Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Family Planning

A friendly memo to tenure-track faculty who don't have as many publications as they think they might need for tenure and are getting stressed out about this:

Don't blame your lack of productivity on the fact that the wife of one of your male graduate students or postdocs had a baby or even on the fact that one of your female graduate students or postdocs had a baby during your probationary years.

There are various reasons why this is not cool, but the main one in my opinion is that many of us (male and female) have advised unproductive graduate students and/or postdocs (male and female) for a stunning array of reasons, most of which have nothing to do with starting a family.

It is indeed difficult for assistant professors who have to deal with unproductive research group members, no matter what the reason, especially if the unproductive ones are supported by a grant involving a finite amount of time and money (as grants tend to be). I definitely feel the pain of anyone who has experienced this. If you are in this situation as a tenure-track faculty member, it is important to communicate with mentors and/or your department chair and try to figure out the best strategy for moving forward with the research despite dysfunctional research group members.

Even so, the birth or adoption of a child is typically an anticipated event, so, assuming that your advisees inform you of the upcoming event, you can try to plan for the disruption of your research program. If possible, avoid organizing your research program so that your entire future depends on your research group members and their significant others remaining childless throughout your probationary period.

Another reason why it's not cool to blame your lack of productivity on the reproductive activities of those in and associated with your research group is that it's hard to avoid appearing to accuse women specifically for causing your problems. Your suspicion that other people's babies are incompatible with your tenure won't make up for a weak tenure file (which might not even be as weak as you think/fear it is).

If you are stressed out and just feel like ranting about research group (re)productivity to a friend while you're at a cafe, in the gym, blogging, or wandering the halls of academe, that's fine. Go for it. If, however, you are considering making your hypothesis part of your tenure dossier, first consider the people who are going to be reading your file: your faculty colleagues, various administrators, promotion & tenure committees, and so on. Some of these people might even be women and men who had (or have) babies themselves, not to mention that most, if not all, have likely had a wide range of advising experiences. Some may sympathize with you, but I'm guessing (perhaps incorrectly) that many will not.

Monday, November 29, 2010


A reader wonders how to stop students from starting to leave class early, creating a cascading effect of rustling sounds that are distracting and that make the last few minutes of class difficult for teaching and learning.

I don't know if my method will work for everyone, but I do have a preferred approach to this problem for large classes. Others may have more effective strategies (feel free to share), but this one has worked very well for me:

On the first day of class, I go over the usual logistical stuff at the beginning of class, and then I start talking about the actual course material. Near the end of class, but not exactly at the end, I tell the class that I understand that many of them need to get to another class or to a job, and that it's a large campus so they need every minute possible. I say that I will make a deal with them. I will never go over the scheduled class time, and I will even end a minute or so early if they do not start getting ready to leave in advance of the end of class; i.e., when I have announced that we are done for the day.

I explain that the putting away of notebooks and laptops, the collecting of gear, and the zipping of backpacks adds up to considerable sound and distraction, that sometimes near the end of class I sum up the material in a way that might be helpful for reviewing/studying but this gets lost in the "rustle", and then I repeat that in return for their not preparing to leave early, I will make sure that we finish on time.

Then I talk for a few more minutes, and keep my promise on the very first day.

And it works. I don't know why, but it does. After that, I never have a problem. I may not have their full attention to the very end, but at least I have their quiet inattention.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Novel Retraction

No, this is not about yet another retraction of a Journal article related to someone's irreproducible results involving high-stakes biomedical research. It is about yet another novel that has a character who makes paranoid statements about feminists as she is thinking about her own life. As I was reading a novel recently, I found myself wishing that novels could have Errata, or retractions, or second-thoughts; that an author could realize "Oh no, those things I had that character say and think are really stupid in a way I did not intend" and then fix the problem. That would be a novel retraction.

Here are some excerpts from The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver; I don't know if these thoughts reflect the beliefs of the author, Lionel Shriver, or only her main female character (Irina), but I hope it is the latter:

Irina assumed that Jude was prideful in that wearing feminist way about the fact that she'd not taken her husband's surname.

She [Irina] didn't care if feminists would have maintained that she didn't need a man.

She [Germaine Greer] was that rare animal, a feminist with a sense of humor..

Older, she [Irina] was wiser to the woes that could fall abruptly from the sky like weather, and all that feminist brouhaha aside, a woman was safer -- plain safer -- when she made a survival pact with a male of the species.

Thus over Ramsey's protests she demurred from taking his surname, not from feminist zeal but because she could not afford it; the appellation Irina Acton would make official the very vanishing act at which she was already getting too much practice.

One gets the impression that this Irina character has an imaginary little feminist sitting on her shoulder, criticizing her every decision (no doubt in an unpleasant, shrieking voice).

I am sure that there are wearing, humorless feminists wandering around out there somewhere, hating all men and despising women who take their husband's name, but do I really need to say that those descriptions are not applicable to most people who would call themselves feminists? Perhaps the author only used statements like the ones above to illustrate the insecure mindset of her main character; if so, this was effective.

Whether or not the anti-feminist statements are part of the fictional world of the book or also represent the beliefs of the author, the question is: Do spurious anti-feminist statements like the above examples ruin a work of fiction for me, the reader?

The three most recent examples that I have discussed in this blog are Solar (I McEwan), The Perfect Reader (M Pouncey), and The Post-Birthday World (L Shriver); one by a male author, two by female authors. There are parts of Solar that I liked, and I can't say I hated the book, but there were quite a few things about it that I disliked. I hated The Perfect Reader entirely. And I didn't really like The Post-Birthday World (I liked Shriver's other books more). So, maybe..

But, in fact, I really don't think the occasional anti-feminist elements were central to my dislike of these books. The "feminists hate men", "feminists are humorless" etc. statements and caricatures certainly didn't help me like the books, but I would probably feel the same if a novel also involved repulsive stereotypes of scientists. Oh wait, Solar had that too.

I am trying to think of a recent novel that contains overt "anti-feminist" statements or characters, but that is an interesting, thought-provoking, well-written work of fiction. I don't mean "anti-feminist" in the sense of having a plot line about a woman who doesn't have a career and/or who is a 40 year old "girl" who loves to shop (I don't consider either of those anti-feminist). I mean "anti-feminist" in the sense of the excerpts above. I am sure there must be some, but my memory fails me right now. Any suggestions?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Bludgeoned by Meetings (But Not Today)

On this Thanksgiving Day, I am just thankful that I don't have a meeting today. Otherwise, 'tis the season for time-sucking, soul-destroying meetings (and then more meetings) for me.

If it sounds like I am feeling sorry for myself, that is because I am. Or, more accurately, I was. Tonight I was reading some (= many) files at home on the couch, even though, without even trying, I can think of 127 things I would rather be doing, but then one cat came over to help, then another, and then another. Who knew that cats are so fascinated by committee work? Somehow, file-reading became less of a chore. Also, I wasn't able to get up off the couch, and that helped me stay on task.

I am also thankful that my in-laws are far far away, and that, although they managed to wreak their usual quota of holiday trauma, angst, discord, and despair from afar, that was hours ago, and the cats and I have decided to let go of our unconstructive thoughts about in-laws.

Of course there are many other things for which I am thankful, and if I did not have a cat on my elbow right now, I would list these things, but instead

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What It Takes To Lead

A group of parents from my daughter's school needed to work out a carpool schedule for some upcoming events involving our kids' travel to certain Activities. I had been traveling and hadn't been paying much attention, but once I got home and tuned back in to domestic life, I realized that no one, including my spouse, had done anything about organizing the driving.

So I sent out an e-mail to everyone, summarizing what needed to be done when, and, just to get the process started, I proposed a preliminary driving schedule, noting that we could change this as needed if anyone had a time conflict with the schedule. I figured it would be easier to make adjustments to an existing schedule than to start from scratch.

Soon after I sent my e-mail, one of the dads ("Joe") sent an e-mail to everyone, acknowledging that it helped a lot that I had started organizing the carpool, and seconding my proposed schedule.

One of the moms then e-mailed everyone:

Dear Joe and others,

Joe, thank you for your leadership. It helps us all so much that you took the initiative to finalize the carpool schedule. blah blah blah

Katie (Hannah's mom)

Yeah, that was awesome leadership that Joe showed in agreeing with my plan. OK, I know that there are many benign explanations for Katie's awe of Joe's organizational skills and I am really not that fussed about the situation, but I can't help musing about the general questions that situations like this raise: e.g., Why did Katie think that Joe showed leadership, but I apparently did not show any such trait?

We will never really know, of course, but I think it is in the realm of possible -- and even very likely -- that this is related to the phenomenon in which fathers get major bonus points for being involved in school activities, whereas moms are expected to be involved. If so, then Katie's mother saw my e-mail as routine, but Joe's as special because -- even in 2010 -- it is more rare for dads to be involved.

And perhaps she was trying to praise Joe for being involved because then he would feel so wonderful that he would start attending the monthly parent meetings at the school and then he'd volunteer to help run the silent auction and coach the ultimate Frisbee team. And perhaps Katie knows that I am a lost cause re. all of those things and that the most anyone can expect from me is to be a driver in a carpool.

Again, who knows and, in this one trivial case, who cares? But it is not so trivial at a more cosmic level if women are not perceived as leaders even when there is evidence to the contrary. According to the logic of the scenario described above, a man is a leader when he agrees with a woman who took some initiative.

Actually, on second thought, I don't have a problem with that.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Monday, November 22, 2010

Actually, We Don't Hate You

Although many faculty survive the tenure review process with unanimous positive votes from their department on up, it is also not unusual for there to be a few negative votes at the stages involving the department or higher level committees, particularly in large departments. That is, although the candidate receives a positive recommendation for tenure, and all votes are a strong majority endorsement of tenure, there might be a few outlier 'no' votes.

Aside from being psychologically painful and perhaps semi- to very devastating to the tenure candidate, despite their ultimate tenure success:

What do these negative votes mean?

There are many possible explanations for the outlier negative votes, but, if this happens to you, one thing these negative votes do not automatically mean is that there are people in your department or on your campus who think you should be denied tenure.

It is possible that the votes mean that, but, from what I've seen, it is more common for there to be a few no votes, even for an overall strong candidate for tenure, for other reasons, including:

The reflexive 'no' vote. Some professors just do this, knowing they will be outvoted, wanting to be outvoted, and proud to be the flag-bearer for impossibly high standards. They don't really want you to lose your job; they just don't want you to think you're so great that you deserve a unanimous positive vote. My advice: Forget the 'no' vote(s), focus on the many 'yes' votes, and don't be a reflexive 'no' voter once you have tenure.

The mini-protest 'no' vote. These voters also don't want you to be thrown out. They think you deserve tenure, but there is something about your record that they don't like, and they are sending you a message about this. This 'something' does not rise to the level of being a cause for tenure denial, so they vote 'no', counting on being in the minority. Ideally, these 'no' voters will indicate what their criticism is (albeit not attributed to anyone in particular) in the letter summarizing the department or committee vote. That way, you will know that one or more faculty had a (small) problem with the number/quality/venues of your publications, think you should put more effort into teaching, or are distressed that you didn't have the right number or type of grants (for example). My advice: Forget the 'no' vote(s), focus on the many 'yes' votes, and try to fix whatever issue has been identified (if you agree that it is a reasonable criticism).

These explanations might not take the sting out of having one or more people vote 'no' in your tenure evaluation, but I think it might be psychologically important for some tenure candidates to know that these outlier 'no' votes do not automatically mean that someone thinks you should be denied tenure. So, if this happens (or has happened) to you, I hope you won't feel (too) paranoid as you wander the corridors or campus byways, that you don't spend hours (years) wondering who voted no, and especially that you won't think about it during faculty meetings, unless it helps pass the time in a more interesting way for you and your suspects, in which case, do whatever it takes to survive.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Art & Si

As longtime readers know, every once in a while I venture out of Science World and interact with colleagues who inhabit different parts of the academic planet. Most of these interactions are very interesting, educational (for me), and fun. Some are disconcerting. Like this one:

During a meeting to discuss research funding, including for students, a professor from a discipline in which grants are rare thought that a professor in a rather more grant-rich field had put together an unrealistic budget for research involving a grad student. Let's call the first professor "Art", and a committee member, from a similar field as the professor who constructed the budget, "Si".

Art, pointing to the budget line for the student's salary, said: Look at this! The budget has a month of salary for the grad student to do field work in the summer!

Si: Yes.. that looks reasonable.

Art: What?!?! Why does the student need to be paid? It's for field work, so presumably the professor is paying for the student's food and travel and whatever. The field work is even for the student's own thesis research, so the student has to go on the trip. Why does the student need to be paid?

Si: Umm... because the student will be working and the student is not a slave?

It was big news to Art that many of us pay our graduate students to do research in the summer: to work in the field or in the lab or in an office in front of a computer. It somehow seemed excessive to Art that students would get their travel paid AND also get a salary while doing research that benefited their own thesis.

Art thought that we paid our students a research assistantship only for research that is unrelated to their thesis research. The scientists and engineers on the panel were stunned that anyone would think that.

Some of the things we learn from each other on these multi-disciplinary panels make us all feel good, as if our intellectual boundaries have been stretched. This was not one of those times. I felt strangely sad that it was news to Art that we pay our students to do thesis research. I was glad that faculty summer salary from grants was not an issue in our deliberations.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Well Suited

Here is what I have learned so far from the comments in my recent Scientopia post about What To Wear for an interview for a faculty position, keeping in mind that for some fields there is only one comment, and some comments didn't specify field:

Unless you happen to know that your field or the institution at which you are interviewing is rather formal and is festooned with people wearing suits, you apparently can't go too far astray by wearing comfortable "business casual" attire. As I hoped, commenters seem to agree that there is a wide range of acceptable professional garb, so everyone (men and women) should be able to find something in which they feel comfortable, confident, and unselfconscious.

In the following fields, at least one commenter cautioned against wearing a suit as "overkill", especially with a tie (men), or noted that you will look like a sales rep (men) or administrative assistant (women), and that's not good:
  • MATH
  • ASTRONOMY (but see comments and list below for indication of lack of agreement)
It might be OK or expected (depending on subfield/geography) to wear a suit in ASTRONOMY, CHEMISTRY, COMPUTER SCIENCE, ENGINEERING (many sorts). (agree/disagree?)

Speaking as an old(ish) professor who has seen many interviewees wander through my departments over the years, I can say that I don't notice what interviewees or any visitors are wearing (men or women), with the exception of the woman whose feet were bleeding in her uncomfortable new shoes. In that case, I only noticed because she kept slipping the shoes off.

It would be great if others continue to comment and provide more data, but can we now consider this pressing issue mostly dealt with, resolved, sufficiently addressed, and/or defanged, at least in this corner of the blogosphere?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

What to Wear AGAIN?

Over in Scientopia, I attempt to acquire data on What to Wear for a faculty interview in various academic disciplines. What is considered typical interview-wear for men and women? What is the range of generally acceptable attire? I get this question a lot, and now I seek nothing less than to create a comprehensive guide, keeping in mind that some advice will be strange and wrong.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

File Time : The Data

The topic of yesterday and today is: How much time do promotion & tenure committees (at the level above the department) spend on each case?

Typically, the committee members spend time reading files before the committee meeting(s). This can take from 1 to a few hours, according to my experience and those of some of the commenters from yesterday.

Some of the range in time spent discussing each case in committee meetings is accounted for by different expectations for what the P&T committee produces: just a vote, or also a document. One thing that surprised me when I started looking into this question is the wide range of time/case spent by different committees even within the same institution. For example, an institution in which a P&T committee in one unit spent hours on each case, whereas another committee spent a small fraction of that.

Time/case can be substantial, even for apparently straightforward cases. These committees should not assume that the department has done everything right and go along with either a positive or negative vote for tenure. The reason that the awarding of tenure is a multi-stage process is to have checks-and-balances. Maybe the department was not objective (either for or against the candidate). Maybe they missed something in the file (either for or against the candidate). The committee needs to examine the record in light of all the evidence in the file. Time discussing the case in a committee meeting might well be << the time spent in the first reading the file, but time/case in the committee should only be short if everyone has done their homework first.

I was also surprised because one of the fastest time/case examples I encountered was attributed not to the excellence of the candidates but to the magnitude of experience of the committee members and chair. That made me nervous. I don't think any of us, no matter how many years spent on such committees, should ever get to the point of believing that we can tell at a glance whether someone should get or not get tenure. At some point, the beneficial aspects of having a lot of experience evaluating tenure cases may be replaced by egotism and carelessness. I recently met someone who had crossed that line.

It might make tenure candidates anxious to know that some committees spend many many hours poring over every detail of their file, but from what I've seen, this attention to detail is not for the purpose of rooting out flaws, but for making sure that the decision, whatever it may be, is fair and had a solid basis in the record.

And it might make some tenure candidates anxious to know that there are committees who don't spend much time on each case. It's an anxious time, either way.

I can say, though, that from what I've seen, many P& T committees are composed of people who try to come to fair decisions through detailed reading and thoughtful discussion. That overall optimistic view was somewhat shaken by my recent conversation with someone (let's call him "Ed") from a discipline that does not involve the sciences (let's call it "Ed"), but I hope that the Eds of the academic world are rare beasts.

Monday, November 15, 2010

File Time : The Question

Through various conversations in the past few months, I have tried to figure something out:

How much time do tenure and promotion committees typically spend on each candidate's file? I am speaking here of the P&T committee that is at the college/school level of a university or the equivalent at a smaller institution (i.e., above the department level).

If you have not (yet) been on such a committee: What is your guess for the range of typical duration of file-gazing/discussing?

If you are tenure-track faculty, do you hope this is a long time or a short time?

If you have been on such a committee: How much time did you spend on a typical file, and/or what is the total range of time, from the easy cases to the difficult cases?

Do you think or know that your experience differs from that of colleagues on similar committees in other parts of your institution or at different institutions?

Today I am posing these questions to see what kind of comments come in. Ideally, there will be comments with guesses from the uncommitteed as well as data from P&T committee members.

For now, I will just say that the results of my informal, statistically meaningless, anecdotal investigations surprised me.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Academic Parents : Survey

Below is a link to a survey from a sociologist who is researching the experiences of tenured/tenure-track faculty who have children born or adopted in the past 4 years. If you fit this category, you may not have 20-25 minutes to do the survey, especially if it cuts into your blog reading/writing time, but perhaps you will have sympathy for an academic trying to acquire as much data as possible.

Has anyone has done a survey that follows parents of young children further in their careers to see how being a parent affects one's career at various stages? I am being just a bit self-absorbed here, as the parent of a child about ten years older than the target of this survey, but although being a parent is in some ways less intense as the child gets older and more self-sufficient, except when she loses her cell phone for the 4th time in a year, there are other time-consuming parenting activities.

A recent topic of conversation among some of my colleagues with offspring who have recently started driving is how the stress of having their teenagers drive balances with the relief of no longer having to shuttle them to soccer practice, horse riding lessons, or even to and from school. In fact, as I write, I am waiting for my daughter near the site of one of her favorite Activities, an event that requires 4.5 hours, including driving. I can get some work done while she's Activating (and also read about how cats, unlike dogs, have an "instinctive ability to calculate the balance between opposing gravitational and inertial forces"), but it's still a lot of time, with even more devoted to transportation to/from Activities over the next three days. I am definitely both dreading and looking forward to her being able to drive in the not-too-distant future.

Anyway, for you academic parents who don't need to worry about driving offspring for 11-15 more years:

Faculty Parent Survey

I am currently conducting research on parenting in academia. I wish to survey mothers and fathers who had, or adopted, a child recently (2006 - present), AND were in a tenured or tenure-track faculty position at the time.

If you meet these criteria and would be interested in giving your perspective on issues about combining parenthood and professorship, I invite you to take an online survey that should take approximately 20-25 minutes to complete.

link to the survey is: http://bit.ly/prof-parent-survey>http://bit.ly/prof-parent-survey


Laurie Petty

Sociology Department

University of Kansas


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Getting to Know Me (and You)

Here's my recent essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education. I must admit I was not too happy about the title, and in particular the subtitle of the CHE piece. There is a throwaway line deep in the essay about Facebook, and I wouldn't have selected that as a topic to highlight in the title. Anyway, I am having a Perfect Storm week of long meetings, proposals, longer meetings, teaching, boring meetings, proposals, and random crises, so here is the CHE essay, which may lead to future discussion of the perennial topic of how graduate students and potential advisers initiate contact in certain academic disciplines.

Every year around this time, I get e-mails from prospective graduate students who want to know if I will be taking on new students in the next academic year. The content of their messages varies a surprising amount, as does, I suspect, the responses we give as professors.

Undergraduates who send those exploratory e-mails have typically been advised to do so. I am in a physical-sciences field in which graduate students often apply to work with, and be advised by, a specific professor or professors. It's the departments—usually a committee in consultation with the chair—that decide whom to admit, but advisers have a major role in those decisions. That's why undergraduate advisers recommend that their students write to prospective graduate advisers.

It is useful to send an exploratory e-mail because some professors may not be interested in advising a new student—depending on how many advisees they already have, and on what grant money is available to pay research assistantships.

Graduate-student support can be supplemented, to some extent, by departmental teaching assistantships and fellowships, but faculty members may be asked to make a financial commitment for at least the first year or two of a student's graduate career, especially for international students who might not arrive with sufficient language skills to be teaching assistants.

Although departments try to admit as many of the "top" applicants as possible, there are typically more qualified applicants than openings. The decision about whether to admit particular students, therefore, involves not only their qualifications but also whether a student would be a good match with a particular adviser. E-mail messages from prospective graduate students are a way for them to determine whether there is even any point in applying to work with a particular professor.

What do students write in those introductory e-mails? What should they write? The former is easy to answer, if we can assume that the messages I receive are representative of the genre. The answer to the second question will vary from professor to professor, but I can explain what I like (and don't like) to see in an e-mail from a prospective graduate student.

Most of the messages include some or all of the following: the name of the student's undergraduate institution, major and minor fields, graduation date, relevant research experience, and field of interest for graduate study. Most e-mails ask some version of this question: Is there any point in applying? And then they make a vague request for "more information."

Some students ask about money (tuition, benefits, salary attached to a research assistantship). Others mention details of their personal circumstances (spouses and significant others).

All of those issues, however, are better left for another time: Money is important, but you as a student can probably find out the numbers some other way (via our Web site or an e-mail to a staff administrator). And personal situations are, well, personal. Your first e-mail to a potential graduate adviser should be professional and short.

Something you probably should mention in the e-mail, but most students don't, is whether you are interested in pursuing a master of science, a master's and then maybe a Ph.D., or definitely a Ph.D. That information is critical to my answer about whether I will be looking for new graduate students in the next academic year. For example, I might be looking for a new Ph.D. student, but not a new M.S. student, or vice versa.

I like a succinct e-mail. Your message is not a pre-application, so I don't want to see your full CV or research statement. I will look at those later, if you actually follow through and apply to the graduate program and you have a good enough application for the admissions committee to pass it along. To cover yourself, just in case the potential adviser you are approaching does want to see such detailed information at this early stage, you could provide a link to a Web site where that information is posted. Professors can follow the link, or not.

Some students ask if they can visit, or mention that they will be at a particular conference and would like to talk with me in person there. I always have mixed feelings about those requests. On the one hand, requesting a visit or a face-to-face conversation demonstrates serious intent. Meeting a potential adviser can help applicants with their decision about whether to apply. The encounters can also be useful for me as the potential adviser because I can form an impression that helps me make an admissions decision later in the process.

On the other hand, it's hard to find time for many of those informal meetings, including at conferences. Fortunately, not every potential applicant wants to arrange a meeting before he or she even applies. I can, however, meet a few.

If a potential applicant and a potential adviser are going to be at the same conference in the near future, it's fine to ask if it would be possible to meet. I do not, however, like e-mails in which students inform me that we are going to meet. I have had students write and tell me that they will meet me directly after my talk at a specific conference (without checking with me as to whether that is a good time). I've had others tell me that Monday would be a good day for us to have lunch together, and I've had students ask me for my cellphone number so they can find me at the conference. One potential applicant—in what I hope is not a trend—sent me a friend request through Facebook. I am actually not that friendly, although I do try to chat with prospective students at conferences.

If you do want to meet a potential adviser in person, my advice would be to keep your request general at first, to see if the professor is interested. Or, if you don't want to request a meeting, just try to track down the professor at a conference, such as at a poster session.

E-mail messages from potential applicants typically end with a request for more information. I can appreciate that it's difficult to know how to finish such a message to an unknown professor, but "more information" is too vague.

My department Web pages describe my continuing research and my published work is accessible, so there's quite a lot of information already available about likely research opportunities. I typically respond with a few sentences about research opportunities, but I don't provide much "more" information.

Of course, the questions that students really want answered aren't appropriate to ask, at least not to me directly: Am I a mean adviser or a nice adviser? Do I expect my students to work nights and weekends? Am I a control freak, or do I have a sink-or-swim advising philosophy? Will I scream at them if they don't run a spell checker before handing me a document, or will I merely sigh?

To find out that kind of information, you will have to write to my current and recent graduate students—something I encourage potential applicants to do.

And what about my response to you? Do I even bother? Yes, I always write back, except for the cases that are obviously mass-mailed form letters that start "Dear Sir" and mention a research field that is completely unrelated to mine.

Barring those, why do I answer every legitimate message? I write back because maybe one day the student will be my student.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Parent Trap

This post is not about being a parent and a professor. It is about something far far stranger. And it is also over at Scientopia.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010


A reader is troubled by the increasing use of impersonal online application systems for faculty positions, and finds the process disappointing, given the momentousness of the occasion, and would even prefer to mail a paper application (although correctly recognizes that doing so would likely result in an overworked staff person having to scan and compile the document into a pdf for the committee).

For me -- i.e., someone who got her first academic jobs in the Paper Era -- there was nothing particularly satisfying about sending off a physical application, including a CV printed in a carefully-chosen font on heavy weight, watermarked, acid-free, ivory linen paper with matching envelope. The result is the same. You get back a form letter or e-mail, either a week later or seconds later, acknowledging receipt of your application. Then you wait and hope that rumors will trickle back to you that your letter writers have been asked to write letters. And then you wait some more etc. The main events on the application trail are the same, even if the first step has changed in form.

I have no experience with applying for a job via an online system, but, although I can imagine that this process can be a bit 'dehumanizing', I think overall I would enjoy the convenience of this type of submission process. As someone who has used online application systems to hire postdocs and temporary staff, and who has been on faculty hiring committees that used these systems, I definitely appreciate the convenience.

I would much rather read applications as pdf files on my laptop wherever and whenever I want, instead of spending many hours in a small room rifling through files. I also like the convenience of having all the relevant files in the same format in an organized way. Imagine reading A LOT of these files. The elegance of someone's choice of paper or font for a printed CV is completely lost on a reader who has to read many of these things.

Seven hours into a marathon application-reading and discussing session today, what was left of my brain wondered which was more exhausting -- reading applications or grading. Even if I were lucid, I probably couldn't decide that right now.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Don't Ask Me

A colleague and I typically teach each other's classes 1-3 times each term when the other is traveling. Although it can be strange to drop into someone's class for a lecture or three, it can also be fun. Sometimes.

During my last substitution experience, it was just my luck that I also had to return an exam. The graduate student who was originally assigned to be a grader and assistant for this large class had been fired from that position recently, so I was on my own. I decided to return the exams at the end of class, stopping my lecture a bit early to allow time for the chaos of returning exams to a large class. Before returning the exams, I told the students to talk to Professor X if they had any questions about their exams. In fact, Professor X had told them in the previous class that they should direct all question to him, the professor of the class, and not to me, the substitute who was just filling in for the next class.

When the exams were handed back, one student approached me, exam in hand.

Student: I have a question about how I was graded on question #9.

Me: You will have to ask Professor X about that.

Student: But I just want to know why I lost points on question #9.

Me: You will have to ask Professor X about that. I haven't even looked at the exam.

Student: But I just have this one question.

Me: You will have to ask Professor X your question. I did not grade the exam. I have not looked at the exam. I cannot answer your question.

Student: But my question is about [TOPIC], which I wrote about in question #9.

Me: You will have to ask Professor X about that.

Student: I just want to know about this question (starts reading aloud his answer to question #9).

Me: What part of "You will have to ask Professor X" don't you understand?

OK, I did not really say that. Let me try again.

Me: Maybe if you were a better listener, you wouldn't have gotten such a low grade on the exam.

No, I didn't say that either. I was, however, reminded of a time, years ago, when I used to dog-sit for a friend of mine. When she and her family were out of town for short trips, I would stay overnight at her house and take care of her dogs. My cats, who had to spend the night at our house without me, were very mature about this, and I enjoyed having some dog-time.

One of the dogs was very young and energetic. I spent a lot of time playing fetch with this dog, and she was always disappointed when I stopped throwing her favorite ball; she never wanted to stop. One day, I decided that I was going to play fetch until the dog got tired of it. I wanted to find her limit; I was going to wear that dog out if it took all night. We played fetch for more than 4 hours without stopping, and then I gave up. She was sad when we stopped, and kept dropping the ball at my feet and looking at me beseechingly. Wouldn't I just throw it a few or a thousand more times?

I was reminded of this because, when this student kept repeating his question, I decided to wear him down. I wanted to make him give up asking me this same question over and over. And I was curious: How many times could he ask this question, despite my repeated insistence that I was not going to answer his question? Who would give in first?

Pop quiz!

The correct answers to the questions above are:

a. 11 times, FSP gave in first
b. 11 times, student gave in first
c. Why are you so competitive with puppies and students?
d. Why do you hate men and dogs so much?

This student was extremely annoying and seemed to lack certain listening/comprehension skills, but perhaps his persistence will be useful to him in some career?

Friday, November 05, 2010

It's 10 PM. Do You Know Where Your Colleagues Are?

Presumably, if you are a professor in a small department, you know where your colleagues live. If you are in a medium-sized department (more than 15ish but less than 40ish faculty), you may or may not know. So my question, which is primarily aimed at professors in medium-sized departments, is:

Do you know where all of your colleagues live?

You don't need to have been to their homes or even know their exact street or color of their house. You can answer 'yes' if you know the eighborhood of residence of each of your colleagues, or at least a fairly specific geographic area in which they live.

I am specifying medium-sized departments because I am assuming that there are department sizes at which the question isn't even sort of interesting, either because there are so few faculty or so many.

I am in a meidum-sized department, and realized today that I sort of know where all my colleagues live, with one exception.

I think I acquired a lot of this knowledge early in my career in my present department, as that is the time when new colleagues are invited to dinner, even if such invitations become inconceivable later when you and some of your colleagues develop major differences of opinion about certain departmental issues and would therefore never voluntarily invite each other to visit.

And of course faculty move, but such moves are a common topic of inter-faculty conversation, so it's not difficult to keep track of the real estate adventures of colleagues.

Some days I am in the mood for a poll; some days I prefer to leave questions more open. Today is an open-question-mood kind of day, and I am wondering how well other faculty know the residential details of their colleagues in a non-small but non-huge department.

And, depending on the answer, what do you think this says about the level of collegiality in your department? Is it an indicator of collegiality (if you know where your colleagues live) or a lack thereof (if you don't)? Or is it unrelated to collegiality; e.g., merely an indicator of the level of obsession with real estate in particular regions of the country?

I don't want to exclude too many readers from this query, though, so if you are in a huge department, you could answer anyway, either for the entire department or based on a sub-section of the department, and if you are a grad student or postdoc, you could comment on whether you know where your adviser/supervisor lives (and for students, where your committee members live). Or, if you are in a small department and don't know where your colleagues live, feel free to contradict the presumption I made at the beginning of this post.

Thursday, November 04, 2010


At an international conference not so long ago, I saw a talk by a Distinguished Professor. The talk consisted of figures that he cut and pasted from papers he published decades ago when he was a hot young scientist doing cutting edge work. There was nothing new in the talk: not the images, not the science, even though this was not supposed to be a review talk. I suppose it was accepted as a talk at the conference because of the Distinguishedness of the professor, in honor of the contributions he made to his field in his academic youth.

OK.. I thought, as I listened to the boring talk, this is weird, and there are several possible explanations, some of which could probably be eliminated if I knew the Distinguished Professor personally (but I do not):

Hypothesis #1. He does have new results to present, but he just didn't have time to write them up by the abstract deadline, and between the time his abstract was accepted and the conference, he also didn't have time to prepare a new talk, so he thought he'd present his 'classic' work (which is indeed classic and much-cited) because it remains the best work he has done to date and he figured the audience wouldn't mind seeing it again.

Hypothesis #2. Similar to Hypothesis #1, but with the additional factor that he didn't think it was worth spending the time because most of the scientists in the audience were not native English speakers and he figured his old work was good enough for this particular conference venue.

Hypothesis #3. He actually hasn't done much that is worth speaking about since his classic work. He didn't want to present the results of his recent work because that would definitely be boring. So he had an idea! He decided to relive the glory days of his best work.

Hypothesis #4. Although by no means ancient, the DP has lost his mind, has impaired judgment, has been ill, or has some other tragic reason, beyond his control, for being unable to prepare a presentation of new (or at least more recent) results.

Whatever the reason, if it related to hypotheses #1, 2 or 3, it was a miscalculation. Oh, I am sure that his distinguishedness has not lost much, if any, of its luster, but there was quite a bit of murmuring at the conference about the boring, recycled talk, and some people were a bit insulted that he would present something so completely old for a non-review talk.

I kind of forgot about this recycled talk incident for a while, but a colleague (who was not at the international conference) recently told me that he went to a US conference and heard a talk by this same DP. My colleague was dismayed that the talk had consisted of nothing but recycled slides and description of old work.

This colleague knew nothing about the previous conference, and spontaneously mentioned his opinion when we were discussing what we might want to present at a future conference. My colleague had joked "We could just show the figures from our 1993 paper." What?? Then he explained, and I was amazed that the DP had re-recycled his talk.

But: At least I could eliminate Hypothesis #2 based on this new data point. The DP was equally willing to bore people at home and abroad.

It's impossible to know what motivated the re-recycling, or to know whether the DP was at all aware that his audience might not be fascinated by these presentations, but this incident relates to the general issue of how much 'old' material we can/should present in our conference talks.

When presenting new results from a long-term project, I sometimes worry about how much of the 'old' work to present as context for the new -- when you only have a short time to present complex results, every minute counts and you (should) want to highlight the new, but perhaps the new can't be understood without also presenting some of the old results. At the same time, perhaps a significant fraction of the audience isn't aware of the old work, and it would be a mistake to assume otherwise. (Note: A couple of years ago, I discussed a similar issue regarding invited non-conference talks and the eerie similarity between professors and rock stars).

From now on, I will probably have this DP re-recycling incident circling my head whenever I prepare a talk that consists of at least some old material. Getting the balance right can be challenging, but it is well worth thinking about during talk preparation.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010


Today I am over at Scientopia, with a post about 'passive sexism' that is actually not very passive.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

What He Said

Recently I attended a committee meeting as an 'observer', and I noticed after a while that whenever the committee had to come up with names of people to take on certain positions of responsibility, only names of men were mentioned. When the position of note-taker was discussed, a woman was mentioned. Then the committee went back to discussing more positions of responsibility, and the lists compiled had only the names of men on them.

Although only an observer, I wanted to say something about this, but just as I was deciding on how to jump into the discussion, a man on the committee said "Hey, I just noticed that we only have men on these lists." The others nodded and another man immediately came up with the name of a distinguished female professor. Then someone else thought of another woman. Like magic, qualified and even talented women appeared in the collective consciousness of the committee.

One excellent thing about this is that the man who noticed the lack of women has previously complained to me about how stupid he thinks it is to consider gender as a factor in anything to do with our jobs as science professors. Maybe he still thinks that, maybe he doesn't, but today he spoke up and it made a big difference.

Monday, November 01, 2010

The Other End of the Pipeline

Lately I have been losing some of my colleagues; specifically: senior female colleagues who either leave academic entirely or who dive into administrative positions, never to be seen again in a research setting or even a science conference.

Some administrators maintain some level of research activity or graduate advising. Some of my disappearing colleagues have intended to do this, but eventually they stopped any involvement in research and devoted themselves full-time to administrative positions of various sorts.

It is a good thing if university administration involves a diverse group of people who work to improve the key aspects of the university: teaching and research. I think there are far too many administrators at my university, but I know that universities do need to have some. When I think about it at the individual level, I am glad that these women -- all of them excellent researchers and teachers -- are in positions of power.

Even so, there weren't many senior FSPs active in research in my field at the time I started my career, and now there are far fewer. None of these women were particularly old when I started my career, so the losses have not primarily been from retirements.

I thought that being a mid-career FSP would involve having older and younger FSP colleagues, with more of the latter than the former, but certainly some of each. Lately, however, I have been the oldest or only FSP in some academic settings, and the youngest in others (because there are still so few early-career FSPs in my field). I didn't expect either of those situations to arise very often at this stage of my career. Shouldn't being middle-aged and mid-career mean having younger and older colleagues?

I am certainly not criticizing any of the senior women who decide to leave research and teaching and pursue a career path in administration, and I am not criticizing the women who quit academia entirely. Each individual needs to decide what is best for her life and career. Nevertheless, I am always saddened when another one disappears from the realm of research. Some days, it's lonely in the middle.