Friday, December 30, 2011

I Would Consider Being A Postdoc In Your Lab

Has anyone else gotten one like this? I have, unfortunately, although it wasn't in the cover letter, it was in follow-up correspondence. This is, of course, another entry in the Cover Letter contest.

Professor Female,

You may remember that we met at the X Conference last year when my advisor, Professor Bigname, introduced us at the Z Inc. cocktail party. At the time, I mentioned that I would be finishing my PhD in May 2012, and I am on track to do so. I am therefore in the process of looking for a tenure-track faculty position, but would also consider being a postdoc in your lab.

As you know, I have a lot of expertise in A, B, and C. I have read a few of your papers, and think that my background would be a great asset to you.

Since I am also applying for tenure-track faculty positions and other postdocs, I can’t commit to coming to work with you until I know all of my options. Ideally, I will be offered a faculty position for the coming academic year, but if that doesn’t happen this year, and particularly if no other postdoc positions are available when I finish my PhD, I would be very pleased to join your research group as early as June 2012. My wife and I are planning on starting a family as soon as possible, and I think it would work out quite well if that difficult first year, when our child is an infant, coincided with time spent working with your research group, before I move on to a more challenging and time-consuming tenure-track faculty position.

We should talk soon about my options for a postdoc with you. I will be visiting family in your area over the upcoming holidays, and I will call or e-mail to let you know when I am available to meet with you.


A postdoctoral applicant whose assumption that I, a female professor, would be sympathetic to his plans to start a family was incorrect, not because he planned to start a family soon (that is fine with me) but because he managed to turn it into an insult to me.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

I Plan to Collaborate with You

Another entry in the Cover Letter contest; this one nicely captures the phenomenon of "I am going to collaborate with Professors X, Z, and You" in such letters, crossing the line between noting points of mutual research interests to a specific announcement of future collaboration.

Dear Search Committee:

I am writing to apply for the position of Postdoctoral Fellow/Instructor/Assistant Professor at your Liberal Arts College/Large University. I am currently a grad student of Professor X at Prestigious University, working in algebraic geometry. My adviser said that I will probably defend this spring if I get my act together.

I first learned about your Large University/Liberal Arts College when I stood in line next to Professor Big Name at Huge Conference, and she mentioned that my talk looked ``interesting'' and that she even might come to it.

I am passionate about research! Enclosed you will find my research statement. I am certain that Professor Big Name will find my work fascinating, and I have contacted her to let her know that I plan to collaborate with her when I arrive at your institution.

I am also passionate about teaching (but not too passionate if that's not your thing)! I consistently receive above average student evaluations. One student once told me that I am ``the best,'' but unfortunately did not mention this on the evaluations. Her email address is available upon request.

While I did have to check the ``Yes'' box next to your question ``Have you ever been convicted of a felony?'' I just want you to know that I have since returned all of the merchandise.

Thank you so much for your time and consideration! I will check back soon.

Warmest regards,

Alex Awesome

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Clueless Cover Letter

Another Cover Letter contest entry:

Dear Miss FSP and members of the search committee;

I am writing to apply for your tenure-track, postdoctoral, or other temporary full-time or part-time position in Physics.  My advisor Professor Famous says I am finishing my Ph.D. this year since I am running out of funding.

My research is in theoretical physics.  Specifically in my dissertation I study the homotopy type of moduli of IIB plane-wave 19-dimensional hyperelliptic Clebsch-Gordon coefficients of holonomic Kontsevich correspondences on Artin stacks of strings.  I am also interested in the homotopy type of moduli of IIA plane-wave 19-dimensional hyperelliptic Gordon-Clebsch coefficients of holonomic Kontsevich correspondences on Artin stacks of strings.  My research statement is enclosed.

I am wildly excited by the possibility of indoctrinating young undergraduate minds on the absolutely marvelous wonders of the fascinating subject of Physics and in particular about my research.  I believe in student-centered learning, continuous assessment, and the integration of research and education.  My teaching statement is enclosed.

I am particularly interested in working at your college or university because my girlfriend's cousin's former roommate says the skiing is great.

I plan to attend the March meeting of the American Physical Society and would like a chance to chat with you then.  You can get in touch by drawing on my Facebook wall.

Sincerely yours,

Clueless once-promising slacker physics grad student

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Herewith a Kool Kover Letter

Another entry in The Cover Letter contest:

Dear Search Committee:

My name is Dr. Joseph von Kool and I am applying for the open position in your Department.

Herewith I submit to you my application materials thereof for the aforementioned tenure-track position. Whereas my address is listed as Prestige University, henceforth I will be located at the Uber-Institute until such time as a tenure-track position is proffered and forthcoming.

Most sincerely yours,

J. von Kool, Ph.D.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Dear Search Committee Chair

Another entry in The Cover Letter contest. 

Dear Search Committee Chair,

I know these letters are usually addressed to a person, but the job market is so terrible these days that I hope you’ll excuse me for using your title instead, since I have to write 93 letters this week. 

As you no doubt have figured out already, I am an applicant for your position in Molecular Biology.  I am well trained in (Biology  Chemistry) because of both my undergraduate and graduate training at MIT, and I’ve had experience as a teaching assistant in (organic introductory biology) as noted in my teaching statement, so I am completely prepared to teach the course you mentioned in the position advertisement. 

My research is on the reversal of aging in female fruit flies by the polyphenolic compound, resveratrol, a component of red wine, and I anticipate considerable student interest in working with me in this area.  My PhD was with Famous Scientist, a foremost researcher on molecular gerontology, and we have three papers published and four in press resulting from my graduate work and two years of postdoctoral fellowship.  I have been funded by Major Private Foundation, the US Wine Institute, and the National Institutes of Health during my postdoctoral research period and I anticipate future funding from all three agencies to support my research at   ____  university.

In order to set up my laboratory properly, I will require a startup fund of $600,000 for equipment, supplies, personnel, and travel, to be spent over a four-year period, after which I expect my laboratory to be self-sufficient.  I need to have a release from all teaching and committee work for the first year and a light load of teaching and committee work for the entire pre-tenure period if I come to your school.  It is essential for the development of my research in a highly competitive area that I not be distracted by these other elements while I am setting up my research endeavor.  I am sure you understand this situation well, since there is lots of research in your department of (chemistry biology).

Please examine my CV, research plans, teaching statement, and letters of recommendation carefully.  I look forward to visiting your department, in fact I may be in the area and if so, will call to arrange a visit soon.


An Outstanding Candidate

Friday, December 23, 2011

On the first day of Christmas, a Cover Letter Entry

We here at FSP are still accepting entries for The Cover Letter Contest, but here is an example, just to help set the festive mood for the contest.

To whom it may concern:

Please find attached my application for your open position in Nanoherpetology. I completed my PhD in Nano-neuroherpetology in 2008 at the University of X, and since then have been a postdoctoral research in Applied Electrical Nanoherpetochemistry and Engineering in the famous Z lab of the K Institute. I was strongly encouraged to apply for this position by my mentor, Professor E, the world expert cosmoherpetologist who is rumored to be an imminent choice for the National Academy of Sciences.

My expertise and my personality are a perfect fit with your department. I expect that, given my expertise and background, I would be able to have a large and well-funded research program up and running within the first year.

I have enclosed but a few of my more significant publications for your review. A complete archive of all my peer-reviewed publications can be downloaded from the ftp site (address). A copy of my press releases and other media-related materials (podcasts, videos, documentaries) are also available on request.

Other information about my research accomplishments and a framework for my future research can be found in the enclosed materials, along with a list of courses that I could easily teach at the graduate and undergraduate levels. In addition, you may be interested to know that my wife does not have a PhD. In fact, she works as a receptionist in an insurance office, a job she would happily leave.


Sinclair Snake

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Forgetting Me

'Tis the season to think about our ancestral homes and aging relatives. Not that I don't think about them at other times, but in the past few weeks I have been mailing packages and cards and such to various relatives who live in or near the place where I grew up, far from where I live now.

My similarly-aged colleagues and I are at the point where, when we meet at conferences or elsewhere and the topic turns to Life, Family etc., a common element of the conversation is the declining health (or, in some cases, the decease) of parents. In recent years, on more than one occasion, collaborative research and planned research visits have been postponed owing to a colleague's parental health crisis.

With time, I am sure more and more of us will be talking about and dealing with our own declining health, but for now, many of us are focused on our parents. Because most of us are academics who took whatever jobs were available, wherever those happened to be, most of us do not live geographically close to our ailing parents, adding another challenge to the situation.

As I am writing this (a few days before I will post it), it is my mother's birthday. She is physically very healthy, but, as I have mentioned in a few posts over the years, she has long been showing signs of some sort of dementia. I started noticing it quite a while ago, and, not surprisingly, the signs have gotten more obvious over the years.

Years ago, when it was clear to me that she was not going to mention her symptoms to her doctor, I talked to him. Instead of taking my concerns seriously, he was offended. He told me that (1) he is such an excellent physician that he would not miss signs of a problem, even if they were subtle, so who was I to tell him that she had a problem?, and (2) if I really cared about my mother, I would quit my job and move closer to her. This was a disturbing conversation, but my mother would not listen to a single word of criticism about her awesome physician.

Later, when the signs were impossible to ignore and I kept insisting that she talk to her doctor (the same doctor that I talked to), she finally did. He did some tests and prescribed Aricept.

She isn't going to get 'better', of course. And for now, she is enjoying life, despite having to stop doing some activities that previously were a major feature of her days. She can't process a lot of new information or complex ideas or concepts, and this also makes it difficult to have a conversation with her. For example, we can talk about liking or not liking a book or movie, but we can't discuss what about them we liked or disliked. To her, something is either "wonderful" or "dreadful", and there isn't really anything in between.

She can no longer keep track of new details of my life -- career milestones, travels, even my health. She asks the same questions over and over, tells the same stories over and over. She remembers little incidents from years ago and forgets major recent events. For now, this is all still in the realm of manageable, and just requires a lot of patience by those around her.

One of the strangest aspects (for me) is that she seems to be forgetting some aspects of who I am. That is, she still clearly remembers major facts that have not changed recently -- my name, where I live etc. -- but she seems to remember me as a different kind of person than I think I am.

To explain with an example: I have always loved to travel and I have always loved having adventures. My brother does not like either. He has to do some travel for work, but mostly he stays home, and that is what he prefers. This is not something we each developed as adults; these are traits that have been apparent since we were children. And yet, my mother 'remembers' that my brother is the adventurous one and I am not. When I tell her about some place I have been or something I have done, she gasps and says "But that's not like you! It's your brother who does things like that." Well, no, actually he doesn't. I do. There is no way to convince her of this. And then she forgets it all anyway and doesn't even remember that I went anywhere or did anything in particular, until the next time, when she is surprised again. It doesn't help to send her photographs or detailed descriptions; new information that she can't absorb just goes away.

That is a benign example. It doesn't really matter if she thinks my brother is adventurous and I am not, but other examples cut a bit closer to the heart in terms of who we are and who we have been to our mother. This, too, will never get 'better'. 

What is she remembering and what is she forgetting? Is she making things up out of nothing? Are her memories rooted in the way she thinks people should be? How she wishes we were? Or is it all random, dependent on physical and chemical changes in her brain, not anything related to her real thoughts and memories? In most examples of her 'remembering' things as they aren't, I don't fare too well in terms of her perceptions of my personality, interests, and past actions. Where does that come from?

This year, as I selected gifts for her for her birthday and Christmas, I thought constantly about the state of her mind, as there are some gifts, including some books, that she would no longer enjoy. We used to exchange joke gifts, but now these just confuse her. She actually can't keep track anymore of who gives her what gift (this has been the case for the last few years), so I select things with the general hope that she will like them, even if she won't know who gave them to her a few minutes after she receives them.

Sorry if this post is a bit of a downer at a time when most academic types are decompressing and hoping to have a relaxing week or two with family and friends. I plan to enjoy the next few weeks as well, but I would like to extend a wish for peace, patience, and support to those facing similar issues with parents, relatives, or friends.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Family Leave, Nerdy Babies, Feline Guest Post

For some reason that is probably related to my shortcomings as a blogger and a human, I typically ignore requests to post announcements and links of various sorts, and, strangely enough, I do not respond to requests for guest posts from people who are clearly sending out form letters and have absolutely no clue what this blog is about.

But today I am going to change all that, at least for today, sort of. I am going to post an announcement, a link for a shopping site, and I am going to allow a guest post from one of my cats, all in one post. It is pretty incredible, I know, but I am feeling festive today. Not so much, though, that I am ready to do one of those meme-things (yet).

Perhaps I am feeling happyish today because someone wrote to me asking if they could quote one of my posts about having a Christmastime Birthday. This is not the first such request. If I am remembered for anything, it seems that it will be for this statement:
In fact, I hope there is a special place in hell reserved for the creator of "For Your Christmas Time Birthday" cards (especially the ones with birthday cakes surrounded by poinsettias and holly). (FSP 2006)
Anyway, here is an important announcement about a topic of interest to astronomers and others:

Would you be interested in posting about our effort to improve family leave policies for graduate students and postdocs in our field (astronomy)? 

Since posting our petition to encourage the establishment of family leave policies by departments and fellowship committees only a few hours ago, we already have over 300 signatures. As in all fields, supporting early career scientists is a hot topic for us. 

from: the American Astronomical Society Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy

p.s. In addition to the petition, we recently sent a survey to all astronomy department chairs in an effort to catalog current formal policies and existing practices. (We already know that most grad students and postdocs fall through the cracks). We will use these two pieces of information to create a formal recommendation from our American Astronomical Society. We will also share examples of departments which have succeeded in funding more progressive family leave policies for graduate students and postdocs in our field.  

And here is a link to a site where you can acquire some nerdy baby gifts, as described in this e-mail message to me:

We're two MIT grad students who noticed a lack of baby apparel for the discerning academic or scientist. As someone who's into science, math and possibly nerdy gifts, we thought you might like some of our designs:

And here is a guest post from one of my cats (I can't say which one, as he prefers to be anonymous, but it is the one who does most of my grading and editing). This cat has kindly agreed to write a thoughtful essay on what it is like to be a feline who secretly grades science problem sets and exams, not to mention editing dissertations and manuscripts. As you might imagine, this situation raises some tricky ethical and other issues, and I think it is worth discussing from the point of view of the cat.

Note: I am not paying my cat to do this guest post (nor do I pay him in money to grade and edit), but I have agreed not to edit or alter in any way his guest post.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

LoR Lore

Today in Scientopia, a discussion of the phenomenon and consequences of Late Letters of Reference.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Woman of Few Words

Reminder: Don't forget to send in your entry for The Cover Letter contest! There are some great ones so far, but I am sure there are more creative examples lurking out there somewhere. 

Sometimes it seems like I could start 93% of my posts with "Not long ago, I was talking to a colleague and.." One might think that I spend a lot of time talking to colleagues. One might be right about this.

In any case, today is one of those 93% of times. Just imagine the usual beginning, blah blah blah..

.. and he reminisced about the time, many many years ago, when I gave an interview talk for a tenure-track faculty position in his department. He says he remembers my talk vividly. I do not remember my talk, vividly or otherwise. I remember the topic of my talk, but that's about all I can come up with for memories of that event.

Fortunately, my colleague's vivid memories are positive ones. One thing he remembers, however, is how short my talk was. In fact, it was 15 minutes shorter than any other candidate's talk. He says it was unusually short. Despite the passage of time, that sort of horrifies me, even though I know the interview had a happy ending (spoiler alert: I was offered the job).

My colleague hastened to tell me that he liked my talk -- and remembers it -- in part because it was short. According to him, I had something to say, and I said it, no more and no less. Everything I said was interesting. (<-- doubtful)

I could probably provide more insight into why my talk was so short if I could remember it more, but in general, talks that are unusually short are much less common than talks that are painfully or inappropriately long. Perhaps I benefited from that fact.

Unusually short talks may result when:

- The speaker freaks out mid-talk and decides to skip over a large(ish) section of the talk. (I don't think this has ever happened to me, but I have seen it.)

- The speaker speaks really really fast and therefore covers the planned material in much less time than intended. (This is not typically a problem for me, and it doesn't seem to have been an issue in my historically short talk).

- The speaker did not practice the talk and greatly underestimated the amount of time it would take to cover the material. (I always practiced my interview talks.)

- The speaker forgets to say a lot of things that s/he intended to say. I don't speak from notes, but I do typically have projected images as visual guides, so in order for this to have a significant effect on the length of a talk, there would likely be lots of forgetting of little points, not a wholesale forgetting of a major component of a talk. (Maybe I did this? I don't remember..)

I really don't know, but I can think of two other things that might have come into play in my case. One is that I had recently given a similar talk to an audience that interrupted me a lot with questions during my talk. If you go from such a setting to one in which you are not interrupted at all, it can affect the length of the talk considerably. Maybe I scaled my talk back, accounting for time for questions during the talk, but there weren't any (?).

Another possibility is that, for this particular talk, I remember that I merged several research projects into one integrated talk. I took some things from my PhD research, some things from my postdoctoral research, and some things I had been thinking about not long before the interview. I wrapped them all up together in what I hoped was a coherent package, and then.. well, I don't remember, but it seems that in the merging, I made the talk shorter rather than longer. That is, I distilled the essence of various projects (perhaps too much), hit the highlights without elaborating on anything in great detail, and gave some idea of where I wanted to go with this type of research in the future.

It seems to have worked in that case, but of course a danger of this approach is appearing as if you are not an expert in anything in particular and prefer to skim the surface of a range of topics. I was fortunate to have a friendly and interested audience in that case, but I can easily imagine this going the other way, and having the primary impression of my short talk be that I didn't have much to say.

It probably matters whether some in the audience know a great deal about your research topic, or not so much. In the case of my epic short talk, the faculty were conducting a search in a field that was not well represented in their department, so maybe it also worked in my favor that I didn't bore them all with the gory details of the research.

Mostly, I think I was just very lucky. A too-long talk is not a good thing, but a too-short talk also has many pitfalls. So, what to do? Perhaps the perfect talk is the slightly-shorter-than-most-people's-too-long talk.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Tabby Time

The other day, I read an essay by someone who used the word "tabby" in a negative sense; that is, when a person is acting like a "tabby", it is not a good thing to be. I can't find the original statement, but when I read it, I was outraged. Or, at least, I tried to be outraged, but I was mostly just feeling very tired, but relaxed, and peaceful, and... tabbyish.

There are far worse things than being a tabby, particularly at the end of a term.

You might not want to be a tabby (in the correct sense of the word) while giving a talk at a conference, interviewing for a job, or writing a grant proposal (except while doing the budget).

But you might want to be a tabby while attending a faculty meeting, meeting with prospective graduate students, or grading. Actually, I am not sure about the grading.

Tabbyism definitely has its place in academic life, especially on this December Friday.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Rah Rah Rah

In a semi-recent conversation with a colleague from another university, I asked him about the results of a search that was conducted in his department. He told me the names of the candidates who were interviewed, and I was very impressed with the list. How did his department choose between Awesome Person X and Awesome Person Z, for example?

My colleague admitted that, at that point, the decision got a bit random because the department liked everyone they interviewed. But, alas, their Dean did not think that they should hire everyone that they interviewed, so they had to make some difficult decisions. This is a far better outcome for a department than a failed search, but is of course painful in other ways for those involved.

[Some might wonder whether such a deep pool puts the Selected One at a disadvantage in negotiating for start-up etc., but it does not seem to have done so in this case. The candidate ultimately chosen accepted the job and got a rather nice start-up package, not to mention a tenure-track position in a department that is very enthusiastic about their new colleague.]

One thing that struck me about my colleague's response to my question about How They Chose is the extent to which "passion for research" seems to have been involved in the decision. I am all for Passion For Research (PFR), but using this as a decisive factor semi-worried me for at least two reasons:

(1) One of the interviewees not selected happens to be very passionate about research; in fact, every much so, in the best sense of the term. And yet, my colleague told me that this candidate's PFR did not come through as well as it did for some of the other interviewees -- perhaps the ones who were less nervous? There is no point in discussing whether that is fair or not; clearly this department had to decide among an excellent group, and other than drawing names from a bucket, how are you going to decide? But still, are those who are less nervous at an interview necessarily 'better' -- more poised, more likely to be successful researchers (in the long term), more likely to be better teachers? Maybe, but I would guess/hope that the real answer is 'no'.

(2) Perceptions of PFR can also be used to select those who display this trait in a different way than the majority of those making the decision. That is, a group of men might use this to prefer male candidates over female candidates, but not in any obvious way. This struck me as a possible example of 'unconscious bias'. In fact, the job went to a man, and the apparent runner-up was also male. Why didn't the female candidates score as high on PFR?

How do you display a strong and convincing PFR during an interview anyway? I don't think it is enough to say, "Research is my Life", even if you say it many times. I don't think it is even enough to talk about how you think about Research every waking moment, including while flossing your teeth. That would unconvincing (and weird, and disturbing).

It is more likely something that is conveyed by how you speak about your research, in both formal and informal settings during an interview -- your tone of voice, the words you use, your body language, your apparent level of enthusiasm in discussing your past, present, and future research. For some people who are particularly nervous, shy, awkward, and/or reticent, this type of evidence of PFR could become quite subtle, particularly if others are more obviously cheerleadery about their research passions.

So, I'm not saying that my colleague's department should have done anything different -- in fact, they made a great hire -- but I think it is something that faculty and administrators need to be careful about during the hiring process.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Cover Letters : The Contest

A few years ago, we here at FSP started a tradition of having a contest of sorts in December, just in time for the break. Each contest has had a theme involving some type of Academic Writing:

in December 2008, The Statement of Purpose;

in 2009, Letters of Reference; and

in 2010, Why I Missed the Final Exam.

In 2011, the selected topic is The Cover Letter (CL).

That is, the cover letter that is written as part of an application for an academic job such as a faculty position or a postdoc. The purpose of these letters may vary in different fields, but I am thinking of the kind that accompanies an application that also consists of a CV and a research (± teaching) statement. In this case, the Cover Letter is not the main vehicle for transmitting information about yourself to those who will be evaluating you. It is just what its name implies: a cover letter that indicates your intention to apply for something and that might introduce your most salient features.

That sounds simple, but these things can be difficult to write. What to write? How much to write? What tone to use?: humble? aggressively confident? terse? enthusiastic? Are these letters important because they are the first impression you make to some decision-makers? Does anyone even read these things?

There are many possible approaches to the CL. Anyone who has served on a search committee has likely seen variations ranging from the minimalist ("Here's my application") to the epic (many pages on the topic of Why I Am Awesome, much of which is repeated in the body of the application).

And yet, as with contests in previous years in which readers have submitted their versions of certain types of Academic Writing, I have selected the Cover Letter because there are certain elements that tend to appear in these types of letters.

The goal, therefore, is to capture the essence of the Classic Cover Letter, or at least to entertain and/or horrify us all. Parody -- gentle or savage, subtle or pernicious -- is encouraged. The goal is not to cause undue anxiety to those who are in the process of writing such letters or who recently sent off some applications with possible (?!) flawed CLs, but we recognize that such unintended side effects may occur.

Entries can be sent to, and will be reviewed by the FSP Editorial Board. I will be traveling quite a lot in late December - early January, but will post the entries and results as internet access permits.

Entries will be accepted until the position is filled. Review of entries will begin Friday, 23 December, 2011.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Hold That Thought

Not long ago, a colleague from another university visited my university, and was accompanied on his visit by his wife, who is also a scientist. This colleague and I have not been working together for very long, and I do not know him well. I had never met his wife before, but I was happy to meet her, and liked her very much. She is doing some very interesting work, and I enjoyed talking with her.

This is where I need to mention that my colleague's wife is 15-20 years younger than he is, as it is relevant to the rest of the anecdote.

Another scientist, who met my colleague and his wife for the first time during this visit, later remarked to me that he'd had a good discussion with the colleague and his "grad student". I corrected him, saying that the woman in question is not a student, she is a research scientist.

He asked if she visited because she is also working with me, and I said no, she came with my colleague on the visit because they're married and were traveling together, to our university and then on a short vacation in the area.

My intention in making the correction wasn't to gossip; in fact, my main interest was to let him know that the young woman is a research scientist, heading up her own research program. I wasn't offended by his assumption, but I wanted him to know that she's not a student. In fact, it occurred to me that she and this scientist might be interested in collaborating on some research, as they have mutual research interests.

Except that this scientist's immediate response on learning that my colleague (who is close to my age) is married to this young woman was: "Allllriiiiiight! I'm impressed! Well, good for him! Wow, that's great."

Can I assume that he is pleased that my colleague is married to a smart woman who is doing interesting research? Please, can I assume that?

Friday, December 09, 2011

Caption the Essence

In case anyone has been spending an extreme amount of time grading lately (or will be soon) and needs a bit of a creative break, or any kind of break, here is a pseudo-fun non-graded activity:

Provide an Academic Caption to the picture below.

It can be anything you want, but should involve academic themes and characters.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Academic Parasite

When I wrote the title above, I thought to myself "Wait, I must have used that title before." In fact, a quick search of the archives shows that I have done exactly two (2) posts that contain the word parasite, but never have I used this title even though one of the two (2) previous posts uses the term in the same context I will use it today.

So that's pretty exciting (for me), but what does it mean? That's what I am going to discuss today: what does it mean to be an academic Parasite?

I can remember hearing this term twice: once a very long time ago, and once this week. There may well have been others, but they have not been stored in my long-term memory compartments.

The first time I heard it, I was a grad student and the speaker was an old and supposedly distinguished professor who hated most people, so it wasn't a surprise to hear him insult someone. Typically, that someone was me, but in this case, that someone was a perky-but-clueless visiting graduate student who had come to prostrate himself before The Great Man and glean little bits of wisdom. They met in the GM's office for an hour or so, and then the grad student came to my office to chat.

He said "We had a really great discussion!" (unlikely: The GM did not "discuss"; he lectured)

And "I think he really likes me!" Well, he did have a few acolytes, all male, who worshiped him, named their children after him etc., but I wasn't sure... and then:

The phone rang. It was The GM, wanting to talk to me. "Is THAT PARASITE still there?" he screamed into the phone. (etc.)

The second time, in a conversation this week, a professor who is a much nicer person than The GM asked me if I had ever worked with a particular individual. I said, without explanation "I used to, but not for quite a long time now." He laughed and said "Good! He's a PARASITE!" He's not wrong.. there are specific reasons I no longer work with that person.

But what does it mean?Are there different types of Academic Parasites? Do we need to classify them?

Of the two instances mentioned here, the first one was just a student asking a professor for advice, information, anything that would help him (the student) with his dissertation research. The GM's response was clearly extreme (it was a student asking for help!).

The second instance involves interactions among professors who are collaborators. In some cases, this distinction of student-professor vs. professor-professor interaction is important; in others, not. (<-- important note: That link is to a 2006 post, when things were different.)

I will propose a simple definition, for starters:

Someone who takes and uses the research ideas and/or results of others to advance their own research/career but doesn't give back, share, or cite appropriately = parasite.

But how do we know when someone has crossed a line between a somewhat unequal collaborative situation (this is not unusual) and a parasitic arrangement? Is a parasite by definition engaged in unethical behavior? That is, does the "taking" always = "stealing" (ideas, results)?

I think that if the taking/stealing involves people who are not collaborators, and the taking/stealing involves information from proposals or other unpublished work, the person in question is worse than a parasite, and there are probably more appropriate words. If, however, someone takes ideas from published work and then repackages them as their own (because they don't have any of their own), they are a weasly parasite.

If someone takes ideas and data from collaborators, then it is a bit more ambiguous. If someone is content to do (essentially) nothing but have their name put on papers as co-author, they are a passive parasite. If, however, they do (essentially) nothing and put their name on papers (but not yours or your students), then they are a more virulent and dastardly variety: the evil parasite.

This is not a very pleasant topic, but, in the course of a career, we encounter all kinds of people. Fortunately for me, the parasites have been few and far between, so my classification scheme (and/or my imagination) is rather limited. 

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Don't Go There

Recently, as I was walking across a rather pretty campus, I noticed a more extreme example of what occurs on most campuses:

the mismatch between where the landscape designers (and landscape maintenance crews) want people to walk, and where people want to (and do) walk.

Surely most campuses have little dirt footpaths that cut off right angled or curved *official walkways*. In some cases, these footpaths are allowed to exist, and in some cases these are eventually promoted to official walkways and are paved/landscaped, in recognition that people are going to walk that way.

In other cases, however, there seems to be a never-ending battle between those who want to take short cuts and those who do not want those short cuts to be taken. Short cuts are fenced off, reseeded or re-whatevered, and pedestrians are forced to follow the approved pathways. The grass (or whatever) looks nicer that way. Perhaps if some short cuts are allowed, new ones crop up until you might as well pave the whole campus. And who wants that?

I don't think the issue of short cuts is about laziness, rebellion against authority, or even a lack of respect for turf. I think it is about getting from Point A to Point B, in some cases in a rush between classes or meetings.

In my recent across-campus walk (not on my own campus), I was amazed at how pedestrian unfriendly the campus was, despite the abundance of green space and landscaping. It looked like an appealing place to stroll, as long as you strolled only where the original campus planners wanted you to go.

There were of course walkways between buildings, but it was if the designers only allowed for people to walk easily from Building X to Building Y. If, however, for some unimaginable (to them) reason, someone wanted to walk directly from Building X to nearby Building Z.. forget it.

Clearly, many people do want to go from X to Z, and a distinct (unofficial) path has developed over time. It was also clear that this path is not in favor with those responsible for maintaining the campus landscape. The path is in the process of being erased (and not for the first time), and the X-Z people herded to an official-but-circuitous route.

I am sure it is a nightmare to maintain a campus landscape so that the non-paved parts remain in good shape despite "off-road" pedestrians, Frisbee players, jugglers, and bicyclists, not to mention extreme climate events, crazed rodents and so on. But still: It should be possible to have a pedestrian-friendly pathway system that recognizes the need to get from A to B and from A to C quickly.

Can we classify campuses in terms of the goodness of fit between where people want to walk and where they are "supposed" to walk? Do we need a ratio, preferably a dimensionless number with a cool name? Can we call it the Versailles Number?

I lack the time to develop this idea further right now, but welcome comments and suggestions.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Don't Try This At Home

For various reasons, the school my daughter attends this year was unable to organize things so that she could be in the math class that followed from the math class she had last year. In fact, the class she was put in this term is working on math that she did 3 years ago.

Fortunately, the teacher of that class does not make her (re)do that "old" math with the rest of the class. During class, my daughter sits by herself and works on her own.

So what does she do in math class? She does math problems that I assign her, based on the math that I teach her in the evenings at home, using an online textbook. That is the temporary solution we worked out with her school: I will teach her math at home.

Why me? Why not her dad?

Because this is what dad-as-evening-math-tutor would be like, we feared:

In contrast, this is what mom-as-evening-math-tutor is like, in theory:

 (though perhaps a bit more alert, most evenings).

So, I am the designated parental math tutor, and here is what I have learned so far:

- The things I hate about grading still apply. Grading doesn't become more fun just because you are teaching your own beloved child. That is, just because I am teaching my daughter, who is the light of my life and a truly wonderful human being, doesn't make it any less annoying when she turns in a messy page of homework covered with incomplete erasures and crossed out things and a mystifying sequence of answers in no particular order (and no helpful labels).

- For me, Science is easier to teach than Math. In Science, I know how to explain things. In math, some things can be explained by examples -- perhaps many examples of different sorts -- but some things just are. That is showing my limitations as a math teacher, something I also encounter when I teach a quantitative Science course: I explain why I am doing the math in terms of the Science, but I don't typically explain the math itself. I just do it.

- There are a lot more (imaginary) people in (this) Math textbook than in (my) Science textbooks and I don't like some of them. Most chapters of the math textbook we are using describe an impressive array of enterprising teenagers figuring things out involving math. That's nice -- I like the textbook quite a lot, actually -- but I wonder how much the involvement of people -- even imaginary ones -- affects math-learning. That is, are we each influenced by whether we relate to the imaginary people and their imaginary problems? For example, I am not so interested in Josh's questions about the operation of his remote-controlled car or Delores' attempt to figure out which phone plan to get, but I am intrigued by some of the scientific and sociological datasets and the various things we can learn by analyzing them. And, although I do appreciate the real-world examples, sometimes I get tired of all these perky teens and just want to play with the equations.

- When you teach math at home, in the evening, to your child, you can have ice cream during class

Anyway, despite my shortcomings as a math tutor, we seem to be doing OK with our math-with-mom-at-home arrangement. Even so, once the schedule is fixed so that she can join the right math class at school again, I will happily hand her (and the grading) over to a real math teacher.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Break It Up : An Ode to the Paragraph

Today I am thinking about : paragraphs.

You might not think that this topic has any hope of being interesting, and you are probably right, but I am thinking about paragraphs anyway. In particular, I have been wondering why I feel so wearied by long long long paragraphs in Science Papers. I can deal with them in Literature, but I am not so happy about them in Science Papers, especially ones I am reviewing, especially if the entire paper is really really long.

Assuming the content of a Science Paper is interesting and not enraging, it can be very pleasant to read a paper that contains paragraphs, each with a nice topical sentence followed by related text that flows in a logical way to a semi-stopping point, and then .. a break before the next paragraph, which continues the discussion or presentation of information. Reading text that has perfect paragraphs is like listening to beautiful music.

In one manuscript I was reading recently, the authors seemed to think that having a heading every couple of pages was sufficient for breaks. That is, within each heading, all the text was semi-related enough to go in one (pages-long) paragraph. I don't really know why they did this, but it made the paper more difficult (tiring) to read, at least for me. The writing is not bad; it's just not good.

But again, I don't know why long paragraphs wear me out. I don't have a problem with a short attention span, I don't have any particular problem with reading comprehension, and I found the overall topic of this particular paper moderately interesting. And yet, I kept putting the paper aside, to continue reading later. In fact, I have not yet finished reading it.

It seems strange to me that it would make that much difference to have a little indentation in the text now and then.

And of course having too many paragraphs is also annoying.

And single sentence paragraphs are also terrible in their own way.

And maybe I am extreme about this, but I think that the technical aspects of a paper -- even a 'dry' science article -- can have a big effect on how the paper is perceived, how much and how closely it is read, and how (much) it is enjoyed. Content is critical, but so is format and organization. 
Am I being shallow, focusing on the packaging and unduly enamored of a pretty text package? Is this mania for writing beauty related to the fact that I have synesthesia? Maybe, maybe not, but I think that paragraphs help a paper breathe, and that a big long chunk of text can suffocate a paper. (And maybe also a blog, but I think it's OK to hold blog-writing to a different standard than a science article).

Do such technical writing aspects affect how you review a manuscript or proposal? I don't mean that in the sense of writing quality, but in terms of the details of how the text is formatted -- paragraphs, headings, and such. Over-formatting is also annoying, but how much do such things really matter in how readers (including reviewers) perceive the quality of the overall document? And can such things affect how much a paper is cited?

Friday, December 02, 2011

Crazy Enough For You?

It seems that I have had this experience before:

I am talking to an eminent, senior scientist in my field, and the conversation will be about semi-normal sciencey things and then -- zoom! without warning! -- we are in the realm of big-idea crazy-talk, as in really crazy.

Sort of like this, with the speaker being the eminent scientist:

"And then when we were studying X, it led to the insight that ... and of course that was different from what Schmoe found, but when we also tried Z, we found that results were consistent. But of course, the Earth is flat, and we are taking that into account, but Schmoe didn't."

I had such a conversation recently, and it also involved something like this:

"I read your paper on ABC, but I think you are basing a lot of your work on the assumption that the Earth is round, but it isn't of course. There's no evidence for that. You are making the same mistake that everyone makes. I used to, but then I realized: The Earth is flat."

I realize that someone doesn't have to be eminent (or old) to be (apparently) crazy, but I mention it because I wonder if it affects how we respond to this type of thing. That is, if someone you don't know wanders into your office with a New Theory of Everything, would your response be different compared to what you might say (and how you would say it) if someone with a long and distinguished record of scientific accomplishment (apparently) starts to go off the rails with their scientific ideas?

Are we more likely to assume that the former is insane (and not an eccentric genius who wanders from campus to campus trying to get someone to discuss their brilliant, transformative idea), and that the latter just might be on to something that has been hidden to the scientific masses because we so love conformity and are afraid to step back and blast away at centuries of belief in something we all "know" to be true?

I am not talking about level of respect -- I hope we would all be respectful to the maybe-crazy person with the New Theory of Everything, even if it is written in tiny letters covering the sides of grocery bags -- but about how likely we are to say "You're wrong" or to wonder if maybe we have been blind to the Truth all these years because we are science-sheep.

Perhaps it matters how (apparently) crazy the idea is. "The world is flat" is a good analogy for the encounter I had recently, but there are more subtle versions of (possibly) crazy ideas.

In my most recent encounter, I did not directly say "You are wrong". I said "There's actually a lot of evidence that the world is round. For example... [devastating list of compelling evidence]", but all I got back in response was "Well, I was talking to Other Famous Guy about this and he agreed with me."

Conversation = over for me at that point.

It was even pointless (and weird) to have to summon evidence for how we know the Earth is round -- and that's why I think I only did so because of the eminence of the scientist with whom I was having the conversation. But I rather quickly reached my limit of being willing to discuss this. At that point, the best options are to change the subject or leave, depending on what is possible for the situation.

Have any of you had this experience? What did do you? Did you doubt for a moment your belief in whatever idea was being challenged? If you tried to discuss the issues, did you make any headway?

Thursday, December 01, 2011


Do you listen to and/or (later) read speeches given by those accepting awards? I hasten to note that I am not writing on my own behalf here, at least not as the recipient of an award and therefore not as the giver of such a speech. I am writing as someone listening to/reading such a speech given by someone else.

What do you want to hear (if anything) in such a speech? Let's say the speaker has 5-10 minutes (maybe less) to cram in all the thank-yous  and personal history things that are necessary and expected, but perhaps there is a bit of time -- a minute or three -- to go beyond the ritual thanks.

Do you want them to talk about Research -- for example, their perspective on what is interesting in their field? More about their Life -- professional and/or personal? Pitfalls (in addition to Successes)? Important cats?

What makes a good speech? Should it be somehow different and memorable, or just try for the usual heartfelt thanks to those who helped along the way?

In the last couple of years, I heard at least one award-acceptance speech that took a political detour after the ritual thanking of mentors and students. The speech could have been interpreted as being highly critical of people in the audience with particular citizenship/political views. Responses that I heard ranged from

"Whatever -- he can say whatever he wants; it's his award and his speech" to

"Why go nuclear with strong political views and criticize innocent people in a friendly audience? We aren't responsible for the decisions of governments and behavior of politicians" to

specific rebuttals of the political statements ("He's wrong because..").

At least the speech was memorable. I suppose the other way to be memorable -- if that is your goal -- is to say something really bizarre. Or, instead of thanking those who helped you along the way, you could list all the people you hate the most.

If you have heard or read a memorable award-acceptance speech (for positive or negative reasons), what was memorable about it?