Monday, October 31, 2011

x% of Infinite

Those of us who got some "stimulus" funding (ARRA) in the form of a research grant a few years ago have to do quarterly reporting on the progress of this research, as opposed to annual reporting for a regular grant; in my case, the grant was from NSF. This quarterly reporting is not arduous; it just takes a few minutes of checking the info generated automatically (e.g., number of persons employed by the grant) and updating some text about research activities.

I have no idea who, if anyone, reads these quarterly reports. Unlike annual reports, which have to be approved by a program officer (at least at NSF, I don't know about other funding agencies), once these quarterly reports are done, they seem to be done.

The one part of the reporting that always makes me have to think a bit is the part where I have to report the % of the research that is completed. In some senses, of course, a research project is never really done. You can always do more, and then some more. Particular research questions lead to more research questions which lead to .. etc. That's one thing that is so great about research.

Realistically, though, a grant has a finite time span, so things do come to an end (financially). Therefore, I could answer the question in terms of "How much money is left in the grant?". That is a number that, in theory, can be determined well enough for reporting requirements, although never exactly at any given moment, given the complexity and vagaries of my university's accounting system.

Another way to phrase the question is:"What % of what you said you would do in the grant proposal is done at this time?" That's a tricky question for research projects that veer -- for scientifically valid reasons -- from what was proposed in the proposal. I have written about this before: my research group's grant proposals are our best guess for what we will do to solve the questions and problems posed, but, once the research starts and we get some results, we may find a different/better way to approach these problems, at least in some ways.

In that sense, the % completed of what we proposed to do may be a very different number from the % of the project that will be "completed" by the time the funding runs out.

I have been thinking about this over the last few years as I do my quarterly reports and have to select an answer from a pull-down menu with possible responses to the % completed question. For a long time, I was answering with low numbers because we were in the data-gathering stage (for well over half the duration of the grant), but once we were >>50% in terms of time and money left on the grant, I realized that the % completed should probably kick up a bit, even if we still have a lot more to do.

I suppose at some point I will have to say that the project is 100% completed; that is, when the money runs out, even if the research is not really completed. For accounting purposes, this is probably fine, but it will not be entirely true.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


Today in Scientopia, I post a reader's question about what to put in a review for one of the High-Impact Journals. This reader wants to avoid being one of 'those' awful reviewers that bloggers and commenters complain about.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Mean Women

Here is an e-mail I got in response to my post yesterday. The subject line of the e-mail read: University Women's Club - don't celebrate your ignorance. Since I assumed that that was not the motto of the clubs, I guessed instead that it was a clue that the e-mail wasn't going to be very nice.


Your blog re UWC was sent to me from one of our clubs.

I am wondering if you have received emails from members of the University Women's Clubs in America or anywhere else in the world.  Most members nowadays are retired professional women with common interests, ergo the interest groups and daytime meetings etc- but our biggest role is in advocacy on all levels - from local to international and fundraising for scholarships and bursaries..  In my province the 23 clubs raised about $250,000 dollars last year.That is a lot of scholarships for women in BC who need the $$.  (When you received your first brochure several decades ago - the UWC members were mostly younger women with small children who stayed at home which was the norm in the 50s and 60s who wanted to use their education outside the home in a meaningful way and to hold discourse with like minded women)

You could have googled about UWCs before embarrassing yourself with your comments. Don't professors do some research before making statements?

Just have a boo at our National website and you will see that we are all about.

Maybe an apology?

Your nom de plume or whatever the nomenclature is in bloggerland........very curious. 

The foregoing is written from just me and not in my official role on the BC Council.

Monica von Kursell
BC Council


Nice! I really wish I could spend more time with people like this. Maybe we can form a club?

Anyway, I stand by my original post, which I do not find at all embarrassing, despite my failure to mention the important fundraising activities of some of these clubs.

** Note: Some of these clubs do advocacy! **

A careful reading of the post might show that I did not disparage these clubs -- not their missions, not their membership, not their existence, whether or not they raise funds for scholarships. I wrote that, while understanding the historic context of the name, I wish these clubs had a different name, one that does not imply that the most common definition of University Women = Wives of Professors.

I still feel that way.

I have been in bloggerland long enough to know that even mild statements about something seemingly uncontroversial can somehow inspire anger and contempt, a reaction I still find ....... very curious. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

University Women

When I started my first tenure-track faculty position, the university resource center sent me a brochure with information about a University Women's Club. I thought "Great! It would be interesting to meet other women professors, researchers, staff..", but then I saw that this club met in the mornings, on weekdays, for tennis, bird watching, a book group, handicrafts.. It was a club for faculty wives and partners. I was confused by the name; to me "University Women" included me, when in fact, it did not in this context.

Every new faculty member got this brochure, whether or not they had a wife. I guess it was more efficient to send it to everyone than merely to have it available for those who wanted it. I recycled the brochure and didn't think about it again.

Years later, on arrival at University #2, I saw no such brochure, or, at least, don't remember getting one, and I don't think my husband was given one either, but we arrived with an infant and didn't spend a lot of time going through our campus mail at that time. There may be such a club; I have no idea.

Fast forward 20 years from the first incident: During an extended visit to another university, my husband was given a brochure to give to his wife in case she wanted to get together with other faculty wives at a University Women's Club, which met on weekdays, typically in the mornings. There is tennis, bird watching, a book group, handicrafts..

That's fine. Some of my good friends and neighbors are married to professors; some of these women work, some do not. I am not criticizing anyone for the choices they make in their own life, and I am not criticizing the existence of such clubs, but..

and it may seem like a small 'but'.. but ..

I wish these organizations had a different name.

The name University Women no doubt derives from bygone days when women were far more likely to be connected to a university by marriage than to be employed there as a professor or administrator. The phrase "University Women" used in this classic sense therefore refers to women who are married to professors and administrators (etc.) at a university, not to women who are professors. The University Women are in-laws of the university.

I think the phrase University Women should instead imply 'women who are directly related to a university; i.e., as students or as employees'. The archaic use of the term University Women to refer to faculty wives is rather unhelpful to those of us who would like to overturn the stereotype (at least in certain fields) of professor = man.

If you heard the term "University Men", would you think of the husbands of female professors? I must admit that the term doesn't evoke that for me, or male professors for that matter. What comes first to my mind is an image of well-groomed male students (wearing sweaters, I don't know why). I am therefore not advocating that University Women = Female Professors, just that University Women does not equal Faculty Wives.

I have no idea how active these groups are, and whether their members are mostly/entirely of a certain age, and (I repeat) I have nothing against these groups, I just think the name of these organizations shouldn't imply that the main association that women are likely to have to a university is as wives.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Destiny's Woman

On a recent, long plane flight, I read The Marriage Plot (Jeffrey Eugenides), and found a few sentences of interest. If I were an underliner, I would have underlined these, both on the same page of the novel:
Madeleine worried that there was something paradigmatic in this, that she was destined to go through life being cowed by less capable men.
Phyllida's hair was where her power resided.
OK, I stand corrected about hair and power.

The first quote is interesting, in part because of the use of the word "destined". Is Madeleine worried about being cowed by less capable men because she can't do anything about it, or because she won't do anything about it? Either way, she has a sense of foreboding that this might be a feature of her life.

But why would it be a feature of the life of a young woman like this character in the novel -- an intelligent, literature-loving, Ivy-league graduate?

Have any of you ever felt that way, particularly early in your academic career?

I never felt that I was destined to go through life cowed by less capable men, but I did worry that I was destined to have lots of experiences in which I was automatically assumed to be less capable than less capable men, just because I am a woman. And in fact, this has been my destiny.

I have met this destiny, and it was mine, but that was then, this is now.

I got older. Some of the less capable men fell by the wayside, some are still around and doing well. All of this matters less and less to me as I get older and have more freedom and confidence in my work.

Even so, I liked the sentence in the novel because it captures a feeling you can have, particularly when you are young, about how things might go in the future, in part because you do not have super-human confidence in yourself and in part because life is unfair and strange.

Just don't be cowed. You don't have to be cowed. Just say no to being cowed. Or, if you are cowed now and then, OK, that happens, but don't let it be your destiny.

Monday, October 17, 2011

You may find yourself in another part of the world

Same as it ever was, or at least how it has been for the past 3.5 months, I am going to be spending a lot of time up at 10,668 meters this week. For this final onslaught of busyness before a (relative) respite, I am taking a blog-break this week -- or, at the very least, things will get very sporadic around here for a while.

While I am suspended over various oceans and continents of the world and doing in-seat exercises to avoid deep vein thrombosis, I think it would be entertaining if the readers of FSP would share stories of


* or workshop or other types of professional meetings.**

** It's sort of cheating if you tell a story of something that happened to someone else, but if it's a really good story, go ahead and tell it anyway.***

***My apologies in advance for delays in comment moderation.

Friday, October 14, 2011


The other day, I had to gather my social skills (such as they are), brush my hair, and put on my most stylish socks to attend a socioprofessional event that required me to be super-nice to everyone I met there. As I was claiming my name tag from a table near the entrance, I asked the table-attendant what the "1" on my name tag signified; the other name tags that I could see did not have any numbers.

The answer to that particular question is not important to my story. But this is relevant: when I asked my question, a 70-something man standing nearby said "It means this", and he made an obscene gesture.

I thought to myself, "This is a test."

And I was determined to pass that test. I decided to practice being super-nice to him. I figured: if I can be nice to him, then I can be nice to almost anyone.

So, I noted his name and other information on his name tag, and asked him a polite question about himself. This is not what he was expecting (score one point for me), so he said "Did you see which finger I just held up?" (minus one point for him for being so desperate for attention that he had to mention this).

I ignored his question. I saw that the lapels of his jacket sported 5-6 pins indicating various organizations to which he belonged and various awards that he had won, so I made a polite comment about his apparent interests and accomplishments. (I think I should get another point for this, but I won't beg if I don't get one.)

He said "I hate awards, but I keep getting them." [insert unconvincing explanation for why he advertises (with his lapel pins) these awards that he despises but that he also totally deserves because he is awesome although of course he is too humble to say that and only says it because he keeps getting these awards, which he despises, from these organizations, which he despises etc.] (minus another point for him?)

I asked him another question about himself and his interests (I will not give myself points for these because they were rather routine), and then he said, "All you professors only care about yourselves and other professors."

To me, that's even ruder than the obscene gesture, but I was not willing to give up. I was determined to continue to withstand the onslaught of aggressively jerkish behavior. So I said "That's not true. Many of us care about our students."

His reply: "So what? Same thing. You only care about students because you want them to be professors one day so that is just like only caring about professors."

By this point, I was pretty sure that we were not having a rational conversation in which two mature and respectful adults listen to each other and make reasoned arguments to support differing opinions, so instead of responding directly to his point, I told him about some recent outreach programs and also some applied research that seemed relevant to his background (from what I could infer from his lapel pins).

I couldn't tell if he was bored or stunned. It is likely that he was disappointed that I didn't respond in a satisfying way to his obnoxious behavior. He probably thought I was freakishly polite, and perhaps heavily medicated.

In any case, although I am sure he was hating me just as much as I was hating him, I made the first move to exit this grim conversation. I silently proclaimed victory, bade him a pleasant farewell, and moved on to chat with another group of people.

This experience reminded me of other situations in which I have felt uncomfortable by someone's speech or behavior, and my strategy has been to take the high road, ignore the offense or make a mild joke, and just get on with my work. I have found this to be much more effective in the long run than responding in-kind or even walking away.

This is not the most appropriate strategy in all cases -- sometimes we need to yell and fight back or walk away -- but when there's no point in yelling, I find it personally satisfying to be as calm and mature as possible. Thinking of it as a 'test' of some sort is one way that I can get through an unpleasant situation.

I think that it is even possible to derive a strange sort of enjoyment from what is otherwise a ghastly situation if you set yourself a challenge and feel that you succeeded with it.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Hair Today

Someone commented to me in conversation the other day that as long as I have hair like mine, I will not be taken as seriously as I would be if I had a more "classically age-appropriate" hair style; i.e., shorter hair, or at least hair styled in a middle-aged woman kind of way (whatever that is).

Does anyone else believe this? Are women with short/styled hair taken more seriously than women with long hair (for example)?

OK, I know, I have discussed hair before. It is actually not a big issue for me, but it comes up every now and then. The aforementioned conversation was in the context of some of my new professional responsibilities that require me to spend time with a veritable sea of men in suits and ties.

When my colleague made his recent comment about my hair being a factor in my credibility gap (i.e., I am actually a reasonably competent, serious scientist, but I don't look I am), I nodded because it sort of made sense. I've had enough experiences in which people were surprised and dubious to find out I am a professor, scientist, etc., so that it was easy for me to agree somewhat reflexively with this statement about my appearance with respect to my career/position.
But after giving it some thought, my answer to my own question is that hair length/color/style is not very important. Perhaps the context of a situation is somewhat important, but in most professional situations, hair style is just a detail. Appearance can matter for a first impression, and hair style is part of that impression, but it's just part of the overall package. I could get Hilary Clinton hair tomorrow, and I could even put on a red power-suit (perhaps for Halloween), but that would not change the first-order aspects of my appearance and personality. I would remain a soft-spoken, not-tall, uncharismatic, sarcastic female. 

Some men in my field of Science don't treat women as serious, professional colleagues, but it's not because our hair is long or short or pink or yellow. I have spent plenty of time sharing stories with short-haired female colleagues about our similar experiences being in a male-dominated field. And I have had (very) short hair in the past (but not recently); in the context of being taken seriously in a professional context, I don't think it matters.

Agree or disagree?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What Is Your Slide Number?

Last week, I listened to a colleague give a talk in my department. It was a very interesting talk and I paid close attention, but I was also kind of fascinated by how much time he spent on each slide.

He spends much much more time/slide than I do in a typical talk, and therefore he showed many fewer slides than I would have in a similar talk.

For example, if a talk is 12-15 minutes, he will have no more than 12-15 slides (and more commonly 12 than 15). In a 50 minutes talk, he may have 30 slides. In each case, I would typically have twice that many slides, even for a talk on a similar (or the same) topic. I hasten to note that I typically finish my talks well within the allotted time.

I would not blame you for concluding that I give unintelligible and incoherent talks crammed with too much information, but let's assume, just for the sake of discussion, that my talks are reasonably understandable; or, at least, no less so than talks by this colleague, who is a minimalist (relative to me) when it comes to number of slides in a talk.

What is your slide number? (Ns)

Ns = number of slides in a talk / talk duration (in minutes)

Important note: If you have one or more animations that appear within one slide, you need to count those separately. For example, if you show a slide with a picture of a red circle on it, and then, after discussing the red circle for a bit, you hit a key/push a button/click a mouse and a blue circle appears next to the red circle, that = 2 slides, not just 1, even if they are technically within one slide. If, however, you have a multitude of tiny little modifications that appear with successive but rapid mouse clicks, you could still count that as 2 (but not 1).

Are you a minimalist, moderate, or a maximalist when it comes to the number of slides/talk?


minimalist: Ns << 1

moderate: Ns ~ 1 or slightly > 1

maximalist: Ns >> 1 (and typically > 2)

And what does it all mean?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Do Reply

It turns out that I have one more thing to say (for now) on the topic of e-mails from prospective graduate students to potential grad advisors..

On Friday's post, there were some comments to the effect of "How do you have time to answer all those e-mails?" or "Why do you bother to answer those e-mails, even the form letters?"

How do I have time? Of course I don't have time; most of us don't. In fact, I don't have time to do anything, not even write this, but somehow.. we find time, not to do everything, but to do some things we want to do or think are important.

Which leads to question about why/whether answering these e-mails is important.

I have probably told this anecdote before, but it is important for understanding why I answer these e-mails:

Years ago, I went to an awards ceremony for an early-career scientist who, in subsequent years, has continued to do excellent research, fulfilling the promise of his early years as a researcher. He is originally from another country, one in which many young scientists send many e-mails to many potential advisors in the US. In his acceptance speech, this young scientist said that he sent out many e-mails when he was starting to think about graduate work in the US, but that very few professors wrote back. In fact, he really only got one serious reply from a potential advisor. So he applied to that place, was accepted, got his PhD, and went on to do award-winning research. In his award acceptance speech, he thanked his graduate advisor for taking the time to write back to him and encourage him to apply. This changed his life.

The students who send us these e-mails are our potential graduate students. 

We want excellent graduate students, and my hypothesis is that you can't always tell from these e-mails who is going to be an outstanding graduate student and who is not. You can get an apparently sophisticated e-mail from someone who doesn't have a creative bone in their body and who has no real passion or motivation for research.

But what about a clueless, unfocused e-mail? Does such an e-mail indicate a fatally clueless graduate student? Some would say yes, it does, or at the very least it means that the student is far behind some of their peers and will be slower to get on track in a research environment.

So, my latest question to you grad advisor readers is: Do you think that an apparently clueless e-mail (a) definitely, (b) maybe, or (c) does not indicate/s a terminally clueless student who will not do well in a graduate program?

Monday, October 10, 2011

You Can Lead a Horse to Water

Just the other day, a colleague who teaches at a very small college asked me what I want to see in an e-mail message from a prospective graduate student. This was of course an extremely timely question, given the topic of my post on Friday, and I gave her a brief synopsis of my opinions.

She said that that was pretty much what she had been telling her students, and that some students showed her their e-mail drafts before sending them to potential grad advisors (and she encouraged them to show her their drafts). Other students, however, either did not want her to see their drafts and/or didn't take her up on her offer to discuss the purpose and desirable content of these e-mails.

In the case of students who did not want advice, she feared that their letters would appear clueless or might even be perceived as rude (for example, if they asked something like "What is your research?").

We talked about this for a while -- what it's like for her as an advisor of undergrads in a small place and what it's like for me as a grad advisor reading these e-mails, and then later, applications -- and this was very interesting.

It occurred to me that when I get an unsophisticated and/or annoying e-mail from a prospective student, I assume that the student did not consult an advisor or was somehow poorly advised. I don't think I seriously consider the possibility that the student might have a very thoughtful and engaged advisor whose attempts to give good advice are ignored or rebuffed.

There's no way to know which is the case (although I wish there were because it would tell me a lot about that student), but from now on I will not make this assumption.

Will this have any practical effect? Maybe not.

But I wonder. Grad advisors who get e-mail from prospective students: If you form a (perhaps unfair) initial negative opinion of undergrad advising quality, do you think this carries over into your reading of the letters of reference in the application? That is, do you think you somehow discount (a bit) the opinions of advisors of students who wrote lame e-mails to you (in addition to not having the most positive impression of the students)?

I know it's not so simple -- the applications are comprised of a variety of materials (transcripts, statement of purpose, GRE etc.). And yet, when there are far more highly qualified applicants than there are admission slots, maybe these things make a difference. Do you think they do?

Friday, October 07, 2011

Writing to me (reprise)

In 2007, I wrote about the different types of e-mail messages that I receive from prospective graduate students. I've received a heap of these e-mails in recent weeks, so I was thinking about this general topic and looked back at what I wrote 4 years ago. Below I sort-of reprint that post, but I have edited it, in places extensively, based on my current thoughts about these missives.


In my field, at this time of year, potential grad students send e-mail messages to potential graduate advisors.

Note: In my department, students need to have an identified advisor from the very beginning, although it is certainly possible for a student to switch advisors once admitted to the graduate program; hence, these e-mails.

I answer all such e-mails from prospective graduate students, but the content and length of my response varies with the tone/content of the e-mail from the student.

These e-mails come in several varieties:

Type 1: Form letters: Some students send these e-mails to many professors and don’t bother to tailor each e-mail to each potential advisor. Some are clearly not even appropriate for the particular research field of the recipient. This does not make a good impression.

My response: Cursory, particularly if the e-mail starts "Dear Sir". (The correct form of address is "Professor", which avoids the hazard of not being able to guess gender from a name, particularly one in an unfamiliar culture, although a Dear Sir letter to me is a sure sign that my correspondent did not look at my faculty webpage because, despite being a flaming feminist, I am quite recognizably female from my photographs, I think.) My response typically consists of something like this: "Dear S, If you are interested in applying to the graduate program in X-Science at MyUniversity, you can find information about application procedures at [link]. Sincerely, FSP."

Type 2A: More specialized letter, but unfocused, poorly written, or otherwise demonstrating cluelessness. I got one of these recently and it really made me wonder if this student, who is apparently a native English speaker and who may well be very smart and hard-working, can or will get past this severe disadvantage when applying to graduate programs. Example:
Dear Prof FS,

Hello my name is X. I am interested in graduate school for next year because I really love Science! I am especially interested in [garbled name of my research subfield]. Can you tell me more about it?
My response: No.

My real response: polite but not detailed. I point the student to my webpages, which have information about several ongoing research projects.

Type 2B: More serious than 2A, and not as clueless, but still asking in an unspecific way for me to describe my research. When a student requests more information about my research and that's all they say about it, I don't know what -- if anything -- the student has done on their own to learn about my research. I am not expecting a prospective student to write "I have read your last 18 papers and they are all fabulous", but a less vague question will get a less vague answer.

My response: Similar to above, but a notch more detailed; I provide a link to my research webpages.

Type 3: Excellent letter: focused, well-written, demonstrates that the student has thought about why they might want to apply to my university and possibly work with me.

Dear FSP,

I am a senior at X University, and am interested in obtaining a PhD/MS in Your Field or A Closely Related Field. I became interested in Your Field (briefly mention class and/or research experience). I saw on your webpages that you [mention something of interest as a possible research opportunity]. (Alternative: I read your recent paper in Journal and was interested in [specify]). 

.... (see below for examples of how to end such a letter)...

My response: I respond to any specific questions, providing details about research opportunities.

So, how do prospective applicants end these letters? This is the awkward part for some.

It is OK to ask a potential advisor if they are taking on new students in the coming academic year. You can end the letter with this; it is easy enough to answer with yes, no, or maybe. Whether someone is even interested in taking on new advisees is critical information for potential applicants. Someone might well be doing the most fascinating research in the world (to you), but if they already have 17 students and are not taking new students, maybe you don't want to apply there (unless there is someone else you want to work with). 

It is OK to end the letter with an expression of interest in the graduate program and something like "I plan to apply for the graduate program, and hope that your department will seriously consider my application." It's a meaningless sentence, but it shows intent and is a possible way to end the letter without making an open-ended request for information. Most professors (in fields in which these letters are common) will know why you are writing -- to get your name out there, to show seriousness of intent -- so you don't have to work too hard to explain why you are writing.

If you are going to be at an upcoming conference, you could end the letter by letting the potential advisor know if/when you are giving a presentation, in case they are interested. Speaking only for myself, I don't like getting requests for extensive meetings/discussions with potential applicants about whom I know nothing other than what is in their e-mail.

I am, however, happy to chat with prospective students at poster sessions or professional/social events or during breaks. Instead of making an appointment (which requires the professor to look through the conference schedule in detail in advance and make a plan), just try to track down people of interest in likely spots at conferences, or, better, have one of your professors introduce you. [But that's just my preference. If you like making appointments with prospective students, leave a comment so that it will be clear there is a difference of opinion on this issue.]



Thursday, October 06, 2011

You May Go Now

Some of my colleagues in the US and abroad either have to provide details of their professional travel plans to their university before travel or, in some cases, have to get permission to travel, even when classes are not in session. At some institutions, these policies apply to both domestic and international professional travel, and at others, only to international travel.

Note: I am not talking about cases in which faculty are applying for travel funds from their university. I am talking about travel that is covered by a grant or other external sources of funding.

I know what my university's rules are for allowable travel expenses, airline and fare class selection, frequent flyer miles, use of a business credit card (rental cars and plane tickets: yes! casino chips and massages: no!), and the reimbursement process. Every once in a while I hear a rumor about a notification policy, but so far, it seems that either there isn't such a policy or it is not enforced. 

For a while, faculty in my department were supposed to provide travel plans in advance to a certain administrative assistant; if we didn't, we were told, we might not be covered by health insurance or workers' compensation if a problem arose during travel.

That did not seem quite fair to me. If I traveled to a major city for perfectly legitimate professional reasons and then, while walking to my hotel, I am struck on the head by a piece of plywood that falls off a building under construction (true story), would I be ineligible for coverage if I hadn't told my department I was making the trip? Maybe I don't want to know the answer to that.

Anyway, when that pseudo-policy was in effect, some of us dutifully filed our travel info, some of us didn't, and eventually the AA pleaded with us all to stop sending her this information, so we did (stop).

I can see why a university might want to know quickly and accurately who is where if major disaster strikes in a particular location. I am not sure, however, that knowing what country and city we are in would be that useful for any practical purpose in an emergency. I could be quite wrong about that: Do universities that know the general whereabouts of its employees (I am not including students in this; that is different) during a major natural or other disaster provide any useful help, or is travel info just a record-keeping exercise for general bureaucratic purposes?

I do not know the answer to that question. I have been in/near some disasters during travel, but in those particular cases I did not need assistance from my university to deal with whatever I needed to deal with (for example, alerting family, friends, and colleagues that I was fine).

Do you believe that universities collect travel information out of concern for their employees and students? Some of my more cynical colleagues think there are darker motives for collecting such data.. (and if you can't guess what these are, that's great -- it means you are not (yet) a paranoid cynic).

Some things like this (travel plan reporting) may still be the domain of departments or other sub-units of an institution, so policies and/or enforcement may vary even within a single university. This may change: it seems that there is a move to centralize some functions that were formerly dealt with in departments; none of this has increased efficiency, as far as I can tell.

I hope the day never comes when such a policy either comes into existence or is enforced in my little corner of academia, dramatically decreasing our freedom to hop on a plane and travel incognito to Tuvalu on a whim, while adding to the amount of paperwork that we all have to do and that may well not have any real purpose.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Dissertation Co-authors

Somewhere, somehow, I must have touched on this topic before, but maybe not lately, and it came up in a recent discussion with a colleague, so here goes:

In some fields, research is highly collaborative, and, as a result, publications have many co-authors. Therefore, in places where the doctoral thesis is a collection of papers resulting from the PhD research, there are 'co-authors' of the thesis, although of course only one official author of the thesis itself.

If the person whose name is on the thesis played a major role in the papers included in the thesis, I don't think having 'co-authors' of a thesis is a problem, as long as it is clear that the thesis chapters are papers and the co-authors are clearly indicated.

In some cases, formatting rules of the institution allow for reprints to be bound together to create the thesis, so there is no question about the relationship of chapters to papers. In cases in which the thesis must be formatted following strict rules of font, font size, margin size, pagination etc., the title of each chapter needs to be very clear about the relationship of the chapter to a paper, including listing co-authors of the paper. [Most, but not all, students are aware that they should list co-authors or, once told, have no problem with doing this and realize it is the right thing to do.]

The role of a PhD student may vary from paper to paper, and therefore from chapter to chapter in the thesis. In some cases, the PhD student may not have been the primary author in a paper that is included in the thesis. What then?

I remember one potential problem with this particular scenario once, when there was a question raised about a student's including a chapter that was a paper on which the student was not the primary author. It was not my student, or even my field, but I was nevertheless asked to weigh in. So, I did a bit of scouting and learned that, at many institutions, it is considered OK to include a minor-authored chapter/paper if the majority of chapters (papers) represent major contributions by the thesis author. Again, the authorship of each chapter/paper needs to be spelled out, but if that is done, then there should be no problem.

There are certainly fields in which it is common for a doctoral student to be just one person in a very large group of collaborators, all of whom are included as co-authors on papers. Are any of you concerned about the amount of research done by PhD students -- specifically in a collaborative project -- with respect to what ends up in a thesis?

In cases in which a thesis is a bundle of co-authored papers, I think it is good if the student writes an introductory chapter (and possibly also a concluding chapter) that gives a broad view of the body of work and gives the student an opportunity to put their own stamp on their own thesis, without any co-authors. It may be that no one will ever read the thesis itself, but, if time permits the writing of such 'extra' chapters, the exercise of being sole author on at least one part of a dissertation can be very useful.

How much of your thesis did you write (yourself)? (please note your field, if you are willing)

Tuesday, October 04, 2011


Perhaps you have heard the expression, "If you want something done, ask a busy person." Some people are able to get a lot done, and adding one or four more things to the list doesn't slow them down. Let's call this type of person Type W.

Then there are Type X people, and I am going to classify them, for the sake of discussion and Pseudo-Scientific Rigor, as Type X1 and Type X2. Type X people -- in general, with all other factors being equal -- don't get as much done as Type W people.

To explain the difference between X1 and X2, and to compare them with W people, I will use an academic example. I am not thinking of any particular person or people; this is a hypothetical situation. I am not (necessarily) talking about you.

Imagine 3 graduate students at similar stages of their academic program, with similar types of research and similar backgrounds and the same advisor. They are done taking classes and can focus on their research.

A Type W person would get a lot done whether they were funded by a research assistantship (RA), a teaching assistantship (TA), a fellowship, or whatever.

A Type X1 person would only make decent research progress if funded by an RA or fellowship. A TA would consume all of X1's time and energy, not because X1 is more devoted to teaching than W, but because X1 can only focus on one thing at a time.

A Type X2 person would get more done if partially funded by an RA or fellowship and partially by something requiring a bit of structured work -- for example, perhaps teaching one lab or discussion section, or perhaps doing some grading or other work like that. If funded entirely by an RA or fellowship, X2 wouldn't be able to deal effectively with the lack of structure and would waste a lot of time, making very slow progress, even if the advisor set specific goals.

Actually, I can think of one real example of W vs. X, and I have written about this before. Back in days of yore, my own graduate advisor gave an RA to another student instead of to me, saying that I would get a lot done even if I were a TA, whereas the other student would only get work done if an RA.

At the time, I felt like I was being punished for being a Type W person and the other student was being rewarded for being an X. Now, as a grad advisor doling out limited funds within the limited time frame of a grant, I can understand it better. I also want to mention that the other student in question was, and still is, my friend, and that I did not blame him for being an X-person.

Explanatory note about grad funding in my field: Many students are funded by a mixture of types of support over time; some RA, some TA, some fellowship. Advisors make decisions from year to year about the type of support for each student. If we requested 12 months of support for a student on a grant for the entire duration of the grant, the budget would explode, leaving no money for the actual research, so my colleagues and I typically ask for partial support, and make up the rest with TA or other sources of research support, or the student gets a fellowship, etc.

With that in mind, my question now is how (and whether) to distinguish between the X1's and the X2's.

I guess 'whether' is the more first-order question: In cases involving making choices for a particular grant/project, would you -- the advisor -- take into account work habits like the W vs. X scenarios described above when making decisions about support?

And if you do, would you make a distinction, like I did, between X1 and X2? Would you distinguish them by trial-and-error, or is there some magic formula you can use to predict (barring routine and unpredictable research setbacks) how cost effective someone will be? I think not, and I have mostly given up trying to guess.

My current strategy, which is not obviously better than anything else I have ever tried, is to accumulate as much grad support as possible, give students the benefit of the doubt as much as possible, distribute grad support in the way that makes the most sense for research and human resource priorities (what needs to get done when and by whom?), and hope for the best.

Nevertheless, when making some decisions and when trying to understand how people work best, I think it is useful to think about W vs. X, and more vs. less structure, and to explore ways to stretch grant funding to the maximum extent possible to cover as many students as possible for as long as possible. That is the goal. Would you also like to see me pull a rabbit out of a hat? Too bad, I can't do that either, and not just because I have no training or authorization for the use of magical animal subjects in research.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Complaining Early & Often

While serving on a particular review committee at my university, I have seen many examples of negative comments in teaching evaluations for problems that seem like they could easily have been fixed during the course if only the professor knew there was a problem (and was willing to recognize it as such and change something about their teaching style).

Sometimes we professors can sense that something is wrong or that students are unhappy or confused. Some students will tell you directly, but most try to express their unhappiness and/or frustration in unspoken ways. Unless you ask them what the problem is, perhaps even by doing a mid-term evaluation to get anonymous comments, it can be hard to know what the problem is in some cases. Of course, if you just handed back a test and the average score was 17%, you might have some clues as to why students are unhappy.

The situations I am thinking about don't have to do with difficult tests, but more with teaching style. I have talked about some of these issues before, such as pacing vs. being stationary, having an accent and/or speaking too fast, using various formats and devices for writing, projecting etc.

Whenever I see a file with very negative teaching evaluations, I always wonder if any students complained somehow, to someone, during the course. Some of the problems seem entirely fixable during the term, when there is time for the students to benefit.

I tend to assume that no one complained because I seldom see a comment like "Although we told Professor X that we could never see his writing when he used the red marker, he kept using it." Instead, it's more common to see the complaint "I could never see the writing on the board when he used the red pen."

I can certainly understand why some students would not want to complain directly to or about a professor during a class. What if the professor gets angry and punishes them by giving impossible exams and low grades? There is surely some anxiety about the consequences of complaining.

Of course, there is a difference (or can be, anyway) between complaining and making a request. That is, instead of "I hate it when you use the red pen", something along the lines of "It would help us all see your writing on the board better if you only used the black and blue pens."

Other problems, of course, are more serious and more difficult to fix during a course; for example: comments about a professor's disorganization, inconsistency, perceptions of unfair tests or rude comments, refusal or inability to provide clear explanations or answers to questions. In those cases, what can a student do?

Don't wait for the teaching evaluation and don't be satisfied with writing negative comments on some professor-rating website. Get organized: talk to other students, find out what the issues are, get examples, and write it all down. Then ask an undergrad advisor, respected senior professor, or relevant administrator what to do. If the complaints/requests are reasonable, perhaps there are faculty or administrators who can pass along suggestions aimed at fixing problems in time to help the students. In some cases and at some places, these concerns will be dismissed or ignored, but I think it's worth a try.

In some cases (but probably not the extreme ones), there might even be a reasonable explanation for what seems like bad teaching. I one case I can think of, a professor used a lot of text-heavy slides in a class. The students complained about it in the teaching evaluations, but not one of them had mentioned during the course that they hated this. It turns out that there was a hearing-impaired student in the class, and the professor had been asked to put a lot of text on slides, and had spent considerable time doing so, out of concern for the hearing-impaired student.

There are ways that this particular situation could have been dealt with better by the professor and the students. For example, the professor could have explained what was going on, and could have found a way to present the course material without making the students feel bludgeoned by text-laden slides.

Of course I wish the major teaching problems could be fixed, but it is these easily fixable problems that I am focusing on today because they are fixable with a bit of two-way communication between professors and students.

So, student-readers: Are there any possibly-fixable issues in the classes you are taking now that you wish could be fixed during this term? If you give us some examples, the professor-readers can comment and say "Yes, you should definitely tell your professor about that" or "No, don't do it" (but here's a suggestion for dealing with it). More likely, you will get both answers for any particular example, but the results could be interesting anyway.