Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Try Try Try to Understand

First, let me say that I hate myself for using lyrics from a song by Heart(?) in the title of this post, but it's what came to mind when I was mulling over the topic-of-the-day.

If this blog has any mission or goals, and it may not, one of them might be to demystify some of the experiences of Graduate School, and in particular the often fraught grad-adviser relationship. Some of my student readers seem very bitter about their graduate experiences. I know well that there are situations of extreme unfairness, but perhaps in some cases the anger stems from a lack of understanding of a system that is not always as transparent as it could or should be. In other cases, a bad situation may persist because a student doesn't know what the options are for resolution of the problem.

In saying this, my intention is not to 'blame the victim'. I want to be very clear that I abhor evil advisers, and that I think advisers (evil or not, and myself included) should work harder to explain what we do and why we do it. And I think that students can do more to ask constructive questions to try to get the information they want and need. Grad students vary in more ways than I ever imagined before I became an adviser, and I therefore appreciate it when students take the initiative to ask for the information they want and need.

When I was a student, I was often incredulous at the behavior, decisions, and overall philosophy towards students displayed by my adviser and other professors (though I never asked them about any of this), and was quite sure that I would do things in a very different way if ever I got the chance to advise students.

Well, of course it's not so simple. I provide more feedback and funding to my students than my adviser gave to me, although that is setting the bar rather low for improving adviser-grad interactions. Nevertheless, until you manage a research group yourself, you may not understand the decisions that go into how funding and publications and research responsibilities are prioritized and allocated. Some decisions or policies that seem unfair or inconsistent might actually be the actions of a well-intentioned adviser. And you shouldn't be too critical of how your adviser spends his/her time or research funds until know what it's like to be in a position of managing a research group, teaching, and having many service responsibilities, all at the same time.

That last point is in response to student comments and e-mails along the lines of "I do all the work and my adviser does nothing." I am deeply skeptical of such comments unless a student has an adviser who has no grants and has not provided the student with any research support or ideas, and who does not teach any classes nor do any service work for the institution or profession. Managing a research group is far from "nothing".

You can and should be critical, however, if your adviser doesn't provide you with timely feedback on your research progress, proposals, manuscripts, or other documents, despite specific and reasonable requests. And you certainly should be upset if all you get is criticism, with no suggestions for how to do things "right". These seem to be common complaints.

I think that in some (many?) cases of advisers who don't give timely feedback is that the adviser has so many things to do that it's not possible to do them all in a reasonable time frame, although in some cases it could be that the student's needs are lower in priority than they should be. That is a major problem for some, and it would be a significant improvement to the Grad Experience for many if we could all find a way to solve it. Perhaps we can use the collective wisdom of the FSP reading community to come up with some possible solutions.

As an adviser, I am pretty good about getting comments back to students on manuscripts and other documents, but I certainly have trouble getting co-authors to read, edit, or at least sign-off on manuscripts. These situations are different of course because I can remove a dysfunctional colleague from a project or send them an e-mail saying "If I don't hear from you by DATE, I will assume that you approve of the manuscript in its current form and will submit it with you as co-author." Students don't typically have that option, although I am curious if anyone has tried something like that with an adviser who sat on a manuscript for an unacceptably long period of time.

It is important to be clear about what amount of time is reasonable vs. unacceptable. If someone gives me a long document to edit just before a proposal deadline or conference or some other major time consuming activity, my response time might be slower. It is important to communicate about these things and, if possible, to work out an agreement about what would be a reasonable time frame for all concerned. That advice assumes that all parties involves are semi-reasonable people, perhaps a flawed assumption in some cases.

All of us who have advised students for many years can think of examples in which the adviser-grad interaction was very tense or somehow dysfunctional, not because the adviser was (necessarily) evil, but for a wide range of reasons involving misunderstanding, miscommunication, or widely divergent personalities and priorities. This is normal in any system involving interpersonal relationship, and may be particularly common when you add in the stress and power differential of adviser-student relationships.

Just because it is normal, however, doesn't mean we shouldn't try to fix problems that can be fixed. My overall message to grad students in apparently dysfunctional adviser-student situations is to first and foremost do whatever you can to try to understand the situation and make things work for yourself. Is your adviser really being evil and unfair? Maybe, maybe not. Be as proactive as is reasonable in your situation, and seek out allies in senior students, postdocs, and/or other faculty.

There are some extreme situations in which nothing you can do will work, and perhaps these situations can only be solved at the departmental or institutional level (if the will and means to do so exists), but my hope is that many misunderstandings can be resolved before they get magnified into major problems, and that advisers and students can develop highly functioning and respectful interactions through enhanced understanding on both sides.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Spring Cleaning

A reader wrote to me with a truly disgusting tale of the unhealthy and unacceptably low level of personal hygiene of a very smart and motivated graduate student. This raises the interesting but difficult question of how much an adviser can do in these situations. Can we demand a certain level of personal hygiene of our graduate students? Can and should these demands be enforced?

I hasten to note that this reader is dealing with an extreme situation. This is not the case of preferring that someone not sweat, or something of a similar level.

If the unsanitary behavior is so revolting that others in the group (including the adviser) find it nauseating to work with a particular student, it could be that the student has a serious physical or emotional problem that needs attention by the university health center. I have never been in the situation of having to ask a student to seek help for this type of problem, so I don't speak from experience here, but I think I would first inform someone in my department of the situation (e.g., the department chair, the grad adviser), perhaps consult with the campus health center, and then talk to the student about the problem and the need for him/her to get help.

You can't force a student to get medical help, but you can do things to minimize the impact of the situation on those who must work with the student. Note that I focus on students here because that is what the e-mail was about, but of course there are faculty with unfortunate personal hygiene issues as well.

In the specific case in which a student's unsanitary habits are degrading research group equipment or materials, including a computer dedicated to that student's use, I think it is reasonable in such extreme cases to take the computer (or whatever) away and insist that the student use their own personal computer or other items that are possible for an individual to purchase. Part of the terms of use of research equipment is that these items not be degraded any more than is usual for normal wear-and-tear.

It is also reasonable, in extreme cases, to set limits on what the student can and cannot do in terms of access to facilities and interactions with others. These limits should be very clearly stated and discussed with the student, however difficult it is to have that conversation. Someone who is just a slob (as opposed to mentally ill) may then be motivated to clean up, once it is clear that continued revolting personal habits have negative consequences for themselves.

It may be a good idea to have another faculty member or an administrator or even a counselor in the room when you, the adviser, has a conversation with the student about these topics. You don't want to humiliate or appear to gang up on a student who may be having severe problems, but you also want to make sure that conversations that touch on issues of a rather personal nature are dealt with in a professional way by those better equipped to deal with them.

If the student cannot or will not be helped, but does excellent work despite causing widespread revulsion in all who come into contact with him/her, perhaps there is a way for that student to work in near-isolation. That doesn't sound like a such a healthy or even good solution for the student, but the other options seem even worse. It is difficult to imagine what kind of career such a student could have upon obtaining a degree.

Perhaps others who have encountered similar situations as advisers will have better advice than I have been able to muster.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Plastic Brain

A major component of my research involves interacting with international colleagues and students, an aspect of my work that I enjoy very much. At some point years ago I decided that I should try to become more conversant in a particular language that would be useful to one of my long-running international research collaborations.

As some readers know from previous posts, after years of informal study and practice, I took 3 years of undergraduate classes at my university. The beginning, intermediate, and advanced language courses met 4-5 times/week during each academic year, and, as a result of these classes and the dedication of an excellent instructor, I finally progressed beyond a tourist-speak level of ability in this language. I also had some interesting experiences being an "undergraduate" again (example 1, example 2, example 3; others can be found by searching on the word 'language').

I took all the courses there were to take, so this year I have been meeting one-on-one with a language tutor, a young woman who is a non-science graduate student at my university. We meet twice a week for an hour or so of random conversation about life, the news, movies, books, anything. Although my tutor had no previous experience as a tutor, I was extraordinarily lucky to find such a kind, patient, and interesting person. I enjoy our meetings very much.

When I was taking classes, there were obvious milestones that helped me gauge my progress. We did oral presentations (typically twice in a term), and moved through a textbook series that systematically expanded our vocabulary and knowledge of grammar.

I was reasonably happy with my progress, although quite dissatisfied with my speaking skills. I was also very aware that it was getting more and more difficult for me to learn new words. It was considerably annoying to have to look up the same word over and over and find that it just wasn't sticking in my brain. In my youth, I had an excellent memory, but at some point I no longer did.

Now that my language learning involves mostly conversation, supplemented by some reading (newspapers, novels) and movie watching, I didn't know whether I was progressing or not -- I feared that I was getting stuck in some speaking-ruts, using the same simple words and grammar forms over and over. In my more pessimistic moments, I wondered if my ability to speak this language had plateaued, a victim of my aging brain and lack of time or opportunity to immerse myself in this language.

Recently, however, I had a few experiences that gave me some sense that I had made progress. For example, during a visit to another university to give a talk, I encountered a scientist from a country where this language is spoken, and we talked for more than an hour in this language. I couldn't have done that last year. I could have carried on some form of rudimentary conversation for an hour, but I couldn't really have conversed.

So, now I think that language learning is always going to be slower than I want it to be, but, even given the challenges of my aging brain and limited time, I think I can continue to make progress. I have not plateaued.

This gives me hope in general for my ability to learn new things. As a researcher, I hope that I can still explore new fields of knowledge, learn new techniques, and make connections between ideas. My detectable (albeit) slow progress with language learning is evidence that my brain isn't full (or emptying..) quite yet and that I haven't already learned everything I will ever learn.

I was thinking about this the other day, not only because I finally had a ray of hope about my progress with speaking skills in the language I have been trying to learn, but also because I was wondering what proportion of my time I spend transferring knowledge I already have (i.e., sharing my accumulated wisdom via teaching or advising) vs. having creative new thoughts about Science.

It's hard to calculate because, although I spend a substantial and perhaps steady amount of time on the former (knowledge transfer), the latter (acquisition of new knowledge, ideas) mostly comes in pulses, precipitated in part by a encountering a looming proposal deadline, reaching a particular stage with a paper, or needing to brainstorm with a student or colleague about some aspect of a project.

That's fine with me. As long as there is a not-infrequent component of my job involving creative thought, there will be a good balance between knowledge-out and knowledge-in, and my aging brain and I can continue to learn, discover, and have fun.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Choices Choices Choices

A reader asks how departments choose which advisers or research groups will get new graduate students. The reader's observation is that factors other than the apparent qualifications of the applicants seem to be involved in some of these decisions.

That's correct, although the allocation system need not be as corrupt as the one described in the e-mail by this reader. In that case, it seems that members of the graduate admissions committee assign themselves students in a preferential way. I would think that other faculty would object to that quite strenuously.

In departments with which I have been associated, decisions about who can accept new students, and how many, involve the following factors:

- quality of the applicants, as evaluated from the applications and/or from interviews;

- how many students an adviser already has;

- how many more students an adviser wants to admit and/or can reasonably take on (explained more below).

- what distribution of students among the various potential advisers will result in a good balance of students in the major subdisciplines.

Regarding the last point, consider that this year a certain research group in my department was described as the primary interest by many applicants, including most of the top applicants in the entire pool. If admissions decisions were based only on merit of the applicants, >50% of those admitted would have been interested in working with <10% of professors in the department. That would not be a good situation for anyone.

I am most familiar with departments that guarantee support for their students. In financially good times, there have been enough TA positions so that even faculty without major grants could advise a student or two and be sure that those students would be supported, at least for their salary, tuition, and benefits. In economic good times, any professor who wants to advise a qualified student can do so.

In times of economic crisis, faculty must demonstrate that they have the financial resources to provide an RA for at least some, if not all, of a student's support. For international students, advisers in some departments have to guarantee 12 months of RA support in the first year. Grad students are therefore preferentially allocated to faculty with resources, and the admissions committee makes decisions, in consultation with these faculty, about which applicants have the best qualifications for admission.

This year, during the admissions process, I had to provide detailed information about my existing funding, pending proposals, and planned near-future proposals. Based on my own estimation of what I could cover in the way of RA support, I proposed a certain number of students to be admitted.

Of course the number admitted does not correspond to the number who accept their offers, so there is a bit of guessing involved in deciding how many to admit.

Admissions committees may also consider factors related to a potential adviser's career stage and/or previous history advising students. For example, some departments want tenure-track faculty to advise graduate students, but the number of students advised by a new professor might be monitored so that it neither zero nor a huge number.

My correspondent described a senior professor who claimed that a certain applicant would be his "last student", although a current student was also supposedly his last student. This made me laugh because I have a colleague who has done this as well. He is either on his 2nd or 3rd "last student". The "last student" argument is compelling for making a case to advise one more student, but eventually an admissions committee should affirm that "last means last" and stop using hypothetical lastness as a factor in admissions decisions.

Furthermore, an adviser with a history of what I will vaguely term "difficult" interactions with graduate students might not be given input into admissions decisions and might not be allocated students.

These allocation decisions are made to provide balance among the disciplines, maximize the amount of RA support that admitted students can be guaranteed, and optimize the chances that a student will have a productive and successful graduate program. For these and other reasons, the decisions have to involve more than academic merit of the applicants. That doesn't mean that unqualified applicants are admitted (although I might not always agree with the some admissions decisions), just that other factors are used to decide among a pool of qualified applicants whose number always exceeds the available admission slots.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Women Girls

An old post on the topic of referring to college-age or older female people as girls vs. women got a lot of comments back in 2006, and the topic still pops up now and again in comments and conversation. As far as I can tell, these days, girl is the more common term used to denote young(ish) female persons.

Certainly the term girl is also used by some older women, some of whom are related to me, who tend to refer to groups of other older women as girls, but my topic today is the relative use of girls vs. women to refer to young(ish) female persons.

It took me awhile to get used to the term girls when applied to young female adults, and I still tend to use the term women, but I suppose that just shows my age. As long as girls is used in parallel with boys/guys, rather than with "men", however, I no longer think it is offensive to refer to young women as girls, especially if it is used by other young people to refer to themselves and their peers.

I admit that with some reluctance, so I guess I can't say that I am really used to it, even now, because I still find it a bit startling to hear someone in their 20's-30's, or even older, referred to as a girl. The sheer number of adults who don't consider it demeaning to be referred to as a girl, however, suggests that the term has no particular negative connotation about capability or maturity.

At the same time, I think it is too bad if woman is viewed as a technical, formal, stodgy, and perhaps even offensive term. Female children are girls, and at some point when these children become adults, they are women, just as boys become men. When I was 5 years old or 9 years old, I was a girl. I couldn't imagine wanting to use the same term for myself when I was 30.

Nevertheless, girl is a pervasive term these days. For those of us who feel disappointed by this trend, perhaps we can come to an understanding with those who do not share our disappointment: those who prefer the term women can try to realize that girl is not necessarily an offensive way to refer to an adult female (except in the circumstance in which males are men and females of the same age are girls), and those who prefer the term girl can try to realize that woman is not an offensive or inappropriate way to refer to an adult female.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Lounging Students

Among the many research and data summaries, anecdotes, and recommendations in the recent AAUW report, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, is this little idea, described in a section on what some physics departments have done to attract and retain female physics majors:

Provide a student lounge.

Although there is also a recommendation for women-only networking events, the recommended student lounge is one that is open to all students and is a "welcoming" place where all students feel comfortable.

Does your department have a designated student lounge for undergraduate majors? If so, is it well used? Do you think it is important to have such a place for students to gather within the department?

Does your department have an undergrad lounge?
No free polls
I think such places can be very important for all students, promoting a sense of community and creating a more energetic atmosphere in classes, labs, and in the department in general. I don't know what the overall effect is on recruiting or retaining women to STEM fields in which they are underrepresented, but if the lounge atmosphere is a positive one, I can see how it would be a good thing to have.

Most of my observations of Student Lounges have been as an observer, but, speaking as a professor who at times has had an office within earshot of an undergraduate student lounge, I can attest to the following:

1. A surprising number of students will speak in a loud voice in a student lounge with the door to the corridor wide open, unaware (or not caring?) that all the professors in nearby offices can hear their conversations, which are at times of a rather non-academic nature. Maybe it is like when people talk on a cell phone and somehow lose all perspective on how loud they are, but many times I have been amazed at this phenomenon as applied to student lounge behavior. We professors are kind of interested in the fact that some students hate our colleague who is teaching SCI 320, but most of us would rather not know what our students did last weekend with their girl/boyfriend and various mood-altering substances, not all of which remained ingested. TMI.

2. Students have a lot of fun in their student lounge. There is a lot of laughing, and I have seen (and heard) the camaraderie develop during the academic year as cohorts of students progress through their major classes.

#2 is the important point. Although the thought of potentially large numbers of undergraduates congregating in a small enclosed space may be a bit terrifying for some faculty, especially those with offices nearby, clearly these social spaces are important and can greatly enhance the academic experience for many students, with obvious positive impacts on the department and university as well.

This was a small point in the overall AAUW report, but it is part of the general conclusion that academic institutions need to develop a positive climate in which women are respected for their talents, and not penalized for characteristics or actions that have nothing to do with academic performance. Such seemingly small things can help make the STEM world seem less hostile and mysterious and help women feel less isolated.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

My Grandmother Was Right

Not long ago, a colleague of mine spilled an acid mixture on his clothes.

He knew what to do: He immediately removed his lab coat, pants, socks, and shoes. He washed off his legs and feet, even though he didn't think the acids got to his skin. He called the appropriate emergency number and closed the lab.

The accident occurred at a time when few people were around (think weekend, holiday, night), but my colleague knew I was working in my office in another building on campus, so he called me. I ran over to his lab, arriving after the campus police but before the paramedics.

Fortunately there were spare clothes in the lab, so he was dressed, albeit strangely, and sitting in a small office near the lab. I talked to the police and one of the paramedics in the corridor, giving them some of the information they needed for their forms.

I know that accidents can happen, even to experienced researchers like my colleague. Most of the safety training I have experienced, either from in-person workshops or via online modules, has seemed like a waste of time, but I think that the training serves the general (and important) purpose of reminding us that accidents can (and probably will) happen. Everyone in the lab needs to know what to do, and the right safety equipment must be accessible and available. Information, equipment, and awareness need to be updated on a regular basis.

The fact of the accident was not remarkable, and fortunately no one was hurt, but there are few aspects of the incident that were notable for me:

- The campus police were great. I had a bad experience with a rude and patronizing campus police officer a few years ago, so it was very nice to meet these very professional, polite, and competent police officers.

- The paramedics were not great. They were completely unprepared to deal with a situation like this. I am sure that they know well what to do when they encounter someone bleeding or broken, but they had no idea what to do in this case of a possible exposure to a dangerous chemical. My colleague was 90% sure that no acid got to his skin, but he wasn't 100% sure, as he explained to the paramedics. The paramedics didn't even seem to realize that time was important. My colleague didn't look injured, and they wasted valuable time making phone calls to other people who also had no idea what to do. They asked questions of my colleague and me, then relayed something completely different into the phone. One of them even started to tell an anecdote about something that happened to his father years ago. My colleague angrily cut him off, the paramedic told him to "calm down", and the campus police in the hall heard those words and became alert to a possible "situation". They thought that my colleague was refusing medical care, and the incident spiraled into an absurd series of misunderstandings. That was bizarre, but the most disturbing thing was that paramedics working within the call range of a major research university festooned with labs containing dangerous materials not only had no idea what to do, but didn't even seem to know how to get the information quickly. When told the best course of action by my colleague and me, they ignored us and made more phone calls.

What I learned:

- Be as self-sufficient as possible for emergency procedures. In recent years it has seemed to me that my university has been emphasizing a "just call 911" message in safety training rather than providing specific information and materials necessary to deal with an emergency on-site. Certainly it is important to call 911, but you can't rely on paramedics to know how to deal with all situations.

- Store colleagues' phone numbers in your phone. Even if they aren't people you would call to chat or text a cute picture of your cat, you may need to contact a colleague outside of working hours in an emergency situation. The phone numbers of colleagues who tend to work unusual hours and/or colleagues who would be able to help you in particular types of emergency situations could be useful some day. This doesn't just apply to lab accidents. If you work on campus outside of normal weekday working hours, you might want to have some colleagues' contact numbers stored in your phone.

- Keep spare clothes in the lab in case you have to get undressed unexpectedly in a semi-public setting -- advice that is related to the title of this post. My grandmother was thinking more of car accidents and events of that nature when she relayed the classic maternal advice about always wearing nice underwear, but, if you care about such things, it could also apply to working in a lab.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Go Ahead - Reject Me

An e-mail question from a reader:

What's the best (most diplomatic?) way to reject an admission offer from a school?

For most places, you don't have to do anything except click on the decline option on a webpage, but if you feel that you should send a personalized e-mail to various people at the rejected institution, including faculty who were your potential advisers, here are my preferences:

I prefer a rapid rejection. As soon as you know you will not be accepting a particular offer, inform that institution so they can make additional offers to applicants on the waiting list. If you delay because you don't know what to say or you feel bad about rejecting an offer (for whatever reason), please get over this and give an opportunity to someone else. There are typically many highly qualified applicants on waiting lists, and the only reason some of them are there is because there are limited admission slots and they weren't as lucky as you to get a first-round offer.

If you interacted with particular people, including some who devoted time to discussing research opportunities with you, write to them and just say that you have decided that Other University is a better fit for your interests, thank them for their time, and that's that. Don't ramble on about how great the people at the declined institution are and how you wish them luck with their future research and hope to see them at meetings in the future. See also this old post for a cautionary tale.

I always find it strange when a student is vague about what university's offer they have accepted. If a student spends a day or two in my department, talking to me and people in my research group, and then they decide to go somewhere else, I am fine with that, but what is the point of being mysterious about where they do decide to attend graduate school? The webpage on which offers are declined or accepted may ask for this information, although of course it is optional to provide it. Similarly, you don't have to tell faculty at the declined institution if you prefer not to, but again, why not?

If you are feeling anxious about sending a rejection letter, perhaps this will help: I have never felt annoyed or angry at a student who was potentially going to work with me but who declined an offer from my university. Every individual makes the best decision they can about what the fit is for their interests and other factors in their lives. Most faculty respect and understand that.

The only exception to the declaration above is that I do get extremely annoyed with the occasional applicant who already knew they were going to accept another offer before they visited and wasted a lot of people's time and my department's money.

In a recent example of this, I found out via someone who is an applicant's friend on Facebook that the applicant had decided to accept an offer from another university before even visiting My University. That applicant was not a potential student of mine, but would normally be on my schedule for an individual meeting. Knowing what I know, why should I take the time to meet with him/her? On the off chance that the FB information was wrong? Just in case this person is so blown away by the visit to My University that he/she will change plans? Because I should take every opportunity to chat with bright young students? My delicate professorial ego is not bruised by a student's decision to go elsewhere, especially if they weren't going to work with me even if they came here, but I can think of better uses of my time than to meet with an applicant who has already accepted another offer.

But I digress. Regarding writing a diplomatic rejection letter: Keep in mind that, for students, the decision about where to attend graduate school is momentous, but for most faculty with established research programs, the loss of an opportunity to work with any particular student is routine (some students accept their offers, some don't, life goes on), so don't sweat the rejection letter. Just be sincere and professional, and then focus on the exciting things to come in the future.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Changing the Rules and Raising the Bar

When a university revises its tenure and promotion code, faculty hired before the revisions should be evaluated according to the policy in place at the time they were hired. I have been indirectly involved in two such modification efforts. When the tenure code changed, the old code was used for faculty hired when it was in place, and the new code applied only to new hires, at least for the tenure evaluation.

Official tenure and promotion codes, however, don't contain much useful information about what the actual standards are for tenure and promotion in a particular department or academic discipline. You may learn some useful information from the official code -- for example, do you have to develop an international reputation for one or both promotion stages, or is a national reputation considered sufficient? -- but for the actual standards in terms of research, teaching, and service "metrics", you should consult the department chair, a mentor, or other senior faculty. In fact, in the changed tenure codes I just mentioned, the differences were so subtle, most of us had to be shown the changes (by an administratively savvy colleague) to detect the difference.

The criteria for tenure might seem mysterious to some, but there is a specific time by which the tenure evaluation must occur. Promotion from associate professor to professor, however, is more murky in terms of time and possibly also in terms of criteria of evaluation.

Last year I wrote about why some professors may spend their post-tenure careers as so-called terminal associates (associate professors who are never promoted to professor). When I wrote about terminal associates last year, I was surprised that some people prefer to be terminal associates, believing that they will do less service work at this level than as full professors, so I should add "by choice" to my list of reasons for terminal associateness.

One of the reasons I mused about involved syn-career changes in standards for promotion. I have no idea how many terminal associates remain unpromoted for this reason. That is, how many cases involve raised standards for promotion and:

1. an increase (but an insufficient one) over time in research productivity (however that is measured);
2. a plateau in research productivity compared to at the time of tenure (no increase or decrease); or
3. a decrease in research productivity compared to at the time of tenure?

There is surely no way to tell, but it is the first two cases that are relevant to this discussion.

At least with associate professors, there is (in theory) time to ramp up a research program to meet raised standards, without fear of losing your job entirely.

That's not easy, of course. If there is a gap in your funding record or a lull in graduate student recruitment, it can be exceedingly difficult, and maybe even impossible, to get a research program back on track, much less take it to a more active level. And if you are already active in research but are somehow expected to bring in more grants, that may not be humanly possible in some fields.

I don't think it is in a department's interest to have terminal associates. At different universities, I have seen a number of cases in which there was a concerted effort on the part of a department chair to jump-start an associate professor's lagging research program. These efforts have included providing time off from teaching and/or even some research funds or commitment of cost-shares for proposals or research assistants.

Of course there are also situations in which a department chair is so disappointed with an apparently terminal associate that there is no effort to help them, and instead the associate professor is assigned additional teaching or service responsibilities. I think that is quite fair, but ideally would only be resorted to after an attempt to help someone who wants assistance revising or revving up research activities.

Promotion to full professor at a research university should be a natural progression for someone who builds their research program over time, successfully advises students in research, and participates in teaching (and does it reasonably well) and service (institutional and professional). It should not be a step reserved only for those who work 80 hours/week for a decade or more and who are insanely productive in terms of papers, grants, or whatever else is valued in their field. Nevertheless, it should (and, I think in most cases, does) recognize a fairly high level of research, teaching, and service; the very things we are hired to do, and that, in some ways, become easier to do at the mid-career stage.

I experienced a raised tenure bar because I moved to a different university, not because standards changed at a particular university. Also, my assistant professor to full professor transition years occurred in the mid-90's to early-2000's, a time at which there were not dramatic changes in standards, at least not in my field or university.

Does anyone want to put dates on the most likely time for an associate professor to remain stalled owing to changes in standards rather to a decrease in research activity by the individual? To the extent that I believe this might be a factor, and in part for the sake of discussion, I propose that those hired as faculty at research universities pre-1985(ish) have experienced the most dramatic changes in tenure and promotion standards. Discuss?!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Either/Or Proposition

The case of a disgruntled Michigan Tech professor who mailed his teaching awards back to the university (along with angry letters) raises anew questions about how universities value teaching relative to research, and whether it is reasonable to expect someone to be good at both for their entire career.

In the Michigan Tech case, the professor is an associate professor who has not advanced beyond that rank, apparently owing to his low level of research activity.

The professor in question says it is an "either-or proposition" for him -- teaching or research.

I don't want to dwell on the specifics of the Michigan Tech case, in part because I don't know the expectations of that institution regarding research and teaching. Instead, I want to discuss the more general question:

Should a tenured professor who focuses primarily on teaching at a research university be 'valued' the same as those who remain active in research?

(by 'valued', I refer to promotion to full professor, salary, etc.)

Teaching is valued by universities, and there are serious efforts to improve the teaching abilities of professors via workshops and mentoring. Our teaching is constantly evaluated, and teaching (as measured in large part by teaching and peer evaluations) is part of the equation for promotions and raises.

Nevertheless, teaching is, of course, just one component of the job. At a research university, most tenured faculty are expected to teach and maintain an active research program. Those who do not advise graduate and/or undergraduate students in research, work with postdocs, write grant proposals and papers, and give presentations at conferences are, technically, only doing part of their job, no matter how much additional effort they put into their undergraduate teaching.

The question raised by the Michigan Tech case seems to be what to do after a professor gets tenure and decides to choose between teaching and research. Should this individual be promoted and be given the same salary increases as colleagues who maintain active research programs but who are, perhaps, not as great at teaching as the not-as-active researcher?

I have no idea what the answer is for Michigan Tech, but at a major research university, I think that an outstanding teacher who has tenure and a decent salary and recognition for teaching excellence is doing pretty well already. I'm not saying they should never be promoted to full professor, especially if there is some level of research activity, but perhaps it will take longer for promotion. And the salary of such a person should certainly not dwell at the lower limits for their rank, but perhaps it won't be as high as those who are active in both research and teaching.

Being active in research and advising requires a lot of time and effort, and therefore faculty who are active and reasonably successful in both research and teaching should advance in their careers with respect to promotion and pay.

Of course universities also like the grant $ that active research faculty bring in, but I hope that the 'value' of research is calculated in a broader sense, encompassing the tangible and intangible benefits of discoveries and ideas, the synergy between research and teaching, and the excitement and visibility that research contributes to a university's overall mission, not to mention the time and efforts of faculty, students, and other researchers.

It's difficult to ignore the role of money in these discussions, though. According to the Chronicle article on the Michigan Tech case:

[Students] have a nagging sense that their tuition money is subsidizing the salaries and stipends of professors and graduate students who spend little time in classrooms.

I hope that students will therefore be happy to know that if their tuition money is supporting a graduate student, that graduate student is teaching. If the graduate student is not teaching, she or he is not being supported by undergraduate tuition money. And professors who are not often in the classroom may be bringing in grant money; these faculty are therefore not sucking up tuition dollars whilst pursuing arcane research in secret labs.

All universities need outstanding teachers, and I respect and admire my colleagues who excel at teaching. I suppose, though, that I have an active-researcher's bias and therefore think that a mid-career professor who views teaching vs. research as an either/or proposition should realize that they are making a choice with consequences, but that those consequences do not directly translate into the value (or lack thereof) that an institution places on teaching relative to research.

Perhaps the denied promotion and raises in the Michigan Tech case were too severe (I don't know), but in general I think it reasonable that low research activity be a factor in decisions about promotion and pay at a university.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Academic Vampires

Yesterday I mentioned the recent novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Goldstein (and some of its reviews) as an example of a recent contribution to the academic satire genre. In fact, with its long discourses on faith and religious principles, the book attempts to be more than a satire. Although I enjoyed many aspects of the book, ultimately I found it annoying because of its heavy-handed caricatures and self-conscious cleverness.

Also, although it is a novel containing many strange and unlikable characters, the intelligent female characters in the book are particularly unpleasant. There is a beautiful and brilliant female superstar professor character who excels at "fanging" her intellectual opponents, but she is widely loathed, loses her faculty position at Princeton because she gets an outside offer at an inferior institution (an entirely unbelievable scenario), and ultimately reveals herself to be insecure and petty, leaving the man who loves her (coincidentally, the "boyish" hero of the novel) because he gets an offer from Harvard. Explaining why she is leaving, she says:

..the fact that you have acquired more prestige than I have, when my work is so much more important, is not something I can tolerate. I can't degrade myself by being regarded as your female companion, the pretty young woman at the inferior institution who will be patronized by the Harvard elite. To be with you is to have everything that is wrong with academia constantly rubbed in my face.

And off she goes. Is it refreshing that a woman refuses to be the 'trailing' spouse (or significant other) or disturbing that she is so insecure she can't be in a relationship with someone at a "better" university? In fact, the smart female characters (all ex-wives or ex-girlfriends of the boyishly charming main character who, as it turns out, finds fame and success without even trying) are all deeply unlikeable, self-absorbed, and eccentric. The ultra-thin French poetess doesn't fare much better than the insecure vampire professor (i.e., the one who "fangs" people), and the self-absorbed anthropologist, albeit a bit more likable, is extremely bizarre (after retiring from Berkeley -- code for weird, I suppose -- her new research goal is to achieve immortality).

I concluded that a main theme of the book is that if we try too hard to be successful as intellectuals, we will lose, and we will deserve to lose because we will have destroyed other people to further our own success. Furthermore, those who try too hard to be successful in academia may do so by being aggressive back-stabbers and/or control freaks. It's better to drift along, feeling confused much of the time, because then somehow, without really trying, we may end up with fame, money, and a faculty position at Harvard! What a strange book: an anti-intellectual novel that shows off the intellect of the author.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Absurdity of Current Academic Thinking?

Longtime FSP readers know that I am interested in how academia is depicted in literature and other artistic venues, and that I have a particular interest in academic satire in novels. Although I generally disapprove of attempts to make academia and academics seem like bizarre, megalomaniacal control freaks who are entirely disconnected from the "real" world, I am not incapable of enjoying a good academic satire (hence my fondness of the novel Straight Man, by Richard Russo).

I even like the Indigo Girls' song, "Closer to Fine", despite this horrific set of anti-academic lyrics:

I went to see the doctor of philosophy
With a poster of Rasputin and a beard down to his knee.

He never did marry, or see a B-grade movie

He graded my performance

He said he could see through me.

I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind, got my paper And I was free.

Give me a break.

Anyway, I was curious to read the recent novel "36 Arguments for the Existence of God" (Rebecca Goldstein), described in some reviews as a brilliant new example in the academic satire genre.

Washington Post (Ron Charles): The field of academic satire is crowded with such classics as "Lucky Jim" and "Straight Man," but "36 Arguments" sports so many spot-on episodes of cerebral pomposity that you've got to place this novel among the very funniest ever written.

New York Times (Janet Maslin): When Cass witnesses a PowerPoint presentation featuring “brain scans of sophomores, neuroimaged in the throes of moral deliberation over whether they should, in theory, toss a hapless fat man onto the tracks in order to use his bulk to save five other men from an oncoming trolley,” this book occupies its ideal vantage point: close to the absurdity of current academic thinking yet just far enough away to laugh.

Cerebral pomposity? The absurdity of current academic thinking? Did these reviewers also spend their college years prostrate to bearded, Rasputin-loving higher minds?

Certainly there are pompous intellectuals in academia, and some research topics and methods seem quite absurd, but these are not the kinds of things I enjoy seeing parodied in novels and pilloried in reviews.

For me, the most clever and entertaining academic novels are the ones that show the absurdity of the weird-but-mundane rituals of academic life (professor-student interactions, faculty meetings, budgets, tenure) and that are a bit more subtle in their portrayal of classic personalities in academe.

Therefore, I am not particularly impressed by bizarre and disturbing characters such as the "Extreme Distinguished Professor" in 36 Arguments, and am much more entertained by a depiction of strangely recognizable people embroiled in the bizarre and disturbing rituals of a faculty search (as in Straight Man).

Monday, March 15, 2010

Diversity Help Wanted

Said FSP's daughter's middle school Science teacher to FSP when he saw her in the corridor of the school:

Hey, it's the famous woman scientist.

I was taken aback at first, wondering why he used adjectives, one of which was strange and the other implied that scientist = man unless you specify otherwise (hence the somewhat cynical name for this blog). But then I figured out why he greeted me that way.

Later, this same science teacher asked me if I would come talk to his class in a month or two.

Great! I replied. But I thought you were done with the unit on My Science.

Oh.. ah.. yes. Actually, we are doing a unit on Diversity and so we need a .. a .. a..

Woman scientist?

Yes, exactly. The state expects us to do something on Diversity and I uh.. uh..

have no clue what to do and don't even know enough to ask this favor in a non-offensive way?

I didn't say that, but, actually, I don't have a clue either.

I have never talked about Diversity to a group of middle school kids before. I assume that I should talk about all types of diversity, not just gender. I would like to keep my overall message positive and talk about Science as a rewarding career, but perhaps we could also discuss stereotypes of scientists (strange white males). I'm going to have to give this a lot more thought.

Has anyone else given a talk on Diversity to middle schoolers? I could use some advice.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Quarter v. Semester

As both a student and a professor, I have experienced at various times both the US quarter and semester systems.

For those unfamiliar with these systems: An academic year composed of quarters involves 3 academic terms (+ a summer term = 4 quarters), each of 10 weeks duration (fall, winter, spring). An academic year composed of semesters involves 2 terms, each ~15 (±) weeks duration (fall and "spring", the former of which may include the end of summer and the latter of which includes the winter season).

Some of my colleagues and students experience the "block plan" (1 intensive course per 3 week period), but I have not, so I will confine my comments to quarters v. semesters.

Both quarter and semester systems have advantages and disadvantages for professors and students, but these pros and cons may shift around from course to course depending on various factors related to course content and professorial teaching ability.

Quarter system:
  • Terms are shorter. Boring classes are over sooner, and boring professors can inflict less damage.
  • The content and format of some courses, even very enthralling ones, are better suited to a shorter term.
  • Quarters typically start later (September in the US) and end later (June) than the semester-based academic year. You may like or dislike quarters owing to this feature; alternatively, you may like this feature in late August and early September (when your semester colleagues have started their academic year) and hate it in May and early June (when your semester colleagues already have their grades done).
  • It may be easier for professor to get a research leave for a quarter than it is to get a semester leave.
  • Students on the quarter system may be at a disadvantage in the summer because their academic year ends late relative to the start of some summer internships and other jobs.

Semester system:
  • Semesters can seem very, very long. Your joy at making it to Spring Break may be a bit dampened by the realization that the semester is only half over.
  • You can, however, explore more topics in more depth than you can with a shorter term. You may have more flexibility in course content, owing to the longer term.
  • You get to know your students better. You might even learn all their names.
  • You may start the academic year before you are ready for summer to end, but you are done in the spring.
  • Depending on your institutions policies re. teaching load, you may have fewer course preps/year.
  • You only have to deal with beginning and end of semester craziness twice instead of 3 times. In an academic term, the first couple of weeks and the last week or two can be quite chaotic, but in a semester, there is plenty of time in the middle to get into a routine in which the logistics of the course are at least functioning well.

As a student, I didn't have a strong preference, even once I had experienced both systems. Depending on how many courses I was expected to take at once and what the course offerings were, I may have had a slight preference for one over the other, but overall it didn't matter a lot to me.

As a professor, I think I prefer the quarter system, recognizing that semesters do have some distinct advantages. For most courses, I feel that I can convey the most essential information in 10 weeks. I wouldn't like quarters if I had to create new courses all the time, but for a relatively stable set of courses and only the occasional new course to prepare, quarters are better for maintaining a high energy level and morale from term start to term end.

Which do you like? Semesters or quarters or something else?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Wasted Time?

Some applications for open faculty positions require letters of recommendation up-front; some request letters only after there has been a first stage of selection based on other information supplied by the applicant. Although I don't mind the first method, I prefer the second because it seems like a better use of time for those writing the letters and for those reading the applications.

I know that things are done in a different way at many non-US institutions, but lately I have encountered variations on this system within the US. In the past few months:

- I received a request for a letter of reference for someone who had already been invited to interview at a US institution. In fact, no letters of reference were solicited until this stage, so my letter wasn't supplementary or an attempt to fill a reference letter quota. The letters were clearly not a part of the interview selection decision. It is unclear what role, if any, they have in the search.


- I received a request for a letter of reference after someone had a phone interview but before they were invited for the actual interview. I am glad I am not on that hiring committee, as it seems to involve several extra steps.

I didn't mind either of those requests, although the first case made me wonder why the institution even bothered to get letters if they are so unimportant in the process. Perhaps it is an administrative requirement? Having read thousands of these letters, I must say I can't really blame anyone for not valuing reference letters very much.

A letter request that did annoy me, however, was one accompanied by the information that my letter would not even be read unless the candidate advanced to the final interview stage. In this case, the position is not an academic one, so perhaps I just lack familiarity with how things are done outside academia.

From what I could tell from the instructions, the organization will not read the letters before the final candidates are selected from a huge pool of applicants but wants to have the letters on hand to read as soon as the final interviewees are selected, and hence the request for possibly superfluous letters. I can understand the wish for efficiency, especially given the large number of applicants, but it is a bit of a strange request: Please write this letter even though we are unlikely to read it. We need to be efficient but we are willing to (possibly) waste your time.

Wouldn't such a request lend itself to getting cursory letters or letters that are not focused specifically on the position for which the applicant has applied? I typically take some time to customize each letter depending on what the position is, and in some cases this takes quite a bit of time. Why would I do that if I don't know if my letter will even be read?

I guess I will do it for the same reason we write any reference letters, not knowing if the subject of the letters will get the position.

Despite knowing in this particular case that my letter may be transferred, unread, directly to an electronic trash heap, I think the best strategy is to try to forget about that and write the letter in the hopes that it will eventually be read, the student will get the job, and it will all be worthwhile in the end.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Drawing the Line

A reader asks:

How long do you typically give 1st or 2nd year grad students to "pull things together" when they struggle in the beginning? Where is the line is drawn and what factors affect the judgments professors will make about their students?

I will consider only PhD students in this discussion.

I should say right away that I do not have a foolproof way of deciding when or where to draw the line on struggling students. I tend to err on the side of delusional optimism, hoping that some solution involving change in project (topics, methods), degree of supervision (more structure, specific goal-setting), or approach to writing will pull us all through the problems. Only in hindsight has it been obvious when this was a bad plan, resulting in prolonged suffering and expense. In other cases, it has worked; by "worked" I mean that the student got their PhD and therefore any difficulties were worth it, I think.

That said, when and where I draw the line depends on the specific things with which the student is struggling and how (or whether) they are making an effort to communicate about and/or deal with the problem(s).

Is the problem motivation? If a student is unproductive owing to a severe lack of interest or motivation in any reasonable research project they can do with me as adviser, that is something that should be quite clear in the second year, if not the first. (though I have had students who started out very energetic in the first year but whose motivation was completely extinguished in the second by the reality of what research and/or working with me involves)

Is the problem that the student lacks the information or skills necessary to do the research? That can be fixed in many cases, and should be dealt with by the end of the second year. The student should be as proactive as possible about learning what they need to know to do their research.

Is the problem the adviser? Is this something that could be fixed by discussing the situation or is it something that can't be changed? If the latter, the student has a decision to make about whether to continue with that adviser. Although it is possible that, with time, the student may understand better what seems like irrational or unkind behavior, it is likely that the adviser won't become more sane or nice with time.

Is the problem beyond the student's control? Examples: Access to facilities? A complex and difficult research project that may proceed in a non-linear way? Lack of clear direction? Research that takes a long time to produce interpretable results? I am impressed by students who find ways to deal with obstacles like these.

In fact, a student who feels like they are struggling, perhaps because they are too critical when comparing themselves with others, may not be struggling in the eyes of the adviser and other faculty.

Other problems, such as those involving finishing a project or writing, may not manifest themselves until later (after the first two years).

In the first two years, it is not too late to change course in a possibly dramatic way, including deciding that there is no point in continuing in the graduate program. There have been a few cases in which I decided in the first or second year that there was no point in advising a student for a PhD; these students got an MS instead. There has to be an obvious, major reason for going this route, though -- e.g., failed classes or lack of productivity owing to extreme lack of effort.

Will a student who has a slow (but not catastrophic) first year or two be at a permanent disadvantage? I suppose this depends on the adviser, but in my opinion, a student who struggles with something in the first year or two, but who eventually surmounts the obstacles and succeeds, should not be at a disadvantage later. In fact, few arrive in graduate school perfectly prepared to leap into the perfect project that goes perfectly from Day One.

If you had asked any of my graduate advisers or committee members what they thought of me in my first or second years of graduate school, the responses would have ranged from a derisive snort to a polite but sympathetic chuckle at my likely future career as a cat sitter. That changed a few years later once I started getting results and writing papers, and my slow start didn't harm my career.

If you (mostly) like what you are doing, and at times possibly even love what you are doing, and you want to keep going with your research, despite initial problems, my advice, summarized, is: Stay focused, know what your goals are (short-range, intermediate-range, long-range), communicate with your adviser and others, if you feel stuck at least make some progress step-by-step (even if the steps seem small), and don't worry so much.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Ask a Scientist

The Chronicle Review (the magazine-like part of The Chronicle of Higher Education) recently asked a group of "scholars and experts" to comment on stress in the lives of academics, using the Amy Bishop incident as a springboard for the discussion; i.e., what role might stress related to the tenure process have played in this tragedy?

The scholars and experts included:
  • a writer and PhD candidate in English literature
  • the chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education
  • a professor of international politics
  • a professor of English
  • an assistant professor of public policy and political science
  • an assistant professor of sociology and women's and gender studies
  • a PhD candidate in anthropology
  • a dean of a School of Arts & Sciences
  • a professor of management
  • a professor of history
Clearly there was an effort to consult a wide variety of academics associated with the US system of higher education: professors and administrators, tenured professors and tenure-track professors, professors at universities and professors at small liberal arts colleges, even some PhD candidates who have no direct experience (yet) with the stresses of being on the tenure-track. Many of these people had thoughtful insights; I was interested to know the opinions of sociologists and anthropologists and others.

Even so, Amy Bishop was an assistant professor of biology. Does it seem odd to anyone else that there were no biology or other science professors in this particular group of academics commenting on the incident? I looked up the chancellor and the dean and learned that their field of expertise is psychology, so perhaps they come the closest, but that's not the same as getting the opinion of someone who has recently experienced the tenure process as a scientist.

I realize that a biology professor would not necessarily have any more insight into the general implications of the incident than those who provided comments in this piece in the Chronicle. And I still stand by my overall view (shared by the PhD candidate in English literature) that the murders were the actions of an imbalanced person with a rage problem (and a gun), and the tragedy was therefore not a direct result of the stresses of academia in general or the tenure evaluation system in particular.

Still, I think it is strange that in an otherwise diverse group, not one is a science professor with direct knowledge of what it is like to get tenure as a scientist today at a university. Consider how bizarre it would have been if an English professor (for example) had committed a heinous crime that may or may not have been related to the experience of being an English professor, and the only people asked to comment (in a particular series of essays) were science, engineering, and math professors.

I also think it would have been illuminating to read, for comparison, the thoughts of a scientist recently denied tenure. With all due respect to the PhD candidates and literary scholars who wrote thoughtful essays for the piece, surely the Chronicle could have found some current or former science professors -- ideally in the life sciences -- to comment?

I don't want to perpetuate an "us" (scientists) vs. "them (non-scientists) mentality, but often when I read about academia, in the Chronicle and elsewhere, the point of view of non-scientists is the only one represented. This gives a very incomplete view of academia and the lives of academics, in general and in extreme cases. Although we have much in common as researchers and educators, there are also significant differences that, at times, merit consideration.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Breaking for Spring?

Who is staying away from campus for Spring Break by choice (i.e., not owing to a furlough)? Who is doing this because otherwise they will have a dire childcare challenge? Who is staying away from campus for a week as a sanity break so that they can face the rest of the academic year with renewed energy?

Of those avoiding campus: Will you be going somewhere (preferably fun and interesting) or just staying home (and possibly working there)?

Who will be on campus but would rather not be there? Who will be on campus because if they don't, they fear the consequences (from their adviser, from their advisees, from a promotion & tenure committee, from collaborators)?

If you are a graduate student, has your adviser specifically discussed with you whether you can/should/will work over Spring Break? If so, what did they say? If not, what do you think they would say?

And who is going to be on campus because they want to be there -- to enjoy a week of relative quiet in their office, catch up on research, get ready for post-break classes, and possibly even clean their desk and its immediate surroundings? (<-- I am voting for this one.)

What are you doing for Spring Break? (professors, postdocs)
off campus but working
off campus and not working
on campus and working (but would rather not be)
on campus and working (happily!) free polls
What are you doing for Spring Break? (grad students)
off campus but working
off campus and not working
on campus and working (but would rather not be)
on campus and working (happily!) free polls

Friday, March 05, 2010

Comparative Loser

Many times I have conversed with a visitor who is much more famous and smarter than I am. We sit in my office and we/I try to find something of mutual interest that we can discuss. I am not a skilled conversationalist, but I can almost always find something to talk about for half an hour.

One of the things I am not tempted to discuss is the disparity in success or fame or IQ or amount of funding of whatever between the visitor and me. What would be the point of that?

It is therefore disconcerting for me when I find myself in the visitor's chair in someone else's office and they start the conversation with a series of self-deprecating statements about how they have not published as much as I have, and how I write better proposals than they do, and how they are basically not as successful as I am. This does not happen often, but it happens from time to time.

I hasten to note that this is not because I am so awesomely famous or well funded. My usual description of myself is "reasonably successful" as a scientist, and I think that is accurate.

I do not think the self-deprecation is a form of false modesty. The self-deprecating person is genuinely ripped up about their lack of productivity. I think these conversations stem more from insecurities than from anything specific about me or my career.

Even so, what I am supposed to say when confronted with these types of statements? I am more than willing to have a conversation about proposal strategies or ideas for new directions in research, or even to have a group wallow about some aspect of Science or Academia that is particularly controversial or nerve-wracking. If the self-deprecating person is a stressed out early career professor, I can go into mentor mode, if that seems to be a useful way to go. Otherwise, I try to steer the conversations to research-related topics that might be of mutual interest, or I ask a lot of questions.

It is possible that some "successful" visitors will want to tell you how amazing they (think they) are, but in the absence of such a conversational foray, here is a gentle request to those scheduled for an individual meeting with a visiting speaker:

Even if you feel that you are orders of magnitude less successful than your visitor in some professional capacity, even if you have the most raging case of impostor syndrome, even if you are in awe of the towering intellect of your distinguished visitor, and even if you can think of nothing more fabulous than being a short, unprepossessing middle-aged female science professor like your visitor, please tuck away these feelings and talk about Science or Students or Something else other than your (relative) lack of success.

Some visitor's egos may need continual care and stoking, but I think you will feel better, and everyone will have a more interesting half hour, if self-deprecation, whatever the reason for it, is not a major feature of the conversation.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Knowing When to Move

Not long ago I considered some general issues related to faculty moving to other institutions, but consider the following specific situation of an FSP reader who e-mailed me:

- in final year of tenure-track; file to be submitted this summer
- reasonably confident of getting tenure
- salary low relative to peers in department despite (self-described) stronger record of grants & publications (did not negotiate when position started; has not brought up salary issue while an assistant professor)
- thinks there may be more opportunities to collaborate at other universities
- but: overall generally happy at current institution

Questions from my reader:

1. Should I let my colleagues know that I am unhappy about my salary and want to move?
2. Should I let my colleagues know that I want to move all all? or should I keep it to myself?
3. When I apply for new positions, should I apply for an Assistant Professor position or I am limited to associate professor positions?
4. If I move, can I take my lab equipment with me if I bought them from my grants?
5. What will happen to my graduate students? Can I ask them to move with me?

The answers to the first two questions depend a lot on some unknowns: How likely is it that you will get another offer in the next year? Do you have one or more trusted colleagues in your department in whom you could confide? Is there a way you can bring up the issue of your salary dissatisfaction with your chair, in an exploratory way at least? (assuming there is not a salary freeze at your institution). Do you know whether promotion typically comes with a significant raise? (at some institutions it does not, but it's worth checking). If you got a significant raise, would you stay or are you determined to leave because you think you will have better research opportunities elsewhere?

Getting another offer might be your only way to get a significant raise, but you should be prepared to take that offer if your current university fails to provide an appealing counter-offer.

If you apply for other jobs, you can decide whether you are interested in positions that are advertised at the Assistant Professor level, and, if it becomes relevant, later explore the possibility of being hired with tenure or coming up for tenure within the first year or two, if that seems like a reasonable thing to request given the tenure standards. Or, if you only want to consider positions that come with tenure, you can confine your search to positions that are open at that level. Note that some departments will also consider hiring at the Associate Professor level without tenure, but evaluate for tenure within ~2 years of hiring. This doesn't help you avoid going through the tenure process (perhaps for the second time), but the more senior title signals recognition of your accomplishments, and may make a tenureless move more palatable.

If you move, you can take equipment with you if it was purchased from a grant. There may be some exceptions depending on the details of your grants and your institution's policies, but these are things that can be discussed and negotiated.

Re. graduate students, there are various options, depending on their preferences and how deep they are into the graduate program. It may work best for them to (1) remain where they are (remotely advised by you, perhaps with some visits back and forth), (2) switch advisers, or (3) move with you. You can ask them to move with you, but be prepared to find a solution for them at your current institution if that is best for them.

That's my advice, but I posted these questions here because I think a range of answers might be very useful, and I hope that others will chime in with other advice and comments, even if some of it is conflicting. Conflicting advice can help you see which issues have the widest range of possibilities, even if the variable advice makes the situation seem more confusing.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Summer $

If you are a faculty member paid on a 9 month basis, how much summer salary do you typically get from grants? By "how much", I refer to time, not the actual amount of money.

The poll refers to a typical total amount of time for a summer, not an amount per grant.

This is a difficult question for me to answer because there is no typical amount. If you have the same situation, perhaps you could answer with the average amount in recent years. The answer should also be the amount of time for which you are paid a summer salary, not how much you budgeted, as the budgeted amount may be greater than the actual amount paid.

If your typical summer salary falls between two possible answers in the poll, pick the closest answer.

How much summer salary do you typically get from grants?
1-2 weeks
1 month
2 months
3 months free polls

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

You & $

It is clear from comments to this blog that, whenever the topic of faculty salary arises, there is a wide range of salaries represented by readers, even just among faculty readers.

There are of course authoritative compilations of average faculty salary by rank, discipline, university etc. (see The Chronicle of Higher Education or links in comments to yesterday's post), but what is the salary range of faculty who read FSP and who are willing to click on a button in a poll?

This poll does not account for science vs. humanities vs. social science, or life sciences vs. physical sciences, or any other subdivision that typically influences salary. Let's also ignore summer salary. Even when I put some summer salary in a budget, in many cases I end up spending it on something else anyway.

The requested data below refers to 9-month FACULTY salary, the typical salary base for a professor in the US. I know that professors in some other countries get paid for 12 (or even 13) months/year, so if you want to vote it would be best if you calculated your salary for only 9 of those months.

The results of this poll will not indicate anything representative about academic salaries in general, of course. From previous polls, it seems that the FSP readership consists largely of people younger than FSP -- does that mean the results will be on the low-ish side? Or will there be a fair number of high salaries owing to the presence of senior engineering faculty and football coaches? I have no idea what the results will be. Hence the poll:

What is your 9 month salary in US $?
$30,000-39,999 (or less)
$150,000 (or more) free polls

Monday, March 01, 2010

Financially Secure Faculty

This post is inspired by a recent comment that referred to "financially secure faculty". The context was that graduate students (with their low salaries) are financially insecure but faculty (with their higher salaries) are financially secure.

Of course it's not that simple. Financial security does not correlate exactly with salary; i.e., you can not conclude that because faculty have higher salaries than graduate students, faculty are financially secure. Faculty may be more secure (in some ways) but that is not the same as being financially secure.

Tenured faculty have a certain type of job security because it takes an extreme event (criminal activity; an economic crisis) for a tenured professor to lose their job. Most of us with tenure are therefore in little danger of financial disaster owing to being unemployed.

Nevertheless, some faculty, and in particular early career faculty, struggle to cover the basic costs of living, in part because professors are typically paid for only 9 months of work by our universities. Consider in particular the financial situation of an early career professor with one or more children. Graduate students with families may be in a similar or more difficult situation, but some of my younger faculty colleagues are in financially precarious positions despite their higher salaries. There are many factors in the financial security of any family, including costs of daycare, mortgage, other loans and whether the family relies on one or two incomes (and what those incomes are).

Even mid-career and senior faculty may have serious financial challenges. Some of my colleagues have been dealing with personal financial crises related to the costs of caring for ailing parents and other relatives, college expenses for one or more offspring, the economic consequences of divorce, or the recent devastation of investment-based retirement accounts (the result of which is that some professors cannot afford to retire and continue to have adequate health insurance).

Certainly there are financially secure faculty, especially those who spent some time in administration and retained their higher salary once they returned to their regular faculty positions. And those of us in science or engineering fields tend to have higher salaries than our colleagues in the humanities, in addition to the greater possibility of summer salary from grants. I personally feel financially moderately secure in my two-professor family, although we are somewhat intimidated by the future costs of our daughter's college education and the slow rate at which we are accumulating retirement savings.

I feel fortunate in my job and even in my (9 month) salary. But: You can't generalize about the financial security of faculty just because our salaries are significantly higher than those of our graduate students.