Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Potted Plants

In the Sunday New York Times Magazine, "The Ethicist" fielded a query from a grad student who wondered about the practice of offering undergraduates extra credit to attend a conference hosted by their department. At the conference, "high-level" talks were presented; talks that most of the undergrads would be unlikely to understand.

The grad student thought that the undergrads were being exploited, as the main purpose of offering them extra credit was to increase the number of people in the audience, thereby perhaps convincing the university to increase funding for the conference in future years.

The grad student disapproved of this practice, and The Ethicist agreed, stating "You might as well fill the audience with potted plants."

Like many of you, I have given many talks attended by undergraduate students (and others) who did not have the necessary background to understand everything I presented. In some cases, these students were there by choice, and in some cases they were there for extra credit. Most typically, students lured by credit (extra or not) are undergrads, but I have also given lectures to audiences that consisted in part high school students who were required by their teacher to attend a Science Talk given by a Real Scientist.

Were these students potted plants? Perhaps some were, but many were not. The fact that at least some students are paying attention and trying to understand as much as they can is particularly obvious in settings in which questions are encouraged, even from non-experts. For students not comfortable asking a public question, there may also be opportunities for questions and other interaction after the talk. These can be very interesting discussions.

And even for those students who are unable to understand much of the content of a talk, there may be some value in attending a talk or a conference. In these settings, students get to see other academics in action, get a sense for the content and style of presentations, and observe how researchers interact with each other.

I encourage undergraduates who do research with me to attend conferences, including national conferences in our field. These students attend talks, many of which they don't understand, but they report being intrigued by the whole conference/cultural experience. I have also found that undergrads are quite adventurous about which talks they attend, sampling talks on topics that represent a wide range of sub-fields, to see what's going on, what's hot, who is interesting, who is not. Some of it is boring and much of it is puzzling, but it's also kind of fascinating.

I therefore disagree with the conclusion that undergrads who have insufficient background to understand high-level academic talks are passive potted plants, as many probably are getting something out of attending a talk or conference in their general field of interest.

Even so, to avoid the possibility of potted plant syndrome among extra credit-seeking undergrads being exploited by funding-hungry conference organizers, perhaps the experience could be enhanced somehow. Perhaps the students could be prepared in advance for some of the talk topics. Perhaps the students could meet some of the speakers after the talks for additional questions in a less formal, more undergrad-friendly environment. Perhaps speakers could be encouraged to spend the first couple minutes of each talk giving background information at a more basic level than they otherwise might. Perhaps everyone would find that more interesting.

I think the attending of talks and conferences by interested undergrads should be encouraged. I don't tend to give extra credit in my classes other than a 1-2 point fun/strange question at the end of exams, but, as long as extra credit isn't a significant portion of the grade, I don't have any problem with there being some sort of credit given for an academic experience that might well be enriching.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Latest Grievance

In a recent post, I sought recommendations for academic novels that I had not yet read. Someone suggested Elinor Lipman's My Latest Grievance, which I had not read, but now I have read it and I found it very entertaining on a recent trip. Thank you for the suggestion, anonymous commenter.

Much about the academic setting in the book was unfamiliar to me -- a small "inferior" college that has housemothers or houseparents in the (all-female) dorms, a scandal-prone new president with a suicidal wife and a "rude and fast" daughter etc., but I was interested in the main character, a teen-aged girl whose parents are both professors at the college.

At times, this girl is not very sympathetic to her parents. She describes her father as an "unappetizing specimen" who is also "one of those daft-looking professors".

Her mother is unfashionable, and an intellectual snob. The daughter delights in playing with their minds, subtly revealing their hypocrisies and inconsistencies, disconcerting and manipulating her parents. She is devious, and entertaining.

And she longs to have a more normal family and live a more normal life, although, at the same time, she likes being the center of attention (a kid growing up on a college campus where her parents are both professors and houseparents in a dorm) and having an unusual life.

I read some passages of the book to my daughter, the only child of two professors. She nodded and smiled at some of the descriptions of the eccentric parents who are rather intense about their work. She could also relate to the fact that, in the end, the fictional daughter appreciates her little family unit, their peculiar habits and traditions, and even her unfashionable parents. (In the novel, stylish people do not come off so well).

Recently, my daughter and I were talking about various things, and she said "Sometimes I think that I am the only thing keeping you two from spending all of your waking hours working." She concluded that she is therefore good for us.

I informed her that she was exaggerating a bit about how much we work when she is not around, like when she is away at summer camp, but I agreed that she is definitely good for us.

We have a lot of fun together, so she knows that she is not an annoying obstacle hindering us from doing what we'd rather be doing. Mostly she seems amused by her parents -- lucky for us -- and says that she thinks it is great that we have jobs that are perfectly suited for us. And, since she is a teen, she now typically adds something like "especially since it's hard to think of anything else you guys would be good at".*

Perhaps one day she will write an academic novel about being the only child of two Science Professor parents. The non-"hard" sciences are rather well represented in this genre, and part of the fun the daughter in the Lipman novel has in lampooning her parents relates to the fact that they are professors of psychology (the dad) and sociology (the mom). Of course, since Physical Science Professors are so cool, any lampooning of particular science professory characteristics will have to be highly fictionalized.

* The other day, while our car was stopped at a red light near campus, four pedestrians crossed in the crosswalk in front of our car. My daughter gazed at them for a moment and said "Those guys make Dad look really cool."**

** They were obviously engineers.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Great Crazies

Most of the novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell, takes place circa 1800. One of the characters, a doctor named Marinus, studied medicine in Uppsala, where he became a "disciple of the celebrated Professor Linnaeus".

Jacob de Zoet remarks that his uncle thought Linnaeus "one of the great men of our age".

Marinus replies:

"Great men are greatly complex beings. It's true that Linnaean taxonomy underlies botany, but he also taught also that swallows hibernate under lakes; that twelve-foot giants thump about Patagonia; and that the Hottentots are monorchids, possessing a single testicle. They have two. I looked."

Also according to Marinus, Linnaeus did not like disagreement (".. dissenters were heretics whose careers must be crushed.")

Yet Marinus recognizes that Linnaeus greatly influenced his career, and in particular his decision to eschew professorships and spend most of the rest of his life on a Dutch trading station in Nagasaki harbor. Marinus decides not to pursue a career as a professor because "professorships kill philosophers", a lesson he learned from Linneaus, although it is a lesson "of which he himself [Linnaeus] was unaware".

I don't know if any of that is based in fact or if Mitchell had it in for Linnaeus, but there are two interesting general issues here:

Some extremely smart people may be extremely good at one thing, and maybe only for a time, but other than that, they are crazy and/or wrong about most things.

That's a stereotype, but most of us have probably listened to a talk by a Great Name in our field, or had a conversation with one (or been advised by one..) and come away from the experience amazed that such a nutcase had ever done such important work. Few people are brilliant at everything for an entire career.

Does that detract from their (former) greatness? No, but sometimes I wish that some of the great crazies didn't keep getting invited to give talks, as if their new big ideas must be brilliant because their old big ideas were. Perhaps that is cynical and short-sighted of me. Some of the Great Ideas are not appreciated when first proposed and are thought to be wrong and crazy by those too narrow to understand. Yes, but.. the (perhaps fictional) depiction of Linnaeus does resonate.

Some mentors are actually anti-mentors, convincing their mentees (likely unintentionally) to do anything else but be like their supposed mentor.

Even if we are not one of the Great Ones but merely Pretty Good at what we do, and even if we are entirely well-meaning and do not attempt to crush dissenters (including students), a common response to those encountering us will always be "I don't want to be like you".

We are all anti-mentors in some way -- because we work long hours, because we are intense about obscure topics, because we are boring about obscure topics, because our jobs are stressful, and so on. There are many reasons why even we ordinary, non-Linnaean professors might inspire people to move to the other side of the world and take up a non-academic career, no matter what the century and no matter how benign (we think) we are.

I have never believed that the only route to happiness and success for my advisees is if they follow a career exactly like mine, but at the same time, it used to bother me a bit when someone was very explicit about saying "I do not want to be like you", especially if their reasons are unrelated to reality. Later, I realized that there isn't much difference between saying "I think I would find a different kind of career more rewarding" and "I would hate your life". Nowadays, such statements, no matter how directly stated, elicit only a "OK, whatever" from me.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Required Suffering?

An offhand comment in an e-mail from a colleague contained the sentiment that it would be uncool to appear to enjoy the tenure-track and that nowadays it would be "suspicious" if someone made it obvious that they were not suffering before getting tenure.

Does anyone agree with that?

To agree with that opinion, you first have to believe that it is possible to enjoy being an Assistant Professor on the tenure track. Just based on my own experience, I know that it is possible to enjoy work and life before getting tenure. Enjoying your pre-tenure existence doesn't mean you aren't stressed out -- i.e., it doesn't mean you are totally confident and think you are a Gift to Science (or whatever) -- it just means that you aren't miserable most/all of the time, perhaps even questioning why you have devoted so many years to this stressful job that you might lose.

I was somewhat stressed out about getting tenure, especially since I changed institutions (to one with a higher standard for tenure), had a baby, had a series of dysfunctional graduate students and postdocs, and knew that at least one of my tenure letter-writers did not think much of my work. Overall, though, I enjoyed my work and life, and cannot say that I suffered unduly.

Of course I had to publish and get grants and have an international reputation and juggle live flaming iguanas while doing cartwheels, so I don't think the standards or general experience of attaining tenure have changed in the last ~10 years. Nevertheless, I found much to enjoy about my research and teaching, and most of my pre-tenure fellow travelers also seemed to share my mostly-positive attitude.

Have things changed? Would this semi-enjoyment of the pre-tenure life be totally uncool these days?

That is, does anyone agree with my colleague? When I was thinking about this, I wondered if our impressions are colored by the blogosphere. The prevalence of my-tenure-track-life blogs gives us all a much broader exposure to the varied experiences of tenure-track faculty in various fields and at various institutions, and blogs are a good place to rant, vent, complain, express outrage, share the stress etc. (and this blog is obviously no exception).

So, do blogs like this give us a more accurate impression of the tenure-track life or do they amplify the negative, leading some people to conclude that pre-tenure suffering is de rigueur?

There are several questions embedded in this discussion:

(1) Can one enjoy the tenure-track life? I say yes.

(2) Is it uncool or suspicious if you are not visibly suffering? I don't know, but sometimes it seems that way from reading various blogs.

(3) Is the blog-view of the tenure-track life a good representation of the typical experience (especially if you read a lot of blogs) or is the view skewed toward the negative owing to the nature of blogs and the people who write them? I don't know, but can anyone suggest a few mostly-uplifting, I-am-having-fun pre-tenure blogs -- and perhaps also their opposite? That is, which pre-tenure academic bloggers are having the most fun and which are the most miserable? Feel free to nominate your choices of blogs that characterize the ends of the pre-tenure blog spectrum.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Summer Letters

You would think that summer would be a time when I did not have to pore over anyone's CV or read letters of reference and such, but no; not this summer (or last summer or, apparently, next summer).

So, I read 58 letters of reference this summer. For the most part, these were the usual "X is great, blah blah blah" letters, so when there was something a bit different, that something really stood out. For example, after reading one particular letter, I wondered


Bob and his wife have spent many vacations over the years in Bavaria, organizing their walking routes to coincide with the locations of breweries.

Apparently someone does write this kind of thing; I saw it with my own eyes.

Why would I care that Bob likes beery Bavarian rambles, or even that he has a wife? Was the letter writer grasping for things to mention about Bob? Was the letter writer drunk on Bavarian beer when writing the letter? Are we supposed to think that Bob is a cool guy? Oh how we wish we could go hiking in Bavaria with a wife and drink beer, just like Bob?

The Bob-Bavaria-beer statement was completely irrelevant to the purpose of the reference letter. The letters were for moderately senior to very senior professors being nominated for an award related only to research accomplishments. The nominees need not have any hobbies or interests outside of research, and need not have any particular interest in Bavaria or beer. We, the committee reading the letters, need to be convinced that the nominee's research accomplishments are enduring, extensive, and awesome; that's all.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Self-Defense Talks

No, this post is not about the use of illegible fonts, invisible or clashing color schemes, text-filled slides, excessive animations, or even attempts at humor involving anatomical references that some of the men in the audience think are funny but most of the women do not (proving that women have no sense of humor). In the past 8 months, I have been in the audience of two different talks that attempted the latter, and many more that utilized the other design options.

But let's ignore those issues for now. This post concerns one specific aspect of how we answer questions after a talk: defensive question-answering.

Most of us have seen examples of defensive question-answering (or non-answering), but I saw a new variant on it in a recent talk. More than once, when the speaker was asked if he had done X or Y or thought about Z, he replied:

If I'd done/thought of that, I would have mentioned it.

That is a bad answer because it is a non-answer that will impress no one. Some people will assume you don't know the answer, and therefore possibly that your approach is narrow and/or you are not a careful researcher or deep thinker.

Perhaps those inferences are too harsh, based on what might have just been a throwaway line, but I couldn't think of a good reason for the repeated refusal of the speaker to answer thoughtful and polite questions by people seeking to better understand his research methods and results.

Why not answer the questions politely and sincerely, even if you think they are stupid? You could say something like "No, we haven't done that because..". You could even say "No, that won't work because.. [explain]". Be professional, be mature, and toss the question back with some information attached to it if at all possible.

I think these defensive answers would be unimpressive no matter how great the experience or fame of the speaker, but I thought it particularly unwise for an assistant professor to give these non-answers instead of attempting a thoughtful or at least more complete answer. If you are trying to build your reputation, build it from substance, not swaggering remarks.

Even if a question is an aggressive attempt to undermine you or show that your research is incomplete, there are numerous thoughtful and suave ways to answer questions of this sort. Last year, I saw a young professor parry the very aggressive and obnoxious comments of a Big Professor after the young professor's talk at an international meeting. It was impressive. The YP was very calm and polite as he responded to the Big Professor's hostile comments, showing that he (the YP) was right and the BP was wrong. The audience gave the YP a huge round of applause after the questions were over, and many people considered the exchange the highlight of the meeting, in part because of the cool and professional way that the YP dealt with the situation.

If you really have absolutely no idea how to answer a question, you could at least say "No, I haven't done/thought of that. I/we first tried [mention what you've done] because.. etc.". Perhaps you will be repeating what you already said in your talk, but that's OK -- you can turn the question back to what you have done and why you did it, perhaps clarifying the motivation, methods, and results of your research.

You don't have to give a brilliant answer to every question, but a serious answer with substance is preferable to an aggressive non-answer.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Grad Service

Thanks to Wendy P for bringing up an important issue: How much institutional service should graduate students do? (and who should decide this?)

I think it's great if there are graduate students with the maturity, perspective, time, and time-balancing skills to serve effectively on departmental or other committees, providing their insights and, in some cases, gaining valuable career experience. As long as the time commitments are not onerous, graduate students (and everyone) can benefit from their participation in committees that oversee/organize graduate programs, hiring, seminars, and other activities related to the operation and governance of academic units.

It can be good preparation for a later career if a graduate student successfully serves on such committees and gains the respect of those involved; such service can also result in a useful line or two in a reference letter about the student's 'broader' activities beyond their thesis research ± teaching. Faculty have to do service work, so it can be useful for a graduate student (or postdoc) to get experience with it early on, especially for those contemplating an academic career.

But what if a student gets involved in more time-consuming institutional service, including committees beyond the department? No student should be compelled to do more service work than is the norm for their department, but some students want to be involved in graduate student organizations and committees at the university level. Others are asked to be involved in committees at the institutional level. These activities can benefit the students and it might even be important for their future careers to have such experiences. I suppose that if a student finds that s/he enjoys service work more than research, that can be important information..

Nevertheless, the first priority of the student and adviser is to make sure that time spent on these activities does not unduly slow progress towards degree. If the student's research progress is demonstrably slowed by participation in service activities, everyone needs to have a talk about priorities, funding timelines, research deadlines, career goals, and so on. It's not worth it to anyone if a student's funding runs out because of time-sucking committee work, even if the work is important and interesting.

It sounds like that is exactly what Wendy P has done with her group. I'm always impressed when I hear about an example of good communication between advisers and students, working together to find the right balance of time and focus. In that particular case, it's possible that the administrators inviting grad students to participate in university service activities might not be aware of the impact of the time commitment on the research progress of the students. Perhaps the administrators are so removed from research (particularly lab-based science research) and the realities of grad student life these days that they aren't aware of the negative effect that time-consuming university committees can have on their student members (and others).

In the case of significant time commitment for university-level service work, potentially resulting in a prolongation of a graduate student's time-to-degree, the adviser's choices are: (1) ask the student to quit the committee(s) or at least scale back the time involved, if possible; (2) compel the student to quit the committee(s) (because funding will run out otherwise); or (3) get institutional commitment (department or beyond) for at least some financial support of a student who is devoting significant time to the institution while being paid from the adviser's grant.

Has anyone used any of these options -- or others -- when a situation arises in which students devote a significant amount of time (that would otherwise be spend on their thesis research) on service work?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Tenure/Snake Dilemma

Last week's post on Tenure and how certain media outlets choose to portray the issues related to tenure reminded me of an incident and made me wonder about the role of tenure in our daily lives.

My decision to write about this incident and cast it in a tenure context also made me wonder whether I may have finally reached a pinnacle of bizarreness with this blog, but I shall not let such concerns deter me from presenting, for discussion, a Tenure/Snake Dilemma. My secret desire is that this anecdote will one day become part of the "ethics" training most of us must now endure.

Some context: Numerous media outlets seem to like to portray the Pursuit of Tenure as a very delicate undertaking, possibly undermined by the slightest of slights against a senior (voting) colleague. If we don't laugh at their jokes, share their hobbies, agree with their opinions on topics of debate in and beyond faculty meetings, and do their bidding when it comes to committee work, research collaborations, and/or teaching, our chances for tenure are doomed, or at least seriously imperiled. If tenure can be denied for such petty and political reasons, tenure must be a flawed concept that is harmful to so-called 'academic freedom' that is frequently mentioned as the reason why professors need tenure.

This view of tenure does not match my experiences nor that of any of my close colleagues at a wide range of institutions. Perhaps it happens somewhere (in fact, someone I know in an education-related field is having tenure-pursuit experiences that would be surreal in my department or related science/engineering departments), but I don't think such situations are the norm.

Even so, before we get tenure, we do make decisions about our activities and speech in the context of being as-yet tenureless. Even though we know that we don't actually have to sit and politely listen to a senior colleague tell us how tanned and muscular he looks without a shirt [true story], and we would still (probably) get tenure even if we retched on his (leather) shoes, we may nevertheless be a bit more polite, quiet, and nice before tenure is secured.

With that in mind, consider the following real but not-entirely-serious situation, and decide whether you would make the same decision about the given scenario before vs. after tenure:

A particular person, who is professor of a non-biological science, is extremely phobic about snakes.* This person is terrified of snakes and, although appreciating from afar the valuable role they play in the ecosystem, does not ever want to see one or knowingly be within 50 m of one, not even if the snake is secured in some sort of escape-proof snake habitat. This person cannot even look at pictures of snakes without shuddering and feeling sick.

This same person is very fond of cats.

This snake-o-phobe, felinophile has a senior colleague who is also a neighbor. That is, these two people work in the same department at the same university and also live near each other.

They occasionally trade cat-care when one of them is away. The snake-o-phobe adores the colleague's cat and is happy to take care of this very affectionate and charismatic beast.

Imagine that at a particular time in the summer, the colleague planned to go away on vacation and needed some cat care. The felinophile agreed to take care of the cat.

Then, almost as an aside, the colleague sends an e-mail that says: "Oh by the way, we also now have a snake. You will need to change his/her water** and you may also need to go to the pet store and get a freshly killed mouse to feed the snake."

Question for discussion, keeping in mind the intense level of snake-phobia of the person in question and imagining that this is you, even if you think snakes are beautiful and interesting and you long to get a pit viper as a pet (and/or you already have one):

Do you take care of the snake despite your horror of it? Does your agreeing vs. declining to take care of the snake have anything to do with your tenure status and your wish to be agreeable to your senior colleague?

Is there anyone who would say yes if you did not have tenure and no if you did? Or would you say no, even if untenured, because you don't believe that the tenure system is so warped that refusal to take care of a colleague's snake would make him turn against you in the tenure vote?

Sorry, but saying yes because you are really eager to work on your snake phobia and/or you just want to be a good neighbor is not a realistic or acceptable answer in this situation. You can, however, say yes and then find someone else to do the job for you, but that answer would be boring, even though it is what the person in question actually did.

* As a youth, this person did not mind snakes and even sought them out, thinking they were kind of cool. This person then had a sustained experience living in a place with many many poisonous snakes, some of which entered the home of this person on a routine basis so that s/he never knew when there would be lethal snakes under the bed or sitting on a chair, as happened from time to time. A snake phobia, acquired during this time of extreme snake interaction, became well entrenched through multiple terrifying encounters with snakes and the observation of horrifying things that happened to friends and neighbors who were bitten by snakes, and it has not abated over the years.

** This is not some weird "let's not specify the gender of the snake" thing; the neighbor-colleague wrote "his/her" because he does not know if the snake is a he or a she***.

*** Comments explaining how to tell male from female snakes are not welcome.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Selling Short

Not long ago, I was in a dining establishment with a certain colleague. We were not particularly close to campus, but current and former students are everywhere, so it was not surprising when a young man walked over to our table and informed my colleague that he had taken my colleague's large Science 101 class 5 years ago.

The young man went on to enthuse about what a great class it had been and how much he'd learned. Nice!

When I have been in similar situations, I just say thanks, I'm glad you liked it, it's a fun class to teach, and I ask what they are up to these days etc. My colleague said some of those things, but then he went on to muse about how he really knew very little about the topic he'd been teaching and in fact had had to do a huge amount of work to get up to speed on the material in order to be able to teach it.

This was mostly true. The department chair at the time had a penchant for giving this colleague rather onerous teaching assignments, including several new courses and this particular course, which was outside my colleague's research expertise. [For more on the general topic of teaching outside one's expertise, see an old post about whether faculty can/should be able to teach any course in their general field]

My colleague did a huge amount of preparation work when teaching this course. When he thinks about teaching that course, that is what he remembers. So he shared that with his former student.

I have absolutely no problem admitting to a student or an entire class that I don't know something or that I am not the world's #1 authority on a topic. There are various ways to admit to lack of knowledge; e.g., "I don't know but let's see if we can figure it out", "I don't know but here are some possible ideas/explanations", or "I don't know but I know how we can find out [explain]".

I don't think, however, that I would say or imply to a class or student, even after the fact, that I was just one step ahead of them in terms of the subject material. Although that's how my colleague felt at times, that perception ignores the fact that he had a lot of expertise in related fields, and this broad knowledge allowed him to learn what he needed in order to teach the class well. Giving the impression that he just read ahead in the textbook so he could teach the next set of facts or concepts misrepresented his level of expertise.

In fact, the student looked a bit startled when informed that his professor actually felt like he didn't know what he was talking about some/much of the time.

We don't have to pretend to be all-knowing infallible Science Gods, but at the same time, we shouldn't sell ourselves short in terms of what we know. It might be kind of interesting for some students to know what goes into teaching a course -- i.e., most of us don't just stand up there with little or no preparation and empty our brains on the topic o' the day, even in our field of expertise -- but we also should recognize that our years of experience do count for something and help us when asked to teach something a bit outside our research specialty.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Top Loading

Most novels have unmemorable opening lines. Some, however, are eternally memorable, either because they are very good or very bad.

There is one opening line in particular that I have always found very strange:

Nuns go by as quiet as lust, and drunken men and sober eyes sing in the lobby of the Greek hotel.
- Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye

I was incredulous when I first read that, lo these many years ago. I thought it was the strangest first line of a novel ever, and I have never forgotten it.

One of my all-time favorite opening lines is:

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.
- Samuel Beckett, Murphy

When I first read that bleak line, also many years ago, I thought it was amazing, despite being a generally cheerful and optimistic person. It doesn't have the same impact on me these days, but I still remember the feeling of first reading it.

But what about the first lines of research articles or books?

Do you try to make your very first line -- of the abstract, of the introduction -- compelling, or do you take a more holistic approach, hoping that the reader will get through at least the first few sentences, or paragraphs, and, through the cumulative effect of several informative or interesting statements, get sucked into the rest of the paper, chapter, or book?

That is, how much do you try to pack into the first sentence?

Do you use the first sentence for giving context for your own work or do you dive straight into your most awesome result(s) and build the context around that in subsequent sentences?

I was recently working on the first sentence of a paper and was reminded, for no particular reason, of the days when my daughter was an infant and my husband and I carried a backpack that had all sorts of stuff in it that we might need on excursions, however, brief. Whenever we put things into the pack, we tried to organize it so that the items we might need first or most often or most quickly were the most accessible, but that actually described 90% of the items in the bag. We used to joke that everything had to be at the top of the bag.

When writing a first sentence, it is tempting to put everything on top of the bag. The perfect first sentence of a research article would have both the context and the coolest results in it, yet be reasonably short, very understandable, and of course compelling. Some topics lend themselves to this more than others.

In the manuscript I wrote recently, I decided to devote the first sentence to setting up the research question, and the second sentence to my awesome results. This seems to work OK, but I can't help wishing that I could combine them into one perfect (but short) sentence.

Can you think of any particularly good or particularly bad (or otherwise memorable) first lines in research articles, chapters, or books?

And then there is the issue of the title. To colonize or not to colonize: that is another question.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Survey of Impact Criteria in Peer Review

Last week, an e-mail arrived from someone who is

"..part of a research team conducting a National Science Foundation-sponsored study that may be of interest to visitors to your website. It concerns the comparative analysis of the grant proposal peer review processes at six public research funding agencies (http://csid-capr.unt.edu/)."

The current phase of this group's research at the University of North Texas includes an online survey of Impact Criteria in Peer Review. I have been asked to help advertise this survey.

Click here to participate in the survey. It takes about 20 minutes to complete, maybe more if you spend a lot of time pondering the complexities of the questions and possible responses.

After establishing some things about you and your employment status, the survey asks you to indicate which funding agencies are relevant to your life, and in what capacity you have been involved in these agencies.

And then: In your opinion, who should be involved in the peer review process and decision-making? Peer academics, international academics, funding agency officials, other government officials, industry people, "lay" people of the US or other countries, those most affected by your research?

The weirdest part is a series of statements about the philosophy of research and its impact on society. You are supposed to say whether you think your funding agency's "orientation" agrees or disagrees with some statements, e.g. "There ARE NO SIGNIFICANT BENEFITS to society from public funding of scientific/technical research." Strongly agree? No opinion? Strongly disagree? (and some intermediate choices)

Technology happens, society must adapt. Agree.. or not?

And then answer those same questions for what you think the LAY PUBLIC thinks. Is this a measure of how cynical we are?

Another question deals with how we think GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS (and others) value "instrumental" vs. "intrinsic" research.

And yet another: Can the intrinsic value of research be measured? I suppose everything can be measured, but does the measurement mean anything?

That's Part 1, which the survey authors admit is a bit "abstract".

In Part 2, which does not need to be completed, survey responders give their opinions (on a scale of 1-100) about some inventions selected in 2009 by Time Magazine as the most important ones of the previous year. You also guess what the average answer was from "the public" who read the Time article and responded online with their votes. You can see how your guesses correspond to the data by requesting the results via e-mail.

I did not find the survey particularly illuminating, but I wonder what will be done with the results of this survey and the evaluation of the results.

Feel free to leave additional comments here on the FSP blog if you have thoughts and ideas to share about the survey or the issues it seeks to evaluate. Is this a good way to determine what researchers think the public thinks about federally funded research? What should be done with such data?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Breathing Room

The Sunday Styles section of The New York Times yesterday has an essay by a woman who is part of a 2-career academic couple of English professors. Or, I should say that she was a part of an academic couple until her husband was denied tenure at his college, and thereafter reinvented himself (quite happily) in a career in "investing".

Most of the essay describes the history of this couple as an academic pair. Most of it sounds rather familiar, including that the couple spends some time living apart with jobs at different institutions until finally, luckily, they both get academic jobs near each other.

What also sounded familiar were the concerns of hiring committees and departments about the academic coupleness of these people. The author, Caroline Bicks, gets an interview for a position, but before the campus visit:

..a professor of mine confided that a member of the interview team had contacted him about my candidacy and asked, “Is the husband going to be a problem?”

The wife, however, does not seem to be a problem for the husband:

No one on his interview committees seemed to be sniffing around for info on his “problem” wife. Maybe they assumed that men put their careers first, or that women are less serious about theirs. It felt as if my wedding ring was a hurdle I had to clear to prove my commitment to academia, while Brendon’s was a badge of stability and good-guy gravitas.

Actually, that is different from my husband's experience back when we were applying and interviewing for jobs. He was asked about me at more than one interview. I was definitely seen as a potential problem. Hooray for equal-opportunity unethical questioning by hiring committees?

During her interviews, Bicks also made sure not to seem "too eager to have children any time soon."

I know other women have been asked directly about actual and potential children, but I was never asked about this during interviews. When some interviewers started talking to me about schools in the area, I wondered if they had ulterior motives, but in most cases I think they were people with families and were genuinely trying to give me useful information in case I got the job.

The author's life in an academic couple then veers in a new direction when her husband is denied tenure "Despite a teaching award, a book contract and extreme collegiality". That's rather chilling, but the story has a happy ending for this couple:

Still, it turns out that being two separate bodies has its advantages. For one, it’s given us a lot more breathing room, since we aren’t endlessly comparing our jobs, progress and institutions. And with distance comes perspective. Watching Brendon’s successful reinvention has pushed me to try new kinds of writing — to tell my own stories, and not just Shakespeare’s.

I suppose my husband and I compare our jobs and career progress to some extent, but I don't feel competitive in any way, nor stifled by the fact that we are in the same field. I do not need any "breathing room", and I enjoy the benefits that come from being married to someone who totally 'gets' my job and my professional life.

Strangest of all is the last sentence of the essay -- the last sentence in the excerpt above. I suppose we can all find creativity in the strangest of places, motivated by various unexpected events in our lives, but the implication is that the lack of "breathing room" in an academic couple might somehow stifle creativity(?).

If you are in an academic couple, and especially if you and your significant other are in the same general academic discipline, where do you fall in the spectrum between 'my significant other totally gets my job and professional life' (and that's great) and 'we are endlessly comparing our careers and progress' (and this is stressful/stifling)?

Perhaps most people are somewhere in between, or perhaps the answer varies with time and career stage, but how does it balance out for you?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Slate Takes On Tenure

The latest rant against tenure is in Slate.com. I have nothing against such discussions. Tenure, what it means, who gets it, and how it is gotten are important topics to debate and (re)consider from time to time. Any discussion of tenure, however, would benefit from accurate information.

The Slate.com article (by Christopher Beam) starts with a cute analogy. Imagine if cooks and waiters in a restaurant could not be fired! And not only that, but "they can say anything they want.. publicly and without fear of retribution." If it sounds absurd in a restaurant context, how can it possibly make sense in academia? I'm not sure, but maybe it's because a university is not a restaurant?

I learned from this article that lots of people want to get rid of tenure, even professors who are "constrained by its conventions". We would much rather have constant job insecurity.

Tenure is not cost effective for universities: "Keeping a professor around indefinitely.. simply costs a lot." In fact, we each cost our university $10-12.2 million over 35 years after getting tenure. You do the math and figure out if the numbers quoted in this article apply to you, factoring in institutional contributions to benefits.

I think it's a cheap shot to mention how much it costs to pay someone over a 35 year career. And it's strange not to mention the alternatives: e.g., hiring adjuncts at low salaries with lousy benefits and no job security.

Paying professors is really inconvenient for university budgets: ".. because most universities pay tenured professors out of their endowments, each professor freezes up tens of millions in otherwise-liquid endowment money for a generation." Are you paid from your university endowment, sucking the economic life out of your institution, providing only highly skilled labor in return?

It really is too bad that universities have to pay professors at all. It is true that it is customary for people, highly skilled or not, to be paid for their work, but it would be so much better if professors would work only for the privilege of having a small office with erratic climate control and a few friendly rodents. "The life of the mind is its own reward" (according to the article).

"If the average university tenured about 15 fewer professors, they'd be in the black."

Professors are standing in the way of balanced budgets!

Then there are some other paragraphs that can be summarized as follows: academic freedom is a joke, even tenured faculty are too afraid to speak up about controversial topics so tenure isn't even needed, tenure discourages intellectual flexibility and interdisciplinary research, tenure makes professors lazy.

Most of this fascinating insight and authoritative information comes from Professor Mark C. Taylor, chair of the Department of Religion at Columbia University, and author of a book that will come out soon and break the news that tenure is bad.

If you can't be fired, what's to stop you from refusing to teach "an extra course"? "I honestly don't know what a lot of academics do a lot of the time," says Taylor.

The only thing stopping me from teaching "an extra course" is that I am too busy teaching my regular classes + graduate seminars, doing research, advising graduate and undergraduate students, mentoring postdocs, writing papers and proposals, giving talks at conferences and other universities, organizing speaker series, serving on committees, editing a journal, reviewing papers and proposals... and so on. I am not unusual (in this respect). Don't they do at least some of these things in the religion department at Columbia University? How can someone write a book on academia and have no idea what "a lot of academics" do with their time?

How can someone not factor research grants or the contributions to society of research of all sorts into the equation when discussing what professors bring to a university? It seems that we just take, take, take.

Would a system of renewable contracts really allow professors to break out of the "publish or perish" mania? Methinks it might have even the opposite effect. If there were no tenure, the rat race would never end. And, since academia is apparently equivalent to a customer service industry, consider what renewable contracts for advisers would do to their graduate students and postdocs, not to mention the research infrastructure that we build in part from grants and in part from our institutions, and use to train our advisees.

Another person cited in the article seems a bit more informed about academia and what ails it than Professor Taylor. Cathy Trower of Harvard University provides some ideas for "reworking" the tenure system without abolishing it:

"Create a tenure track that explicitly rewards teaching. Give interdisciplinary centers the authority to produce tenured professors. Allow for breaks in the tenure track if a professor needs to take time off. Offer the option of part-time tenure, a lower-cost alternative for professors who want to hold other jobs. In other words, make tenure flexible rather than a monolithic, in-or-out club."

Those ideas are worth discussing. Some of them solve problems, foster positive change in academia, and benefit faculty and students. I suppose they are a bit boring for general readers of online magazines, but it was a relief to see that paragraph at the end of the otherwise appalling article.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Run With It

Have you ever voluntarily given away a good idea? I just did. I didn't do it out of altruism, although it's OK with me if the recipient of my idea thinks that.

I gave this idea away knowing that the person to whom I mentioned it might take it and run with it without me, but hoping that he would instead provide one little thing I needed to follow through with the idea myself or that he would at least express an interest in collaborating on the research related to testing my idea. In fact, he said "Great idea. I'll work on that and let you know how it turns out."

OK, that's fine. It isn't such an awesome idea that I am emotionally and professionally shattered by having someone else work on it. It just would have been fun. I could have worked on it without this guy, but it would have taken me a long time to get set up to do the research, whereas he, now that he has My Idea, can do the work rather quickly. I am sincerely looking forward to finding out the results, even if they are acquired by someone else.

I should also mention that this person is an assistant professor whose tenure evaluation is starting to loom. If this idea works out, it may help his career in some way. I hope it does.

Nevertheless, this incident started me thinking about what I would have done in a similar situation. The passage of years since my professorial youth has perhaps blurred my memory of what it was like to be an assistant professor, but the feeling of tenure anxiety is a rather visceral one that I don't think I have entirely forgotten.

So, I may be giving myself more credit than I am due, but I think that I would have taken the collaborative approach if given a good idea to run with. I think that I would have asked the giver if they wanted to collaborate, and, if they did, worked out a way to do so.

But everyone is different in terms of their interest and ability to collaborate. Collaborating has been a major feature of my career, and, for whatever reason, perhaps it isn't for the Recipient of My Idea. Maybe that's just how he prefers to work. Maybe he is concerned about getting maximum credit for his research.

What would you do if given a good research idea? (whatever your career stage)

Would you ever give away a good idea?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Playing Tag

As many of you know, I am not good at labeling/tagging my posts, and this makes searches a bit difficult. I have therefore been slowly organizing some categories and adding a few tags here and there, but progress this summer has been slow. But I want to reform and become a better tagger in the future and to fix some of my past lapses.

Perhaps you can help me come up with tags that would be most useful for you. I have started using one for posts that discuss interactions between advisers and students, called simply "adviser-student". Other obvious tags are "reviewing" (perhaps with separate categories for papers and proposals?), "teaching", "tenure", "cats". I have taken some inspiration from other blogs, so I have a working list, but it would be most helpful to have direct feedback from people who might actually use these tags in this particular blog.

Please give me suggestions!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

No Academic Magic

The novel, That Old Cape Magic, by Richard Russo, has a rather disturbing portrait of an academic couple who spend years wallowing in bitterness because they ended up with faculty positions at a large state university in the Midwest instead of at a more prestigious private university on their beloved East Coast. If an Ivy League faculty position was not possible, they would have settled for a small elite private college on the East Coast. But it was not to be.

Betrayed. That was how they felt. Why go to Cornell, to Yale, if Indiana was your reward?

Of course the novel is a bit over-the-top in a Russoesque way, and this grotesque couple are supposed to inspire contempt. They are also apparently lousy parents, although that's kind of complicated.

In real life, a possible reaction to this faculty couple's situation of getting jobs together at a good university, especially at a time when faculty couples were more rare than they are today, is: Great! They got jobs in the same place! Lucky!

In fact, at one point they both had separate offers at small private East Coast colleges, but not together, and they decide to stay together, at least at the time of their other job offers. Is that a touching portrait of choosing love over career? Maybe this acrimonious couple is more complex than the way they are portrayed in the book, primarily by their son?

It's interesting that this fictional couple initially tries to make the best of it in Indiana. They

..hunker down and .. dove into teaching and research and committee work, hoping to bolster their vitae so that when the academic winds changed they'd be ready.

That's kind of commendable, despite the unsavory aspects of constantly striving to leave a place they view as inferior.

Ultimately, though, these characters are loathsome. Part of what makes them so bitter is that the academic winds never do change for them, although they work extremely hard and even reinvent themselves. One of the more offensive parts of this parody of academics is when the woman in the academic couple delves into gender-studies and semi-pretends to be a lesbian because she thinks it is in the interest of her career to do so, gender-studies apparently consisting mostly of lesbians. According to the main character (the son of the bitter couple), academic lesbians are "a grim, angry, humorless lot", although he meets some fun ones at a wedding.

I am a big Russo fan, but there is much to dislike in this portrayal of academics, and women of all sorts.

The absolute worst book I have read this summer, bar none (academic or not), is Commencement. It seems like it has been a while since I read a good novel involving a college campus or academic people (faculty, students, or staff). It has been particularly long since I read one with academic characters who were likable, despite the fact that academia is populated with very likable people (says me).

Has anyone read any recent academic novels (even if academia is not the focal point) that they would recommend? Perhaps the one that has come closest to being entertaining in my recent reads is Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz, although I soon wearied of the soliloquies by the beleaguered, misunderstood, and emotionally stunted (Ivy League) admissions officer.

I have one more trip before the start of the academic year, and would welcome suggestions for another book to bring along in addition to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell, one of my all-time absolute favorite authors whose new book I have been looking forward to reading as an end-of-summer treat.

Monday, August 09, 2010


Owing to the apparent youth of much of the academic segment of the blogosphere, it is not difficult to find posts by assistant professors describing their activities and thoughts during various stages of preparation of CAREER proposals, and their elation/dejection upon receiving news of NSF's decision.

My own CAREER grant expired long (long) ago, and now my primary experience with the CAREER program is as a reviewer of proposals and as an occasional mentor (in real life) to colleagues who are preparing their own such proposals.

Fellow reviewers of CAREER proposals (or whatever equivalent there might be in the NIH university): let's discuss how we go about reviewing these things.

If you have reviewed one or more CAREER proposals, do you:

1. Ignore the fact that these proposals are a bit different from regular NSF proposals, even though you know better, and review them much as you would any proposal (perhaps accounting somewhat for the relative career youth of the PI). That is, do you mostly ignore all the extra educational components of the proposal and focus on the Science?

2. Pay some attention to the education and/or outreach plan, but focus mostly on the Science?

3. Give serious (perhaps equal) thought to the plan for educational/outreach activities, provide detailed comments on these in your review, and factor in your opinion of these in your overall rating of the proposal?

- Other..?

From what I've seen through various intersections with the CAREER program over the years, different fields have different philosophies about these grants and how important they are. I think everyone agrees that it is a good thing to get these grants, owing in part to their being of longer duration (up to 5 years) than a typical grant (2-3 years). There seem, however, to be differences in practice about when to submit the proposal, e.g.:

The CAREER grant can/should be the first grant obtained by an assistant professor, and therefore should be applied for early, even if the individual has no previous grant track record,


A CAREER proposal should be submitted after there is some grant track record, even if after only one other NSF grant.

And I have heard rumors of fields or subfields in which a CAREER grant is essential for tenure at some institutions, but I have not seen evidence that these rumors apply to anyone I know or to any department at my university as long as there is otherwise a solid record of funding.

When I review a CAREER proposal, I certainly look at the required education/outreach parts and I like to see a sincere effort with this part of the proposal, but I must admit that I think it is asking a bit much of assistant professors to have a particularly sophisticated plan. It's great when someone really does have a creative and detailed plan, but, as long as there seems to have been a sincere effort with this part of the proposal, I don't penalize PIs whose broader impacts aren't awesome. That doesn't mean I don't value education or outreach; it just means that I think we have to be reasonable about expectations for already overburdened early-career faculty at research universities.

So, I guess I'm mostly a #2 in the list above, with the caveat that the education/outreach plan has to have some substance to it. After all, that is part of what distinguishes this grant from others, and partly what justifies the longer duration.

Another issue arises when reviewing CAREER proposals from faculty at different types of institutions. This is a general issue when reviewing proposals from, say, faculty at research universities vs. faculty at small liberal arts colleges, but it's a particular issue for CAREER proposals because the education activities might be more of an expected and valued part of the job for some faculty than for others. I actually don't think it's a major big-deal issue because we routinely deal with these types of differences n reviewing proposals, but perhaps someone disagrees with that opinion?

So, how do you review CAREER proposals?

Friday, August 06, 2010

Metablogging Interlude

Sorry for the self-absorbed metablogpost today, but I was thinking about Blog Things during my week-long blog break last week and wanted to write about a few of these issues and questions:

1. Did I miss blogging during my blog-break?

Yes, but not as much as in previous years when I have taken a week off from blogging.

2. What does that mean?

I don't think I am burned out on blogging yet. During my week off, I thought about a lot of things that I wanted to discuss in the blog, so I have topics I want to write about and discuss. Blogging is still (mostly) fun.

I have found, though, that I still hear a persistent voice squawking anticipated comments at me while I am writing a post. I've written before about how this is helpful because it makes me work hard to be as clear as possible about the content and tone of my post (although, as the comments inevitably demonstrate, there is no avoiding some ambiguity and misunderstanding). This second-guessing is also annoying, though, and I have to work at not writing defensive-sounding posts as I anticipate the inevitable comments from those who think 'feminazi' is a really clever insult and from those who think that all professors are evil selfish jerks whose main goal in life is to torture hardworking students, ideally while we arrogant professors are raking in a high salary, not teaching, and taking lots of vacations.

I don't want to become a person who feels contempt for my readers, even the most ignorant and mean ones, because that's not a good place to be. Upon reflection, I decided that I have maintained a mostly optimistic view of the slice of humanity that comments on blogs, despite the at-times high level of incivility and mean-spiritedness.

3. Do I want to stay in my little corner of Blogspot or do I want to move somewhere else and be part of a science blogging community?

"You can hide on your own little Blogspot blog." -- Bora

Gosh, I didn't even realize I was hiding. Now that I know, should I do something about it?

That was (somewhat mean-spirited) sarcasm, but this is a question I have been pondering: What are the pros and cons of being in a (possibly more high profile) blog community?

In no particular order, some possible issues:

Blog Traffic: Bloggers in blogging communities get more traffic. Do I care about the magnitude of my blog traffic? Yes and no. I am not particularly concerned about this, but I do care a bit. This blog sort of has the mission of Explaining Academia from the point of view of a mid-career professor at a research university, and to the extent that such a goal is useful, more blog traffic is good. At the same time, though, I don't feel any great blog-zeal about upping my numbers, as long as they are not so low as to make this endeavor a not-good use of my time.

Audience: A significant number of my posts are about general academic issues, not just related to being a Science Professor. I like being in a general environment of more-or-less my own design, discussing things with academics (and others) of all sorts, not just other science people. Would non-scientists still find and read my blog if I were in a science blogging collective? I don't know the answer to that. How many of you non-scientist readers regularly read ScienceBlogs or others of that ilk?

Independence: I know that bloggers in the various blog communities can write about whatever they want, but they have to mostly like the overall sponsoring organization or group and its philosophy, perhaps in a way that is more direct than any feelings I may have about Blogspot's overlord (Google). See: Recent Angst-Laden Exodus from ScienceBlogs by Various Bloggers. Also, blogging groups such as ScienceBlogs and others are monetized; many have ads. I do not want ads popping up around my blog posts. Bloggers who make $ pegged to their blog traffic are also open to accusations that they write incendiary posts just to get their traffic up. Their motives are suspect, even if that is not a fair judgment in many cases.

Community: This is the most appealing reason for considering being part of a blogging collective (along with the possibility of having a much more awesome blog banner), but I haven't really wrapped my blog-mind around it yet because I already feel like I'm part of a community of sorts. Maybe I am delusional, but I don't feel like I am in some remote bloggy wilderness while the other science bloggers are in some cozy blog-camp toasting marshmallows and singing blog songs together. Nevertheless, would it be more fun to blog, at least part-time, in the same venue as other bloggers I like and admire? Maybe it would, or, since I don't actually know the answer to this question, maybe I should at least try it.

4. How long will I keep blogging? Is the end in sight?

Often I get requests for topics I have already discussed, in part because the archive is now quite large and it's hard to sift through the ever-growing pile to find relevant old posts. Do I want to spend my blog-future going over the same old topics, even if they are perpetually relevant to new crops of academics/readers? No.. but I also don't mind revisiting some topics from time to time, especially if my subsequent experiences have given me a different perspective or I have new anecdotes to describe.

Even so, perhaps it would be more interesting if I left new discussion of these issues to other bloggers, young and old. Perhaps there should be more turnover in the blogosphere?

This is yet another blog-question for which I have no answer. Four years ago, I never imagined I would still be doing this, so maybe it's better to just take it one blog-day at a time and not have a long-term plan.

5. Are my cats still the cutest, most entertaining and affectionate felines on the planet? Is my daughter still an amazing, happy, interesting person even though she is a teenager and somehow has become taller than her mother? Will my husband ever stop acquiring new bicycles and bike-gizmos? Is my job still extremely fun and rewarding despite the 60+ hour work weeks and the crazy colleagues and accountants, and the dreaded faculty meetings?

Yes, yes, no, and yes.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Man Boy(cott)?

At various times in this blog, I have described professional events such as conference sessions, workshops, and speaker series in which there are no invited women speakers. The audience might consist of 30-50% women, especially if students and postdocs are in attendance, but every invited speaker is male. It is easier to explain the occurrence of such situations if there are a limited number of invited speaker slots in a field with few women researchers; it becomes more difficult when there are a dozen or more invited speaker slots and more than a few women researchers in that field.

There are a number of possible explanations for the absence of women as invited speakers at these events: e.g., deliberate exclusion because the organizers don't respect women researchers, accidental/unthinking exclusion because the organizers just didn't think of any 'qualified' women, or despite-best-efforts exclusion when all invited women decline an invitation. In today's post, I don't want to discuss which of these explanations is most likely, as the answer to that will vary from event to event and from field to field. I would, however, like to discuss the question:

Does an all-men speaker slate influence your decision about whether to attend these events?

Let's assume that there are women doing interesting research in the fields relevant to these events and "there are no women" is not a valid reason for the absence of invited speakers who are women. So: If you saw that there was, say, a small conference or workshop on a topic of interest to you and/or others in your research group, but every organizer and every invited speaker was male, is the absence of women:

(1) a total non-issue? The only thing that matters is whether the topic is relevant and interesting, and whether you and/or your advisees will benefit from attending or otherwise participating in the event.

(2) disappointing, but what can you do? You can't avoid all such events or you would severely limit your professional interactions, and you don't really know why there are no women speakers. You therefore attend anyway, despite feeling uncomfortable about being at yet another event in which a group of men expound on their research to an audience consisting of women who supposedly will one day start populating the higher faculty ranks of academia, even though it is taking an extremely long time for this to happen.

(3) a reason for boycotting the event? What kind of message does it send to your advisees if they go to an event on Interesting Topic X and get the impression that no women are doing interesting research on this topic, even though it's not difficult for you to think of some? If you make a decision to avoid such an event, would you tell the organizers why you decided not to attend?

The gender of invited speakers should not matter. It does not matter to the research, and it does not matter to the quality of an invited talk. It does matter, however, when there is a systematic imbalance that doesn't have a good explanation.

If men-only speaker slates bother you, what can you do about this other than boycott such workshops and sessions?

You can organize workshops and sessions and think broadly about who would give an interesting talk, focusing not just on your impression of how famous someone is, but on what their research contributions are.

I believe that if decisions about invited speakers are made based on a person's research contributions and ideas and not on perception of prestige, then there will naturally be women included in any group in most fields. There would be no need to go out and find a token women just to have one in the list of speakers for the sake of diversity. Women speakers would be invited because they have interesting things to say.

That doesn't seem like such a radical goal, but, based on the last few session/workshop advertisements I have read, it seems to be a very difficult thing to achieve.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Family Ties

Based on my own experiences at various universities, the accounts of colleagues at yet other universities, and what I have gleaned from the instructions that accompany tenure dossiers that I am sent to evaluate, it seems that different institutions have different policies regarding how publications and grants are counted for tenure. For example, policies seem to vary as to whether publications and grants are considered in the tenure evaluation if they stem from Ph.D. research and involve the former adviser(s) as co-authors or co-PIs.

The variations I have seen are (1) everything counts; (2) only those items that post-date the start of the tenure-track appointment count; and (3) only those items that post-date the start of the tenure-track appointment and that do not have ex-advisers as co-authors count. Everything goes on the CV, but what is actually considered in the tenure evaluation may vary.

I was thinking about this recently because I have a new project and collaborative grant with one of my former graduate students, now a professor. We got the grant a couple of years after she completed her Ph.D. and it is a completely new research project, only slightly related to her Ph.D. research. We just started the project, but of course we hope that publications and perhaps future grants will result.

I told my ex-student/now-colleague to find out exactly what the policy is at her university re. what counts for tenure. I am sure there will be a way to explain that this is a new project, even though it involves an old adviser. I am not worried at all that our collaboration will harm my former student's tenure case in the future because she has other grants and independent projects, so she's going to have a strong record and an impressive reputation for her own work no matter what the policy of her university.

But I wondered: In a more marginal case or in a case of a very strict definition of what counts for tenure, is it possibly a bad thing to collaborate with a former student before they get tenure?

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Reviewer Know Thyself

A manuscript that was submitted earlier this summer was recently returned from review, and lucky for us there were many positive comments about the work. There were also some very negative comments from one particular reviewer.

This reviewer, who indicated his identity in the review and recommended that we cite more ofpapers his , didn't really care about the cosmic implications of our work. He focused intensely on one particular method. He wrote in detail about the assumptions of this method, giving us a little tutorial about the method we used. Apparently his research is an excellent example of the appropriate uses of this method. Apparently, our research is deeply flawed.

We disagreed with every one of his comments, and wrote a detailed response letter to the editor, who accepted the paper.

By complete coincidence, as part of an entirely different project, some colleagues and I found ourselves revisiting the research of this reviewer, including the specific subject of the paper he held up as an awesome example of the appropriate use of the method in question. We had not intended to check into his research so closely, and the timing of his review relative to our delving into his research was unintentional.

Nevertheless, the term 'house of cards' kept coming to mind as we delved. Many of the issues that the reviewer raised as problems with our application of the method were present at similar or more serious levels in his own work.

I think that his work still has a lot of merit. The study he did was important and the resulting publication is interesting. Nevertheless, it was extremely hypocritical of him to take our manuscript apart as he did, and hold us to a higher (impossible) level of purity -- a level he himself did not even approach in his own work.

I don't know this reviewer well, so I have no insight into the psychological aspects of his review. Does he really think that his paper lacks the flaws he sees in ours or does he know this but prefers to pretend otherwise?

Is it ever reasonable for a reviewer to hold others to a higher standard?

In fact, in some cases it is. For example, early studies to explore a new method or a question may be a bit rough; later work should improve on this if possible.

That wasn't the case with the review in question. In this review, the researcher was being pedantic and hypocritical. We were fortunate to have an editor who weighed the reviews, positive and negative, and decided that the negative comments were not reasonable. Hooray for thoughtful editors.