Friday, September 30, 2011

Everything I Say Might Be Important

The other day, while working intensely on editing a document in a cafe, my attention wandered for just a moment (or two) and I tuned into a nearby conversation between two undergrads. One of them said something like this:
I hate Professor X. He never tells us whether anything he says is important, so we have to assume it is all important and so I need to take notes on everything he says and it is impossible to do that.
There was a bit more to the conversation, and it seems that this student is really struggling to sort out what is important and what is not important in a lecture, and therefore isn't getting much out of the class. If a lot of information is presented in each class, and all of it is theoretically equally "important", she can't possibly take it all in, she spends a lot of time feeling frustrated, and she therefore hates the class (and its professor).

One thing that interested me was the idea that it's better to assume that everything might be important than that none of it is (or might be). A famous gripe of professors is when students who miss a class or arrive late ask the professor if they (the students) "missed anything important". Would you rather have students wonder if you happened to touch on anything important in a particular class, or would you rather have students assume that you are probably saying lots of important things (if only they knew what they were) and hate your class as a result?

Not knowing anything about the professor or class or student in question, I am not going to speculate more about that particular situation, except to say that I hope that the student goes to talk to the professor -- not to complain, of course, but to discuss strategies for understanding the lecture material and thereby to alert the professor that at least one student is confused and struggling.

Overhearing this conversation made me think about how/whether I convey **What Is Important** and What Is Not, while teaching in a classroom.

Most of us are well aware that some students classify information as important (likely to be on the test) vs. not important (safely ignored). And many of us professors think that everything we say is in fact important (and could be on the test), but realistically, some of our pearls of wisdom are more pearly than others. We may emphasize a certain topic (perhaps even specifically described as important, key, critical, significant, fundamental etc.), and then some/most of what immediately follows is elaboration: we give examples, we try to explain and not just state. All of that is important, but there is also sort of a hierarchy.

I am going to try to be more aware of this in my classes, but I am curious as to how often I say "This is a really important point/concept/question" (and then, ideally, explain why it is important and not just assert it). I think I try to be clear about this and not just assume that students will automatically know, but to be sure, I do provide review questions that represent important information from each class. Or, I should say, the most important information because, of course, it is all important.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Proto-Broader Impacts

As I've described in previous posts, I am on board with the mandatory "broader impacts" aspect of NSF grant proposals, and I think that activities beyond the basic doing-of-the-Science should be given some serious thought by researchers. I don't think the definition and review criteria for broader impacts should be extreme -- that is, I think that reviewers and panelists and program officers should re-read the examples in the NSF grant proposal guide every once in a while and not downgrade a proposal for only including a thoughtful but standard description of activities involving education, mentoring, and so on.

And I am even on board with the general idea that we don't suddenly learn how to care about Broader Impacts (BI) when we become faculty and need to put something in a grant proposal. This is something that should be learned along the way, and grad students should be aware of these other elements of research, including the importance of communicating research results to a broad audience and considering the education/training aspects of research as part of the overall "impact" of the work.

Where is this post heading? Am I about to complain/whine about getting bad reviews for the broader impacts component of a proposal? No, not this time.

Instead, I am going to opine that, although graduate students should start learning about broader impacts (what they are, why they are important), we should not expect that students will have much experience with BI during their student years. I am talking/complaining about overly severe expectations that students will have impressive BI credentials, e.g., when writing their own grant proposals to NSF or other funding agencies with BI-like components.

Certainly there are BI activities that grad students can do as part of their research, and many do these routinely (e.g., mentor undergrads, visit schools). That's great, but from what I've seen recently, it's not considered enough by some reviewers and panels.

I don't think that's fair to the students. We expect a lot from grad students in terms of research and communicating research results (publishing, going to conferences); there's a lot to learn and a lot to do. Right now, expecting serious BI participation from students seems like adding time and effort without changing the number of hours in the day. Oh yes, and we also want to get the time-to-degree statistics for grad students down at our institutions.

Is it just me, or have others noticed that BI expectations are quite stringent even for student proposals?

There should be a way to teach students about BIs, encourage them to be involved and contribute their ideas and energy (as time permits) to BI activities (keeping in mind, of course, that the students themselves are BIs for their advisors), but that expectations should be reasonable for what students can and should be doing at this stage of their careers.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

May The Blog Be With You

For some reason that I don't understand but that I really appreciate, I've recently received a number of extremely nice e-mails from readers saying that they have "grown up" (professionally) with my blog and have found it useful. I find this fascinating -- the concept that in the 5+ years of this blog, a number of readers who started reading as grad students, have graduated, postdocked (or whatever), and started faculty positions. Others, who started reading as fairly new tenure-track faculty, now have tenure. That's great.

I am fascinated because I don't know what it is like to go through those professional stages while reading blogs stuffed with advice and information and comments and debate and all those things you get in the blogosphere. Sure, I could have read The Chronicle of Higher Education to glean some news and advice from other parts of academe, except that I didn't, back then.

Somehow, back then, we managed, of course, despite having to walk many miles in the snow without shoes and having to carry large rocks on our heads, just to get from our offices to the library, and so on.

I sort of touched on this topic in a post in February 2010 when I mused about what sort of blogs we turn to for support -- positive ones to cheer us up, pessimistic ones for the comfort of a group-wallow in misery and despair, bizarre ones because we are bizarre, all of the above, or what? I wondered what I would have done had the blogosphere existed back when I was a struggling student and postdoc. But I had no real answer, of course, because for me, it is all just speculation.

Anyway, as I said, these e-mails have been very nice. They have cheered me up while I am in the final throes of my see-you-on-the-other-side ~3.5+ month vortex of travel, meetings, deadlines, commitments, and whatnot that started in late June and is still going on for a few more weeks.

But, as nice as these e-mails have been, I still don't really know how or why it helps to read this or other blogs. I am not (just) fishing for more compliments here. I would like to hear some specific examples -- not just related to this blog, but also to any and all academic blogs that you have read for awhile as you have progressed through various life/career stages.

Sure, I can imagine a few possibilities. For example, there's the how-to kind of post: if you are a student wondering what/whether/how to write to a professor you don't know, or if you are a professor wondering what/whether/how to write a letter of recommendation for someone you hate, I've given some examples (though not necessarily good ones) for dealing with those and other situations that many of us encounter from time to time in our academic lives. It can be useful to see examples of what to do, or not to do.

But what else? And again, I'm not specifically talking about the FSP blog. What is it like to "grow up" with the blogosphere as a source of information, mentoring, and news? Is it the whole cosmic experience of having all these people writing about Everything that is useful, or is there some specific aspect that is particularly helpful to you?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


Sometimes I forget that I also have a blog over in Scientopia. This is probably not a good thing. I am a bad Scientopian.

But today I decided to post something over there. I have been mulling this one over for a while, alternately thinking "I'm not going to touch that topic" and "But the person who wrote to me sounds really nice and I'd like to help this person, even if I can't help them with advice myself, but maybe my readers can". Today, the second opinion won out.

So here goes.

Be nice.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Second Home

Not long ago, I was talking about University Stuff with a cousin-in-law who has a computer tech job at the same university at which I am employed. He was talking about how much happier he is now that he doesn't have to work in Remote Isolated Building and is instead more centrally located on the campus. In fact, he is hoping to get transferred soon to Totally Central Building, even if it means working in a basement.

Last week in this blog, I discussed the importance of location in the context of where we live relative to our campus jobs, but the location of the campus building in which we spend most (or all) of our time is also important.

I am sure that there are some academic people who like being on the edge of campus, or even at some distance from campus, but, like my cousin-in-law, I prefer to be centrally located.

When my cousin-in-law was talking about working in Remote Isolated Building, I remembered that I used to have to visit that very same building years ago, back in the Paper Era, when submitting a grant proposal required the physical handing over of paper forms and documents. Even once proposal submission was electronic, for a while the university still required signed paper forms, delivered in person.

For some reason, the university grants office (and not just at this university, but others with which I have been associated) was not easily accessible from central campus. It was Way Over There, and required an expedition to get to it.

This was annoying not only for the time required but also because, back then, it was one of the places on campus where I inevitably had to deal with the assumption that I was not a professor/PI, but instead someone sent by the real professor/PI. I attributed the high incidence of disbelief that I was a professor/PI to several things, among them the fact that the great distance of the building meant that most PI's sent students or underlings with the paperwork instead of making the trek themselves.

Now we just do all of these tasks from our computers. On the internet, everyone believes I am a professor. In person.. not so much.

But back to the issue of location: Working in a non-central campus location might decrease your chances of being hit in the head by an errant Frisbee (and parking might be easier and cheaper), but I like being in a very campusy part of campus. I like it not just for the practical (logistical) reasons of being able to walk to offices, classrooms, and labs (and even the library) when necessary, but also because I like the whole campus vibe/scene/landscape/ecosystem. Perhaps the fact that some of us like campuses so much is one reason why we are professors and have never left academia..

Friday, September 23, 2011

Reorient Express/2

Does everyone have their Feelings Graph drawn? It's time to share them with the group. Are there any volunteers? No? If not, I'm going to start calling on you.

OK, here's what we're going to do: you will each put your graph on the wall and then we'll do a peer-evaluation gallery walk of your creations. If anyone wants to put their own graph on their blog or webpage, you can do that as well; just send us the link.

After we've looked at them all, we'll discuss what you've come up with, and then we'll finish this faculty reorientation session with one more trust-building exercise that involves role playing. Be thinking about whether you want to be the basketball coach, the provost, a trustee, an administrative assistant, a helicopter parent, a wealthy donor, or a tenure-track assistant professor.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Reorient Express

Fellow professors: In the past few weeks/months, days, I know that many of you have looked on with intense jealousy and longing as the first-year students on your campus have participated in a variety of fun and stimulating orientation activities, many involving awesome bonding rituals and cool games. On some campuses, new faculty also have their very own orientation events. We old professors are entirely left out of all of these reindeer games.

I am going to fix that.

No, I am not going to start a nationwide or local crusade to convince administrators to (re)orient returning faculty. My efforts are going to be confined to this blog. Yes, I know that is ambitious, but I am highly caffeinated at the moment, and that is what I want to do.

So here goes.

Activity 1. Everyone must stand in a (virtual) circle and hold (virtual) hands. Now, one person (not me) will stand in the middle of the circle and impersonate a chicken (I saw this with my own eyes not long ago while walking by an orientation flock and I have no idea why one of the orienters or orientees was imitating a chicken but it really happened and so we are going to do it as well, for authenticity).

OK, now that that disturbing ice-breaking event is out of the way, I want each of you to think about your most memorable teaching experience.

Now I want a volunteer to act out this experience, without any words, and the rest of us will try to guess what happened and whether it was a good or bad experience. You, over there on the right, the professor with the hair, you can go first.

Great! Thanks! Now let's guess what happened and why it was so memorable.

[Leave your guesses in the comments. Note: I totally made this up. There is no one right answer. This is like those cartoons without captions at the back of The New Yorker, except the drawing is maybe a bit more impressionistic.]

Activity 2.
OK, professors, now take a seat anywhere over there, and try to sit next to someone you haven't met yet, even if they are from a bioscience department.

Introduce yourself to the person sitting on your right (name, department, PhD year/school, h-index), and ask each other What is your favorite dimensionless number? If you feel an egg being placed on top of your head, you must stand up and explain your new friend's favorite dimensionless parameter to the rest of the group.

After you meet your neighbor, I want you take a piece of paper or a personal electronic device and draw a graph that accurately depicts how you feel about advising a typical graduate student, from before they arrive on campus up until their thesis defense. The x-axis is time, but on the y-axis, you can graph any emotion that you want. Add whatever labels you want.

Does anyone have any questions?

Sure, that's fine, you can use a log scale. Whatever best depicts your feelings through time.

Yep, negative numbers are cool, too.

No, I don't think it's a good idea to have your time scale be too fine. If you use 15 minute increments, you won't be ready to share with the rest of the group when we have circle time in about half an hour.

If the red marker is dry, you will just have to use a different color. Yes, you still have to draw the graph even if you don't have a red marker. You can use any color or colors to help you depict your emotions.

If your iPad battery is dead, you are just going to have to use paper. No, you cannot leave now.

Sorry, we do not have real graph paper. No, not even a straight edge. The graph doesn't have to be perfect, it just has to convey your feelings.

Please don't calculate the slope of each line. Just make a picture that you can show and explain to your new friends.

[Results to be displayed tomorrow.]

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Over There

For various nanosociologistical reasons, my family and I are temporarily living in a house that is not our usual house. Our usual house, which I adore, is over there, closer to campus. Our temporary house is over here, at a much greater distance from campus. Today I realized that, in my academic life (age 18 to present):


Not from this campus; not from any campus. Not as an undergrad, grad, postdoc, and not during any of my various incarnations as various types of professors at various institutions, here and abroad. I have never lived this far from campus ever before.

Is this good or bad?

I think it is bad. I do not like it.

Living near campus means that campus (specifically: my office) is easily accessible, in some cases by walking or biking, and it's easy to go back to work at night. Living far from campus means a commute, and decreases the chances of my zipping over to the office in the evening, or anytime I want.

Living near campus means that we can easily survive as a one-car family. Living far from campus makes this difficult.

Some near-campus neighborhoods, such as the one I usually inhabit, are interesting places with a diverse population. They are festooned with cafes and other nice places to which you can walk.

Over here, in my temporary, far-from-campus neighborhood, I can walk to a mini-mart and a strip mall.

What if I had to live over here? Would my entire attitude about my life and job change? Instead of being a happy, optimistic person with a sunny view of life and work, would I become an embittered commuter, obsessed with traffic reports and emotionally detached from campus life? Would I make voting decisions based on the price of gas?

How much are we affected by the details of where we live?

I use the word details to signify that I am not comparing being homeless, cold, and hungry with living comfortably in a beachfront mansion. I am discussing the very limited, academic context of where and how we live relative to our jobs on campus.

In fact, some of my colleagues live over here by choice. There are advantages and disadvantages to living over here, and everyone weighs the pros and cons in a different way. My colleagues who live over here by choice seem quite happy with their choice. It would not, however, be my choice. Not at all.

If I had to live over here, I think my overall happiness would be somewhat eroded -- probably not significantly, but there would be more day-to-day irritations that might result in my being a slightly more cranky person. I might have to adjust my work habits, consume more (or less) caffeine, and get a few more cats in order to maintain equilibrium. I would adjust somehow, but I am glad that I don't really have to, and my stay over here is quite temporary.

Academic readers: Assuming you have a choice in where to live: do you choose to live near campus or far from campus?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

To Administrate: The Poll

Most of the comments on yesterday's post about whether someone should take on a temporary and challenging administrative position advised that the person in question not take the position, if offered.

There weren't a huge number of comments, however, and I am wondering what the results of a poll would show -- the same tilt towards don't do it, or a hint (or more) of go for it.

Based on the information provided in yesterday's post: Should this person pursue the opportunity (if so, vote yes) or run screaming from it (if so, vote no)?

Yes, I know that some of you would like to vote it depends; e.g., it depends on whether the individual is offered a million dollar increase in base salary to do this job for 6 months in a corner office with a great view, a deluxe espresso machine, and a highly competent administrative assistant. Etc.

Even so, just based on the information provided, you can probably decide whether you are leaning towards a yes or no vote.

Should this person take the administrative position?
No free polls

Monday, September 19, 2011

To Administrate or Not To Administrate?

A reader is contemplating taking on a temporary but time-consuming, challenging, and stressful administrative position. What are the pros and cons of doing so?

Below I provide selected details of this particular person's situation, to help with this evaluation by others who can share insights or advice.

Profile of the individual: mid-career science professor, promoted to full professor a year ago, successful in research, respected as a colleague and mentor, no administrative experience other than as head of medium-sized research group, no administrative desires (although has had vague thoughts that maybe this would be of interest much later in career), loves research (including doing research, not just supervising others who are doing research) and has struggled (successfully) to achieve a good balance in career/life.

Profile of the administrative position: interim head of a university unit in crisis (the individual in question is not part of this unit, but has some ties with it), it would be a full-time job (no teaching, probably also no research) for an unspecified amount of time, until a search can be conducted to hire someone into this position.

The internal struggle of the individual:

- Likes being a professor, values research, has done well -- why give that up?

- But thinks: Maybe I could do this?

- And: Maybe I should do this? (for sake of institution, colleagues).

- There don't seem to be any other good candidates.

- Maybe the challenge would be exciting and the job enjoyable?

- But...

Some of the details are different, but a lot of that sounded familiar to me because I have gone through some of the same internal struggles when deciding about whether to agree to take on some administrative duties. I wrote about some of my (in)decision in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The specific situation described above sounds unappealing some ways (a unit in crisis requiring full-time attention as an interim head with uncertain authority). Before seriously considering taking on such a responsibility, I think I would want to:

- meet with the relevant powers-that-be and find out if I would have the trust and authority to be effective, not just a warm body sitting in an office doing paperwork that will keep the flaming ship from sinking; I would want to have extensive and detailed information about the unit's recent operation, crisis, and likely future;

- know the time-table for the search for a 'permanent' head of the unit; these things can be unpredictable, but what is the proposed time frame?

- discuss compensation for taking on this position; not just salary, but also flexible research funds to hire a postdoc, visiting professor, or whatever would be most useful to the research group;

Armed with information about the time and effort required to do the job well, I would consider the effect on my research group. Some professors who are considering moving into administration will ramp down their research program, including number of advisees. Jumping suddenly into an all-consuming administrative position could, however, have major negative consequences for an active, medium-sized research group. Is it possible to devise a (good) plan for dealing with the necessary decrease in the PI's ability to manage the research group and advise students?

And then, ultimately, you decide. If you feel that you have the information you need to make a good decision, you have a good plan for taking care of your responsibilities to your research group, and you are still intrigued by the challenge of taking on this new job for a while, maybe you should do it. If, however, you feel like you would be giving up a lot for not much in return other than stress and a warm but faint feeling of having noble intentions, maybe someone else can do the job. You will surely have other administrative opportunities at another time.

Readers, what would/did you do in similar circumstances?

Friday, September 16, 2011


Can I just take a moment here and say that I hate how the "facilities" units of (some) universities gouge other units of the university, particularly when those other units are faculty with limited resources?

Can I express my frustration with how (some) "facilities" units do not in fact facilitate much, but instead suck up a lot of money?

Can I also note that my dealings with "facilities" people would perhaps be a bit easier if they would communicate with me directly? They instead prefer to deal with a senior professor who has absolutely nothing to do with my project but with whom they feel "comfortable". He keeps forwarding their e-mails to me and telling them that he has nothing to do with this project and that I am in fact the PI/director of the project and they should communicate with me. And then they e-mail him again with the next bit of information. I have finally eeked my way onto the cc list, so maybe we are making some progress.

I have previously requested shared wallowing about this exact issue, but it may be time to do that again. Feel free to share your stories.

I am on board with the concept of people being paid a high wage for skilled technical work (electrical, plumbing, construction etc.), but I do not think that it should cost many many many thousands of dollars to do basic things, some of which I could do myself (for free!).

And it should not cost many many many thousands of dollars for "facilities" to study a situation before calculating how many many many many more thousands of dollars the actual work will cost.

That's all I have to say on this Friday. And I promise that I will wait a little bit before sending in the manuscript review I just completed until I am sure that my facilities-focused anger does not seep into my review comments and have unfair negative consequences for the authors, who have nothing to do with the "facilities" people on my campus, although I will note that it is not a good paper, in part because the native English-speaking co-author did not read this paper (or, if he did, he did not care enough to do the considerable work necessary to make the paper understandable and instead assumed/hoped that reviewers and editors would do all that).

[/end rant]

Thursday, September 15, 2011

On Denial

A reader who was recently denied tenure at a major research university has some questions about how to deal with day-to-day life after the negative decision has been handed down; specifically, in the 'extra' year following the decision but before having to leave the university.

It is good that institutions provide this transition year, especially since some decisions are handed down at the end of the academic year, but the final year can be very difficult/awkward/stressful for the individual denied tenure.

There are of course resources available, online and in print, from the point of view of those who have experienced tenure denial. I am writing from the point of view of a tenured professor who has seen friends and colleagues experience tenure denial or termination during pre-tenure reviews, and who has worked with colleagues who were denied tenure (before I met them) at a previous institution.

The Questions

What does a person [the one denied tenure] say in these situations during their last two semesters?
.. when meeting another faculty member in the hall?
.. when meeting their graduate students?

My question back is: What do you want to say?

Do you want to mention your situation proactively or would you rather not talk about it? I think you should do whatever you want in this situation. If you want to talk about it, you could say something like "I suppose you heard.." or "Did you hear my bad news?" and then just say as much or as little as you want. Some people won't have any reply that will be of any comfort or use to you, but perhaps some will be kind and/or have insights. If you don't want to talk about it, either don't say anything or talk about something else unless asked, in which case you can say "I don't want to talk about it."

I know that some colleagues may be uncomfortable with you for a while (especially if they voted against you), won't look you in the eye, and may seem to avoid you. If you want to try to break the ice and gets things on a more normal footing, you can try to do that with casual conversation. However, it's not your responsibility to make us feel better (you're the one whose been hurt), so this is just a suggestion for getting past the initial awkwardness.

..when someone asks: Why didn't you get tenure?
(I don't actually know why, just some vague rumors, which seem to vary a lot depending on the source, because it's all confidential, right?)

The parenthetical statement surprised me a lot, although I will be the first to admit that I don't know how all universities work. Is it really confidential? Isn't there supposed to be a letter explaining something about the basis for the decision? What information did you get, and how did you get it? Just a "no"? In a letter or in person, with nothing else? This is worth looking into. What was your publication, grant, teaching/advising record compared to peers? Do you have a way to figure this out? Was there no information in pre-tenure reviews that there was a problem, or was the negative decision a complete surprise?

But back to the original question, if you don't know, I guess you just say "I don't know." You don't have to elaborate, even if you heard rumors. If you know, then it's up to you whether you explain what the official reason is, and what kind of editorial comments you add about the fairness/unfairness of the decision and evaluation process.

.. when a potential employer during an interview asks: Why didn't you get tenure?

Again, if you don't know, you can only say "I don't know" and explain that you were not told. If you know (or can guess), just be open about it, e.g., "I didn't publish enough" or "I didn't have as many grants as I should have" (mention expectations vs record).

Keep it factual in an interview, as much as possible, so your potential employers/colleagues can make their own decision. If your record would have been sufficient for tenure at the institution that is interviewing you, the tenure denial won't be held against you. Several of the most successful people in my field were denied tenure at an PrestigeU and went on to have outstanding careers as researchers and educators at AnotherU.

.. when meeting with a group of female faculty and graduate students in a Women in Science meeting when the topic is "What advice do you have for graduate students for achieving success?"

If you don't know the reason you were denied tenure, it's hard for you to give any perspective on your situation in terms of what you should have done that you didn't do. I suppose you could tell graduate students (female or male) about what you think the expectations for the job were and whether those were reasonable/fair, including whether you were fairly evaluated. If you had no feedback along the way, including now, perhaps that is something that can be discussed as a challenge and problem that should be addressed.

I think/hope it is unusual to have no information other than rumors -- both during the tenure-track years and following a negative decision -- so some advice could be about the importance of mentors, communication, knowing expectations/criteria. In some cases, having all that information doesn't help in the end anyway, but at least you would have more insight into the evaluation.

.. when at the faculty retreat.. We interrupt this question to answer it now: Don't go to the faculty retreat. Just don't go. You will only be miserable and it is not a good use of your time or emotional energy. Even if you are planning to stay as a 100% soft-money researcher or adjunct teaching faculty, you do not need to go to faculty meetings or retreats anymore unless there is some very specific and constructive reason to do so.

.. when your graduate student asks the department head about what their future is without asking the question directly to you first.

Well, I would try to be understanding that this is a stressful and anxious time for your grad student as well. I don't know what the timing was of the conversation with the department head, but if you had time to talk to your student and didn't (because you were too upset), then it makes sense that the student would try to get information that they need. If it's not too late, have a frank conversation with them now about their and your options.

.. when someone else's graduate student whose committee you are on asks you to approve their plan of study when you won't be available (or eligible?) to service on the committee by the time the student graduates?

If there are official actions (like signing a form) that you can do now to help a student, in the post-tenure decision year that you are still a faculty member, you should do them. The student and their advisor can decide whether to replace you or keep you on the committee in some capacity (and if the latter, how do to that administratively). Presumably the advisor knows that they need to deal with this, but if they are in another department or if you are in different units of a large department, just tell them.

My correspondent asked for suggestions on handling these situations "gracefully". I think it is good to remain professional, especially if you will be interviewing elsewhere and trying to remain in the field, but I wouldn't spend a lot of time worrying about whether you are making other people feel bad or uncomfortable. Perhaps some people are disappointed in you, but it's not as if you committed a crime against humanity. Fair or unfair, you have lost your job and so you need to take care of yourself (and your students), get as much information as you can, consider your options (including appealing the decision), and move on however you think best.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dealing With It

My e-mail inbox is piling up with questions and concerns, many from graduate (and some undergraduate) student readers with questions about dealing with those mysterious and possibly capricious creatures.. advisors.

I am sorry that I can't give each e-mail a thoughtful and helpful answer. In some cases, I don't feel that I have sufficient information, wisdom, or insight to provide a useful response, even though some of the e-mails are very long and detailed. In some cases, I don't have time to think in a careful way about the situation presented and provide a response in a timely way. I do reply to some, when I can.

Today's post is sort of a general response to a number of similar e-mails from students about possible problems with advisors.

I don't want to seem to dismiss anyone's problems, some of which are clearly very real and worth talking about with someone who knows more of the context and can provide some actual help or clarity (for example, such people might be senior grads, postdocs, friendly faculty, grad program advisors, and such), but I also get the impression that some students spend way too much time trying to (over)interpret, infer, parse, and react to their advisor's every frown or passing remark. This must be exhausting and stressful.

My advice: Don't do it (so much).

You can be aware of your environment and the people in it, including your advisor, without going crazy wondering how everything you say and do (or don't do) affects the equation that adds up to whether your advisor likes/respects you (at all, more or less than the others in the group, more or less than s/he did yesterday or might tomorrow..) and will therefore write you a good letter so that you can get a job after (if) you graduate or whether you are doomed right now.

Also remember that (most) advisors are people with their own stresses, anxieties, and traumas -- professional and personal. Advisors and students should endeavor to be pleasant and professional with each other at all times, but sometimes that isn't humanly possible. Sometimes, it isn't about you. If a usually-pleasant person seems a bit cranky, maybe they don't actually hate you. Maybe they were up late with a proposal, a sick kid, a migraine, or a cat who fell out of a tall tree.

If you have occasional (as-needed) conversations with your advisor about expectations and accomplishments, making any necessary adjustments along the way as the research proceeds, you should be able to have a productive and professional relationship with most advisors. I've written before (more than once) about how my advisor didn't like me as much as he liked the guys in the group, but in the end it didn't matter. I did good work, he respected me, he wrote me positive letters, and I got offers for postdocs and faculty positions.

If you feel that your unfavorable treatment relative to others in the group is completely unfair, unfounded, inappropriate, and/or damaging, that's a different matter. That needs some other kind of action, perhaps involving committee members or graduate program advisors. In my discussion here, I am focusing on lower-level anxieties about advisor-student interactions and misunderstanding. I am also assuming that the advisor is effectively sane and essentially well-meaning, even if not totally clued into how their words and actions are perceived by advisees.

If you have some health, family, or other issue that your advisor doesn't know about or doesn't know enough about, consider having a more open conversation. Otherwise, you will both be unhappy -- for example, your advisor with your possible and unexplained lack of sufficient progress and you for feeling like you are in disfavor. What you can/should do and say will of course vary a lot with particular circumstances and personalities; there are some personal things you may not want to tell your advisor, but it should be possible to have a general enough conversation that you can understand each other better.

I think I have written all this before.. Working out the advisor-student relationship is, however, critical for everyone, so maybe it is worth saying again.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Gender-directed Weirdness

During a recent bout of air travel, I picked up some magazines to read during the times when e-readers must be turned off and in an upright and locked position because things might shift during the flight, or something.

I found this quote by Judith Herzfeld (a professor of biophysical chemistry) in the Aug 29 issue of The New Yorker of great interest, and even somewhat entertaining*:

".. I find it remarkable for the period [late 1950's] that a new and ambitious, even aggressive, science program was given to a female science teacher, Mrs. Esther Daly. I thought nothing of it at the time, but I suspect that having had a female science teacher in junior high school gave me some resilience for gender-directed weirdness in subsequent science venues."

Oh how I wish I had invented the term "gender-directed weirdness". Can I at least invent the acronym? GDW is, from time to time, kind of a theme of this blog. At the very least, I am going to add it as a label.

I never had a female science teacher in junior (or senior) high school, so I have no personal experience with such things, but I am curious about the use of the term "resilience", used here to indicate a positive effect of a female role model (FRM) at an early age. I was also intrigued by the part about thinking nothing of it (having a female science teacher) at the time. Mrs. Daly was therefore a retroactive female role model (RFRM).

When discussing role models in the past, I have wondered if role models (of any sort) have to do anything active to impart resilience (or whatever), or simply just be a person doing a job. We don't have enough information in the little piece from "The Talk of the Town" section of the magazine to determine what Mrs Daly did or did not do while teaching middle school science, but I like to think that her very existence as a science teacher was a powerful statement to the girls (and boys) that she taught, even if a subconscious one (at the time).

Or perhaps that is just me being lazy, hoping to do good without actually knowing how or what to do as a role model. Unlike flying on a plane and being given lots of instructions**, being a role model is a lot less well defined, and it can be hard to know what to do, other than just to be.

* Perhaps even more entertaining, though, was Elif Batuman's essay in Harper's Magazine.

** On one recent flight, we passengers were told to remove pens and pencils from our shirt front pockets, in case of an emergency. Does this still apply if one has a pocket protector for the pens and pencils, I wondered but did not ask?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Author Credit Check

Today in Scientopia, I open discussion of a grad student's question about how authorship is decided on a paper, and whether a research group member who did not contribute should be included as a co-author because it seems to be the advisor's philosophy to include all group members on publications.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Tales from the Grad Advising Crypt

Did I mention that I am having a crazy-busy few months at the end of summer/beginning of the academic year? Yes, I think I did, and for that reason, I am going to be a lazy blogger today and post a recent essay of mine published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The original essay, with comments on the CHE site, is here. I don't think you need a subscription to see it, but if there are any issues with that, let me know and I will post the text of the essay here.

Thursday, September 08, 2011


Some colleagues and I were talking about teaching loads over dinner recently. First, let me say that I do not think that the word load implies that we find teaching a burden. It's just a term that means "how much one teaches per unit time" (term or academic year).

I hope that longtime readers have the impression that I like and value teaching (and students), as that is, in fact, how I feel about teaching (and students). That does not, however, mean that I want to teach a lot. By a lot, I mean more than 2.5 classes/year. OK, maybe 3.

If I teach a lot -- and there have been years when I taught > 3 classes -- I like teaching less because I don't have time to focus on doing it well. I don't have time to give my students the attention they need and deserve. Excessive grading erodes my mental and physical health.

If I teach more than 3 classes in an academic year, I don't have as much time for my graduate students and postdocs and undergrad research students, and it's more difficult to find time for research, papers, proposals, conferences, and all those things that are the other major component of my job. I have a very active research program, and it requires a lot of time to keep that going.

Although I am an epic multi-tasker and am happy work late into the night and on weekends, there are limits to what I can do in terms of doing both research and teaching well, and my personal limit -- given the size of my research program and group -- is about 2.5 classes/year.

Fortunately, that happens to be my average teaching load. It doesn't have to be 2.5 classes every year. It can be 3 some years and < 2.5 other years; that's fine. It's good to have flexibility.

Yes, I know that other faculty teach 4 (or more) classes in a year and also manage to get other things done (research, life), but I am not one of those people who can do all of that well.

Are my university and the people it serves getting their money's worth out of me? How would I fare in an evaluation of my usefulness to the university? That depends on the factors in the equation. I have brought in a lot of grant money, advised and graduated a lot of students, published a respectable number of papers, and received high teaching evaluations. I would fare well if those efforts are considered.

I would not fare well if the number of courses taught/year is a major factor (although my teaching load is not out of line with my department or similar departments). The low number of courses (relative to, say, humanities faculty teaching loads) might be somewhat offset by the fact that I teach some large to moderate sized courses, but there's no getting around the fact that many of us science professors teach less than our colleagues in other units of the university.

Should I teach more? Would it be better for the university overall if I taught more and did less research and advised fewer graduate students? I don't know.. that's a loaded question.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Professor's Choice

Which would you find emotionally easier:

having someone occupy your home while you are away for an extended period of time or having someone occupy your office?

This question assumes that you have an office that has been 'yours' for long enough for you to have settled in (quite) a bit. And it is more of a real choice if you don't hate your office (or home).

My answer is: home.

I love my house, but I don't mind having house-sitters, even ones I don't know. Preparing our house to be occupied by others is the only time we really clean it, and it's good to do that every once in a while. The prospect of making my office habitable for another human being is, however, more than I can imagine, so I'd rather not think about it (much less do it).

Tuesday, September 06, 2011


At various times during this past summer, I had the opportunity to "teach teachers" (mostly professors) -- in both teaching (pedagogy) and research settings. These were mostly very positive experiences, but whenever I do this type of activity, I am reminded of something important:

When we professors are put in the role of "student", we display most of the characteristics and behaviors that annoy us most in our own students.

It is good for me to be reminded of this from time to time because I think it is important to re-learn that certain annoying "student" behavior is actually just human behavior, and not necessarily a sign of immaturity or a lack of motivation, commitment, or intelligence.

A few examples:

When professors are in the role of students, they don't absorb every single bit of information they are told, no matter how clearly and well that information is presented (according to the professor). [note: I write 'they' here, but I could also write 'we'; this summer, I was mostly in the role of professor to professors this summer, but I don't think I would be all that different if the roles were reversed.]

Even if you are teaching a highly intelligent and motivated class of professor-students, some are going to ask you to repeat things that you think were quite clear the first time you said them; maybe you even wrote these things on the board. Can't they take notes? Aren't they listening?

Some are going to ask stupid questions.

Some are going to be checking their e-mail while you are telling them important information -- and/or some are going to arrive late -- and then they are going to be confused and wonder why you didn't tell them what they need to know.

Some are going to have 'issues' that could have been easily solved had they communicated with you in advance, but that become much more complicated to deal with at the last-minute.

And so on.

But, just as with most classes, the truly high-maintenance students are few in number (even if they suck up a lot of your emotional and other energy), the positive interactions vastly outnumber the annoying incidents, and the business of teaching and learning (about teaching or research) somehow gets done, and fun is had by many, if not most.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Ageing Out

Someone recently asked me if there is an age limit for getting one's first tenure track position. That is, if you follow a "non-traditional" path and/or spend a long time getting your various degrees and maybe also some time as a postdoc, is there an age beyond which institutions won't want to hire you in a tenure-track position?

Maybe, but from what I've seen at my university and from the experiences of some of my friends who are my age and are assistant professors, this age bias, if it exists (and of course it can't officially exist) probably doesn't come into play in a serious way until someone is older than 50.

I'm not saying that ageism for people older than 50 is OK. My point here is to attempt to assuage the anxiety of people who are older than 50, and certainly for those younger than 40, who think that because they are no longer 'young', they won't be able to get a job.

The question of the day, therefore is: How old were you when you started your first tenure-track position?

I think the answer to this question may be somewhat generational -- i.e., it was more common in days of yore for first-hires to be in their 20s -- so I could be ageist and confine the poll to people hired after, say, 1990-ish, but that is more complex than I want to make it. I know the answer will also vary depending on the type of institution, field, country etc. etc., but despite all this, I made a simple poll. You can of course elaborate in the comments to provide context to your answer.

How old were you when you got your first tenure-track position?
less than 30
more than 55

Friday, September 02, 2011

Check Us Out

Prologue. This post is motivated by the fact that I am already getting emails from prospective graduate students, so I started thinking about the graduate admissions process and remembered that there was a topic I have been intending to discuss well in advance of graduate application deadlines.

Every year when colleagues and I from other departments/institutions talk with each other about graduate applications, we are often collectively amazed that some PhD applicants mention their interest in being advised by professors who have not had a publication, grant, or a graduate advisee in many many years.

I am not talking about a gap of a year or two. I am not talking about distinguished near-retirement faculty who have a reputation for their scientific awesomeness and who might be quite interesting mentors, even if they are ramping down their research programs. I am talking about associate and full professors who no longer do active research. Of course, there are not many of these, but I think most of us can think of one or two.

Didn't these students do any investigating beyond what is listed on a department directory-type webpage? I could be wrong, but I imagine that these students saw the professor's field of interest listed, saw that it corresponded with their interests, and then went no further.

It is not difficult to figure out whether a faculty member is active in research. I understand that web pages may be out of date and contain selective information, that some undergraduates may not be too aware of different citation databases, such as Web of Science, and that most undergraduates probably don't know that they can search for list of active awards to individuals in the databases of the major funding agencies.

It would be great if more undergrad advisors told students about these resources, but even without knowing about these, you can find out a lot about someone by using Google or its moral equivalents.

I think it is particularly important for prospective PhD students to do a bit of background checking before applying. It is not so critical for MS students, who may do quite well with an advisor who doesn't have a lot of funding or research activity, although it depends a lot on the specific field, the nature of the thesis project, the funding structure of the department, and the student's likely post-graduate career plans.

In the sciences, the 3 things that potential doctoral students may want to know and that can be found with some fairly easy searching are:

- What has the potential advisor published in the last 5 years? Search for both peer-reviewed journal articles and presentations at major conferences. You can try Google Scholar, Web of Science, or some other relevant database. It's important to know how to use such databases, so it's good to start learning now if you don't already have experience with them.

- Has the potential advisor had a grant in the last 3-5 years? For NSF, you can go to their main website, select Search Awards, input the name of the relevant professor in the field labeled "Principal Investigator (PI)", and check the box for "active awards". You can also select expired awards to get information about longer-term funding history. To understand these data and what someone's funding record indicates about their level of research activity, it is important to have some context; some fields don't require a lot of funding, others do. The undergraduate advisors could provide some help here.

- Has the potential advisor advised (and graduated) other doctoral students in the last 5 years? This one is a more ambiguous indicator than the others. Some professors do not advise a lot of students, and the reasons for this are quite varied. The reasons might have nothing to do with whether this person would be a good advisor. It is worth looking into, though, just so you have a more complete picture of what you are getting into. If there have been recent PhD students graduating with this professor as advisor, it can be very useful to know what they are doing now in terms of careers. You may be able to figure this out with some creative searching, or you could ask around.

I think most prospective graduate students do some research into potential advisors and/or programs, and that's a good thing. We all want to increase the chances of a good fit between advisor and advisee, and just as the potential advisor is looking at student records, so too should prospective students be looking at the professor's record.

[note: I apologize in advance for sporadic comment moderation for a day or two during an intense time of travel.]

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Ms Degree

Something happened this week that hasn't happened to me in a long time:

I was asked if I am a Masters student.

The person who asked is about 10 years older than I am (rough guess), is not an academic, and asked this question in response to my having shown some knowledge of Science.

Was he visually impaired or was it pitch black at the time and he couldn't see that I am Old? No, it was daylight, but I was wearing sunglasses, so perhaps he couldn't see the wrinkles by my eyes, or maybe he thought I was a non-traditional student.

I thought it was strange that his imagination could only take him as far as envisioning me as a Masters student. Couldn't I at least be a PhD student, if not a professional scientist of some sort?

But, in fact, I wasn't annoyed; I saw it as an opportunity to introduce myself as a Science Professor. I like to think that now he will not make the equation woman + science = student, and instead there will be some part of his brain that remembers woman + science = professional.

According to this hypothesis, whatever equation this man might make for a scientifically inclined man, he will now make for women as well. His imagination will not be as limited as it was before he had met a real live FSP.

That is my hope, anyway. This is one (slow) way that stereotypes get busted -- one person at a time -- but there can be some personal satisfaction in it if the interaction ends up being a positive one.