person and therefore don't know whether to be impressed or, more likely, not?

On reading such a letter from an unknown professor, some have remarked "What kind of education could the not-as-smart professor have given the smarter student?". I am not one who worries about this. There are lots of very smart students, and I think it entirely possible for not-as-smart professors to provide a good education to smarter students because, presumably, even if a certain professor has a lower IQ or GRE scores or however you want to measure "smart", that professor has accumulated more knowledge about a particular topic than the student and may even have developed considerable skill at conveying that knowledge.

This reminds me of a conversation I had, early in my professor career, with a first year MS student who was contemplating working with me. After explaining something to him, he said to me "You seem to think you know more than I do*, but we're the same age, so how can that be?" Well.. I guess if you ignore my years as a PhD student, a postdoc, and a professor, maybe you could say that we should have theoretically acquired exactly the same amount of knowledge during our equal number of years of existence on this planet. In fact, what I secretly thought was not even then (in this particular case).

Anyway, I don't personally mind the "this student is smarter than I am" approach to LoR writing, but some of my colleagues have a different view of such statements in LoRs. So, in general, I advise resisting the urge to include such statements in a LoR unless you are widely known for being brilliant, or at least very smart.

* Actually, what he really said was "You seem to know more than me", which was also a true statement.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Phoning It In

Some institutions of higher learning use the Phone Interview for an initial screening of candidates on the medium short list (for various positions at various levels) before deciding on the short short list of candidates to interview in person. For some positions (e.g., a sabbatical replacement or postdoc), the phone interview might be the only interview, especially if the candidate is on another continent and there are financial and/or time pressures to fill the position.

I have been on the interviewer end of quite a few phone interviews, but I have never been the interviewee. I use "phone" here rather loosely -- some of these interviews have involved a conference call using telephones, whereas others have involved various forms of video conferencing, in which some or all of the people involved can see each other on a computer monitor or on a big screen via projection.

I do not like phone interviews, although I realize that they are necessary in certain situations. Last summer and fall, I did quite a few phone interviews whilst I was traveling and I found this very logistically challenging. For one of them I ended up sprinting through the streets of a European town when my cell phone died and I couldn't find a functioning pay phone. Working out a mutually convenient time for a call involving people on 4 continents was also interesting.

More typically, I am in my office or a conference room for the phone interview, and a group of faculty collects for the event.

Here I summarize the pros and cons of phone interviews for the interviewer; feel free to add items from the point of view of the interviewee if you have experienced an e-interview:


- cheap and efficient!

- you can take notes without making the interviewee self-conscious

Hmm. Is that all the pros or am I unjustly biased by my dislike of talking on the phone?


- conversations are more awkward without the in-person cues you get to help guide the conversation; during phone interviews, people inadvertently interrupt each other often and there's a lot of "Sorry, go ahead" kinds of conversational fragments

- the extent of interaction is much more limited; you feel like you have to get all your questions in during the one conversation and there is less of an opportunity for the discussion to evolve

- embarrassment: During a recent slew of phone interviews, one of the people involved could not distinguish between the voices of the two American women and this created a few difficult moments before I learned to say "This is FSP and I am wondering..".

- my own personal preference: Did I mention that I hate talking on the phone? I think I would actually prefer an internet chat interview -- has anyone done this?

I wonder if there are people who are eliminated from consideration because of an awkward phone interview, whereas these people would do really well in an in-person interview; or vice versa. Or are phone interviews an effective method of reducing a long list of qualified people to a shorter list or even to one preferred candidate?

I must say that in the phone interviews I have done in recent years, I am always relieved when I can hang up the phone, but I have in every case been very pleased with the candidates selected via this interview method.

Perhaps this method of interviewing will become even more common owing to the financial allure of e-interviews, but it's difficult to imagine that it would ever take the place of the 2-3 day interviewfest that most places currently use to select human beings as colleagues.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Grad Interviews

There have been several requests lately for a post on interviewing at or visiting grad schools as a prospective student, along the lines of my recent series of posts on faculty interviews.

These interviews/visits may vary from field to field, so I hope that readers will contribute additional information, specifying if possible their academic discipline.

My philosophy can be summed up quite simply. During my interaction with visiting students, I try to give a clear picture of the research opportunities and dynamics so that, if admitted, they have information to use when making a decision. Those who express an interest in my research field also meet my grad students.

When I meet with grad candidates, I don't grill them with aggressive questions. I want to see some degree of focus, but the student doesn't have to know exactly what they want to do for their thesis research. I want to be able to have a conversation about the research possibilities in my research group/department/university, and it's nice if the student asks a question now and then so the conversation isn't a monologue.

Many (all?) of the visiting students have or will end up with multiple appealing offers, as they should. For these students, the visit is a mutual checking-out of/by applicant and department.

I think that I have quite flexible parameters when it comes to evaluating a visiting grad student -- i.e., in terms of their personality and level of sophistication -- but I do have some limits. For example, I am not perturbed by shyness, although I am not as accepting of someone who considers "What are your interests?" to be an aggressive question. I am not disappointed by an inability to ask brilliant questions, but I do want to see some evidence of an interest in research. I am happy to talk about something other than science and find out about the outside interests of a student, but I think it unwise for a student to skip out on part of the organized group activities to check out the rec center (for example); I recommend finding another time to gaze at the elliptical machines and trail along on the boring lab or campus tour as scheduled.

Just as with interviews for a faculty position, I advise grad applicants to BE REAL. Give clear and sincere answers to any questions you are asked, ask any questions you want to ask, and take a careful look around and see if you are visiting a place you would really want to be.


There was also a request for information on timing of interviews, offers etc. This is going to vary a lot with institution/discipline. Anyone care to comment? I can say that it's likely that, at my institution, the process is going to be more protracted than usual as we deal with economic uncertainties.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

No Use

Apparently, if we write in the budget justification of a proposal that we will use the funds to buy a computer, that is not acceptable to some of the budget overlords. Use is an ambiguous and unsatisfactory word to justify purchase of potentially unethical devices like computers because, although a computer could be used for research purposes specific to the grant that would purchase the hypothetical computer, it could also be used to do nefarious things like writing a paper for a different research project, reading e-mail from undergraduate students, writing a new proposal, or blogging about how vexed one is by accountants.

The upshot: If the budget justification somehow slips through and gets to NSF and the proposal turns into a grant, I would not be allowed to purchase the computer requested in the budget because the computer is a "non-special item" and is insufficiently justified.


If we write in our budget justification that we need the funds to buy a computer, we might be allowed to skip on over to the Apple store or website to purchase a shiny new computer. Or so they say. The accountant told me that he can't guarantee that I'd be allowed to buy the computer, but that it would be more likely if I wrote need instead of use.

Perhaps by the time the proposal is funded, if it is ever funded, the accounting rules will have changed and need will no longer be sufficient. Perhaps I will be told that I should have written that I really need the computer or that I have urgent grant-specific needs that can only be satisfied by a particular computer that I know from my 57 hours of ethics training must only be used for the specific research project related to the grant that purchased the computer. And I will have to sign in blood, or at least digital blood.

Recent experience has shown me that it is not possible to be too paranoid or cynical when it comes to dealing with the university accounting system.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Always On My Mind

In the old days, when everything was made of paper, certain tasks involved reading file after file after file of documents. Who remembers the old days of submitting NSF proposals on paper, by mail, in quintillioniplicit? Some of us are even (barely) old enough to remember the days before the 15 page limit on the project description.. And if you were on a panel in those days, you no doubt also remember getting boxes filled with proposals (with everyone's Social Security number on the front page!), and then lugging them all back to NSF for the panel meetings.

In addition, in the old days, any committee work that involved the reviewing of files (for admission to an academic program, for hiring, for promotion, for awards) involved spending much time poring over many documents organized in files and binders of various sorts. My file-gazing typically occurred on nights and weekends, when I could have uninterrupted time and access to the files I needed. In some cases, the files could not be removed from a certain room, adding to the logistical complexity of the file-evaluation process and typically decreasing the likelihood of reviewing the files in a comfortable or pleasant setting.

And what if the time you set aside for reviewing documents coincided with the time when your most obnoxious colleague also chose to review documents? I shudder at those memories that I have not yet successfully repressed.

Some of my more senior colleagues tell tales of having to review files late at night in a certain room in an administrative building whose lights all went out at midnight. My colleagues brought flashlights so they could keep reading and, later, find their way out of the darkened building. I rather like the image of professors wearing headlamps, wandering around empty, silent, cavernous buildings in the dark of night, but I'm glad I never had to do that myself.

I know there are some committees that still do things with endless files of paper, but for some committees, everything is online or, at the very least, available in some sort of electronic format that can be accessed via personal computer. I am very happy about this because I like the convenience and the flexibility of being able to examine the relevant documents when I want and where I want. There can be security issues involved with transferring and storing files, but there are ways to deal with that in a reasonably effective way.

The convenience aspects are excellent, but there is a downside to having all the files available all the time: they are always there for you to read. You can never say "Well, here I am at home relaxing on the couch knitting my graph paper patterned sweater. I guess I won't be able to read those files since they are across town and my car is at the mechanics and there is an extremely large cat sleeping on my legs." That excuse is gone. The files are always with you. You don't even have to move the cat.

Not long ago during a committee meeting involving the evaluation of many files consisting of many documents, all of which were available online, one of my fellow committee members pointed to his zippy little laptop and said "You know what's great about this? It's a lot better than larger laptops for working while you're lying in bed."* Some, but not all, members of the committee stared at him, incredulous.

But he kind of had a point. We had an insane number of documents to read in a short amount of time, all the documents were online, and we had 24/7 access to them from our laptops. So why not read them in a comfortable place?

Well, I can think of a few reasons why not, but every day I read files in all sorts of places. The files were always with me, and that turned out to be a good thing. If I had been restricted to reading physical files in a designated secure location, perhaps even in a building across campus from my office, I would have been spending nights and weekends in a dark empty building reading these files. Instead, I read files at home (sitting on a couch), in cafes, in a comfy chair in my office, at my daughter's piano lesson, on airplanes, while driving, and at the dentist's office.**

Despite the potential for feeling oppressed by the ever-present files, for me: convenience rules. I strongly prefer having the relevant documents always with me and available for viewing compared to the old days of complex logistics and piles of files. And I get far fewer paper cuts these days.

* I briefly considered but then rejected a title for this post based on this anecdote; I bet you can guess what it was.

** I made one of these up.

Monday, February 01, 2010

The Silence of the Adviser

If someone who supervises graduate students ± postdocs is considering a major career move, such as leaving for another institution or leaving academia entirely, what should s/he tell the advisees and when should s/he tell it?

If an adviser is definitely going to leave, one way or another, in the near future (i.e., in a time frame that will definitely affect the advisees), s/he should alert the advisees to the imminent situation. Then it is the responsibility of the adviser and the department to have a plan in place that minimizes the negative consequences for the advisees.

If, however, there is great uncertainty about whether a move will take place and the adviser is merely checking out some options or responding to some feelers from other universities, the adviser should not necessarily alert the advisees to all these possibilities. The advisees will likely hear rumors, but unless there is something definite coming down the road, there's no point in being on constant alert for something that may never happen. Of course, if an adviser wants to be open about all this with the advisees, that is fine too, as long as the situation is clearly explained and the information doesn't add unnecessary stress.

When I was applying for jobs to leave University 1 (owing to there not being a job there for my husband), I didn't tell my advisees anything specific because one strong possibility was that I would stay at University 1. They knew I was looking around, but I did not give them constant updates about my applications or interviews.

Once my husband and I both had tenure-track offers from University 2, I delayed telling my advisees because University 1 came up with a counter offer of a tenure-track position for my husband. We agonized in indecision for weeks. There were days when we were definitely staying at University 1, and then there were days when we were definitely going to University 2. Once we made the final decision to go to University 2, I told my students, and I made sure to tell them before they heard it from others.

Even so, I did not pack up my office and leave that instant. In fact, I stayed another year at University 1. The offer/decision came so late in the academic year that I didn't want to cause problems for University 1. I had teaching commitments and I had one grad student who was going to finish his thesis that year. My only other student had failed his oral prelims long before my decision to leave. He decided to switch advisers, and later dropped out for reasons unrelated to my departure. A new grad student who had not yet started at University 1 was quite content to do his grad studies at University 2.

At University 2, I have not discussed with my advisees my possible opportunities to leave because there have been no opportunities that advanced to the stage where this was necessary. There were rumors about my leaving, some of which made me laugh, they were so bizarre, but I really had nothing specific to tell my group. I wasn't actively trying to leave, and I didn't see the point of going through the complex details of the many different ways that some other universities were exploring the possibility of luring me away.

As I mentioned on Friday, my university was proactive about giving me some reasons to stay; I never got to the point of bringing an offer to the table and asking for a retention package. If I had, then it would have been appropriate to inform those in my group who would be affected by a possible move.

So, in my opinion, a general guideline for what/when to tell is to consider the likelihood of your departure. If it's very likely (even if not definite), tell your group in time for plans to be discussed. If you are in the midst of an indefinite process involving varying degrees of seriousness that may or may not result in something at some point, then the stress to your group of keeping them informed of all the twists and turns of the complex process might not be worth it.

I know of cases in which an adviser did decamp rapidly and without warning, leaving others to deal (or not) with abandoned students and postdocs, but more typical is for adviser and advisees to work out a plan. The more senior advisees will either stay where they are and be advised remotely (possibly involving some visits back and forth) or will physically move to the new university but get their degree from the original one. Other advisees may be at a stage at which they can switch institutions and get their degree from the new place. Others may choose to stay where they are and switch advisers.

I'm sure it's annoying to hear rumors and to not know what's going on, but if it really bothers you so much, you could ask your adviser a direct question about it. Either you will get a non-answer, in which case you should respect the fact that you don't have a right to know everything about your adviser's professional decisions despite the fact that they affect you, or you will get some information that will either be comforting or disconcerting.

Academics are mobile, just like people in other professions. It's stressful for advisees to live with the uncertainty of a possibly departing adviser, but I recommend trying to keep the level of paranoia about this particular issue as low as possible and keep the focus on research until you it's clear that a move is actually going to happen.