Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Awesome Lab of Significant Science, and Stuff

A few years ago, I decided to name one of my laboratory rooms. This particular lab is a nice little room, conveniently located. In it, various members of my research group do mundane but essential research activities.

I decided to give this little room an Awesome Name: a long, formal, jargony name that indicated the simple tasks performed in this room in a very impressive way. I made a sign and stuck it on the door. I did it entirely to amuse myself. There was no other reason.

The weird thing is that, although my group had been doing these same basic research tasks with essentially the same equipment for years (with a few modern additions now and then), once the lab had an Awesome Name, I started getting queries from other people about using this lab. I even saw the stupid-joke name of the lab show up in proposals by others who used, or planned to use, this lab.

I never use this joke-name for the lab; in official and semi-official (web) listings of facilities, the lab has a boring, simple name that describes what we do there.

I saw the joke-name again recently in a proposal-related document, and now I wonder if I should take down the sign with the Awesome Name. The joke-name is so over-the-top obnoxious that anyone who doesn't 'get' the joke -- i.e., everyone but me and maybe one of my cats -- must surely think I am a pompous jerk rather than (or in addition to being) someone who makes jokes no one else thinks are funny.

I am fascinated by the fact that (1) so many people think this is a serious name, and (2) the lab got noticed more once it had an impressive-sounding name, albeit a really stupid one.

I have no good explanation for (2), and the most obvious explanation for the lack of humor-detection is that it's really not funny, but I wonder whether a tiny part of the explanation for this is that people don't expect humor -- even of the nerdy, strange sort -- in this setting.

Does anyone else believe that? I know lots of people who give strange names to their Lab Machines and Computers, but these are typically obviously nicknames or the names aren't written down or, if they are, on some informal sign. Or maybe there is an inside jokey name that everyone knows. The Awesome Name of my lab room isn't obviously a joke (clearly) and therefore might be sort-of believable in a stereotypical 'academic' context, although it makes me a bit sad to think so.

In the case of my lab, maybe I shouldn't have pretended that it was a serious name, with a sign on the door for all to see (and write into their NSF proposals), but who knew people would take it seriously and notice it? Obviously, I did not.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

He's Not Here

In this month's Catalyst piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, to appear next week(ish), I discuss dual-career couples. As I was working on this essay, I decided to make headings of particular topics, and then I decided at some point to alphabetize the headings. Then I realized that I had quite a few headings, nearly the entire alphabet. Well, it was a quick leap from there to deciding to do a complete A to Z of dual-career couple topics; a framework that alternately pleases and disturbs me.

Anyway, that's what I did, and, because a certain annoying type of minor incident happened to me two (2) times today, I include here the relevant entry for the letter O*:

Offices. There are many nice things about being in a dual-career couple that has successfully landed two jobs in the same place. There are also continuing challenges, and minor annoyances. An example of the latter is when colleagues or students are looking for my spouse but can’t find him, so they come to my office and ask me where he is. Thus far, I have confined my responses to polite answers (most typically: “I have no idea”), but a few times I have looked under my desk and in a drawer, then announced “Well, he doesn’t seem to be here.” I have been tempted to get a leash and hold it up when asked the “Where is your husband?” question and say “Oh no! He’s off the leash again!”, but have not yet done so.

* This is the original text. An editor had a go at the text and changed a few minor things. For example, when it appears in The C of HE next week, the last phrase will appear as "Somehow I have resisted the urge".

In today's two situations, I found myself saying "He's around", so at least the person asking knew that he was in town and, if they only looked harder and longer, they would surely find him. I don't usually want to be so helpful in these cases, but in this case I liked the two people who asked me.

I don't know how many readers find themselves in this situation, but if you do: Are you polite or not-so-polite? Are you helpful or not helpful? Perhaps it depends on the situation; e.g., Do you want to help the particular person who is interrupting your day to ask where your spouse is or would you prefer to be unhelpful?

There are probably non-spousal analogies of this situation, particularly for people who have conveniently located offices, so that people tend to stop by and ask about the current location of someone else in the building, saving themselves a trip upstairs (or wherever) but interrupting your work.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Today in Scientopia, I discuss a reader's question as to whether it is better to take a 1-year, non-tenure track, teaching position that will/might become tenure-track (and thereby possibly getting the 'inside' track on the TT job), or whether it's better to wait and apply for the tenure-track job.

Monday, June 27, 2011

There Is No We

This recently appeared in my e-mail inbox:

I have a conspiracy theory that you are not a single entity, but rather some kind of collection of female academics (perhaps some sociologists as well) sponsored by NSF (or something alike) to create this blog for research purposes. I highly applaud the effort.

Why do I think this way? First, too many exciting, but generally unrealistic stories are supposedly happening to you on a daily basis. While having one or two of them could be explained by coincidence, you have so many that (no offense, but) they simply must be made up :). Second, the writing is of really superb quality. I cannot imagine a full time professor who is not yet dead wood can have so much time to do such a polished job.

Anyway, I do not intend to blow your cover regardless of whether my conspiracy theory is right. Indeed, I really enjoy your controversial posts, even if most of them are completely made up :).

Thanks! I mean that from the bottom of my one, individual heart that belongs to this one person who is FSP, i.e., me, in the singular.

Why do you think my "stories" (many of which I would prefer to call "experiences") are unrealistic, and therefore likely fiction? Because things like these don't happen to you? Ever? As often? And therefore it makes more sense that I am a group of people (including sociologists!), sponsored by a government agency, than a real, individual female science professor?

What if my "stories" are real? And what if I am one person, exactly as I say I am? Does that change your perception of this blog, academia, and/or female science professors? And if so, how?

I am curious about that. But that's just me (<-- note repeated use of singular pronoun).

In any case, I do thank you for the nice words about my writing, but it is a bit sad that you don't think an active full professor has time to write like this. That's OK, I will take it as a compliment anyway, even if it is a bit of a cynical one. Others assume that because they couldn't keep a blog going like this, I must be a terrible scientist, teacher, advisor etc., so I much prefer the conclusion that I must be more than one person.

Of course, writing 5 times/week does take a bit of time, especially since I first write out the post with a quill and ink on paper, and then I laboriously type in the text using only my thumbs. In fact, I am an epic multi-tasker, I come up with ideas in my head and roll them around in there for a while as I am doing other things (walking from here to there, for example), and then I write (and type!) quickly.

Also, 42% of my posts are written with major help from my cats, which is why the blog might have a bit of a group vibe, but I would like to state emphatically that not a single one of my cats -- not even the orange tabby -- is, or ever has been, a sociologist.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Back Talk

When I walk around campus during prime Campus Tour Season and encounter perky undergrad tour guides wearing OurU regalia and walking backwards in front of dazed pods of prospective students and parental types, I catch snippets of the tours, and I typically have the following thoughts:

If and when the time comes, years from now, my daughter will go on campus tours without her parents. My husband is even more tour-allergic than I am. I went on campus tours alone; she can go on campus tours alone. Or we can all skip the tours and just wander around campuses with a map.

WHO CARES WHEN THAT BUILDING WAS BUILT? I suppose the guides are supposed to fill the time by talking a lot and demonstrating cosmic knowledge of the institutions, and maybe some people do want to know when that building over there was built. I don't. This is one of many reasons why, as a parent, I plan to absent myself from this experience in the future unless my daughter insists or bribes me.

Are the tour guides instructed that it is better to MAKE UP factoids even if it means being wrong because all that matters is that the guide be a friendly, cheerful student who LOVES THIS UNIVERSITY and who can give "insider" tips about cool places to study and the best time to go to the rec center and where you can get the best pizza? When I encounter a tour pod outside a building with which I am familiar, I hear amazing things about what is supposedly going on in that building, when the building was built, and other random "facts" about buildings and departments. Does it matter? No, it does not, but I sometimes wonder whether any tour-goers ever later, as students, go by one of these campus building and think "Hey, we were told that this is the H. Morris Weeble Femtobiotechnology Education Center but it's actually the R. Doris Sneetch Kinetic Engineering Library and Cafe. Tour fail."

I am glad that there are students who want to do these campus tour jobs -- they are amazingly energetic and positive, and they do know a lot about the university. These are good things*. And yet, the thought of being in one of those tour groups fills me with existential dread, I know not why.

* There is a bizarre scene -- one of many -- in the recent Francine Prose novel, My New American Life, involving a campus tour and guide. Does anyone have an opinion on the best depiction of a campus tour in a novel?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Doing Stuff

Someone -- a scientist -- recently told me to be careful about how and when I use the word "research" because this word has negative connotations for some people, particularly politicians and others who might make negative decisions about funding for certain activities that involve certain people at institutions of higher education in the United States.

Research is a bad word? Research?

Research is a search for knowledge. Through research, we discover things. We solve problems. We invent new things. Research implies that the search for knowledge is somewhat systematic, but only in a broad sense. Research is learning. These are good things.

Research isn't always used as a force for good, of course, and it can be warped, politicized, and done poorly, but that doesn't mean the concept itself is flawed or that there is anything wrong with the word. If that were the case, we should also stop using words like "government", "religion", and "faculty meeting".

What is a better alternative to the phrase "I do research"? I am not making this up, but in this same conversation, I was told that some people apparently prefer more friendly statements, like "I do stuff".

Speaking from my elitist ivory tower liberal professorial outpost, "I do stuff" just sounds stupid to me as a job description. Also, it's a bit vague, covering everything from cleaning out your closets (something I do every 7 years, whether they need it or not) to determining the structure of material using a synchrontron.

I suppose I should not be surprised about this, given that we are in the era of "This was not intended as a factual statement", "fair and balanced", and deliberate misunderstanding of fundamental scientific phenomena.

Nevertheless, as a researcher (or stuff-doer, if you prefer), I don't think the useful word "research" should be considered a scary, elitist, or liberal word. It's a slippery slope from vilifying a word to undermining the concept, to the ultimate benefit of no one.

It seems to me that some of the same people who don't like the word "research" also get upset at the thought that the US might be out-competed by others in technological advances. Technological advances come mostly from research (except the ones kindly provided by friendly pink unicorns).

Research is essential to the health, happiness, and security of us all, so we need to keep doing it, and/or stuff, and calling it what it is (and funding it).

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

n proposals

In yesterday's post, there were some comments about how many proposals an individual faculty writes or "should" write in a year. Of course, there is no one answer to how many proposals one "should" write, even within a particular field.

We should each write and submit as many proposals as we can reasonably manage with our other responsibilities, taking into account also
  • funding rate, which is no doubt quite low,
  • amount of typical grants,
  • needs of the research group (e.g., number of advisees and others to support),
  • types and sizes of collaborations involved in research,
  • career stage (tenured?),
  • time-management skills and proposal-writing ability/style of the PI,
  • number of other important responsibilities in the weeks before a proposal deadline,
  • health/family situations, and
  • expectations of the job/institution (including whether you have to raise some of your salary), and
  • number of awesome ideas for transformative research.
Did I leave out any major ones?

There is no point in stating, as one commenter did, that if you write n proposals (say, n = 3), you are shirking your other responsibilities, such as advising students and writing papers. Many of us routinely submit > 3 proposals in a year and manage to get other things done as well. We are neither superhuman or super-irresponsible; this is just the way things work for some people, in some fields, on this very planet.

If, however, you totally shut down a month before a proposal deadline and do nothing else but work on that proposal, and you do that 3-4 times/year, then OK, you can say that you cannot write 3 or more proposals in a year and still get other important things done. But other people can.

If any one proposal has a not-great chance of being funded, and if not being funded is not a good option, then you have to find ways to write lots of (excellent) proposals and do everything else.

In the past academic year, I submitted 4 proposals, 3 as PI; 3 were funded, 2 with me as PI. I got other things done as well. I didn't expect to get so many of these proposals funded, and since I have some existing grants as well, I am taking a break from proposal-writing. It won't be a long break, however, because soon it will be time to try to get support for new projects and people.

As I rummaged in the FSP archives, vaguely recalling an earlier post on a similar topic, I was interested to read that in 2008, I stated that

I have been PI on 3 ± 1 grants (+ others as co-PI) at a time..for most of the 21st century..

This is still reasonably true. I may have reached a mid-career steady state.

But enough about me. If your job involves proposal-writing, how many proposals do you write in a typical year?

In coming up with a number, I suggest combining proposals submitted as PI and co-PI but not count those involving only having a minor role as subcontractor or senior personnel unless you had a major role in all phases of proposal-writing. I realize that some co-PIs (or even PIs) don't play much of a role in proposal-writing as well, so just use your discretion in coming up with the number. You can count both external and internal proposals, but count the latter only if they require significant effort. I am trying to get a sense for how many substantial proposals FSP readers typically write (not just put their name on) in a year.

How many proposals do you write in a typical year?
more than 7Bold free polls
In the comments, it would be interesting if you provided additional data; e.g. specify n proposals, your field, and job title or description. What is your personal funding success rate?

And, if anyone still has time despite needing to get back to writing proposals, it would also be interesting to know if you feel you are writing as many proposals as you can or should. Would you write more proposals if you had the time?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Prey to Biases

It's not as if I thought the current Supreme Court would actually produce a majority decision that recognized the overwhelming statistical evidence for systematic, nationwide discrimination against the female employees of Wal-Mart in salary and promotion. And, since they did not in fact do so, we can at least seek solace in the text of the decision, in which the perpetual arguments about discrimination and unconscious bias are dramatically displayed.

All but one of the men of the US Supreme Court decided that the female employees of Wal-Mart did not have enough in common to represent a class that could bring suit because Wal-Mart gives its individual managers (>65% of whom are men) so much individual discretion in personnel decisions. Also, Wal-Mart forbids discrimination -- they have a policy! Never mind what the data show. As long as individual managers are discriminating against individual women without specifically saying that they are doing so, and as long as Wal-Mart doesn't have a formal policy that endorses discrimination, female employees as a group don't have much in common.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg's dissent makes this point:

"The practice of delegating to supervisors large discretion to make personnel decisions, uncontrolled by formal standards, has long been known to have the potential to produce disparate effects," she writes. "Managers, like all humankind, may be prey to biases of which they are unaware."

At least 5 Supreme Court justices are prey to biases of which they and everyone else are well aware, with dire consequences for real people (but not major corporations) in this country.

PS - In recognition of this major defeat to more than 1.5 million women, this is the headline that The New York Times came up with:

Wal-Mart Case Is a Blow for Big Cases and Their Lawyers

Well, some of those lawyers may well be women, so it's not as if that headline totally misses the mark.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Drinking Culture

Today in Scientopia, I discuss a concern by someone who doesn't drink (beer, wine etc.) and who worries that this will affect her academic career in a negative way.

Friday, June 17, 2011

I See Them Everywhere

Senior Male Physical Scientist: "Why do you women keep saying there aren't enough women in Science? There are lots of female students in my department! I see lots of young women at meetings! There are lots of women!"

That's great that you see lots of women, but what some of us women keep saying is that there should be female science students and female science professors. Do you see lots of female science professors at your university? At your faculty meetings? On prestigious committees or panels? On lists of major awards in your field or even at your university? On slates of invited speakers at conferences? You can define "lots" however you want, but I hope that "lots" means >10%.

I have visited some science departments in recent years, including this past spring, that have no women faculty and have never had one, ever. Don't you think these places have had enough time to find one woman to hire? Just one? Given how many female grad students are running around science conferences these days? Perhaps these departments just need more time to find a qualified woman?

Another science department with which I am quite familiar has some women faculty, but the youngest one is nearing 50 years old. What's up with that? If women used to be in short supply as applicants to faculty positions at research universities, but now there are lots, why aren't women faculty being hired approximately proportionally to their representation in PhD programs?

Maybe these places with mid-career and senior women faculty but no early-career women faculty "had" to hire a woman (or two) at some point, and now they don't because they've got some on their faculty, so they can go back to hiring only men, all of whom are awesome?

And no, I don't believe that we can explain those numbers entirely or even mostly with "women want to have babies instead of tenure".

The reasons for the decrease in women in science at various stages, from student to faculty, are many and complex, and this post is not about those reasons. This post is just a reply to those who say:"We don't have a problem, there are lots of female students". The increase in numbers of female sciences is very great thing, but..

I think it's fair to make the observation that there still aren't many female science professors in the physical sciences, particularly at research universities.

POP QUIZ: The title of this post is from a somewhat disturbing but terribly profound and strange song. Can anyone (other than my husband and daughter) name that song (without resorting to online searching) and identify the "them" in the song? In fact, I did a search to see if there is more than one song of that name, and there do seem to be at least two, so I will tell you now that it is definitely not the one by a person named "Hank".

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Magical Teaching

As an advisor, I spend a lot of time explaining to students how to do research. I am continually reminded about what is reasonable vs. unreasonable to expect someone to know. Every year, there are new students, so the slate is wiped clean, and certain things need explaining from scratch.

I have shared teaching materials with colleagues before, but I realized recently that I had seldom explained to someone else how I teach, and yet I had to do just that because someone new to teaching will be teaching a course that I have taught for a long time. I gave this person all my teaching materials -- syllabus, image files, review information, quizzes/tests, labs etc. -- but when we looked at some of it together, I realized how lifeless these teaching materials are when they are completely disconnected from the classroom experience.

For example, I can look at a list of topics and remember my explanations and examples and the questions I asked the students and what their responses were and how we discussed these, and what happened next, and so on. That's the invisible, magic part that you can't see just from looking at lists of topics or even some figures.

I don't mean magic as in pulling bunnies out of hats, although perhaps there is a bit of that sometimes (particularly in large intro science classes), but more in the sense of something that isn't very scientific, even if you are teaching Science. It's the feeling you get when you are teaching -- the energy, the interaction, the information you get from how the students respond (mostly non-verbally) to what you are saying.

The way I learned to teach was by going to the class of an extremely effective professor for whom I was a TA. I had had excellent professors as an undergraduate, but I was learning other things from them. In grad school, I was a TA and I needed to learn to teach, so I went to watch this person -- a legendary teacher -- teach a big intro science class. I went to every class, and I even sat in on the same class with the same professor for more than one term.

Some things did not translate from his teaching style to mine. He was (and is) a charismatic man. I am a profoundly uncharismatic woman. Somewhere in the FSP archives is an anecdote about how he successfully used a particular method to quiet the multitudes in the giant lecture hall. Years later, when I was teaching the same class as an instructor (just after getting my PhD) in the same lecture hall, students complained that I was treating them like children when I tried to get the class to quiet down; I reminded them of a kindergarten teacher.

The other professor had never gotten this comment, ever. Same method, different people: effective for him, not effective for me.

But a lot of his methods did translate well, and for many years I emulated his teaching style until I felt more confident and started developing my own style.

More than 20 years later, my teaching mentor is still my teaching mentor, and has been visiting me recently to talk about.. teaching, pedagogy, and sports. Or, at least, two out of those three.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Yesterday I wrote about a citation-related topic, and you know how hard it is for me to stop talking about citations once I get started [FSP 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011].

I will write about citations again today because I was reminded of an incident from my postdoctoral days. I had finished a draft of the first paper related to my postdoctoral research and had given it to my supervisor to read. He was rather notorious for taking a long time to read manuscripts and then not having many comments. Another postdoc had warned me not to expect to see the manuscript again for weeks (if I was lucky) and then to be underwhelmed by the input.

So I was shocked when, later that same day, my office phone rang and my postdoc supervisor said "I just read the draft and I need to see you RIGHT AWAY. There is a SERIOUS OMISSION in the paper."

Another postdoc was visiting me in my office just then. He said "This can't be good." We shook hands, and he wished me luck in my new career, whatever it might be, and said it had been nice knowing me.

With a staggering amount of trepidation, I went down the hall to see my supervisor, whom everyone called "The Big Guy". The Big Guy had the print-out of the manuscript on his desk, and he was shuffling through the pages. When he saw me, he said

"HERE! LOOK HERE! On page 7, there is a problem. You should cite my 1984 paper."

He handed me the page in question, which had the place for the missing citation noted. I just stood there, waiting for what came next. But all he said was:

"That's all. Submit it after you add the citation."

So I lived to tell the tale. And I added the citation. And I asked my postdoc-friend: "Will we be like that someday?"

Our assumption was that since we were not like that (in our 20's), it must be something that happens to you later in your career.

So now the question is: Am I like that?

I am probably not the best one to answer that question, but I would say that I developed a strong interest in seeing my work cited (appropriately and accurately, of course), BUT I don't think that it has become a singular obsession that supersedes my interest in the Science in a paper. I'd like to keep it that way, but who knows.. I'm only at mid-career and there's plenty of time for me to become a raging citation-monger.

Does anyone think there is a generational aspect to citation-obsession? It is perhaps most important for early-career people to have good citation numbers, but does that mean they are actually the ones who tend to be more obsessed, or is it we more senior people who tend to be fascinated with our citation metrics? I fear that the real answer is "All of the above".

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Today in Scientopia, I discuss a question about how/whether to mention in a manuscript review that the authors should cite one (or more) of your papers.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Will There Be Anything Else?

One of my colleagues has a teaching philosophy that contains the following principle:

If you do a lot for your students in terms of providing 'extra' materials (study guides, lecture notes etc.), they will ask for more and more and more and be unhappy. If you don't provide them with much -- maybe just some review materials before an exam -- they will be content with what little you give them.

This is a bit cynical, so I hasten to note that my colleague is a great teacher. When he teaches a large intro science class, students applaud at the end of the last lecture. Sometimes when he is in a near-campus coffee shop, former students have the barista send drinks and treats to his table with their thanks. Students know he cares about the course, even if he pours most of his energy into the in-class part and not so much to other parts.

I have always disagreed with him about the "give them an inch.." hypothesis, but I must admit that every once in a while there are some data (or a datum) to support it.

At the moment, I am thinking about a comment on my recent teaching evaluations.

First consider this: After each class, I post questions that cover all the main topics of that day's lecture and I provide a pdf of the presentation file if I showed images during class. During the term, I give the students all the exams from the previous year's class. And, in a new development for me this past term, just before class time I post a file with the images I will show in class that day. I annotate the images in class, and the students who bring electronic devices to class can do so as well if they want. For those who don't access the image file in class, I suggest that they note down the slide numbers in their notes so that they can later match images to notes.

What I don't do is provide the image file well in advance. I am typically tinkering with the images until the last minute, and I explain this to the students when I describe what course materials I provide/don't provide and why.

And yet, despite providing quite a lot, one student wanted more. Not only did this student want me to provide the presentation file (with images) well in advance, but s/he also wanted me to print out the file each day and distribute a copy in class so that students could take notes directly on the images on paper.

OK, no problem. Just let me know how many images per page you would like. Should I print the pages in color? Don't worry about the cost. One-sided or double-sided? Of course I will collate the pages, but would you like them stapled or unstapled? If stapled, do you prefer the upper left corner or the upper right? Just let me know if you want me to punch holes in the margin so it will fit in a 3-ring binder. And just so no one feels bad about all the paper this will require, please rest assured that I will try to find paper made with a significant component of post-consumer waste.

And will there be anything else? Oh yes, OK, sure: I will highlight the points that will definitely be on the test. No problem.

This post is an example of how we focus on absurd little comments that are kind of (or very) negative in our teaching evaluations, even if the overall evaluations are positive. In the class I taught last term, 100%* would recommend me as an instructor! 100%* find me approachable and respectful! 100%* think I know my subject well and present it clearly! All of this makes me happy and I am grateful to my nice students who took the time to do the evaluations and express their satisfaction with the course.

Clearly, even the student who wished that I provided handouts in every class was overall happy with the class, so in this sense my colleague is wrong: students may ask for more, but it doesn't mean they are dissatisfied.

So, my typical approach to these situations is to consider all suggestions as constructive criticism, seriously ponder whether the suggestions are feasible, and use those that are and ignore those that are not. I may get ideas for how to explain my teaching philosophy in a different or more complete way (in this respect), even if I don't change what I do. To the extent that these evaluations by students are any use, for me, this is a good use for them.

* of the 89% of students in my class who did the evaluations

Friday, June 10, 2011

By the way

Although this exact scenario no longer applies to the reader who sent me the question, I was nevertheless intrigued by the situation because it seems like a near-perfect storm of complex personal situations that can arise during the negotiation stage of a faculty hire. Consider:

Some of us have been in the situation of getting an offer of a faculty position and then having to bring up the fact that our spouse is also searching for an academic position and would it be possible to hire a second person as well? In some cases, the two-body problem is common knowledge throughout the process, and in some cases it is news to the hiring department.

And some of us have been in the situation of getting an offer and then at some point needing to bring up the fact that we are going to give birth just before or soon after starting our new faculty position.

I was in both situations, but consecutively. When my husband and I were hired at our current university, there was a gap of about 3 months between signing the contracts and my calling up the department head to have an "Oh, by the way.." conversation. He was very nice about it, mentioned that other faculty had young children, and emphasized that the department was family-friendly. I had been very nervous about calling him, but everything turned out fine.

But what if you are in both situations at once? When and how do you communicate about these issues with the department head or other administrators?

My advice is to bring up the spouse situation soon after getting the offer if you are going to be asking for some sort of second position. That is necessarily going to be part of your negotiations and decision.

Issues involving parenthood, however, are not typically part of the negotiations, although I know some faculty and administrators who have circumvented the long waiting list at on-campus childcare centers by making guaranteed childcare a part of the negotiations. Unless there is some practical reason why you need to announce your parental status, however, I don't think you should bring it up if you aren't comfortable doing so and if it is not relevant to the negotiations.

Some women feel that it is deceptive not to mention it at an early stage, including before the contract is signed. If you are going to ask for family leave or tenure clock stoppage very soon after arriving, administrators would certainly want to know this as soon as possible, but it is not deceptive if you wait to convey the information.

That would be my preference, but only because it makes sense to me to separate 'things that are relevant to the negotiations' from 'things that are not'. What I don't know is whether or how making an early announcement of pregnancy (i.e., before the contract is signed) might affect the negotiations. Could it weaken your negotiating position?

Or am I wrong that it is in fact useful information at the negotiating stage, and, if you have a family-friendly department head, you can work out an amenable arrangement re. teaching (for example) proactively, as part of your hiring?

If you have any direct or indirect experience with needing to tell your new department "By the way, I'm in the family way..", I hope you will share your story and note (1) when you told, (2) why you decided to tell when you did, and (3) how things went.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Perpendicular Thinking

As I contemplate this past academic year of teaching, I feel pretty good about my classes (and students!), although, as usual, I have some ideas for things I want to change next time. In the end, through all the ups and downs, it was a good year.

And yet.. the perfectionist in me wonders why I can never get the absolutely key, essential, critical, first-order, important concepts through to every single student such that they can demonstrate mastery of these concepts on the final exam. This year, there was one student who somehow made it through 3 courses (1.5 taught by me) that used a particular fundamental concept in many different ways and was unable to show any knowledge of this concept. Do I need to draw it for you? OK:

I have been teaching for >20 years, and the fact that a Science major came up with D as an answer instead of C or A/B shocked me.

Possible explanations for the student's bizarre wrong answer:

- I wrote an ambiguous, poorly worded exam question. Evidence against this: every other student in the class got this part of the question right, and there is no possibility that configuration D is ever correct, no matter how poorly worded the question.

- The student is "intellectually challenged" and doesn't understand even basic concepts that have been presented repeatedly during a year of classes by different instructors. This is not a very convincing explanation and, moreover, is not supported by other evidence for the student's abilities in these courses.

- The student was rushing, was extremely careless, didn't read the question, just jotted something down to make marks on the paper. Maybe, but it's hard to imagine any level of carelessness that could lead to answer D.

- The student was cheating, but did not cheat well. That is, the student glanced at another student's exam, but got the questions and answers mixed up.

No, I don't believe that. I don't believe the student cheated, but even if I am wrong about that, answer D is not even close to any answer to any question on the exam.

- The student knew the answer but experienced exam-stress brain-freeze. Perhaps in a calm moment, the student could easily have produced the correct answer, or at least not a totally wrong, physically impossible, not-even-worth-partial-credit-it's-so-wrong answer. During the exam, however, the student wasn't thinking straight and, for this question, gave what was perhaps the most incorrect answer possible other than leaving the answer entirely blank.

I do not totally reject that possibility, but the concept in question is not complex. The brain-freeze would have had to have been catastrophic. And yet, the only explanation I find even somewhat plausible is that, under stress, the student confused the elementary concept with another concept that was also discussed in these classes. Out of stress or carelessness, the student described this other concept (but even that not correctly).

I suppose a take-home exam with liberal time allowance is a way to alleviate exam-stress of this sort, but I have tried that format in the (distant) past, and know that in this particular course, students prefer to study, take a final exam, and be done. Fortunately, in this class there are many non-exam graded activities so that all but the most severe case of exam-stress doesn't result in a dire grade situation. [And of course, students with documented learning disabilities can take the exam in a testing center, in a quiet room, and in some cases are given extra time to complete the exam.]

When I think back on the most recent class that I taught, the incident described here is one of the things that sticks out most for me. I'm not sure why, except that even professors who have been teaching for a long time may wonder (especially after grading final exams): Didn't I teach them anything? (Or the variant: Didn't they learn anything?).

The answer may well be yes, but some of us are affected by the spectacular outliers: the exam answers that are so bad, they shock us. What does it mean that I am still shockable after all these years of teaching? That I haven't seen it all yet? That there are still teaching adventures -- good and bad -- to be experienced? I hope so.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Who Talks?

Today in Scientopia, I address a reader's question about why an advisor would give a talk on the student's research instead of sending the student to a conference to give the presentation.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Talk Dilemma

Recently I was pondering my options for a presentation to give at a workshop in the coming year, and I came up with two possibilities. I have to choose one:

1. A synthesis of a long-running project, with some new (not presented before) results, and also a summing up of many of the results that I have presented elsewhere (piecemeal) in recent years, but in a more syn-optic way, with discussion of what we know now that we didn't know before, and what it all means. This work is cool but not controversial, has generated some interest over the years, and would be fun to present.


2. The first public presentation of a new dataset for a completely different project, with very exciting-but-preliminary results and possibly very significant conclusions. This work is cool and controversial, has generated some hostility and deep skepticism in the past year, and would be fun to present.

I feel like I should present option #1 because it is important to synthesize and present the latest and greatest results of just-completed studies -- that is, to follow up on all the previous "progress report"-like talks, and present it all as a beautiful and compelling story backed up by a fearsome dataset. I feel like this would be the mature thing to do, and I am completely happy to talk about this project, which still holds my interest.

But I have given a lot of talks on this project in recent years, and I think I want to do option #2 just for the fun of it. I am not sure I should let my desire for cheap conference-thrills guide my decision, but I just might.

Note: At least one more conference-themed post is imminent, as I've gotten interesting questions about conferences from readers recently.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Professional Pics


What do you think about putting a pic on the webpage that is out of the ordinary (passport style). For example, would it be "professional" to put a pic on a webpage that would depict a person playing with a bat or holding a parrot or something?

No on the bat, yes on the parrot.

Actually, it probably depends on the culture of your field and/or department. I don't think anyone in any(?) field would be denied a job or tenure because their webpage photo shows them playing with a bat, but if this person already has a problem being taken seriously in their profession/department and/or has a department/disciplinary culture that values formality and a traditional view of professionalism, not to mention personnel who do not have rabies, this might give one pause before posting the playful bat photo.

Even so, depending on what webpage you are talking about, it might be fine and even a very good thing. Some departments have a main page with the stiff passport-style photos of faculty, postdocs, grads etc., but then there are links to research group pages and/or individual webpages. The degree of formality may be less in these more personalized webpages, and I don't think that is unprofessional to have informal photos there as long as people visiting these other webpages can get the information they want/need.

That is, if the main reason people visit these more specialized pages is to find out about research, publications, and people and all they see is a picture of you kissing your parrot, that's not so good. If the pages are informative and a bit informal as well, that's fine. "Professional" webpages don't have to be dry and boring.

And you could always have a link to "X's personal webpage" and put your parrot photos there. You probably want to keep photos of you in your underwear for a (private) Facebook photo album or to send (via Twitter) to the US Representative of your district, but photos of you and cute animals (other than snakes) wouldn't be unprofessional if clearly on a page devoted to other aspects of your life. Not everyone wants such a page linked to their work-related webpages, but I've seen examples of this and did not think the person (student or professor) was unprofessional.

There are likely differences of opinion on this issue. A while ago when I was involved in updating the department webpages, there was one person who refused to provide a photo. For a while I just had "no photo" written in a box the size of everyone else's photo, but this was unsatisfying and ugly, so I decided to try to get some image related to this person. I asked him to give me some sort of image to use, even if not a photo of himself, or else I would come up with "something" for him. He did not provide an image, so I put in an image of my own choosing. He loved this image and was quite content with the situation, but a significant number of other people were bothered by it, saying it was "unprofessional". Eventually I did get a photo of the person in question and the problem was solved, but it interested (and surprised) me how many people commented on the "unprofessional" nature of including an image that was not a standard head-shot photo of a person.

So, I may not be the best person to as, but perhaps others can weigh in, ideally specifying their academic discipline so that we can see whether wacky photos are the norm in some fields but mildly to deeply unprofessional in others.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Due or Overdue?

The blogosphere has done a rather thorough job of thrashing the recent *scathing* report by Senator Coburn (R-Oklahoma) on supposed mismanagement and waste by the NSF. I will therefore quell the urge to point out how poorly researched, written, and organized the report it. It's a good thing the report wasn't funded by NSF or it would indeed be an excellent example of wasted effort and money by that agency.

I was, however, bothered by a particular section that has not received as much attention: the part about the supposedly shocking number of late and never-turned-in project reports:

A 2005 audit found that “[a]pproximately 47 percent of the 151,000 final and annual project reports required in the past 5 years were submitted late or not at all.”

There is a handy chart, organized by Directorate, showing the % final reports submitted on time, late, or not at all. I have some points to make about this:

1 - It is not surprising that so many reports are late. Reports are due 90 days before the end of the budget period, and at that time some of us are still scrambling to submit additional grant-related publications to include in the report. I would rather submit a late but more impressive report than an on-time report with less substance. One of the main motivators for me to file my reports (annual or final) sooner rather than later is that it is necessary to be up-to-date with reports in order for the paperwork for new grants to be processed, but if there is no pressure from that, I will wait until I can write a more complete and informative report.

2 - According to the chart in Coburn's document, although there are many late reports, the number of missing (never submitted) reports is low. It is misleading to combine late + missing reports and then focus on that number as if there is a major problem.

3 - The reports are administratively important for NSF and are one way that the programs/directorates can see what has been produced from grants (publications, education, outreach etc.), but the reports are not the actual "products" of the research and therefore are an imperfect measure of project success. It would be more relevant (but perhaps more difficult) to look at the actual outcomes of a grant -- as opposed to whether a project report has been filed on time -- and to look at contributions and impact beyond the expiration date of the grant.

I also wondered about the numbers related to unspent grant money apparently lying around, uncollected by NSF. Does this include money that PIs retain as part of no-cost extensions that give more time to do the research, or is that apparently leftover money accounted for because the expiration date of the grant changes when a no-cost extension is approved? If you only consider the original expiration date of the grant, it would look like there is unspent grant money. I couldn't tell from the report whether the unspent money was real or not.

And did anyone else think it was strange, given Coburn's concern for duplication and overlap among programs that fund STEM education for underrepresented populations, that the subtitle of the report, "Under the Microscope", is also the name of an NSF-funded website created by The Feminist Press to encourage girls and women to be involved in STEM fields? How do we all feel about this duplication of titles? I don't have any real data, but I am sure I am against it.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Sundays with Your Advisor

In an e-mail about a (mostly) unrelated topic, a graduate student reader of this blog mentioned that she had requested regular meetings with her advisor. This request was part of an ongoing, long-standing effort to improve a rather grim situation for this student, and it seems that things have overall gotten better with time. What struck me, however, was this:
I asked for a regular bi-weekly meeting and he wanted to have Sunday night meetings- and so we have regular weekly meeting Sunday nights.
I hope I am not alone in thinking that is strange. But I had to think: What exactly bothers me about it (most)?

Is it because, although I have mostly gone over to the advisorial dark side, I am not so far gone as to appreciate that weekends are important for unstructured time for students to unwind from a stressful week and have time for a bit of independent work? No, I doubt that's it.

Is it because I enjoy my unstructured time on weekends and shudder to think of a regularly scheduled work-related event on a Sunday night? I am happy to work with my advisees on weekends if they need my help with something, and I tend to work on Sunday nights, typically in my office (and mostly watching things like this over and over), but I would nevertheless be very reluctant to schedule a regular meeting for Sunday nights. So yes, this seems to be part of my dislike for the idea.

Or could it be that -- without knowing much else about the situation -- I think there is something a bit creepy about scheduling weekend night meetings with a student?

Yes, but I also realize that I don't really know enough about the situation. Perhaps the research lab is buzzing with activity on Sunday nights, and there are swarms of grads and postdocs happily making interesting scientific discoveries 24/7. Perhaps it is a normal thing to do in that department/group, and the only time the advisor can fit in the requested meeting with his advisee, so it is actually kind of nice for him to make this time (???). It doesn't sound like a particular happy group -- perhaps because it is in the life sciences! -- but my knowledge of the research group environment is very incomplete. Nevertheless, this strikes me as strange.

Does this situation bother you -- advisors, students, others? Why or why not?

What would you do if you, as an advisor, didn't have time to meet regularly with all your students during weekday working hours? Would you (have you) set up a weekend/night meeting time or would you adjust your schedule in some other way so that there was time during the week to meet?

What would you do, as a student, if your advisor suggested regular meetings with you at night and/or on a weekend and you didn't feel comfortable with that?

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Intersecting Spheres

Today in Scientopia, I discuss a question from readers who wonder what to do in situations in which advisor and student frequently encounter each other in their non-academic lives. These off-campus interactions can complicate advisor-advisee dynamics back on campus.