Thursday, March 31, 2011

I Hear You

In a recent Ms. Mentor column in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Ms. Mentor fielded a question from a "Katie Anne", a "new, young assistant professor in a department of older, mostly male, tenured faculty members". Katie Anne feels invisible in her department, particularly in meetings. No one listens to her. Her accomplishments are ignored. A male professor on a committee is praised for his participation; she is praised for being a good note-taker on the same committee.

This is of course a classic problem that many women have described and discussed. I have done my fair share of complaining about this very issue in this blog and in real life.

What to do?

I generally find Ms. Mentor amusing, but I was not amused by this advice, which I have heard before and in fact have never liked:

"Middle-aged men do lose the ability to hear higher registers, and they may tune out high-pitched or breathy voices. Women can train themselves to speak in lower, more resonant tones. The best female voice to imitate, according to Researchers Who Know, belongs to Julia Roberts."

That advice makes me want to scream in a shrill, high-pitched voice. In fact, I don't have a high-pitched or breathy voice, and quite a few middle-aged men (and women) can hear me just fine. Furthermore, although my voice is not particularly loud and not especially resonant, plenty of middle-aged and older men can hear me when they want to. The problem is that some don't want to. They need to be trained to listen to women.

Is that a non-constructive thing to ask? If we women are serious about being taken seriously, should we be willing to train ourselves to speak (but, according to Ms. Mentor, not look) like Julie Roberts for the higher purpose of being heard? Isn't it a small thing to suggest -- that women learn to speak in a more "resonant" voice so that men will listen to us more?

No, it is not a small thing to suggest. And the problem is not our voices.

The invisible, inaudible young professor is also advised by Ms. Mentor to say only intelligent, relevant things. OK, that's fine, let's all restrict ourselves to saying only intelligent, relevant things.. if our male colleagues do the same.

Oh yes, and the young assistant professor should work hard at making people like her. I don't think there is much evidence that women who are thought to be nice and friendly are taken more seriously than cranky women, but I'm certainly not going to argue against trying to be collegial, even with selectively deaf middle-aged men.

I agree that young women should try to avoid the upward inflection that makes statements sound like questions and should try to speak directly and professionally. I have trouble listening for even short periods of time to people who use 'like' 5 times in every sentence, particularly in a professional conversation. This is advice for everyone, not just women. And this is not the same as telling half the population to train their voice so that the other half will not tune them out.

The best part of Ms. Mentor's advice is the last part:

"Once you do get tenure, and you're eminent and older, you'll stop being invisible. You can get a cowbell or a bullhorn and become a powerful and tyrannical dean. That'll get everyone's attention—but so will being a kind and inclusive mentor, who tries to get all to listen and speak. You'll know how."

I agree that with time and relentless evidence that a woman is a serious professional with useful and interesting things to say, many men will listen more. But it can take a lot of time to get there; in my case, well over 10 years.

Getting tenure is of course essential, but if a woman is invisible before tenure, she is likely to be only semi-visible soon after getting tenure. Female associate professors are less invisible; they are sort of translucent.

When promoted to full professor, after a few years, we solidify a bit more. Perhaps our voices also deepen!? And we are more visible and audible to those who were unable to see (and hear) us when we were younger, particularly if we are respected by people outside our own departments (and our department colleagues know this) and if quite a few younger faculty have been hired.

So, to the Katie Annes of the academic world: Keep your voice, use it to make your points clearly and well (even if you have to make them more than once), and do awesome work. A hopeful thought is that it won't take 10-15 years to be seen and heard. Perhaps the "invisible" stage for young female professors in male-dominated departments will get shorter and shorter in duration, and eventually disappear. I would like to see that.

If you are a formerly invisible female professor: How long did it take you to become visible? Did anything other than tenure and time bring an end to your invisibility?

If you are still invisible: How long have you been in this state?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Not For Your Information

A reader writes with this cautionary tale:

I don't know if you've heard about NSF FOIA requests, but you can make
an FOIA request to get copies of funded proposals from NSF. A
colleague of mine told me about this; that all NSF proposals are
public and that's why they have FOIA requests. It certainly sounded to
me as if NSF has a public repository or library of proposals where
anyone could easily get access. It also made sense to me --- research
papers are public, so why not funded proposals? So I made a request
for a number of proposals that looked interesting and relevant to me.

However, it turns out that it's not the case at all. NSF folks

themselves don't seem to like FOIA requests and they contact the PIs
to get approval. Then there's paper work involved. And so on. But a
bigger problem is that some people get offended by this request.

So after I found this out, I withdrew the request and sent out emails

to numerous PIs to apologize. And I will certainly tell all of my
colleagues to never do this.

I can certainly see why some PIs would be freaked out that someone was requesting to see their proposals. Proposals contain our unpublished ideas and plans. We already have to trust reviewers and panel members with these ideas, and hope that no one will steal them before we have a chance to carry out the research and publish the results. I do understand that these are public documents in some ways, but they are also very sensitive documents, and shouldn't be immediately available to anyone who wants to use or misuse them.

Of course there are innocent reasons why someone would want to see a proposal, particularly an early career faculty member who is curious about the research topics in certain proposals and who might benefit from seeing how others put proposals together. There are, however, less perilous ways to achieve some of those same goals; for example, asking senior colleagues or mentors if you can see their proposals, working on new proposals with these same colleagues, serving on a proposal review panel, communicating directly with PIs about mutual research interests, and/or inviting researchers of interest to give a talk in your own department.

I am glad that my correspondent wrote to the PIs of the proposals he requested to apologize and make it clear why he requested their proposals. This was a good thing to do. If I were one of the PIs, I would not hold it against the young professor who was just curious to see some interesting and possibly useful proposals.

And I agree that it's not a good idea to make a Freedom of Information Act request for someone's NSF proposal, even if you can.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Where You Sit

Once upon a time, when I was about to give an invited lecture at another university, my faculty host warned me ahead of time that the talk was in a very large lecture hall that was much too large for their department. Even if everyone remotely interested in our field of science from within a 50 mile radius came to my talk, the lecture hall would still have many empty seats. Furthermore, he told me, the graduate students would all be sitting in the last few rows and the faculty would be sitting in the first few rows, with a big blank area in between.

And so it was. It was kind of strange. In order to make eye contact with these two groups of people, I had to either look way up high to the back of the lecture hall or look down at the professors sitting clustered near the front. If I looked in the middle distance, I was looking at nothing, just seats.

This was an extreme case of a common phenomenon that I have seen again and again during visits to give talks at other universities. Professors sit near the front -- perhaps because our fading eyesight and hearing requires it -- and students sit in the back.

Although in other situations I prefer to sit near the back of a room, when I go to talks in my department, I like to sit near the front. This helps me focus on the talk more and makes it easier for me to be seen and heard if I ask a question. I don't know what reasons my colleagues have for sitting near the front, but that's where we professors all are during department seminars.

How divided is the seating in general talks in your department? Is there any place where professors sit near the back and students sit near the front?

How many places have total mixing of faculty and students? I had seen such places, but I think they are more rare than the professor-in-front/students-in-back seating arrangement.

If you are in a professor-in-front/student-in-back kind of department, do you think this is weird? cool? normal? Do you think there should be more mingling or are you happy sitting with your peers? If you are a postdoc, where do you sit? With the faculty or with the students or in between? (assuming you give it any thought at all)

I could do another poll, but I think I will just leave these questions to be answered in the comments today. An informal survey has indicated to me that people (other than me) have given this seemingly trivial situation a surprising amount of thought..

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Cat Scream

The following image has been provided to me through various indirect, circuitous, and secret Cat Channels, so I apologize that I cannot identify the original photographer, but I could not pass up the opportunity to show this amazing illustration:

If I ever have time for a new hobby, a very enticing possibility involves photographing the flanks of tabby cats.

And: Happy eenth Birthday to my amazing daughter!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Academic Novels - latest

Two books that I read recently are not academic novels sensu stricto, but contain academic characters: one whose academic career is central to the novel (Pym, by Mat Johnson) and one whose academic career is peripheral (The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, by Dinaw Mengestu).

I liked both books a lot, especially the first 43% of Pym, but there are some odd things about the depiction of academics and academia in these books. [In the case of Pym, which is perhaps the strangest book I have ever read, these odd things pale in comparison with the rest of the book, but I will mention them nevertheless.]

First the easy one: In The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, a professor of American history uses her sabbatical to live in an old house that she has had renovated (remarkably quickly and at great expense) in a gentrifying neighborhood in Washington DC. It's not exactly clear what she is doing with her sabbatical, but she mentions at one point that she used to love being a professor:

"And for a while, it was great," she said. "I loved it. The students, the summers off. I could pick [my daughter] up from school every day. And at night I still had the energy to go out for dinner or watch a movie."

Does that resonate with everyone? Is everyone looking forward to their summer off, not to mention those energy-filled evenings after a leisurely day of talking and whatever?

Anyway, that's not the point of the book, and that weird description of the relaxing life of a professor doesn't detract from the novel. At the other end of the spectrum, Pym deliberately warps its depictions of academics, and excels at it.

I read reviews of Pym before I read the book, and saw repeated the description of the main character, an African American professor, as someone who was denied tenure because he refused to serve on his college's diversity committee. I was prepared to dislike the book based on that; I was suspicious that the book might be a typical attack on academia, and in particular a crude attempt at parodying the stereotypical political correctness of certain parts of academia.

But: Perhaps because the academia part of the book is so funny, and perhaps because the rest of the book is so bizarre, I was, in fact, not annoyed when I actually read the book. The tenure denial turns out to be an important plot element, without which the professor's office would not have been cleaned out without his knowledge, his rare books placed on his porch to be ruined by rain, resulting in a financial settlement that allows the professor to head to Antarctica to meet a 200-year old man living in underground ice caves with large, white, furry, sadistic creatures. It's hard to make that plot transition work without invoking a faculty meeting or two, but Johnson does it in Pym.

I didn't like how the professor-character says that he didn't care how obscure his topic or how empty his classes, he was going to teach what he wanted anyway (though this is one reason for his tenure denial), and he does seem to have been hired as a diversity token (the President of the "historically white college" that denied him tenure tells him: "You were retained to purvey the minority perspective."), but there were quite a few things that I liked about the academic elements of Pym; such as the rather compelling first sentence:

"Always thought if I didn't get tenure I would shoot myself or strap a bomb to my chest and walk into the faculty cafeteria, but when it happened I just got bourbon drunk and cried a lot and rolled into a ball on my office floor."

I'm not a big fan of Edgar Allen Poe, books populated by large creepy creatures, senseless violence and/or Armageddon, but I highly recommend this book anyway.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Location Location Location

In conversations with colleagues during some recent travels by me and visits to my department by others, the seasonal topic of Grad Recruitment was much discussed.

One issue that some colleagues clearly spend a lot of time thinking about is the relative effects of:

the excellence of the university, department, research group/advisor


the location of the university.

(more on university vs. department vs. research group reputation later; for now, I am lumping them.)

Everyone has different ideas about what makes a place desirable, so the geographic factor is not a constant, agreed-upon thing, although there are some general trends. Some people are happy to live in a big city, some are not; and some have very particular preferences about climate, topography, proximity to coastlines, and other features that are unrelated to the excellence of a particular graduate program. There might be some connection in particular instances (e.g., oceanography departments and coastal locations), but, in many cases, the geographic factor relates primarily to an individual's preferences.

For some grad applicants, these preference are guided by what each person is used to, although there is a subset that longs for something different from what they are used to.

The question that many of my colleagues talk about is the extent to which location matters in the decisions of students to apply to particular graduate programs, and then how it factors into decisions to accept an offer at one grad program versus another.

Of course there are some students who won't even apply to certain schools, however excellent, in particular locations, but I don't have a good sense for how that population of applicants compares in size to applicants who apply anyway and then use geography as a factor in deciding among offers.

Over the years, I have met quite a few grad students who do take location into account. However brief graduate school is in the scheme of things (although it may not seem that way when you are in it), some people are not willing to live in certain places that are too far from (or close to) their family, a coast, a mountain range, or a warm (or cold) place. These preferences may also limit job opportunities later, but I suppose there's no point in living in a place where you know (or think) you will be unhappy.

The issue of location is more severe for those in geographically-challenged places, but it cuts both ways: programs in places that might not be as scenic or climatically pleasant as some others worry that talented students won't accept their offers (or even apply in the first place); and programs in places that many people find to be geographically excellent get applicants who are significantly more interested in, say, skiing or rock climbing, than in their graduate studies (although this may not be mentioned in the applications).

I didn't take geography into account when making my own decision about which graduate school to attend, and, since I was single at the time, I didn't have to consider anyone else's geographic or other preferences. I chose the program that most closely matched my interests, and I was focused on working with a particular advisor whose papers I had read (and admired) as part of an undergraduate research project.

Am I unusual (in that particular respect) or is that common? FSP wants to know..

Did you take location into account when choosing a graduate school?
Yes - a major factor
Yes - one of many factors
No free polls
Please elaborate in the comments.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Rat Race

Every once in a while, I feel like writing a post that is somewhat-to-much-more obnoxious than others. Today is one of those days, but the post is over in Scientopia.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Can't, Don't, or Won't?

Not long ago, I heard a presentation by a Writing Expert -- someone (not a professor) who had expertise with teaching writing in academic contexts.

She said that she understands that many professors get frustrated when their students keep making the same mistakes in their writing, but that most people can't learn from their own writing mistakes, even after having the mistakes corrected and explained. It is essentially a learning disability.

The reappearance of the same-old-same-old writing errors, even in consecutive edited drafts, is certainly a phenomenon that frustrates many of us professors. We correct and explain a particular technical error and then expect that we won't see that particular problem again in the next draft, but we do see it.. again and again. Why didn't the student, even one whose native language is English, fix the problem?

Are they lazy or careless? Do they just expect others to fix their writing problems? It is not difficult to find laments such as this in professor-blogs.

But the Writing Expert said that most people can't fix these problems. She said that some can, but most can't. She said "can't", not "won't" or "don't", indicating a lack of ability, not a lack of willingness or attention.

I didn't get a chance to question her on this, so I don't know whether to believe it. Let's assume, at least for a moment, that she's right. Let's assume that there are high-quality, statistically valid, repeatable, controlled experiments that prove that most people are psychobiochemically unable to correct writing errors, even once these errors are corrected and explained, owing to intrinsic nanoneurosynaptic gaps. Or something.

Would knowing that 'they can't help it' help us -- the advisor-editors -- be more understanding when we encounter this frustrating problem? Would it make us -- especially those of us who (like to think that we) don't have this problem -- more likely to be patient when we have to point out (and fix) the same problem again and again?

In my case, probably not. It was interesting to hear this idea, but I am reluctant to embrace the 'they can't help it' explanation. Why can't a person -- one who is capable of understanding complex Science Concepts -- understand the concept of misplaced and dangling modifiers? Is there something special about grammar and spelling as compared to, say, partial differential equations?

Perhaps there is. I certainly realize that writing is a very personal activity, and this accounts for many of the problems we encounter with students and colleagues who are reluctant to write and who lack confidence in their writing. And I realize that learning disabilities are real and exist. But does most of the population have them? And does this also explain why most people are apparently unable to learn how to avoid using a misplaced modifier in their writing?

I don't know, but since I haven't found a brilliant way to help students (and others) help themselves self-correct technical writing mistakes, I would be interested in hearing from students who don't have documented learning disabilities and who know that, at some point, have frustrated their advisors by repeating previously-corrected technical errors in writing.

How did you approach your revisions? Did you focus on content and decide not to worry about the details (perhaps underestimating how much your advisor cared about these things)? Did you not find the previous correction(s) useful in a general way (i.e., you understood the specific correction, but not how that would apply to other, similar examples)? Have any of you received a technical correction and a light bulb went off and you (almost) never made that mistake again? Is there a certain style or type of correction that gets through, whereas others that do not?

Complaining about uneducable students and grammar-fascist advisors can be fun, but I hope that by discussing some examples, perhaps from both students and advisors, we can make some progress in figuring out how to diminish this source of annoyance for both the student-writer and the advisor-editor.

Friday, March 18, 2011

On Spring Break

A perusal of my posts on the topic of Spring Break reveals that I have discussed this excellent concept in a few contexts:

March 2009: my thoughts on the correspondence or lack thereof between my school-aged daughter's spring break vs. my university's spring break. Summary: I am happy when they don't coincide.

12 March 2010: a brief mention of the practical and emotional significance of spring break in the quarter vs. semester systems.

Also: A few scattered polls and discussions about whether we, as professors, do (and should) give an exam during the class immediately before (or immediately after) a break, and somewhere in the archives, I am pretty sure I discussed the issue of how advisors feel about students who use spring break for vacation vs. getting work done. I'm not all in the mood to revisit that topic today, but I do want to follow up on this:

8 March 2010: a poll to determine who will be off campus but working, off campus but not working, on campus and happily working, or on campus and unhappily working. This poll had separate parts for professors/postdocs and grad students. My vote was for 'on campus/happily working', and I would vote the same way this year. The 2010 results, based on 408 professor/postdoc votes and 279 grad student votes:

working: on campus/happy (44%), off campus (27%), on campus/not happy (17%);
not working: 12%

working: on campus/happy (41%), off campus (23%), on campus/not happy (22%);
not working: 14%

So, the results turned out about the same for both groups. A lot of us work during spring break, most happily, BUT now I want to redo the poll, subdividing professors and postdocs. Who is toiling on campus and who is basking in Cancun (or their back yard)? Let's find out:

What are you doing for Spring Break? (PROFESSORS)
off campus and working
off campus and not working
on campus and working (unhappily)
on campus and working (happily) free polls

What are you doing for Spring Break? (POSTDOCS)
off campus and working
off campus and not working
on campus and working (unhappily)
on campus and working (happily) free polls

What are you doing for Spring Break? (GRADS)
off campus and working
off campus and not working
on campus and working (unhappily)
on campus and working (happily) free polls

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Impromptu Invited Talk

Imagine this general scenario:

You are at (or about to go to) a conference or workshop or similar, and one of the organizers tells you that a slot has unexpectedly opened up for someone to give a talk. S/he invites you to give this talk, and you do.

The question (from a reader):

Can you list this as an invited talk on your CV?

I have given a couple of these impromptu invited talks, and I have not listed them on my CV. But then, I am old and don't need to document everything like early-career faculty need to do.

So I asked myself: If it mattered more to me, would I include such a talk on my CV, and if so, how would I indicate it? Would I flag it as an invited talk? Would I specify somehow that it was an informal invited talk?

And I had no obvious answer for myself, hence this post to ask readers what they have done, if anything, about such situations.

When I was talking to myself about this (silently, in this particular case), I considered the pros and cons of listing informal invited talks on a CV, and came up with this:


Even if the invitation was of the last-minute sort, it means that someone thought you had something interesting to say, and therefore listing the talk on your CV recognizes this fact.

You gave the talk. You should get some kind of documented credit for it.

For an early-career academic, invited talks are important for showing that you are respected and visible in your field. Of course, you may become even more visible and respected by giving such a talk, and perhaps that is 'credit' enough, but it can also be important to have such talks listed on a CV (because most people who review your CV will not have been at your talk).


It's a bit misleading to list an informal invite as if it were a formal invitation. A cynical person might interpret an impromptu invite as "They couldn't get the person they really wanted, so, out of desperation, they got someone else to fill the time."

If you simply list an informal invited talk on your CV with no further explanation and if someone took the time to search the relevant conference program and saw that you were not listed as giving an official invited talk, that could look bad. But I can't think of a good way to designate informal invites on a CV.

If you forced me to choose, I am leaning towards leaving informal invited talks off the CV and being content with the cosmic credit related to having been invited (even at the last minute) and having the opportunity to speak about your work.

If you think that the person who invited you is a fan of your work, that might be a good person to keep in mind for future external letter-writing (e.g., at tenure evaluation time). Then that person might describe what happened and mention the incident as an example of the esteem in which you are held. That's all quite hypothetical and less concrete than listing something on a CV, but it's nevertheless potentially more important (and accurate).

This all might seem like a detail, and some might say: If you have to worry about this level of trivia on your CV, you're probably in trouble.. but I disagree. CVs are scrutinized at various important stages of a faculty member's career. Many times, I have been one of the scrutinizers, and I know how important it is that CVs are complete, accurate, and unambiguous in their presentation of the essential elements of a professor's work.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Grant Expiration

Today in Scientopia, I discuss the mismatch between the time frame of a grant and the time frame of graduate students.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

What Did You Get?

A question for department chairs, past and present:

If you are or have ever been a department chair, what did you get from the Dean or other relevant administrator to compensate for your chairly time and efforts? Or, even if you are not and have never been a department chair but have authoritative knowledge of the resources with which chairs in your department have been provided, please provide some data. What did you/they get?

__ A reduction in number of courses taught?
__ A postdoc (or two), fully or partially funded?
__ Grad RA money?
__ Some nifty things for your department (faculty hires, technical support, renovations)?
__ Some summer salary?
__ A big/modest/miniscule raise?
__ Snazzy new office furniture?
__ Nothing but the warm fuzzy feeling that comes from doing administrative tasks?
__ Other?

And how does what you got relate to what you asked for? A "friend" of mine needs to know.

Monday, March 14, 2011

On Reluctance

An oft-repeated opinion in academic departments is that the person you don't want as department chair is the one who wants to be department chair. According to this philosophy, it is the deeply reluctant who are the more desirable candidates.

But is that true? Why shouldn't those who are willing (if able) to do the job be the ones who do the job? Why do some think it is better to have as chair someone who is reluctant to take on major administrative work?

In some departments, the chair position rotates (swivels?) among the tenured professors every few years and everyone is expected to take a turn at this job. In large departments, however, there is a selection process by which a new chair is designated from among the tenured professors (typically the full professors). It is in these cases that the significance of enthusiasm vs. reluctance is relevant.

I am skeptical that reluctance can be used as a reliable indicator of whether someone will be a good department chair.

I agree that someone who wants to assume the all-powerful position of chair in order to hoard resources for their own purposes, reward friends, enact vengeance on enemies, and schedule weekly faculty meetings at 7 AM on Mondays might be a bad choice. However, in the more normal situation in which some faculty are interested in serving as department chair and others would rather focus on research and teaching, why not choose a professor who is willing?

If someone sees being department chair as a good use of their time, and possibly even interesting, and has the necessary vision and organizational skills to do a good job, I think they would be a better choice than someone who would rather have an invasive medical procedure than spend more quality time with the Dean.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Measuring Your Nerd Quotient

How many of you have given a pet a nerdy name connected somehow to an academic passion of yours? For example, if you are a scientist, do you now -- or have you ever -- own(ed) a pet named for a famous scientist, a planet, a subatomic particle, a piece of lab equipment, a mineral etc.?

I must admit that I have done this on at least 3 occasions in my life.

Have you ever given a nerdy name to a pet?
No and I never would
No but I want to free polls
And here is one for the hard-core nerds: Have you ever given a human child a name connected somehow to an academic passion of yours?

I have not done this, having passed up my one opportunity to do so, but I know people who have done this.

Have you ever given a nerdy name to a child?
No and I never would
No but I want to free polls
In the comments, please provide the data: names, species, explanations, rationalizations, discussion of consequences..

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Tiger Chair

As a typical professor of Science, I know little about effective management skills, except what I have been able to pick up along the way by experimenting on students and postdocs. Most of my faculty colleagues have had similar experiences (i.e., a lack thereof), including those who find themselves in charge of committees, departments, and so on. I should therefore have sympathy for these colleagues when they struggle to "manage" us faculty, surely a difficult task for anyone.

And I do have sympathy, to some extent. What I hate, though, is the Scold Approach of management used by some chairpersons of various academic groups. I have recently experienced two modes of the Scold Approach:

Mode 1: in which someone in charge of something scolds a group of people in advance of their having done anything wrong. That is, the scolding is proactive, based on the assumption that some or all of us are likely to screw up, do something annoying, or waste the chairperson's time. This assumption may well be based on experience, but is it effective? Does it in fact decrease the chances of people doing the things they are criticized in advance for hypothetically doing?

Mode 2: in which someone in charge of something scolds certain unnamed people (typically, just one or a few) in a larger group of people, most or all of whom are blameless of the incident provoking the scolding. Recently, while sitting in a group that was scolded for something rather strange, I then spent the next 5-10 minutes sifting through the possibilities to understand the reason for, and the targets of, this criticism. I concluded that one or two people who were at the meeting were being scolded for possibly not being at the meeting, although they were definitely there and had not missed any meetings for months. As far as I could tell, all of us at the meeting were vaguely warned that we should all be at the meeting because 1-2 people might not have attended even though they did.

Is the Scold Approach an approved management technique, widely known as an example of best practices for persons tasked with producing deliverables whose outcomes for stakeholders need to be assessed? (for example)

This approach doesn't work well on me, perhaps for the same reason that use of the terms stakeholders and deliverables in an academic context makes me queasy. That is, being proactively scolded does not inspire me to be a better person who follows the rules in a timely way.

In place of mode 1, I would instead prefer being made aware of the rules/guidelines/deadlines/policies and politely reminded of what is required, and in place of mode 2, well, I would just get rid of mode 2. If there is a specific issue that potentially affects a small number of people, why not just talk to those individuals and not bother the rest of the group unless it becomes relevant to do so?

Those would be my preferences, but perhaps my approach would lead to misbehavior and chaos. I haven't found that to be the case with my gentle, non-scolding approach to parenting, which may or may not be different in important ways from being in charge of an academic committee or unit.

Perhaps mode 1 does decrease problems and makes a committee or unit run more smoothly? And perhaps mode 2 is a good way of reminding the group about procedures and expectations? I am hoping that readers will chime in and say "No no no, those are terrible ways to lead a group of people. It is much better to be nice and efficient than to be scolding and random. The next time someone proactively scolds you like that, you should snarl at them and show your fangs."

But feel free to dash these hopes.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Left Behind

Today in Scientopia, I discuss some angsty, anxious, anguished e-mails I get from readers who are thinking of "leaving" Science and/or Academia and are worried about what others may think of them as a result.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Why You Shouldn't Cheat: Reason #57

If you cheat in a professor's class and get caught, and then later, perhaps even much later, after the term in which you cheated is over, you might be out with friends on a Saturday night, having dinner at a restaurant near campus, and then in walks your former professor. You see your former professor, and she sees you. You were laughing at something, but you stop, even though your friends are still laughing at whatever you were all laughing about when your professor walked in. You stay on for another minute or two, but you are so uncomfortable, you get up and leave.

Perhaps you go somewhere else and continue to enjoy your Saturday night, or perhaps your evening is ruined because you are reminded of your cheating, and the F you got on the exam (as a consequence of your cheating), and your interview with some administrators in the office that deals with academic conduct. Perhaps you go back to your room and study or do homework so that you can continue to undo the damage you inflicted on your GPA as a consequence of your cheating.

The professor's evening will not be ruined by your presence in the same restaurant, even though it's not pleasant to be reminded about your cheating. In the rare instances when we professors venture off campus, we sometimes run into students who are happy to see us, we sometimes run into students who are surprised to see us outside of class (but who don't really mind seeing us), and we sometimes run into students who run the other way.

As long as the number of encounters with happy students is > or = to the number of surprised students and >> the number of students who run away at the very sight of us, I am content. It's would also be OK with me if the fear of off-campus encounters with professors served as a deterrent for potential cheaters.

I don't think it likely, however, that anyone who is tempted to cheat will first think "Wait a minute, maybe I shouldn't copy the answers from my friend's test because then the professor might catch me and then I might run into her at that Thai restaurant on X Street some night and have my evening ruined." But perhaps they should.

Monday, March 07, 2011

The Odd Women

A scientist put together a research team to do some Awesome Science, and they wrote a grant proposal together. The team involved three PIs at different universities, their graduate students, postdocs, undergrad research students, and so on: the usual elements of a research proposal. The proposed research was excellent, and all 3 PIs are talented, respected scientists. Even so, some people doubted whether the proposal would be funded.

There are lots of reasons to doubt whether any particular proposal, however excellent, will be funded, but in this case, there was a reason unrelated to the significance of the proposed work, the research qualifications of the research team, the technical merits of the proposal, or even the lack of enough money to fund all excellent grant proposals. So what was the reason for doubt in this case?

The 3 PIs are women.

The doubt had nothing to do with the qualifications of any one of the PIs (all are highly qualified), but rested on the fact that all 3 PIs are female.

Of course, in the entire history of humankind, including today, no one would blink an eye if there were 3 male PIs. In the physical sciences, most scientists are men, and this has always been the case, so an all-male team of PIs is unremarkable, even today.

Oh sure, nowadays male PIs might describe in a proposal how they would involve female students or postdocs in the research, and they might write about how some of them have even advised females in the past, but the proposal would be funded or not funded depending on the scientific merit of the proposed work. I see proposals like this all the time.

But, even considering that this field of science is dominated by men, especially at research universities, is it so strange that a research project might be led by three women?

And, even if it is unusual, is it a problem?

In fact, it was not a problem. The pessimists were wrong, and the proposal was funded. And it was funded because the science was great and the PIs are all leaders in their field, with substantial track records of excellence and productivity.

Now, some would think the proposal was funded because the 3 PIs are women.

Are you following along? It's confusing, I know, but here is a handy summary:

If the proposal is not funded, it might be because the 3 PIs are women.
If the proposal is funded, it might be because the 3 PIs are women.

Fortunately(?), these statements refer to perceptions, not reality. Today, projects led entirely by women, even in STEM fields in which women are vastly underrepresented, are funded by the NSF if the proposed research is excellent.

We are not yet, however, at the stage where an all-female team of PIs is unremarkable. We are still at the stage where some people wonder if women get grants because grant agencies have to fund some females to meet diversity quotas or worry about projects that involve too many women. Maybe we shouldn't worry about this. Maybe we should just be happy (for now) to get grants. Maybe it is asking too much to have grants and respect?

This started me thinking about what an unremarkable proportion of women would be on a project. Is it equal to or less than the proportion of women in a particular field, or can we crank that number up a bit? In a 3-person PI team in a field in which women represent much less than 1/3 of scientists at research universities, we'd have to round a fractional woman down to zero if we used the proportional scheme.

I'm going to propose that, in fields such as this, ~25 +/- 10 % would be a non-threatening, unremarkable % of women involved in a research team. At this level, most people wouldn't worry that the science won't be any good or that talented men are being excluded for unfair reasons that have nothing to do with their research skills or experience.

But actually, my preference would be to assume that my not-entirely-serious, cynico-sarcastic analysis is flawed -- the proposal with the 3 women PIs was funded, after all -- and let some people go ahead and worry that maybe it was funded because NSF has to toss some money to the girls now and then.

Eventually (soon?), anyone who remarks in a negative way on the oddness of an all-woman PI team will be told that they, in fact, are the odd ones to think there is anything remarkable or problematic about an excellent and productive research team that just happens to involve only women.

Note: The title of this post is an oblique reference to the George Gissing novel,
The Odd Women, in which "odd" doesn't mean that the women are bizarre, but refers instead to the fact that, in late 19th century England, there were more women than men of marriageable age; i.e., an "odd" number of women. The title of this post therefore refers to a possibly problematic circumstance in which there are too many women.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Out With The Old?

A question arose recently about an early career scientist* who has been slow to publish results from their PhD research. Now that this person is on the tenure track (TT), they have to make decisions about how best to spend their limited time: pursuing new research vs. finishing old projects.

(*someone completely unrelated to my research group, just in case anyone is getting paranoid)

I am not talking about unreasonable expectations by former advisors regarding post-graduation or post-postdoctoral publication; i.e., I am not referring to cases in which someone published the key papers from their previous work but their advisor would like them to publish even more. In that case, new work clearly must rule.

The tricky cases are when there are still major papers that should come out of the pre-TT years, but these have not yet been written/submitted.

Yet, if a TT professor spends time writing up old projects, there is less time for the new projects. There are only so many hours in a day and there are only so many years until the tenure evaluation. And there are an infinite number of important things to do in that time.

Factors in the decision about how to apportion time between old and new work include:

- It's important to initiate and publish results from new work that is identified specifically with the time at the TT institution and that does not involve the TT professor's PhD advisor(s) or postdoctoral mentor(s).


- It's important to finish what you started, especially if your PhD and/or postdoctoral research was particularly interesting. Your visibility and reputation derive from the totality of your work, not just what you accomplish in your TT years.

Ultimately, I think that new work (research done entirely at the TT university) is more important than old work (research done during a PhD and/or postdoc), so if you have to choose one over the other, the new work is what the TT university will want to see at tenure evaluation time. Some people do get tenure based primarily on work done with their famous PhD and postdoctoral advisors, but this is not a good strategy for getting tenure and for establishing a respected research program.

As an advisor, I am not objective about this matter. Although I can write -- and even convince myself to believe -- that new work should prevail over the old in terms of publication priority -- I also feel that it's very not cool to leave advisors and other colleagues in the lurch with unpublished work, even if that was never the intention. Also, some institutions request letters from former advisors and postdoc mentors for tenure evaluations.

When I was a postdoc, I had published a few papers from my PhD, but I had some more to write. I spent most of my postdoc time on my postdoctoral research, but I systematically carved out some time for writing up the rest of my PhD research, so eventually it was all published. This turned out to be excellent preparation for being a professor and working on multiple projects at once; i.e., many of us, as professors, always have some projects in the writing-up stage and some in the data-gathering stage and some in the idea development stage and some in the glimmer-in-our-eye stage. It should therefore be possible to finish the old work without sacrificing the new work.

How's that for a mixed message?: In reality, you have to prioritize your time and probably should favor the new projects over the old projects, but, ultimately, you need to get everything done, old and new.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Talking About Your Research.. in class

Today in Scientopia, I discuss the phenomenon in which some professors are praised by their undergraduate students for talking about their (the professor's) research in class, whereas others are criticized for the same thing. In the latter case, mention of research in a class may be seen as proof that the professor only cares about research.

Should we talk about our research in class, and if so, how can we do it well?

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Routine Good

In the past week, I have received six (6!) academic thank-you notes of various sorts: some by e-mail and some by regular mail*. I am fortunate to know a lot of nice people, and it made me feel very good to be thanked.

I started thinking about all the ways that we professors have of "doing good" just in our routine, daily working lives. I have written about this before, but here are my current thoughts, based on my recent haul of thank-you notes:

Many of us write a lot of reference letters. We write letters for undergrads applying for internships, other jobs, and graduate schools. We write letters for MS students applying for PhD programs and jobs. We write letters for grad students and postdocs and colleagues applying for jobs and fellowships. We write letters for the tenure and promotion evaluation of faculty at other institutions, and we write letters in support of colleagues nominated for awards. If we tailor each letter to each application and if each individual is applying to multiple places, letter-writing can take a lot of time. Yes, it's our job, but it's one of those things that we don't really have time for but we somehow make time (because it's important). Not all those who request letters from us thank us (or even let us know the outcome of their applications), but some do.

Many of us put a lot of time and effort into trying to be good teachers. We get some feedback from our students for every course (in the form of teaching evaluations) and some students even say thank you at the end of the term, but when a student writes to say that a particular course convinced him/her to pursue a particular career and that they are very happy, that's even better. For me, this was especially nice to hear for the class in question because, in that same class, there was at least one student who absolutely hated me.

Many of us put a lot of time and effort into trying to be good advisors. Advising has many rewarding aspects to it, although it's typically best to take the long view and not focus on any one day or week or even year. It's particularly nice to be thanked after a student has graduated and has gained some perspective on their days as a student-researcher, or when a certain bit of advice turned out to be helpful.

Many of us try to be good colleagues. One of my thank-you messages was from a colleague who spent a sabbatical in my department, primarily interacting with my research group. This was many years ago, and now this colleague is on another sabbatical at another institution that is not so welcoming or stimulating, and so this colleague (whom I did not know at all before the sabbatical in my department) was reminiscing about the good old days of the previous sabbatical, and thanking me for the positive impact I had on their career. In fact, I benefited a lot from interacting with this person as well, and I gained a new colleague and friend, so it was win-win. Even so, I will keep this thank-you note because it made me very happy to receive it.

I also get the occasional thank-you-for-blogging e-mails, and those are nice, too.

Those were the particular circumstances of my recent swarm of thank-you notes, but there are other ways that we as professors can do routine good: by being thoughtful reviewers and editors, by serving on committees of various sorts (but especially for grad student exams), by visiting schools and judging science fairs, by attending (and not falling asleep in) talks by visitors to our department, by not snorting (too) loudly in faculty meetings every time a particular colleague speaks, and by making an effort to thank those who help us (administrative and technical staff, students..).

Most of these things are part of our job, and some of these things are time-consuming and can be quite tedious. Therefore, I think it's good to get a bit of perspective now and then and appreciate all the ways that we can have a positive effect, just in our daily lives as professors, even when we are otherwise feeling exhausted and overwhelmed by all the things that need doing, many of which probably should have been done yesterday (or last week).

I personally had a somewhat annoyance-filled day today, starting with an encounter with a patronizing plumber soon after I got to campus. But then I sat at my desk and saw my little pile of thank-you notes, and that cheered me up immensely. I had to stifle an urge to thank the senders for thanking me..

* And no, in case you are wondering: The thank-you notes were not all from females.