Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Mrs Degree

In days of yore, when I was in graduate school, I was asked by a senior professor whether I was in graduate school because I couldn't find anyone to marry me.

According to a recent e-mail message from a reader, some professors are still asking young women questions about their education/career decisions in the context of their marriage plans (or lack thereof): in this case, an undergraduate was asked if she was going to graduate school to find a husband and get the so-called "MRS degree".

Go ahead and say it, commenters who like to give alternative, he's-not-a-sexist interpretations: These guys are joking! Women should lighten up and get a sense of humor about having their career goals viewed as subordinate to finding someone to marry. Men who pursue graduate education in female-dominated fields also have to endure jokes. There is a world economic crisis, so stop whining about sexism, which doesn't really exist anyway, except for when it does, but then it is actually the fault of the woman, who shouldn't complain. So get over it. Etc.

In fact, I disagree that these statements, even if meant as jokes, are harmless when made by a professor to a student.

It can be difficult for a student in that situation to explain why this comment is disrespectful, undermining, and insulting, but I would be interested to hear if anyone has gently or aggressively explained to the person making the "MRS degree" (or similar) comment why such statements are derogatory, or at the very least, not funny. And if anyone has done so, what was the response? An apology? A defensive remark? Another insult?

Let's put our heads together and come up with some suggested counter-remarks, for those who may want to have an arsenal of responses for such circumstances. A suggestion, just to get the ball rolling, in response to a statement along the lines of "can't find a husband?" or "looking for a husband?":
That didn't occur to me, but is that why you went to graduate school?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Non Stop?

If you are in a research group that has regular meetings, do you meet throughout the summer (or, at least, for most of it) or does your groups suspend regular meetings in the summer?

There are different kinds of group meetings, of course. Some meetings involve a lot of logistical discussions -- e.g., in a lab setting in which it is critical to coordinate activities using shared facilities. Others involve presentation of research results by group members, and some also involve discussion of a published article of interest. Giving practice talks for upcoming conferences is also a good use of group meeting time.

The logistics-focused meetings may need to continue year-round, but what about the discuss-a-paper or present-your-research types of group meetings? Do you meet all summer, or take a break from weekly (or whatever) meetings?

Monday, August 29, 2011

My Answers

Recently, I was a virtual "panel member" for a post organized by The Hermitage, who collected and assigned 4 questions to different bloggers. I wasn't very inspired by the questions (through no fault of H's), so I didn't post my answers, forcing H to create a special page for me. But then I felt bad about that.

For some reason, when I read the assigned questions, I mostly blanked out on anything resembling an interesting, useful answer.

This reminded me of a recent experience of my daughter's, who was in the position of being given a writing assignment with topics she either hated or at least didn't like. For part of it, she had to write about her feelings about various things. This wasn't school, so it didn't really matter what she wrote, but she had to write something.

In the course of family discussions of this situation, we wondered what each of us would do. We decided that -- no matter what the question -- my daughter would write about horses, my husband would write a short and hostile response (if anything), and I would just make something up that entertained me.

So anyway, I tried reasonably hard to be sincere with one of the questions (#1), but some others I either didn't understand (#2) or thought were pointless (#3) or not applicable to me (#4). Panel fail for us here at FSP. Sorry..

Friday, August 26, 2011


A colleague of mine was recently asked to help organize part of the program of a conference, and was asked to recruit someone to work with him on this. This colleague was specifically asked to find their "opposite".


It intrigued me for several reasons, not the least of which were the opportunities for making jokes like "So you're supposed to find someone who is very organized and answers their e-mail but is not very smart?". And so on.

Let's consider what the relevant variables are in finding one's opposite. In this case, owing to the specialized nature of the conference, field of expertise is not a major variable, although there is room for considering different researchers who use different primary research methods.

Gender? Should one program organizer be male and the other female? I know this is not actually as simple as it may seem, but for a start, should there be one of each?

Age? The colleague in question is middle-aged, so this leads to the options of finding someone who is very young or very old. Or is your opposite definitely a much younger person because, after a certain career stage (tenure), we are all old?

Geography? Is your opposite someone from a different continent (or at the very least, a different country)? This raises the question of whether one's home institution's location is the relevant variable or one's country of origin, or both.

Primary Research Method/Subfield? If you are a theoretician, should you get a lab person as your opposite co-organizer? And so on?

What else? If you were asked to find your "opposite" (in a professional context, but within your general research field), what would you consider?

Responses need not be entirely serious.

But, if you do consider only serious variables and come up with a list of people who fit the description of your opposite, how many possibilities are there? Many? A few? None?

Thursday, August 25, 2011


After reading the recent NY Times article (and associated commentary in the blogosphere) about discrepancies in proposal success rate of black vs. white PIs at the NIH, I tried in a rather feeble way to find these data for NSF. I know NSF collects demographic data, and I have seen some of these when I have been on NSF committees, but the easily accessible online data seem to focus on other PI characteristics (institution, state).

Does anyone know if NSF has similar discrepancies in proposal success rate? Does NSF have a similar issue?

If it does, this might help point at an explanation for the discrepancy (and therefore a solution). If it does not, ditto.

As is apparently the case for NIH proposals, NSF proposals have PI names and institutions (and year of PhD), but no other demographic data. In a small field like mine, I typically know (by name, if not by sight) the PIs of proposals I review, so ethnicity is not an unknown. I know nothing of the NIH and the size of the various populations submitting proposals to particular programs, but it is possible that in at least some programs, the ethnicity of PIs is known to all or most reviewers and panelists. Is this a factor? I hope not, but it is one of the things that will be looked into, according to what I have read.

In any case, does anyone know these data for NSF, foundation-wide or for particular programs?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


From time to time, my husband and I have been been invited to be Visiting Professors (or Guest Professors or Visiting Scholars or various titles like that) at other institutions, for a sabbatical or for a shorter visit. Such invitations are always nice, of course, and we are fortunate to have some flexibility in how/when we arrange these visits. We are also fortunate to have a portable, adventurous daughter who is happy to visit new and distant places, as long as we eventually return to our home and our cats.

Some host institutions have money to pay visitors, some have funds to subsidize part of a visit, and some just have a stimulating environment (and a desk or two) to offer. If we have enough time to plan, we can usually raise (from grants and other awards) most or all of the money we need to offset the salary we are not getting from our home institution while we are away on a research leave. Particularly when visiting an extremely expensive (for us) place, however, it is great if there is at least subsidized visitor housing.

Some things you cannot plan for, though. Examples include MAJOR NATURAL DISASTERS (well, you can sort of plan, but you can't predict them) and MAJOR DECREASE IN THE VALUE OF THE DOLLAR (well, maybe you can also sort of plan for that, but not really).

Something else that I am never quite prepared for is how I am treated -- in an administrative way -- as a person who is both a visiting professor and the wife of another visiting professor. The first time we visited another institution as guest professors, I kept being surprised at how I was treated in some settings as an independent person and in others as a "dependent" -- that is, as someone not permitted to sign her own forms or make independent decisions in particular settings. I had never before had to sign forms on a special (lower) line labeled "Wife" before.

And now it's happening again, sort of. Although my husband and I are both invited to be visiting scholars with separate invitations to visit different research groups at a particular institution, I was recently surprised to find that I am listed as a "dependent" on an official university form. I only found this out when I was doing some paperwork, and this paperwork bounced back because I was not authorized to submit it on my own. Only my husband can submit this form on my behalf.

At least in this case, there is the possibility that one spouse (either one) is the primary person and the other is the dependent, so in theory I could be the primary filler-outer-of-paperwork, but we weren't asked what we preferred. The university decided that husband = primary.

Perhaps they are trying to save us all some paperwork by only processing one "family" form instead of separate forms for each of us. If these administrators knew us, however, they would put the more organized person as the "primary" applicant, and the person who hates all paperwork and who puts off any sort of administrative task as long as possible as the "dependent". But they didn't do that.

OK, so they don't know us, but it would have been nice if they had asked: which of you should be the primary form-filler-outer and which the so-called dependent? We make decisions like this all the time when there is a requirement that something be primarily in one name, with the other a co-signer. Sometimes I am the primary person and sometimes my husband is. For each situation, we discuss it and make a decision. But, as I said, we were not given this option in this case.

This is just an administrative detail, and unlikely to be an indicator of how I will be treated on a daily basis as a visiting scholar. I am sure that when I am interacting with my host research group, I will be treated as Me and not Mrs. Me. It's only when I have had to interact with government agencies and university administrative units that I have had to assume the role of Dependent. Designating this doesn't make it so, it just makes me annoyed that I can't be responsible for some (important) details of my own visit and appointment.

I hope that, someday, more of officialdom will recognize that some families have financially and otherwise equal members, and provide options for non-dependent (in a financial sense) partners to have equal responsibility for dealing with the wonderful world of bureaucracy.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Like a Business

Today in Scientopia, I discuss ways in which professors are/aren't like managers in non-academic settings (not that I know anything about being a manager in a non-academic setting).

Monday, August 22, 2011

In Loco Parentis

Last week's post about the sleepy undergrad inspired some comments that suggested (with varying levels of vehemence) that the professor involved should intervene in some way and facilitate medical treatment of a possibly serious condition. [In fact, based on additional information, I can say with some certainty that the student was just tired after a long night with little sleep.]

In any case, like many of you, every year/term I receive information from my university about how to recognize warning signs of a troubled student; for example, a student suffering from depression, or a potentially dangerous student. There is information about counseling centers and other resources to help students with mental and physical problems.

Although these e-mails and brochures contain a lot of information, of course they can't cover every possible situations. Sometimes, you just have to make a guess as to whether there is a problem, and if so, whether it is a severe one and whether you can/should do anything about it.

I have colleagues who have walked with a student to the health center when the student was in obvious need of immediate attention for a mental or physical problem and was willing to seek treatment. Of course it's harder to know what to do in more ambiguous situations, or in cases in which the student denies a problem, or is even upset or belligerent at the suggestion of a problem.

Consider the case I described on Friday: an undergraduate fell asleep during a meeting in a professor's office, while the professor was explaining something to the student about the student's research project. The professor asked the student a few questions to see if there was a problem (fainting? illness? etc.); the student said everything was fine, s/he wasn't ill.

Clearly some commenters felt that the professor should have done more. Would you have done more? If the student said "I'm fine", would you drop the subject or would you pursue it?

Poll time!

In the scenario relevant to this poll, imagine a student who is not obviously ill or injured. They fall asleep at an unexpected time, and then claim to be fine. End of discussion or just the beginning?

What would you do?
Drop the subject immediately.
Pursue the subject a bit more, asking a few more questions.
Pursue the subject until the student is convinced to seek medical attention. free polls

Friday, August 19, 2011

Can You Top This?

Recently, a colleague said to me:
I just had the strangest interaction with a student.
He was quite emphatic that this was the strangest interaction ever.

Knowing this colleague and many of his students, I was skeptical. Here is what happened:

He was talking to an undergraduate student about the student's summer research results. In mid-conversation, while my colleague was speaking directly to the student, the student fell sound asleep, sitting upright in a chair. This was not in a class; this was a one-on-one conversation in the professor's office.

Did the student faint or have another health problem? No, according to the student.

Did the student stay up all night working (or whatever) and succumb to sleep owing to severe sleep deprivation? No, the student claimed to be "quite well rested".

[Memo to students who fall asleep while in conversation with a professor: It's better/nicer to say you are severely sleep deprived.]

Fortunately, this colleague and I were en route to caffeine when he told me this story, otherwise I would have dropped off to sleep. He has that effect on people. Apparently.

Actually, I was fascinated. It would be weird and disconcerting to have a student fall asleep in the middle of a conversation.

Even so, I expressed my skepticism that it was the strangest student-professor incident he had ever experienced, and mentioned a few spectacular examples from the past. For each one of these examples, he said "Yes, but s/he was crazy." Yes... true.

His point is that this was the strangest experience he had ever had while interacting with an apparently sane and healthy student.

Have any of you ever had a (healthy, non-narcoleptic) student drop off to sleep in the middle of a one-on-one conversation? What did you do? Wake them up? Sit quietly and wait for them to wake up? Walk away? Put an embarrassing sign on their back? Call 911?

Year ago, some friends and I handcuffed a sleeping student to an egg-beater (the manual kind), but I was also a student at the time, so this was OK. Now that I am a responsible and mature professor, I might think about handcuffing someone to an eggbeater, but I wouldn't actually do it.

Please share your stories of strange (but not crazy/disturbing) incidents of professor-student interactions.

I have previously requested examples of the strangest things to happen in class, but now we are considering one-on-one professional interactions between professors and students. I am hoping to be impressed by a wide array of weird-but-not-too-disturbing incidents.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

One is Enough

Not long ago, a reader requested discussion of the topic of having "only" one child. Apparently, this a a topic of raging discussion in the reader's research group. I was curious about this, and in particular, wondered what is so controversial about the topic.

You might think that I'd have some expertise on the subject, as I have one -- and only one -- child, but if the controversy is related to having one child when you really want to have more than one, then I have no insight into this question. I didn't want more than one child, so I didn't have more than one child. One feels just right for our family; it wasn't a sacrifice or a compromise or a disappointment. We are happy as a family of three.

Also, my daughter has many friends who are "only" children in their families, so being an only child does not seem like a strange situation to her or to us.

The people to ask about one vs. more than one are people like GMP and Prof-Like Substance.

I know there is a common perception that only children are spoiled and/or lonely, but from what I've seen, children with siblings are not obviously better adjusted than siblingless children. This conclusion is based on subjective, anecdotal observations (a.k.a., my life as a parent of one). There are probably awesomely flawless and compelling studies that show that children without siblings are more likely to be axe murderers or politicians or something, but that is not yet apparent in the kids I know who are my daughter's age and younger. I guess we'll see how things turn out later.

Of course we can't read too much into one random query from a reader of a blog, but does a raging debate about one-child vs. more-children indicate that discussions among female scientists in academia have (mostly) moved on from wondering whether they can have even one child (or a career as an FSP) to whether they can have more than one child (and a career as an FSP)? I hope so.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

We, Robot

Dear Female Science Professor,

In your blog, you describe many of your bad experiences during grad school and through the tenure track. I have noticed that while you convey why some of those periods of time were very difficult, you do not write much about how you felt and what you thought about yourself. Do you choose not to write about these things for a particular reason, or do you think you sufficiently do?

It's very encouraging to read your blog entries, as they provide many of us with a sense of solidarity. However, do you experience emotion?

If you were back in graduate school/post-doc/early-track right now going through a difficult time, read a blog like yours, and commented on some of the entries, could you have sounded as angsty and lost as some of the women who leave comments, desperate to receive some form of cyber-comfort? The amount of composure in your entries is suspicious.


11:10 18/08/2011

To our valued reader,

We here at FSP would like to thank you for your comment. We are processing your text to identify key words. You will soon receive an automatically generated reply that best suits your needs. If you have any questions, please refer to our FAQ page. If you do not find the information you need, please contact one of our customer service representatives.



13:23 18/08/2011

To our valued reader,

The FSP team has diagnosed your problem and suggests that you consider upgrading to the FSP With Emotions Blog (FSP-WEB). Access to FSP-WEB is provided for a limited time only at $29.99/month.

FSP-WEB provides the full suite of emotions that are lacking from the Classic FSP version of the blog. Features of FSP-WEB include all of the creative obscenities and symbolic screaming that you will find on many other blogs.

FSP-WEB is written by a team of people who try to appear younger than those who compose the no-cost Classic FSP. We realize that many people cannot handle the mature content of Classic FSP, which is apparently written from the point of view of a middle-aged woman who is decades past her early-career experiences and therefore no longer in touch with her feelings. We are pleased to provide you with a more suitable option that better meets your needs.

** WARNING: FSP-WEB contains occasional mention -- and graphic images -- of cats. There is no feline-free version of FSP. **

error encountered
error in Line 20
error message 17.404
FSP 5.2 cannot process text. End of logic encountered. No response to keywords {amount of composure, suspicious}
auto-reply enabled: "Please try again later. Have a nice day. :)"

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Pity PhD

Today in Scientopia, I present a reader's question about "pity PhDs" and what the likely fate is of such individuals.

Monday, August 15, 2011

No Thanks

A problem and a question from a reader:

This month we organized an international research conference at our University, with the organization committee consisting of three male professors, a female professor and me. The composition of the committee has been very clear on all conference-related documents. Also, the conference ended by the whole committee thanking everyone for making the event successful in front of the whole audience.

Five of the invited lecturers have written and thanked us for organizing the conference. What disturbs me is that the last two (male) professors only thanked the male professors for organizing the meeting, while cc:ing me and the female professor + the other lecturers on these e-mails.

I feel annoyed for both myself and the female professor, as we both put in lots of work in the organization, but I do not know if I should comment (and if so, how) on these acknowledgments.


So, FSP readers, what would you do?:

(a) Nothing. Just let it go. There is no good, productive way to tell these men that they should have thanked all organizers equally. They will not change their behavior, and they might think less of anyone who tells them (or implies) that their selective thanking was sexist.

(b) Someone should politely inform these two professors that confining their primary thanks to the male organizers caused offense to the female organizers. That someone should be: (1) The male organizers; (2) The female organizers; (3) All the organizers together as a group; or (4) Someone else.

(c) Someone should ignite the verbal flame throwers and forcefully and not-necessarily-politely tell these two professors that they are sexist and that they should apologize to the women.

(d) Other.

I don't know the dynamics of this group, but my preference would be to start with one of the (b) options, and see what kind of reaction, if any, this gets from the two professors in question. I think they should be called out on their actions somehow, and in such a way that would increase the chances that they would thereafter not repeat them.

It is possible that they are reasonable individuals. Writing the thank-you note in the first place shows a degree of politeness, even if there was a problem associated with their selective thanking.

Your opinions and advice?

Friday, August 12, 2011

Minty Fresh Face

As I may have mentioned before, this summer has been extremely busy for me. It is the first summer ever that I have not had time to visit my family and the ancestral home.

Those who have read this blog for a while will know that I have mixed feelings about those home visits, but even so, it is strange and disconcerting not to make my annual trek to see my parents and aunts and uncles and cousins and to have various traditional summer adventures in the place where I grew up.

I thought I could power through the summer and early fall, energized by all the cool science my students, colleagues, and I are doing. And, so far, I have indeed been powering through the summer. It is difficult to stay energized all the time, of course, particularly when traveling a lot, but I have been doing fine, having fun, and getting (interesting) things done. It's been great.

Until the recent morning when I woke up very tired, got ready for my day with my eyes barely open, and smeared toothpaste on my face, thinking it was lotion or sunscreen, or something.

I don't know if you have ever smeared toothpaste all over your face, but in case you have not: (1) I don't recommend it, and (2) I will tell you that you can easily tell that it is not lotion or sunscreen. And if you can't tell easily, I fear for you because, even in my exhausted state, I knew right away that something was wrong.

I still don't have time for a vacation, but I think I will try to insert a bit of relaxation and recreation into my schedule in the next week or two so that I don't completely lose my mind. It is better in the long run to take a break for sanity and health than to work work work until you drop.

Of course, young students and postdocs don't need (or want) such breaks; this cautionary tale refers only to people over 45.*

[* attempt at humor]

Thursday, August 11, 2011

How Many Times?

How many times can a paper be rejected before you give up submitting it to journals?

.. a reader wonders.

We need data. How many times have you (re)submitted a (rejected) manuscript before you gave up on publishing the paper, at least in a form that mostly resembled that in which it was submitted?

Do you give up after the first rejection, particularly if the rejection is quite emphatic, or do you keep going no matter what?

Most likely, the results will vary, even for a particular author, depending on how you feel about a particular paper or project. The number may also vary for individuals at different career stages.

And of course 'giving up' is a nebulous concept. A particular paper might be shelved, but parts of it may be resurrected in another paper. That might be giving up on the paper in its original form, but some key elements of the paper may yet live.

You decide how to define the various relevant terms: rejection, giving up, paper, you etc.

What's your typical number? your highest number? Zero, 1, 2, 3, more than 3?

I have no problem revising and resubmitting a rejected manuscript to another journal. I will typically revise and resubmit until a paper is accepted somewhere, although it is rare for this to take more than 2 submissions. That doesn't mean I wouldn't re-submit more times. I think my max resubmits has been 3.

The variability in interpretation of the question renders the following poll entirely useless, but let's not let that stop us from getting data:

How many times would you (re)submit a manuscript before giving up?
more than 3
I would never give up free polls

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Take Out

Summer is not a great time for editors of journals to find reviewers for manuscripts. At least, that is my experience. In the summer, many academic scientists (and others) are extremely busy trying to get as much research done as possible before the beginning of the academic year. Many of us travel (conferences, research visits etc.). Some even take a vacation.

And yet, many people submit manuscripts for review in the summer, when they have time to complete projects, so the peer review process cannot take the summer off.

With effort, I have been able to find a sufficient number of reviewers for most submitted manuscripts that I have to handle as editor, but I have also received a large number of excuses from people explaining why they can't accept my request to review a manuscript.

Of course, no one has to give a reason, but many choose to do so, no doubt feeling the invisible sting of my editorial frustration and fearing my wrath the next time they submit a manuscript to the journal I edit. Or something.

Most excuses are routine and uncreative:
  • I have too many other reviews to do at this time (in fact, that's the one I use the most when declining review requests from editors of other journals).
  • I am traveling non-stop for the next n weeks (further admission: I've used that one as well, but only when it's true).
  • The subject of this manuscript is beyond my expertise. etc.

This summer, I got this one from a potential reviewer:

My wife made me take her on vacation.

Shall we parse that? It's summer, we have nothing better to do, let's do it:

My wife.. It's her fault! Not mine! I really really wanted to do this review but..

made me.. I had no choice! I was coerced! She was going to refuse to make my dinner and wash my socks if I didn't accede to her demand..

take her.. ugh, this is the part I dislike the most in this sentence. Why did she need to be taken on vacation? Did he carry her? Strap her to the car roof? Does "take" mean that he paid, drove, or both, and she sat passively while he took her places?

on vacation.. because of course, given his druthers, as a serious scientists, he would not go on vacation, he would do the review. But, alas, he was not allowed to have druthers. His wife took them.

Surely we can come up with better excuses than the boring ones and the wife-made-me one. They need not even be true, as long as they are not boring.

I am requesting that each of you provide a creative, entertaining excuse for declining a request to review. Do not decline this request even though it is summer. I am quite sure that you do not have any other similar requests at this time, you can easily type one in the comment box even if you are traveling non-stop for the next n weeks, and I happen to know that your wife (or whoever) wants you to take this challenge and entertain the readers of FSP.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

It Hurts When I Do This

Today in Scientopia, I respond to a reader's distress about re-reading a recently submitted grant proposal.

Monday, August 08, 2011


From an essay in the The Chronicle of Higher Education, titled Academic English Is Not a Club I Want to Join.

I can't use women as role models because they are not like me. We think differently. What motivated me to go to graduate school was different from what seems to have motivated many tenured female academics I've talked to. Much of what I've heard from older women about why they became professors revolves around issues of professional acceptance, equity, the desire to allow other women's voices to be heard, and wanting a place in which to say what's on their minds. Also, many of the older female professors I've known were quite angry about those issues.

While I can certainly understand their drives, they are not mine. So, tipping my hat to women in English departments, I can discard them as role models.

Some commenters on the CHE website have already noted that it's strange to discard all women English professors, however angry, as role models for these reasons.

The author of the essay seems to define role model in a very narrow way: the only viable candidates seem to be people who are remarkably similar to him in as many ways as possible, and unless he finds these people (men), he doesn't want to be an English professor.

OK, that's fine. It's important to like the people around you, in your job and in your life.

I also think it is important to distinguish role model from mentor, and ask: role model for what?

There are many of us STEM-field women who have male mentors and friends, but depending on what we want out of role models, we may or may not consider male professors as role models. That's not so different from what the author of the essay has done.

Nevertheless, I have had male role models in my career, and still do today: male professors I admire for their research abilities, commitment to teaching, and kindness. Those qualities have nothing to do with gender. The role models may have very different approaches to research, teaching, and life, they may have different motivations, and they make "think differently", but model isn't someone I want to emulate exactly, and I certainly don't expect them to be like me. I don't want to be them; I admire them and would like to try to be like them in some ways.

I have also had male mentors. These are people who kindly gave (good) advice and taught me how to be a researcher, teacher, and advisor. Some of them are still teaching me..

If, however, I consider other aspects of my life and look for people who have similar roles with respect to their children and careers, most (but certainly not all) of those role models are women. It is nice to have such role models, but it has never been such a concern for me that I have considered other career options because of the extreme scarcity of this type of role model.

I know little of academic English, of course, but I wonder why it was so difficult for the author of the essay to find female English professors driven by intellectual curiosity and passion, rather than "professional acceptance, equity, the desire to allow other women's voices to be heard and so on. I am not sure I believe that he understood the motivation of the female English professors he met (because they are so different, and therefore can't be role models.. it gets a bit circular, I guess).

Anyway, I know some (but admittedly not many) female and male tenured professors in academic English, and they all seem similarly motivated by a love of literature, language, writing, teaching, discovering, thinking, communicating, connecting, wondering.. the same things that drive many of us in academic anything.

Somehow I doubt the Female English Professors of the world are all that interested in convincing the author of the essay to reconsider his career choice, especially the older ones -- perhaps because they are so angry -- and I doubt if there is a long line of women queuing up to be non-angry role models for him.

That is why my main point*, such as it is, relates more to the difference between role models and mentors. Do you have any role models who are not mentors, or mentors who are not role models? I don't mean the mentors who are assigned to tenure-track faculty and who may or may not be a good/sane choice; I mean the mentors we truly think of as wise and useful guides and givers of advice.

What do you want in a role model? Is gender important in your choices and opinions of either?

* Yes, I know the essay/author is not worth the time or ink. You can comment on this if you want, but if you do, I will get major points in Blog Comment Bingo. Just so you know. And just so that you know that I know, if you know what I mean.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Subparallel Research

Let's say you heard a rumor that another group of researchers was working on a possibly identical, or at least very similar, project to your own research. You had both been working on this project for about a year, and had nothing published yet, not even a conference paper or abstract.

Would you:

- Contact the other group, seeking to open lines of communication? Possible motivation for this approach includes a desire to minimize overlap, share resources, and avoid negative consequences for students involved in the research.

- Do nothing and continue to work separately, waiting for a publication by you (ideally) or the other group (alas) to indicate results? Possible motivation for this approach includes a distrust of others and a wish to keep ideas and results confidential until it is time to submit something for publication.

In a recent experience with this situation, a researcher heard that we were working on something similar to his research project. He told mutual colleagues to ask my group to contact him. OK, so that was a bit indirect, but it was a way of opening communication without officially taking the first step: a sort of testing the waters without committing too much.

So we contacted him, and subsequent communication has been very friendly and interesting, with a bit of territory marking, but nothing too extreme. In the end, it will be particularly important for our students that our groups are now in communication and discussing complementary vs. overlapping research efforts.

In other cases, however, I have not been as interested in communicating information, although I typically don't mind giving general outlines of what I am doing.

For me, a key factor in my enthusiasm level re. communication is what I think of the other group -- that is, whether I think we are likely to have open, sincere, constructive discussions about our subparallel research.. or not. Sometimes you can't predict that if you don't know someone well, but sometimes there are clues (or prior negative experience) as a guide.

If you have heard rumors of possible or definite identical/similar research by others, what have you done?

And what influenced your approach? Whether/how well you know the other researcher(s)? Paranoia level? Desire to get the scoop? Other? Or does your research group (or field) have a particular philosophy of non-communication from which you do not stray (until you publish) no matter how nice the 'competing' researchers?

Thursday, August 04, 2011


Have you ever had an idea for a research project that, as far as you knew, no one else was doing, only to find later that other people had the same idea at about the same time? Yes, there are instances of intellectual theft, but sometimes it seems like there is just something in the air (or water).

[Maybe this phenomenon is analogous to the one in which people think they are giving their baby a cool and unique name, only to find that every other kid of the same age is named Olivia or Logan?]

Some research projects arise from a synthesis of little bits of information and ideas that develop from reading, listening, and thinking -- perhaps over time or perhaps in a sudden burst of inspiration. You think you are the only one to have this idea because you haven't seen anything in the literature or at conferences to indicate anyone else is working on this.

But then, what seemed like open territory suddenly seems a bit crowded.

Has this happened to you? It just happened to some of my colleagues and me.

What you do next depends on whether you and the other researchers are interested in cooperating (or at least communicating) or competing.

Tomorrow's post: initiating communication with other research groups about parallel research

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Gifted Students

A reader writes:

I have a summer intern (in this case, an undergraduate), who has done a lot of excellent work for me this summer. I am looking for gift suggestions as a way of expressing my thanks for (in this case 'his') hard work that was far above expectations. I had thought of (a) a nice lunch out; (b) university-wear - seems blah; (c) or an Amazon gift card - the fungible option.

Of course I realize that the student is getting a lot already (payment, research experience, probable future letters of recommendation). This isn't a long-term relationship like an advisee or post doc - its one summer.

Anyway, do you counsel for/against such gifts, and if you are for them, do you have suggestions that have been well-received in the past?


I have previously discussed the issue of gifts from students to professors (typically as thanks for writing reference letters, or as a general thanks for years of support and advising), but not the other way around. Note, however, that in the comments to the post linked above, one person mentioned that their father, a professor, gave his graduating students a tie or a copy of On the Origin of Species. I do not know the era of the father's academic career, but somehow I doubt there is much tie-giving these days*.

Anyway, I do not typically give students thank-you gifts, although I have given gifts on various occasions, including:

- When a student borrows a book or science gizmo from me and I think they would benefit a lot from having their own, I might say "Keep it". This is more of an encouragement than a thank-you gift.

- Sometimes I get an idea for a strange or humorous (in my opinion) item -- for example, a T-shirt festooned with a particularly unusual or stunning figure from a student's thesis. This is sort of a gift, but not really, especially if a committee member wears the T-shirt.. Mostly this is just intended to lighten the mood or mark an occasion.

- Once, years ago when my group had been going through a particularly rough time owing to the extreme behavior of one unbalanced person (not me!), I got everyone together at a Mexican restaurant and gave out goofy presents that each had a specific meaning or symbolism for the recipient. This made us all laugh, and was a good way to get us all back on track as a (reasonably) happy, functioning group.

Of the possibilities listed in the e-mail above, I guess I would go for the nice lunch out. I've done that before, typically inviting various group members and colleagues to make an event out of it. But giving routine tangible gifts, such as gift cards or U-wear, to excellent students? No, I haven't done that, and can't imagine that I would ever do that.

Have you given (or received) a gift as a student, from a professor? What was it and how did you feel about it? Or, even if you have not given or received, do you think there is anything strange or wrong about professor-student gift-giving?

* except possibly in some engineering departments, in which tie-giving may well be rampant.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Sidekicks and Bond Strength

Today in Scientopia, I discuss (or, more accurately stated: I raise questions) about what contributes to strong bonds between advisors and students.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Once a Student

At a recent conference, I encountered a senior professor in my field -- someone I had first met many years ago when I was an undergraduate and he was a professor at a university not far from the college I attended. He and my undergrad advisor were sort of colleagues, so this professor sometimes came into contact with us undergrads. I did not particularly like him at the time because he seemed obnoxious. Typically, when visiting one of our seminar classes or playing a role in an undergraduate research project, he wouldn't speak directly to us undergrads, but only to his colleague, our professor.

Over the years, I have had various indirect professional interaction with him. We haven't collaborated, but our research interests overlap enough that we have interacted to some extent. At this recent conference, we spent a lot of time talking about mutual research interests, and he was genuinely interested in some of my ideas. We had a very collegial interaction, although I don't think I will ever be entirely comfortable around him.

I don't hold a grudge against him because he was rather rude and dismissive of me when I was a mere student, but at the same time I am aware that he is the kind of person who treats people with varying levels of respect depending on their academic status. He was a big professor at a big research university, and he just didn't see undergrads.

But he sees me now, so I suppose that is a semi-good thing in that he is capable of evolving in his interactions with individuals over time. That is, he doesn't still see me as an undergrad just because that's what I was when we first met.

I was thinking about this general issue recently because someone asked me whether it is a good thing or a bad thing to be hired as a professor at the same institution where you were formerly a student (undergrad or grad): would your former professors/now colleagues always see you as a student, or would they see you as a peer?

I have no direct experience with this, so those in this situation as ex-students-turned-faculty or as faculty who are now colleagues in the same department with former students of that department can better address this issue.

Years ago, the chair of my former grad department informally asked me if I'd consider a faculty position there. We didn't go too far with this exploratory discussion, but it made me wonder what it would be like to be a professor in the department where I had been a student. Would the faculty who were there when I was a student truly treat me as a colleague, or would they remember me always as a student?

From my indirect experience with colleagues and friends in those situations, I don't get the sense that the once-a-student/always-a-student syndrome is common. If a former student of a department is hired as a professor in that department, it may indicate a high level of respect for that former student.

A cynical alternative hypothesis is that hiring former students involves cronyism and/or inbreeding.

Most likely, the answer varies quite a lot depending on the institution and department culture, but I'd be interested to see a discussion of examples and opinions.