Friday, October 29, 2010

Like So Totally Cool

Not long ago I was "interviewed" by a first year student who was given the task of talking to a science professor about her job, career path, life, motivation etc. The student's assignment wasn't particularly well defined, or, at least, the student wasn't entirely clear on what to ask me, but we ended up having an excellent conversation anyway. We delved into the topic of How We Choose A Career, and other aspects of career path decisions.

I am always a little nervous about talking about this with students because, for me, the realization that I loved Science was rather dramatic (at least to me), and I don't want to give the impression that all you have to do is wait and you will be hit with a bolt of lightning and will then know what you career/calling is, and this will lead to a fulfilling career that is just right for you. So I make sure to emphasize ways in which you can think about what interests you and investigate the various ways for exploring or combining interests to find a good focus.

One of his questions for me was what part of my job I like "the best": teaching or research? I explained that one of the reasons I love my job as much as I do is that I don't have to choose. There are schools and positions where one can specialize in teaching or research, and that works well for some people, but I like having a good balance between the two. I told him of my Goldilocksian career path in which I tried teaching at a small liberal arts college (too much teaching/too little research), doing research and teaching at a university (a better fit, but still not quite right), and finally at a different university that was just right for me.

Then I made a similar point, but not about research vs. teaching, but about the different research methods I use and the different types of research environments in which I work (small, focused projects with a few people, giant projects with many people in different fields).

And then I told him about the freedom I have to choose my research directions, and how my research relates to my teaching.

He scribbled notes about all this, smiling the whole time. Eventually he said "Wow, you have the most awesome job in the world! That is like so totally cool!"

Yes, I do and it is, especially since this student has now decided to take a Science class.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Faculty Smorgasboard

At various times in my career as a professor, I have participated in graduate-level courses in which different faculty appear for a day, a week, or a couple of weeks to talk about their general or specific research field with a diverse group of grad students. In my experience, this type of course sounds great in theory, but in practice can be an unsatisfying experience for students and professors.

There are many varieties of these courses. One in which I participated had a "theme" that was general enough to encompass a large-ish number of faculty in the department, but that was specific enough to make the course coherent. This also sounded good in theory, but the professor with primary responsibility for the class didn't do much to help keep the theme threaded through the course and the professors giving presentations were variable in the degree to which they paid attention to the theme. Student evaluations expressed discontent with the incoherence of the class.

In other classes of this sort, there is no attempt at a theme and the faculty who participate can talk about whatever aspect of their research they want. The purpose is to demonstrate the many different types of research being done in the department, and to introduce students, however briefly, to more faculty than they otherwise might encounter in their graduate studies.

I think that the success or failure of these courses depends not so much on whether there is a theme or even on how interesting the various professors are, but on the ability of the primary faculty member to provide context and to guide useful discussions before or after each presentation. Someone has to be in charge of these courses, given the high throughput of faculty in and out of the classroom during the term, and that primary professor has the responsibility of making the course as a whole comprehensible, e.g. by organizing supporting activities such as background reading, writing exercises, and/or discussions.

Does anyone like/dislike (1) being one of the professors who makes a brief appearance in these courses; (2) being the professor in charge of one of these courses; or (3) taking one of these courses as a student?

My department periodically discusses courses of this type, but the discussions are always inconclusive. At the moment, I am feeling somewhat cynical about these courses, not having had very good experiences with them to date, but I could be convinced of their worth by some compelling tales of life-changing experiences taking or teaching these courses. Or, to set the bar a bit lower, I could possibly be convinced by anecdotes of those who found it a moderately useful, even if variable, experience, to see a parade of professors describing their research field/expertise in one of these courses. [If you leave a comment about a student experience, it would be helpful if you indicated whether you took the course by choice or were required to do so.]

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Professor Grade-Anxiety

Here's a post by Science Professor (a.k.a., me) in Scientopia about the anxiety some professors feel about giving students bad grades, and in particular the visceral experience of handing back not-good exam or other graded work to students.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Fire Away

Perhaps it is time to discuss again the topic of "firing". I have previously discussed the topic of students (essentially) firing their adviser (in most cases by moving on to another adviser) and have also touched on topics involving the termination of postdocs and grad students by advisers.

Today's specific topic stems from some comments on yesterday's post, including interesting comments involving firing trends over time.

I know that "firing" is a touchy topic for some because of the what-if-that-were-me-being-fired anxiety it can generate (unless the subject of the firing is clearly someone else), but termination of advising/supervising relationships is a fact of academic life, it occurs for a wide variety of reasons (some good, some not), and is something many of us grapple with in our research groups, departments, and beyond.

In particular, it's interesting to consider whether advisers are more or less likely to "fire" advisees before tenure vs. after. I would guess that the general trend would be one of greater reluctance to fire during early career stages, when it is essential to demonstrate an ability to be a successful adviser and to minimize disruptions of a research project.

But perhaps we have to separate "willingness" to fire from what really happens. For example, I think I was less willing to fire advisees early in my career, but in reality I terminated more advising relationships early in my career. To the extent that I can conclude anything from a small dataset, hypotheses to explain this trend in my advising career include:

- before I established my reputation in my field, the students I recruited were not as good as the ones I was able to recruit later in my career;

- bad luck;

- poor advising by me.

I think it was a combination of all those things, although I hasten to add, in my own defense, that I don't think that more advising experience could have helped some of the students and postdocs who arrived in my research group with severe emotional and/or substance abuse problems. Nevertheless, I was left wondering for a long time whether I drove my advisees crazy or whether I was somehow a magnet for troubled people.

Owing to complexities like these, career/firing trend data might be difficult to interpret. We can try, though, or at least make things up that sound interesting.

So: for those of you who have advised for more than a few years,

- Are you more or less willing to terminate advising relationships now than you were at an earlier stage of your career?

- Have you in fact terminated more or fewer advising relationships at a later stage of your career compared to an earlier stage?

And do you have any explanation for your person firing trend, if one exists?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Throw Them Out?

A recent post about a colleague's postdoc who is disrespectful (in more than a casual way) to female postdocs, but not to female professors or students, attracted many comments, including some from those who felt that the postdoc should be immediately fired.

I am curious about the demographics of those in the 'fire him immediately' camp vs. those in the 'give him a chance to change' camp.

My hypothesis, which we may or may not be able to test, is that the different responses relate more to academic position than to gender. That is, I think that those who have experience advising postdocs and graduate students might be the ones who are more interested in finding a way to change his behavior and attitude, while at the same time protecting his female peers.

In contrast, those with less advising experience might focus more on the fact that, in some fields, there is an oversupply of talented postdocs, so why waste time on one who has behaved reprehensibly? That is, if this postdoc cannot behave in a professional way towards all colleagues, he should be fired without being given a chance to change, and immediately replaced with someone without these problems.

This hypothesis may well be wrong, of course, but if amount of advising experience relates to the various responses to the 'peer sexism' anecdote, this is interesting because it conflicts with the view of many of my early-career readers who feel that professors aren't as humane as they could be in their dealings with postdocs and students. That is, professors should be more aware that graduate students and postdocs don't arrive fully trained and perfect, and should be less inclined to fire and fail those who don't meet our high standards (yet). We professors should work harder on the training and mentoring aspects of our jobs.

Holding that belief and the "fire him immediately" point of view requires making a distinction between the "how to do research" aspects of training and "how to get along with others" aspects. It requires being more patient with those who struggle with the first aspect, and less (or not at all) with the second. I see them both as elements of my job as an adviser, although I think many of us are very challenged by the second aspect of the advising job.

It is important to note that the specific case described in my earlier post does not involve violence, intimidation, physical contact, or any other serious situations in which immediate firing would obviously be well justified. The unprofessional behavior of this postdoc is unacceptable and should not continue, but, in my opinion, does not rise to the level of immediate firing without first giving the postdoc a change to change his behavior.

Although my influence on the employment status of a postdoc supervised by another professor at another university in another country on research in which I have no involvement is quite low, I have talked about the situation with the postdoc's supervisor, and know that he is taking it seriously. It would be unacceptable if no action were taken and if there were no negative consequences for the postdoc if he does not change. I do not believe that will be the case. The postdoc has recently been alerted to the fact that his behavior is unacceptable, not only to the female postdocs, but to his supervisor, and he has been given the opportunity to change; on what time scale and by what means of evaluation of progress, I do not know.

The question I asked earlier was whether readers believed the postdoc could change. Today the question is: Why do some people think the postdoc should be fired without any effort to find a way to change his attitude and behavior? If there is much evidence that this postdoc is a thoughtful, sincere, and nice person in other aspects of his professional life, why not try to build on that? Wouldn't we all benefit if this postdoc can change? Isn't it the responsibility of his supervisor to try to effect such a change? The supervisor is also responsible for some of the female postdocs involved in this situation, but if he believes he can protect them and mentor the problem postdoc, shouldn't he try?

Although I feel optimistic about this particular case, overall the situation is depressing. I am very weary of the apparently limitless supply of sexists of all ages, although I know from long experience advising that few of us are perfect in our interpersonal relations, and some people can change (for the better).

If, after efforts to fix the problem, this postdoc continued to show no signs of being able to work with female peers, his contract should be terminated, no matter how talented he is at research and no matter how respectful he is to women who are not his peers. Such termination is the right thing to do for many reasons, including the very practical reason that his inability to work with everyone on his research team (and creation of a hostile work environment for some) harms the research.

I hope it doesn't come to that, but the situation nevertheless make me wonder: Is a desire for the elimination of sexism (and similar problems) in academia incompatible with a wish to educate and reform the perpetrators? I don't think it is.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Bed Bugs v. Grandma

The academic year is still young, but already there is a new trend apparent in Reasons Why Students Can't Take The Exam (on the scheduled day) or Turn In The Homework (on the scheduled day): bed bugs.

Colleagues teaching large intro classes report having students with bed bug crises just before exams.

I personally would believe these students and deal with the make-up exams in my usual way. In fact, it is my policy to believe the students, no matter how many deaths, illnesses, court cases, or insect infestations they have to deal with in a term. I have mentioned before that both of my grandfathers died within 3 weeks of each other; in certain circumstances, it doesn't sound believable, but it happens.

Nevertheless, it is remarkable that my colleagues report no grandparent deaths yet. This is one of those strange little academic pseudo-factoids for which I wish I had more data. Lacking a good mechanisms to poll vast numbers of college and university teachers, the best I can do is ask you, my readers, if you have noticed any bed bugs v. grandma trends in your own classes.

A quick glance at a bed bug map of the US shows some geographical variation in bed bug reports, and there are also likely to be local variations depending on the housing situations of students at different universities. It's possible, however, that bed bugs are the new grandma.

So this is what I am wondering today:

How are grandparents doing relative to bed bugs in the lives of your students this year?

By the way, this is a test. Unlike in my real teaching life, I do not give make-up exams here. I just gave you the essay question, and there is also a multiple-choice question:

This photograph best illustrates or symbolizes which one of the following:

a. Cats at a faculty meeting. (Note: Ignore the presence of comfortable seating and focus only on the salient features of the photo)

b. Feline delusion. Older Gray Cat (right) thought he would be safe lying next to the World's Largest Kitten (left), who was apparently deep in slumber after a long night of stealth, intrigue, and rodent pillage. Older Gray Cat was wrong.

c.The US 2010 elections, with one cat representing the Democrats and one the moderate wing of the Republican party. Cats are depicted debating the issues. Not shown: Tea Party candidate.


Thursday, October 21, 2010

Both Here and There

Although I continue to be quite content here on Blogspot as FSP, every once in a while (once a week? I haven't decided), I will also be in Scientopia as a "Science Professor" (sans F); e.g., today. I hope this doesn't get too complicated, but when I am being Scientopic, I will provide a link here.

My plan is to use the Scientopia forum to answer questions, give opinions, and ponder issues that readers present to me in comments and by e-mail. I will use the FSP blog for my usual musings, anecdotes, rants, cat photos, debates, and conversations.

The lack of the "Female" adjective in my Scientopia persona has no bearing on whether topics discussed there vs. here will involve women-in-science issues, but, as I explained in my first Scientopia post, if Scientopia is supposed to evoke utopia, then I get to be just a Science Professor who happens to be female. I am actually quite comfortable being FSP, but only if I get to define myself that way rather than having this designation be somehow relevant to my qualifications as a scientist.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Read Me?

Some comments to yesterday's post reminded me of something I have been wondering:

If you are the (or a) major author on a paper submitted for review, how many of the references you cite have you read?

My adviser in graduate school told me that I should read every article that I cite. Minor co-authors can use their discretion about which ones to read/not read, but if you're the main author, you should read all cited works.

I think we can assume that 'read' means that you read more than the abstract but didn't necessarily spend hours poring over every word in every section, although you may well have done so, especially for a thesis.

So: For articles (or the moral equivalent) on which you are what could reasonably be considered a major author according to the norms of your field:

How many of the articles you cite do you read?
75% or more but not every one
somewhat less than 50%
less than 25% but not zero
zero or close to zero free polls

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Can You Rephrase That?

As I was reviewing a manuscript recently, I saw this sentence:

.." and existing models to explain this phenomenon are inadequate [3].

[3] FSP 2001"

So, is my model inadequate or did my 2001 paper state that existing models were inadequate.. or both?

In fact, I couldn't even tell from the context of the rest of the paragraph or manuscript, which was clearly an undigested chunk of thesis. I am not even sure the citation is appropriate in this case, at least not without significant rewriting of the statement and surrounding text.

This issue was easy to deal with in a short review comment.

In two other recent manuscripts under review, I saw something like this:

"It has been proposed that dolphins strongly prefer scones to croissants [FSP 1996]."

and "It is well known that cats who fall out of a tree from a height of at least 8 meters are likely to fracture their back left leg [FSP et al., 2009]."

Thanks for the citations, but I never proposed or stated either of those things, although I know at least one of them to be true.

Those problems were easy to deal with as well. I wrote that the citations were inappropriate, as I had never discussed dolphin pastry preference or cat/tree issues, at least not in print.

I am sure that I have mis-cited references before, too, especially in long papers with lots of references and lots of co-authors. We hope that such things will be caught in review, but in some cases they are not. As a reviewer, it's easy to catch mis-citations of work we know well (i.e., our own) but we aren't always familiar with every citation in every paper.

In another recent example, an author mis-cited (in my opinion) another author (not me). I hesitated to make a comment in my review, though, because the mis-cited author was a co-author of the manuscript under review. Shouldn't he be the one to remove the mis-citation? I was quite confident that the citation was inappropriate, so I made a gentle remark about this in my review, and the citation was not removed.

I like being cited, of course, but I don't like being mis-cited. It would bother me a lot if someone thought I really had proposed that dolphins prefer scones if I had, in fact, never said that. This is not just my being ethical, although, like most of my professorial readers, I have received intensive and largely irrelevant training in the responsible conduct of research. My objections mostly stem from my dislike of being misquoted or misrepresented.

Not to obsess about citation indices (too much), but despite the possible of loss of a (mis)citation, it is possible that fixing these errors in review might ultimately lead to more citations, not fewer. For example, if someone cited my work as having said something really stupid about dolphin/scone preferences, this might discourage future readers (and citations).

Does anyone cynically believe that the increased emphasis on citation indices increases the number of mis-citations, either because authors are more eager to cite their own papers (even if not entirely appropriate) or because reviewers are less likely to correct mis-citations of their own work?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Everything is Important

Last week I was asked a classic student question that is surely among the most hated by the professors of the world:

Did I miss anything important?

Does anyone ever answer "No"?

If the answer really is no, then either I am not doing my job well or I am being sarcastic. It is unusual for me to pass up a chance at sarcasm, but I typically don't find it satisfying in this particular circumstance, so I said:


The student waited for me to elaborate, and I waited for him to ask a follow-up question, even though I didn't want to hear his follow-up question. I out-waited him. He asked:

Like what?

I gave the classic professor response: I am not going to repeat my lecture for you, despite the numerous important points in it. Get the notes from someone who was in class, look at the image file I posted, look at the review questions I posted, read the relevant part of the textbook, then if you have any questions about the material covered, let me know etc.

That is: You do some work first and then I will help you if you have a question about the class topics.

My questions to you, readers, are:

- Does anyone have a good response to this question? I would define good as not rude but, at the same time, sending the semi-friendly message that the question is perhaps inappropriate and would be better if phrased another way or, better yet, not asked at all.

- Don't students know how obnoxious this question is? Don't more senior student pass along valuable information to new students to help prevent the latter from such grievous errors? Or at the very least, doesn't the university provide some information about do's and don'ts of dealing with professors? What are those students doing during their freshman orientations when they are all standing in circles on campus lawns and clucking like chickens? In between the bonding games, couldn't someone say "Hey, here's something you really need to know: If you miss all or part of a class, never ask the professor if you missed something *important*. It hurts their feelings, and some of them get angry."

But maybe, just maybe, if no one ever asked me this question anymore, I would miss it. I'm not saying it is an important question, just that it is a classic question for a reason. It would be like if no one ever asked me what was going to be on the quiz. Or if a faculty meeting were canceled because no one had anything important to say. That is, unimaginably weird.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Dear Search Committee

Last week in The Chronicle of Higher Education, there was an advice column that provided a how-to guide to writing a cover letter for applications for faculty positions. In this particular case, the focus was on 2-year colleges, institutions with which I have no direct experience. I have friends, colleagues, and former students who teach at such institutions, but have never worked at (or applied to work at) a 2-year college.

Perhaps this reflects my ignorance, but I was dismayed at some of the advice about writing cover letters. Some of it was excellent and practical -- don't emphasize your research when applying for a teaching position, do your homework about the institution, provide the most relevant information about your background etc. All of that is good.

This type of advice is what filled me with dismay:

Be sure to address the cover letter to a specific individual by name, even if no individual is named in the job ad or application instructions. Apparently, certain people, who are nameless, want candidates to seek out their identities so that the cover letter can be addressed to "Dear Ronald Zook" instead of "Dear Search Committee". If this information is not available on any webpage, applicants are supposed to make some phone calls.

Why do I hate this advice? I do not like the fact that someone on a hiring committee would really care about such a trivial issue. If you want the letter addressed to you by name, put your name somewhere prominent; don't play games. If there is an administrative reason why your name is not listed anywhere, then don't make it an issue. And why should the letter exclude the other members of the committee and be addressed only to you, the head of the committee? Does the greeting really affect your impression of a candidate? Is that reasonable? OK, maybe if the greeting is something like the e-mail we get from some of our students (e.g., Yo! Proff! or Hey!), maybe that would be unprofessional, but "Dear Search Committee" should not be a reason to start forming a negative impression of a candidate. "

Ask for an interview. I had no idea it was so easy. Actually, it seems that asking for an interview doesn't necessarily get you the interview, but not asking for one is apparently bad. How strange. I personally would find it obnoxious and pointless for someone to write in a cover letter (as advised in the column in question): "May I travel to [name the city] to discuss this position with you in person?". This would be seen as deeply strange in a cover letter to my department. Is there really such a difference between 2-year and 4-year institutions? I could be very wrong, but I would have thought that both get large numbers of applications for most positions and that this particular approach would not be fruitful. When someone applies to my institution, I assume they want the job unless there is other information that shows this is not the case.

I have saved the two weirdest ones for last:

Below your signature and printed name, type the word "Enclosures". Otherwise, the idiot search committee members may not know that you have included your CV and other application materials.

Print the letter in black ink on good-quality white or ivory paper. Paper? What is that?

I do not mean to denigrate this well-meaning writer who is seeking to help applicants, but I am bothered by the fact that some of the cover letter advice implies that hiring committees focus on minutiae and that an application can be downgraded by things that have nothing to do with the applicant's qualifications or degree of interest in the job. Applicants should not have to worry that committees are mulling over their choice of font or whether they get the greeting or sign-off words exactly right for the unknown preferences of the unknown persons who will be reading the application.

In my experience with hiring committees, it does not work that way. We look at the substance of the application, we make allowances for inexperienced applicants, and we expect there to be wide variation in the approach applicants take to their cover letter, from terse but informative to long, pleading, and repetitious.

Of course we want the cover letter to be articulate and useful, but beyond that, an applicant can go wild and use a sans serif font, sign off with "Warmest regards" instead of "Sincerely", and address us impersonally. Many (most?) of us won't notice, won't care, or will be able to deal with it without developing a deep loathing of the applicant. Just don't ask for an interview.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Many Many Men

Sometimes it seems like I could write a blog post about how much I like pistachio ice cream, and I would get comments like "Why do you hate men so much? Why are you always writing about sexism? Why do you always twist things to be about gender?".

I have no good answer to those questions, perhaps because they are not sane.

Yes, I know, I should just do my work. I would be a better scientist (like the men!) if I focused more on Science and less on my actual life. I work 60 hours/week, as I just informed the NSF in their boring biannual survey of randomly selected Doctoral Recipients, but clearly I should work even more (like the men?).

Anyway, the various discussions of this week got me reminiscing about my distant academic youth, back in the days when there were so few women in my field that it was very easy to go through undergraduate and graduate school without ever directly encountering a female science professor.

That was my experience as a student, although after a couple of rather harrowing years in graduate school, in which I was routinely yelled at, pinched, and grabbed by a rather nasty old professor whose loathing of me was exceeded only by my loathing of him*, I started looking around for another graduate program, preferably far far away from my original one. I decided that I would try to find a female adviser, on the assumption that a female adviser would be less likely to abuse me physically.

I looked around and found two possibilities -- two women scientists in my field, both doing extremely interesting work at excellent universities. I wrote to them, describing my research background and interests and asking if they were taking on any new graduate students in the near future.

They wrote back. One was going to be denied tenure and was not taking new students, and the other was a research professor who had never advised a student before. When she got my message, she asked her department chair if she could advise a student, and he said no. She told me years later that it upset her greatly that the department did not respect her enough to let her advise a student although she was a senior researcher with her own grants; she had always assumed that she could advise a student if she had wanted to.

So that was depressing. Fortunately for me, though, the evil pinching professor was soon out of the picture, and my situation improved enough that I decided to stay on in graduate school.

Although my field of Science is still male-dominated at the professorial level, I would certainly have more options today if I were a student specifically seeking a female adviser, or if I just wanted to be in a department that had some female faculty. There's no way to know of course, but, if I were a student today, I think I would choose an adviser based primarily on scientific interests. A major component of my decision about graduate programs, however, would include consideration of whether a research group or department had at least some other women.

I don't feel any regret about the fact that I never worked with a female professor in my field during all my years as an undergraduate or graduate student. I had many excellent professors as an undergraduate Science major and as a graduate student, and some continue to be my friends and mentors to this day. Nevertheless, I am glad that it is more difficult to go through one's student years today without encountering a Female Science Professor.

To my young readers who are or were science students (you decide if you are young or not): Have any of you never taken a course from or been advised by a Female Science Professor?

* Note: I did hate this particular man. It would not be very scientific to conclude that I hate all men, but you can safely conclude that I hated this man.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Grad Data

If you ask me (as someone did in the comments on yesterday's post) how many female grad students I am advising, I could tell you the exact number, although I won't. If, however, you ask me the number I have advised over my entire career, I could not have told you before looking up the data, as I just did.

This was interesting because, until I looked it up, I was very unsure about the specific ratio of female to male advisees. My uncertainty related in part to the fact that "advising" isn't always an exact thing. There are students with whom have I interacted quite a lot, but I was not their adviser. There have been students whom I advised for years, but then they dropped out for various reasons; they don't show up my official database of advisees, although some of them loom large in my advising memories. Also, I have been a professor at two universities, and I have been a real or honorary adviser of students at universities in other countries. Of all these advising experiences, I only counted those who graduated with me as the adviser or co-adviser of record.

According to that method of counting, the female : male ratio of my total advisees over my career to date is ~ 50 : 50.

I have absolutely no idea how this ratio relates to the number who have applied or otherwise expressed interest in working with me, but my general impression, which could well be unreliable, is that the actual ratio reflects the applicant ratio.

So, those are my data. There have been fluctuations in the ratio over the years -- including some times with no or very few women in my research group -- but overall I am quite happy with the numbers (and with the students themselves).

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Long Haul

Some research projects take a long time to get off the ground, if they ever even make it, and it can be difficult to keep everyone in a research group focused and motivated during the long (2-3+ year) time required to determine if some projects will be funded.

One project with which I am involved is so far doing OK in the protracted process required for this type of large project, but it is too early to tell if it will ever be funded. We survived a pre-proposal and one round of proposal review, and are gearing up for another round in the coming year. These types of large proposals are never funded the first year, so I expected this to be a long and arduous process.

The research group is quite large and multi/inter-disciplinary, and is also very international. At the outset, I told everyone in the group that the proposal would not be funded the first time, and it would take a minimum of 2 years to get it funded, and of course there is always a (good) change it might never funded.

The US researchers were all familiar with this and accepted the reality of the long march to (uncertain) funding. What I didn't expect, however, was that some of our international colleagues didn't really believe that a rejected proposal would ever be funded.

One colleague who is in the UK system told me that he can only submit a proposal for a particular project once; if the project isn't funded after one round of review, the project is dead. He therefore viewed any proposal not funded the first time as somehow damaged and unlikely to get funding. A few other researchers in other countries were similarly skeptical, and were unsure whether it was worth their time to continue as part of the research team.

I can understand their skepticism. This system is not very efficient and it's hard to see a rejection of a proposal as a step forward, but rejection is commonly part of the funding process. I think that part of the philosophy behind the protracted process, especially for large, multi-interdisciplinary proposals, is to maximize the chances that the research teams will function well and optimize the use of grant money. The proposal with which I am involved has definitely benefited from the various review stages.

At some point, though, the length of time to get (possibly) funded has a negative effect on the timeliness of the research objectives and on the ability of the research team to maintain cohesion. Furthermore, it is difficult to write the project to involve specific postdocs or graduate students when the time frame of the process is so protracted. For these reasons, the long time frame of the review process decreases that chances that the research will be as good as it would have been if funded the first time.

In the meantime, I am trying to keep a large research team together and keep the proposal process alive for a bit longer because I think it will be worth it to try again. Beyond that, however, I'm not sure it will be worth it, even though some groups get funded after 3+ years of effort. In this case, however, I think the research ideas wouldn't be very fresh after that amount of time, and it would be better to try something else.

Of course I am hoping that I won't have to make that decision. At least for me, delusion is essential to the proposal-writing process.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Peer Sexism

A colleague at another institution has a postdoc with whom I have interacted from time to time. My colleague's research interests are very broad, and this particular postdoc's research field is quite different from mine. Nevertheless, when I work with this colleague or when we attend the same conference, I also interact with the postdoc. As part of a research group of 4-6 people, we talk about Science, have dinner in conference cities etc.

I have always found this young man to be extremely nice, friendly, respectful, funny, and interesting. He works hard, cares a lot about his research, and is curious about research topics beyond his own specific field. In short, I like him personally and have been very impressed with his work.

Recently, however, I found out that this young man systematically offends, alienates, and/or harasses the female postdocs in his research group and in associated research groups. One by one, these women have complained to my colleague as each one has encountered the postdoc. This was not some organized effort to complain; in fact, some of these women are at different institutions, working on different projects, and have never met each other. This postdoc seems to have a perfect record of offensive behavior towards his peers who are female.

This shocked me. My assumption, which was clearly flawed, was that I would be able to detect such traits in a person, even if they were respectful to me because I am older and a professor. I assumed that anyone who was so dysfunctional in their professional relationships with women would not distinguish based on age and position but would have a more systematic problem with women.

It's possible that I could be oblivious to some clues, but I have thought a lot about this, and have spent some time with this young man after learning about his disturbing behavior. I see absolutely no sign that he is being insincere in his respect for me. All my other colleagues involved in the research project that tangentially relates to this postdoc's research are male, and I see no difference in how he interacts with them vs. me. When it comes to interacting with his peers, however, he clearly has a major problem, although I have never seen him in action, perhaps owing to the all-male (but me) nature of the research group subset in which I interact with him (and because, according to my colleague, he reserves his most offensive behavior for times when senior professors are not around).

His supervisor has thus far dealt with the problem by keeping this postdoc away from projects involving other women scientists. Fortunately and unfortunately, this has not been difficult to arrange.

I told my colleague, however, that I hoped that this is only a short-term solution. His postdoc has to learn how to behave in a professional way towards women of all ages and academic job classifications. My colleague agrees, but is not sure how to accomplish this. My colleague also thinks the problem will be somewhat resolved by the fact that the postdoc's girlfriend, who was living in another country, is now living with him. I personally find it disturbing if this is viewed as a solution to the problem.

A complicating factor is that the half dozen people thus far most involved in this situation and in these discussions come from almost as many different countries, and although we all work together well (with the glaring exception of the problem described here), most of us have limited understanding of how to deal with such problems in the context of each other's different institutions and cultures.

For example, at my institution, I could send this postdoc to a sort of 'sensitivity training' workshop, and my department chair could make the continuation of his position contingent on his not harassing women. This young man has a major problem that he is clearly not solving on his own, so he needs his supervisor (mentor) or institution to step in if at all possible. If there is no structure to do that, however, (as seems to be the case here) then the adviser has to figure something out, although most of us are not well equipped to deal with this type of situation.

Another colleague who is also part of this extended research group thinks that the postdoc's selective sexism makes the situation more insidious than if he were pan-sexist. There is an insidious aspect to it because the selective nature of the postdoc's problem made it difficult to detect, and might lead some people to underestimate or dismiss the problem.

Nevertheless, I remain optimistic that the problem can be solved if it is dealt with aggressively but constructively. I do not believe that this young man is a hard-core sexist who will never change, but his supervisor and all of us who care about the situation have to make it clear that to the postdoc his future career as an academic depends on his changing his behavior towards women.

Question: Can peer sexists be reformed? That is, without knowing more details of the people or the situation, do you share my optimism or do you think that sexists, even of the selective sort, have a deep problem that probably can't be fixed?

Friday, October 08, 2010

Give the Girls a Chance

A colleague of mine is in an academic system in which he, as Big Professor, directly selects a few graduate students who will work with him. There is no admissions committee or other complicating factors like that; he just looks around and selects 1-2 students to work with him.

All of these students have thus far been male.

Not long ago, this colleague was complaining to me about how he recently has had trouble finding graduate students who want to work hard. I should note that this colleague works very hard and no doubt expects the same, or more, from his students. I am sure that his definition of "hard work" is a bit on the high side, and it would not be easy to be his graduate student. Nevertheless, he always used to be able to find students, but is now having trouble recruiting.

He informed me that, out of desperation, he has recently accepted two "girls" as graduate students. The conversation was a bit surreal. Did he expect me to sympathize with the fact that he had no choice but to take on some female graduate students?

Anyway, I was semi-pleased to hear this. I hope these young women do well, for their own sakes as well as for the unfortunate reason that their status as pioneers as female graduate students of this adviser puts them in the unpleasant position of representing our gender. If they do well -- or maybe if at least one of them does well -- then this colleague may in the future be enthusiastic about working with female graduate students, thereby providing young women with a heretofore unattainable opportunity for graduate study.

It would be nice if my colleague also examined his advising philosophy, just in case his inability to attract graduate students has nothing to do with the slothfulness of the modern young male (his hypothesis), but that does not yet seem to be in the offing. It would also be nice if the young women were as free to fail as the male graduate students.

This colleague has had his share of failed male graduate students in the past, so it's not as if he has had non-stop success (until now) advising young men. In fact, I was a sort of co-adviser of one of his students who ended up costing me a lot of time and money before he suddenly dropped out of the graduate program. As soon as this student acquired a girlfriend, he lost interest in working long hours in a lab. My colleague was completely disgusted by this ex-student's lack of commitment to Science and his inability to balance work and girlfriend.
(Many years later, this student sent me an e-mail to say that he has long been filled with shame and regret that he dropped out without telling me or even thanking me for all the help I gave him. I told him that these things happen and he should not feel guilty about this ancient incident, although I appreciated that he communicate with me eventually.)

Even so, none of these men represent all of their gender. Those who dropped out did so because of their individual personalities. I hope the same will be true for these young women, whatever the outcome of their graduate studies, although mostly I hope they will succeed.

And if one of them does drop out for personal reasons, I hope my colleague will remember that he has had male students drop out for similar reasons. And if he does not remember this, I will remind him.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Lengths We'll Go

As I mentioned yesterday, I recently had a little medical crisis and ended up in a hospital emergency room after teaching a class. By going to the ER after my class, my husband and I both missed a faculty meeting.

As I lay on an ER gurney hooked up to lots of machines and with an IV port in one arm and lots of people coming and going to ask me to quantify my pain level on a scale of 1 to 10 etc. etc., I wondered whether I would rather be at the faculty meeting or in the ER. I had to think about it, and not just because I wasn't entirely lucid.

During a lull in the activity, as the machines were quietly beeping and I was waiting for some test results, I asked my husband whether it was better to have a medical emergency of a serious-but-not-fatal sort or to go to a faculty meeting, and he had to think about it as well, and not just because I was the one lying on the gurney.

So here comes what may be my second strangest poll ever: If you knew in advance that you weren't going to die or be otherwise seriously impaired for a long time, would you rather spend a few hours in an ER being stabbed, medicated, and monitored, or would you rather spend the same amount of time in a faculty meeting? (the following are invalid answers: all of the above, I wish we could have faculty meetings in the emergency room, none of the above, hamsters).

ER or faculty meeting?
faculty meeting free polls

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Teach for a Cure?

Has anyone studied the biochemical changes experienced by teachers while they are teaching? I guess it would be difficult to stick wires all over someone's head and body and still reproduce a normal teaching environment (in most cases). I am curious about this, though, because I had a weird experience recently with the effect of teaching on my health.

Not long ago, I was quite ill. I had seen a couple of doctors, had some tests done, and was scheduled for more owing to concerns based on the initial test results. In the meantime, I had to go about my life and work, although I was in some pain and feeling quite weak and shaky.

During one particularly horrible day, a phone consultation with my doctor resulted in her telling me that I should go immediately to an emergency room to get checked out. I said OK, I would.

But first I taught my class.

I was kind of worried about that. How could I do a good job teaching when I felt so awful? How would I be able to speak lucidly for 50 minutes? How could I walk around the classroom as I like to do? How could I even write on the board? But at the same time: How could I miss class?

I don't know what happened, but while I was teaching, I felt fine. I even felt really good; the best I had felt in days. I thought to myself, as I was covering the board with science hieroglyphics, "I am feeling so much better, I don't need to go to the hospital."

Then I finished the class, talked to the students who had questions after class, and went back to my office. I still felt good and decided not to go the hospital.

Then I crashed, and my husband rushed my collapsed self to the ER. It ended up being a very bad week overall.

Aside from the fact that the post-teaching crash was extremely unpleasant, thereby eliminating the possibility of patenting a Teaching Cure for Certain Physical Ailments, it was kind of interesting how I was temporarily able to stave off the pain and weakness by teaching. Of course, I don't really know what the students thought -- perhaps I was saying and doing bizarre things and didn't know it -- but I think the class went well.

Certainly I have had also the opposite happen while teaching, especially if I teach with a severe head cold or sore throat. In those cases, the teaching hour can be excruciating (perhaps for everyone in the room).

I would not teach if I had a serious contagious illness, but in general, it's difficult to cancel a class for a routine ailment or even a more significant affliction if the class is at a critical time (e.g., first week of the term or just before an exam).

Has anyone else felt biochemically/biophysically affected in a good way while teaching a class? Can teaching be a temporary miracle cure for what ails us?

Tuesday, October 05, 2010


One of my TAs encountered a disrespectful student in the very first lab of the academic year. He decided to just be 'cool' and not confront the student, but says that he will talk to the student if the problem persists.

This situation raises issues of whether/when I should intervene and talk to such a student. In this case, I have already decided to wait and see if the TA can handle it himself. If the problem persists and he wants me to talk to the disrespectful student, I will certainly do this.

Something that I did have to think more about, however, was whether I wanted to know the name of the disrespectful student. My first reaction was "Don't tell me the name of the student because I don't want to be biased, even subconsciously, against this student." Of course if the problem persists and my intervention is needed, I will know the student's name, but in the meantime, I don't want to know.

But then I thought: Maybe I should know the student's name now because, without even trying, I had formed an idea about which student it was. What if it isn't this student and I am unfairly judging him? And if it is this student, well.. then the situation is unchanged from when I merely guessed it was him. Either way, I would have to squelch any tendencies to treat him more harshly because he can be a jerk, so perhaps I should at least be squelching for the right student?

Should I ask my TA who the jerk is, or wait and see if the problem occurs again?

Monday, October 04, 2010

Cool Teachings

This year, I am experimenting with teaching with an iPad instead of a laptop when I project images. Why am I doing this?

Is it a lame and ultimately doomed attempt to appear cool? I don't think so..

Is it because the laptop is heavier and therefore carrying it around is difficult for my aging self, especially since it is taking a long time for me to recover from a surfing injury this summer? (That is sort of a joke, but only sort of.) I don't think that's the reason either, but I have appreciated that the iPad is a much smaller, lighter, thinner piece of equipment to carry around.

Is it because I am bored with my old laptop and need the stimulation of new shiny electronic toys or I lose all interest in life? No, not that either, but again, there is an element of that. Trying something new and experimenting with it and seeing what it can do is quite fun, and makes teaching a course (again) a little bit more exciting (for me).

Is it because the iPad can do some new and zippy things that will transform the learning experience for my students and that will help them learn complex scientific concepts more easily? Probably not, but that is actually my hope, at least in part.

When I project images, I typically supplement the pictures by writing on whatever surfaces are available in the classroom (black/white board, document projector). If I am writing things down as I go, this helps the students take notes and it makes things a bit more "active" -- I can change what I write depending on student input, work things out as I go, derive equations piece by piece, draw pictures, and so on.

That works fine, but sometimes there is a disconnect between the images and the writing, and what I have been doing with the iPad is write on the images (using a stylus) as they are projected. I can underline things and circle things and write simple notes and draw arrows and I think/hope that this makes the pictures come alive a bit more than just pointing to things with a little green laser pointer dot. I still write on the board (or whatever), but I like having the option of writing on the projected image as well, even if writing on an iPad with stylus makes your handwriting resemble a 5 year old's.

It's too early to tell if using an iPad for teaching even matters, but I am having fun.

For those interested in the details, I have tried two different presentation apps, the pros and cons are which are listed below:

PDF Presenter

pros: nice format, ability to see next and previous slides, easy transition between slides
cons: you can't annotate slides, your only option is to show slides


pros: ability to write on the slide, flip to a 'white board' slide for writing (and your writing is smoothed as you write), easy access to the web from the presentation software, ability to erase annotations,

cons: slide transitions involve poking a rather small 'Next' button, no way to preview the next slide

Mostly I use Presenter because of the annotation ability, but I wish someone would combine the best of both apps. If anyone knows of a better app for teaching with an iPad, please let me know.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Those Who Shall Remain Named

Although most readers of this blog seem to be on the young side (of me), perhaps there are some faculty readers who can relate to this dilemma that some colleagues and I were discussing recently. And perhaps others have an opinion about the topic.

Some of us have NAMES in front of our professorial titles. Some of these NAMES are related to a permanent endowed chair, some to a temporary (folding) chair, and some to an award. My colleagues and I were discussing how we feel about these NAMES, and when we use these NAMES and when we don't.

Range of feelings about getting a NAME or NAMES in front of your title: happy, proud, apathetic, a bit embarrassed, some of each of those.

When are the NAMES used? Some of my colleagues always use the NAME in front of their title, perhaps because they like their title and/or because they feel they should honor the person or family for whom their professorship or chair is named and/or because they have no interest in spending any time wondering whether there are good times to use it and not-good times to use it; that's just their title and they use it.

Some only whip out the NAME when it seems expedient to do so. And that leads us to the question: When is it expedient to do so?

Some of my colleagues find that the NAME can be very useful when corresponding with administrators at our own university or with other professors we don't know but who might help us with something. The rest of the world might not be impressed by the title of Miffy X. Zongleswack Professor of Science, but people at your own school might be suitably awed. This is a self-serving but convenient example of when we might use the NAME.

The NAME is almost always used when signing a letter of reference. Being a NAMED professor might add a bit of prestige to the letter, even if it is a bit cynical to believe so. Some might be inclined to drop the NAME in ordinary correspondence, in the interests of being more informal and possibly less pretentious, but the NAME is definitely used when it helps someone to do so. This is an altruistic example of name-dropping.

One bizarre exception to this general rule about signing reference letters was in the rare circumstance in which the name in the title was the same as the last name of the student for whom the letter of reference was being composed. This was a complete coincidence -- one that entertained student and professor while working together -- but the professor feared that the coincidence of names might make the letter seem less objective. It is unlikely that the student was harmed by the fact that the (very positive) letter was signed simply by a Professor, sans NAMES.

There seem to be a wider variety of views on whether to use the NAME when corresponding with students. Do students think it is cool that a professor with an additional title is teaching their class, or do they think we might be more scary and unapproachable?

One colleague uses her full title in the first e-mail message to a student or a class, in the hopes that this will result in replies consisting of complete sentences, and then goes into more informal mode after that.

During this recent conversation among colleagues, we wondered: What, if anything, do students think about these extra titles? Do the titles, if they are even noticed, inspire respect, fear, apathy, curiosity, contempt..? All of the above? Or is having a NAMED title just another strange thing about some professors, indistinguishable from all the other strange things about professors?

No, this is not a topic about which professors obsess (too much). It's just one of those random little academic things that come up in conversation from time to time, and I thought I'd muse about it here and see if readers could provide an answer to the question posed above about perceptions of these NAMES. And most of us will not be crushed or even dismayed if no one is impressed with our long titles.