Wednesday, February 29, 2012


In Scientopia, I discuss a letter from an undergraduate researcher who is now anxious about her interactions with her lab's PI, and invite comments from readers who might be able to help her with her difficult situation.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Do You Need A Tissue?

Have I really never asked this question of readers before? It seems not, and yet, I find myself really wanting to know the answer. The question applies to anyone who works with students and who has visits from those students (in person) in their office.

Do you keep a box of tissues in your office for the specific purpose of giving to crying students? free pol
In the comments, those answering Yes could leave interesting details, such as how often you need to resort to the tissue box and whether you buy top-quality ultrasoft tissue or the cheapest kind you can find (or does your department supply these for you? or perhaps you don't supply tissues to students but offer them industrial-strength paper towels?).

For those answering No, is this because you don't need them or because you have made the deliberate decision not to provide tissues to weeping students?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Don't Fence Me In

This is self-centered and unreasonable, but when I am invited to give a talk, my ideal situation would be to give a vague title (Cool Science Things) that isn't much more informative than a list of keywords (cool, science, things). I don't really believe that people will come to hear me speak no matter what I talk about, so in my sane(r) moments, I do understand that a talk title is necessary to provide some clues as to whether a talk has any hope of being potentially interesting to those considering attending (for those who have a choice).

Even so, I like to give talk titles that are as vague as possible, so that I can give whatever talk I am most in the mood for when the time comes. This vagueness allows me to talk about the coolest (meaning: the hottest) science.

Some departments that bring in invited speakers want not only a title but also an abstract, presumably to provide further information for those who are considering attending, or just for general educational purposes. I always comply, but I don't like providing talk abstracts because I feel that it limits what I talk about, more than just a title.

So, I can write a brief, vague abstract, no doubt annoying those who like an informative abstract, and therefore still keep some freedom as to talk content. Alternatively, I can provide a talk title and abstract, and then talk about something different; perhaps not completely different, but I could add in a topic (or two) not mentioned in the abstract but still broadly covered by the talk title.

And that leads me to my question. Which is more annoying:

- A talk accompanied by a vague title and/or abstract;
- A talk that is only somewhat related to what you thought it would be based on the title and/or abstract; or
- Neither, you are going to be happy or unhappy, depending on how good or bad the talk is; it doesn't matter what the title/abstract were.

Friday, February 24, 2012

World's Lamest Blogroll

Yes, I know I have a very lame blogroll. I don't mean that any of the blogs listed are lame, of course, just that the list is short and has stagnated quite a lot in the past year or three. I have never wanted to have a long blogroll, even though that is hypocritical because I appreciate that very thing in other blogs, but I would like it to be better than it is in its current state.

I have mostly confined my list to Blogs I Read (hence the title of the blogroll) -- that is, blogs I really do read routinely. There are some other interesting blogs with the occasional interesting post, but I tend to rely on other blogs to highlight them for me and lead me there. Unless my attention is held by more than one post, however, I only return when (re)directed there by a blog I read routinely. I freely admit my failings as a blog citizen and as a person.

How important is it to have a non-lame blogroll? What is the purpose of a blogroll? What does it all mean? Why am I even here? I suppose I should have figured this out by now.

I don't know, but if it is important in some way to have a non-lame blogroll, perhaps you can help me improve, if you are willing and able. That is, I wouldn't mind some suggestions of blogs to read and possibly add to the list. The blogosphere is a dynamic place, with new blogs appearing all the time, and old ones moving to new locations.

As can be seen from my existing blogroll, I am most interested in general issues of academia and life; for example, not the results of scientific research, but the doing of the research, and not the specific courses that we teach, but all the amazing things that relate to teaching and other interactions with students and so on.

I apologize in advance if I don't add any particular suggested blog, but keep in mind that I am old(ish) and cranky and unlikely to be too fascinated by, say, a blogging-my-PhD type blog. And yet, I realize it would be good for me to read more blogs by the youngsters, so that I don't fossilize too much and so that I can stay in touch with my inner grad student and thereby understand my outer grad students. Or something. And I should read (routinely) more blogs by non-US persons. And what about non-scientists and non-engineers? Maybe..

In addition to having a bias of unknown magnitude against blogging-my-phd blogs, I will just throw out there the possibility that I may also be reluctant to read (routinely) more blogs by biophysiomedical scientists. These blogs give me nightmares.

What else? There is one more thing: I am irrationally against including blogs that are behind some sort of registration wall, even if it is a free one. I am not against reading these blogs, I just don't want to link to them,  even though I know there are some interesting blogs in those places.

Other than that, I am open to suggestions. Thanks in advance for any help you can give with my efforts to spruce up the blogroll.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Bloom Watch

Last week, in a post that touched on the topic of post-tenure emotions (empowered vs. entrapped), I wrote this:
.. I have done my best work after getting tenure. I am not one of those genius-people who did her best work by age 30 (or 35). Some of us get tenure based in part on our accomplishments, such as they are at the time of the tenure evaluation, but also largely on a gamble about our potential. (I am going to explore an aspect of this more in a near-future post.)
The kernel of the idea I want to explore relates to what we do after tenure, no matter what we did before tenure. In this case, the "what" mostly refers to research because I am basing this discussion on my MRU*-centric point of view, but, with some modifications, this classification scheme could perhaps be exported to other situations. I think that probably most of us in academia can easily think of examples of each of these Types listed below, although some are more common than others. [* Major Research University]

Type S: steep upward trajectory in career from day 1; S1: productive before and after tenure, but even more productive and creative after tenure; S2: flatline at high level after tenure;

TYPE M: moderate upward trajectory from day 1 to tenure (enough to get tenure), but then M1: a steep upward trajectory after tenure, similar to Type S1 but this person was slower to bloom, or M2: flatline at a moderate level after tenure;

Type F: flat trajectory before and after tenure, but at a high enough level to get tenure (maybe just skimming over and along the tenure bar) and high enough to escape the label of "deadwood" after tenure; not awesome, but steady and better than Type L..;

Type L: steep (L1) or moderate (L2) trajectory pre-tenure; other trajectories possible, e.g., intercept with vertical tenure-line may be just about anywhere, but the key to the L path is that it involves the total transformation to deadwood not long after tenure (that is, not decades after tenure, but instead it happens while still at the early/mid-career stage).

OMG I think I am going to have to graph this.

Note that there is no significance to the y-intercept. The Type S line could start above or below some of the other lines, for example, but I am imagining this type of person as making a strong start.

I think it is also important to note that I don't just mean 'number of publications' (or grants) in my definition of productivity. I mentioned creativity in my definition of Type S, and this is an important element of 'blooming' in my classification scheme. The post-tenure 'bloom' in this case is not just a churning out of a stupendous number of publications, but involves making new and interesting discoveries or advances, having new and creative ideas, and all that kind of good thing.

Also, there is no criticism attached to (some) of this. Some faculty who flatline at a moderate to low level, for example, have taken a different career path, such as one involving more teaching and/or service. That may or may not be fine, depending on circumstances and expectations.

Do you see yourself here, or did I leave out some important trajectories? Feel free to suggest significantly different trajectories (yours or your favorite/hated colleague's) and I may modify the graph later.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Girls' Corner

Once upon a time, I was visiting another university and was given a temporary place to sit with my laptop and get a bit of work done. It was not a real office, just one of several desks in a little cluster in a corridor near an administrative office. It was a rather busy corridor, so it was not the greatest place to work, but it was good enough.

When you visit another institution, you never know what, if anything, you're going to get in terms of temporary workspace -- it might be an empty seminar room or classroom, a corner of your faculty host's office, some chairs at the end of a hallway, a cubicle in the library or in a student office, or nothing (in which case I go to the nearest cafe, and am quite happy with that). For longer visits, you are likely to get a real work space, but for a short visit, you take what you can get.

But to return to this particular work space.. It was set up for anyone who needed a temporary space: visitors, students who just needed a work space for a few minutes or an afternoon, adjuncts between classes, faculty whose offices were in other buildings but who needed to be in that building for a brief time, and so on. Sometimes when I was using a desk there, the other desks were empty. Sometimes there were other people temporarily using these desks. It changed constantly.

It did not take long to notice that there was a certain situation in which passersby felt the urge to comment about those of us sitting in that workspace. I am sure some of you can guess what that situation was. Hint: Do you have your gender lenses on?

If there were 2 females sitting there: no comments, even if we were the only ones working there. If there were at least 3 females and 0-1 males, some men walking by made comments: "What's going on here? A girl scout meeting?", "Can anyone join this club or do you have to talk like this (said in a high pitched voice)?", "Is this the girls' corner?", "Is this the departmental sewing circle?", and so on. If there was a lone male with us women, he got teased about his "harem" etc.

ha ha ha

Actually, I didn't think it was funny*. It was tiresome being interrupted with these inane "humorous" explanations for what a small group of women could possibly be doing in a Science Building

It's (another) little thing, but wouldn't it be nice if it were unremarkable for 3 (or more) female scientists to sit working near each other in a Science Building?

* I am a feminist and have no sense of humor.

Monday, February 20, 2012

On Sort Of Keeping Up

Back in the days of paper journals and treks to the library (in the cold/heat, rain/snow, at the risk of being hit in the head with the various projectiles that students like to toss to each other on campus lawns), I loved going to the library on the day that new issues of my favorite science journals were put out on the special shelf for new arrivals. It was very exciting to gaze at the Tables Of Contents and graze in the abstracts of articles that looked promising.

Some articles were so interesting that I sat right down and read them there. Exciting and important articles were photocopied for intensive reading and re-reading later (not to mention filing!), using an ever-changing array of photocopy machines with various options that were useful/bizarre and that accepted/did-not-accept coins or special cards that you could only get in a certain place at a certain time, and so on. And then there was the challenge of finding a machine that didn't have a grad student photocopying an entire journal or book for hours on end. Those were thrilling days.

The thrill continues, even without the extra stimulation of photocopying, but now of course the lists of new papers arrive electronically and we can all read the relevant journals from just about anywhere. That is really great for many reasons, but it is particularly nice for those of us who travel a lot. I was thinking about this recently because I have been doing so much traveling this term, and yet my selected electronic alerts keep coming, helping me keep up. Without the awesome electronic access we have today, it would be very hard to keep up with all the journals that I typically read (or at least glance at, to see if there is anything new and interesting).

I admit that sometimes when my inbox is filling up, I sigh a bit when I see a dozen or more emails from various journals. But I do not delete them! I keep them until I have time to look at them, and then I am glad that they are there to help me sort through the new journal issues. I am sure I miss some articles, but of course there are other awesome electronic ways to seek them out later and fill in gaps in reading.

As my inbox was recently filling up with alerts that I did not have time to look at right away, I realized I had not quantified my journal-reading in a while. Hence my questions:
  • How many journals do you read (look at) routinely
  • How likely are you to find a paper that you want to (and do) read in one or more of them, each time there is a new issue?
And some qualitative questions:
  • Do you enjoy reading the literature of your field? That is, do you feel a sense of happy anticipation when looking at new titles, or do you feel oppressed? Do you hope that there will be a paper of interest, or are you glad when there is not?
My answers:

I routinely look at 20-25 journals, and there are quite a few other journals that I look at, but less often (and for which I don't get alerts). That number is probably low compared to some (sub)fields, but I am glad it is not higher.

The answer to the second question varies by journal of course, as there are some journals that always have something of interest to me, and others that only do now and then. But there are some journals that always or very often have something of interest, so there is something new to read every time I look. Some papers might just get an abstract-read, some will get a full-body skim, and some will get an in-depth read, depending on my time and interest. I give myself a B/B+ for effort.

The information onslaught is overwhelming no matter how diligent one is about looking at new publications as they are flung out by the various publishing geysers, but I think it is important to try to keep up. I wish I could read more -- and more broadly -- than I do (oh for those carefree graduate and postdoctoral days..), but I still find searching and reading the literature very enjoyable, and not a chore, despite the relentless deluge of new papers. I am happy when there is a new paper of interest to read.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Local Mom Effect

We can look at the data for the % of science professors who are Female Science Professors and wonder to what extent the low numbers (relative to the % of women who acquire PhDs in some science fields) can be ascribed to the difficulties of being a mom and an FSP, and we can look at the data for how many FSPs have kids vs. those who don't (or pick any academic discipline in which women are underrepresented, not just Science). That's been done and those data could surely use more scrutiny and discussion, but that's not what I want to do here today.

Instead, I am intrigued by the possibilities of what might be learned from a rigor-challenged exploration of whether the % of FSPs (with/without children) in one's immediate professional surroundings has an influence on an individual's outlook, choices, opinions. That is, if you are in a department or some other sort of academic subunit in which there are many FSPs with kids, is your opinion (and possibly your life) profoundly different as a result, no matter what the statistics say about the overall low % of FSP-moms in your field? And if you are in a unit in which few/no FSPs have kids, are you less likely to have kids or even to pursue a career as an FSP?

At some universities in the US, there are departments in my field with no FSPs, and there are departments that have some FSPs but none of them have children. What are the effects of these places on the outlook of women students and postdocs re. careers and children? (Note that I am not critizicing anyone's choices to have/not have kids; that's a personal decision that no one else can judge.) And if someone has a pessimistic outlook based on their observations of people in their department (thinking: "These FSPs don't have kids, so it must be impossible/difficult to be an FSP and a mom"), can this be changed through other interactions beyond the department?

Alternatively, if you are in a department in which all or most female professors have kids, and these women seem to be doing just fine with life and careers, does this counteract some of the anxiety or pessimism that might result from seeing the grim statistics for that field as a whole?

I don't know, and that's why it seems like a good topic for a blog post, so that readers can send comments on how they think their experiences and opinions have been shaped by their immediate academic environment.

I remember sitting in a small meeting of women students, postdocs, and faculty once (many years ago), and the topic came up about the difficulty of being an FSP and a mom. One grad student said that she was concerned about this because there were "no role models". The other women faculty and I exchanged puzzled glances -- every single one of us in the room had one or more kids. Everyone in the room knew each other, so there was no way this student didn't know we all had kids. We were also representative of this unit of the university; there was one FSP absent, but she also had kids.

So I said "We all have kids, so I am confused about what you are looking for in a role model". The student said that because most FSPs don't have kids, there aren't enough role models. Yes, well, "not enough" is not quite the same as "no". Is there such thing as a critical mass of role models, and below that number, the exceptions are not significant? Maybe, but at the time, I thought that was an unnecessarily negative and cautious way to look at things.

And that certainly wasn't my approach. At about the time my daughter was born, I didn't know many FSPs in my field, but I did know a few, and some (2) of those at neighboring institutions had kids and were very happy. I didn't actually give it a lot of thought, and certainly never gazed at statistics to make any decisions. In that sense, I was not affected much, if at all, by my immediate academic environment or by the larger academic community (perhaps contradicting the central question of this post).

Even so, that is still a useful result to the general question of whether we are affected (or not) by our immediate (or larger) professional communities when making major life decisions.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

These Happy After-Tenure Years

Some of my friends got -- or seem to be getting -- tenure this year. Yay for all of them! They are thrilled and I am thrilled for them.

This is a happy occasion for most, and the only reason I add "for most" is because I have read essays (including a recent one in The Chronicle of Higher Education) by or about people who feel depressed and/or "trapped" by tenure. Unlike some who left critical comments on the CHE essay, I do not subscribe to the "You should be happy because there are even unhappier people in the world" philosophy. If you don't like many things about your job, you aren't going to like them once your employment position becomes (essentially) permanent, even if others in academia have less job security than you do. I feel sympathy for these depressed-by-tenure people, even if I don't really understand the phenomenon. I hope those depressed by tenure find a way to recover, perhaps by changing something about their career paths or goals (but not necessarily by becoming a depressed administrator).

I am fortunate that getting tenure was a happy, empowering thing for me. Although tenure was of course a necessary goal in my academic career path, my primary job satisfaction has involved the doing of research, teaching, and other professional activities -- developing new research projects, working with students, teaching new courses or improving old ones, and so on. Tenure gave me the chance to keep doing what I loved and also provided new opportunities, so I have never felt "trapped" by tenure.

Also, I have done my best work after getting tenure. I am not one of those genius-people who did her best work by age 30 (or 35). Some of us get tenure based in part on our accomplishments, such as they are at the time of the tenure evaluation, but also largely on a gamble about our potential. (I am going to explore an aspect of this more in a near-future post.) In letters supporting tenure cases, it is common to see phrases like "rising star" or "steep upward trajectory" to describe the tenure candidate, in recognition of the fact that there is only so much that can be done in the tenure-track years, even by those who work 24/7.

Perhaps this mostly applies to fields in which the tenure-track years involve building labs and research groups and other time-intensive activities that are necessary for new and exciting research projects to be launched and for at least some research goals achieved. I bet, however, that it also applies to any field in which more ambitious research can only be undertaken once you have developed a certain network of colleagues and contacts and attained the awesome knowledge that only comes with experience (says middle-aged me).

People who feel trapped by tenure probably dislike quite a few things about their job (colleagues, students, location etc.) and are likely a bit burned out by exhaustion and stress. For most of us, though, I hope that it is not the case that the best, most productive years are over once tenure is secured. Tenure gives us the security to pursue more risky research ideas, lets us build a larger research group (if that is desirable), and gives us the chance to serve on even more committees (<-- sarcasm).

Tenured readers: Do you feel "trapped" by tenure? Or empowered? Both? Neither? Something else?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

What I Think I Do

Many of you have probably also seen a recent spate of virtual posters that are supposed to humorous expressions of different views of various jobs, such as Professor, Scientist etc. The ones I have seen are more bizarre than funny, and some are a bit disturbing.

For example, in a poster about being a professor, there were different images for What My Parents Think I Do and What My Friends Think I Do. This distinction assumes that our Friends are not also Professors. I have some of both species of friends, but quite a few of my friends are professors. Those who are not professors don't have any more idea of what I do than my parents do; those who are professors (whether of not they are Science Professors) have a pretty good idea about my job.

That was just odd, but I was most puzzled by the What My Colleagues Think I Do image of an attractive female student in short-shorts leaning provocatively over the desk of a male professor. The images in the poster as a whole are of male and female professors, so there is no general assumption that professors = male, but this particular part of the poster is quite male-oriented. In any case, do colleagues really think that male professors spend their days like this? I rather doubt it. I think mostly we picture each other grading and attending meetings when not working on the next grant proposal or manuscript.

My personalized version of the poster would look something like this:


What My Parents Think I Do: ?

What My Friends Who Are Not Academics Think I Do: ?

What My Students Think I Do: ?

What My Spouse Thinks I Do: The Same Things He Does At Work

What My Colleagues Think I Do: The Same Things They Do At Work

What My Cats Think I Do:

What I Actually Do:

top: Picasso, Sleeping Woman Before Green Shutters
lower: Pollock, Number 8

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Food For Thought

In the course of normal academic life, there are many circumstances in which we become aware of the medical, religious, or other restrictions on which foods our colleagues and students can or will consume (or not). The dietary needs and preferences of people in even a fairly small group can be quite varied, and can become the concern of those organizing professional or socio-professional events.

Examples of academic activities that may involve an awareness of dietary issues for others in our profession include:

- the organization of conferences, workshops etc. that involve meals or refreshments for all participants;

- the hosting of meals for visitors; e.g., during a visit by others to our institution for a talk or interview; or

- the arrangement of meals -- either at restaurants or in self-catering situations -- during research-related travel (visits to other labs, some conference travel, field work etc.).

Although there are some obvious ways to accommodate the needs and preferences of most individuals, it can be very difficult to find a good solution for everyone. Even the option of eating in a restaurant may not accommodate everyone, unless the restaurant has a very diverse menu and/or the ability to make the necessary modifications.

I am a rather omnivorous person, but there are a couple of food items I need to avoid owing to allergic reactions. My two food allergies are only rarely a problem in professional settings, but over the years there have been some memorable situations, such as:

- Years ago, during a job interview, the department chair hosted a dinner for me at a restaurant that specialized in a food item that I cannot eat without experiencing a rather severe reaction. He did not ask me if I had any food preferences. He had a favorite restaurant and wanted to take me there, so that's where we went. Although I explained about my food allergy, he seemed annoyed when I did not eat the specialty of the restaurant and kept talking about how unfortunate it was that I could not eat his favorite food. I felt very uncomfortable during and after that dinner.

- A few years ago, at a professional luncheon at which I was to give a speech, everyone was served something that contained this same food item. There probably was a mechanism by which I could have indicated my food allergy in advance; I am sure that the organizers of the luncheon were willing to make arrangements for those with dietary restrictions or preferences. So rare is it for me to encounter this food in a professional setting, however, that it didn't occur to me to mention it in advance. I was very anxious about the possibility of having a dramatic medical incident while on stage in front of an audience, so I didn't touch anything on my plate and instead just nibbled on some bread. I was very hungry when I gave my speech, but that was better than the alternative.

- More recently, I encountered my other food allergy for only the second time in decades. This one is quite rare, does not provoke a life-threatening reaction (just an annoying rash), and is typically easy to avoid entirely. In certain parts of the world, however, the food in question is ubiquitous, and people commonly offer it to visitors. Particularly when there are issues of culture/language, refusing this food would be seen as rude and unusual. I therefore took the approach of trying to manage the situation (limiting contact with the food but not refusing it), and I succeeded until the last day of a research visit, when this approach failed catastrophically, alas for me.

Compared to what others experience, my issues are very minor and easily managed. If you have more serious and extensive dietary restrictions, you probably get pretty good at managing the socio-logistical issues involved. I think it likely, though, that dietary issues are quite often a concern in professional settings, and perhaps continue to be anxiety-inducing for early-career people who worry about being negatively judged as a result, despite an increase in awareness in recent years.

As an occasional organizer of events in which I need to be aware of the food issues of others, I have found that it is extremely difficult to accommodate (not to mention please) everyone. What I continue to explore is whether there are limits to my responsibility, and if so, where these are.

Would you draw a line, and if so, where (and how)?

Monday, February 13, 2012

On the Importance of Liking

Professors who advise students: Do you feel that it is

(1) essential
(2) important to some extent
(3) nice if it happens but not that important, or
(4) completely irrelevant

that you like your advisees?

I am not writing about any of my own students, past or present. I am musing about a comment a colleague once made to the effect that it was really important that s/he liked her/his advisees.

In the case of undergraduate students, you may be in a position to pick and choose advisees after previous interaction in classes and beyond. In the case of graduate students, it is likely to be more hit-and-miss. I think many of us try to work with whatever comes along, in terms of grad personalities, just as we hope our students will also be a bit tolerant of some/all or our annoying characteristics.

But what about you? How important is liking to you?

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Citation Conspiracy

Someone recently told me about this, and I was wondering if anyone has participated in something similar:

A group of colleagues makes a specific effort to cite each other's papers -- those paper not involving the author/s doing the citing, so no self-citation is involved -- to help each other get their citation numbers up. They don't gratuitously cite a paper that is irrelevant to the topic at hand, but they proactively seek opportunities to cite each other's papers, and, given a range of options for citation of a particular point, they will choose to cite a paper by someone from this group.

If you have not participated in something like this, does it bother you that some people do this?

I have not participated in a citation-circle like this, and the fact that others do does not bother me. These people are not inappropriately citing their friends -- the citations are all relevant -- and it is likely that most of us do something like this anyway, even without making a concerted effort. We tend to cite papers with which we are familiar, no matter how diligent we try to be in surveying the vast literature in each of our sub/fields.

Does a citation-circle have any measurable positive effect on the career of a particpant? If it is effective, involving a sufficient number of productive (in terms of publications) researchers, it can make the difference in the citation numbers (h-index and so on). Increasingly, career advancement relies on having good citation numbers, so being in a citation-circle might be quite helpful, even if it doesn't result in a dramatic jump in citations.

Does a citation-circle harm those not in it? I suppose one instance in which a citation-circle, even one conducted in an ethical way, might have an unintended negative effect on someone not in the circle would be if one of the "proactively cited" papers becomes one of those papers that is commonly cited in introductions. And then, because it is cited prominently in some papers, it gets picked up as the go-to cite for introductions in papers on similar topics. The citation numbers can then snowball, and other papers might languish in undeserved obscurity.

I think that happens to some papers anyway, with or without a few citation-circles in action. Therefore, I was intrigued by the existence of such citation-circles, but not disturbed. But that's just me, perhaps reflecting my secure position as a mid-career professor who obsesses about citation data mostly out of curiosity rather than out of necessity. I am curious if others feel otherwise, but I need to note again that comment moderation will continue to be sporadic for a few more days (sorry).

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Useless Moneybags

Every once in a while, someone makes a statement in a comment about how their advisor "doesn't do anything". In some cases, there is the added description that an advisor "doesn't do anything except get grants". I find these comments fascinating, but not necessarily in a good way. I am sure I have written about this before, but since I was thinking about the phenomenon recently as I was sitting suspended over an ocean, I am writing about it again now.

I am sure there are exceptions -- of course I don't know how things work in other fields or at other institutions other than ones with which I am closely associated -- but I think in many cases, this comment displays a misconception about the definition of "anything" in a research context. [This is where the young and perhaps not-so-young say to their advisors (but perhaps not aloud): "But that's your fault because you are supposed to teach us what you do". Yes, that's true to some extent, although it's a rather lame reason for remaining ignorant over the entire course of a graduate program, as I've discussed before.]

In any case, I know that the Do-Nothing (except provide grants) Advisors are believed to exist, and that is why many of us learn during fascinating and mandatory Research Ethics workshops that just providing the money for a research project is not sufficient justification for us to be a co-author on the resulting papers. And yet, I always wonder: But what if the research was our IDEA? Doesn't that count?

Today, what I want to know is how many readers have said or thought that their advisor doesn't (or didn't) do anything, meaning in this case that the advisor doesn't (or didn't) do any research (whether it was true or not)? If anyone leaves a comment confessing to having this thought/belief, it would also be helpful to know the academic discipline involved. In my field, it's relatively easy for me to do some actual research myself, but in other fields or in other research group configurations, it may be more difficult for an advisor to do this. Hence, additional information may be important for exploring and understanding this phenomenon.

There may be various modes of thought that feed into such a view. One that I imagine is common goes something like this:

- because you and other students ± postdocs, techs etc. are the ones actually generating data, you are the ones doing the real work, and your advisor is therefore "not doing anything".

But I hope it is more complex than that, and not an indication of a lack of appreciation for the value of ideas -- the ideas that can lead to a successful proposal and therefore a grant, the ideas for overcoming obstacles that may arise during the data-gathering stages, and the ideas that come once the data (or whatever) are obtained and it's time to think about the results, understand them, discuss them, interpret them, and thereby generate new ideas.

If a grad student who thinks their advisor doesn't do anything is in a situation in which they (the student) had some ideas that formed the core of a grant proposal that they largely wrote (perhaps with some help with the logistics of writing/submitting a proposal), got the grant (perhaps with their advisor's name on it), carried out the research largely independently (perhaps after learning some key techniques from someone other than the advisor), made the most significant interpretations, and wrote the papers, then go ahead and say it: your advisor didn't do much, if anything.

Otherwise, I think it is a strange and incorrect thing to say.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

What About Us?

In Scientopia today, there is a discussion of issues facing mid-career and older faculty; specifically, issues related to negotiating a retention package at one's current institution, upon receiving an offer from another institution.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Not So Fast

This post concerns a non-academic topic that has been roaming around in my brain for a while, and it is therefore disconnected from any particular time, place, climate, or topographic feature. It concerns how different my experiences are from those of other people (specifically: similarly-aged men) while participating in a particular outdoor activity.

When I participate in Outdoor Activity X (OAX) with others, I am just another person doing OAX. When I am alone, however, things are different.

Before I give some examples, I will acknowledge that of course the experience of being alone vs. being in a group/couple is different in general, not just when participating in an OAX. For example, when I am walking alone in some cities in North America and Europe, I am often stopped and asked for directions -- much more often than when I am walking with someone else. This is not surprising, but nevertheless the commonness of this phenomenon does not account the nature of some of the interactions I have when alone and doing OAX.

For example, when I am alone and participating in OAX, the following happen with enough frequency to be notable:

- A man criticizes something about what I am doing or how I am doing it. Example: Not long ago, I was told by a middle-aged man that I was going too fast. I was not. Nor I was going so slow that sarcasm was a reasonable explanation for his statement. And the fact that he barked "too fast" at me and then zoomed away makes it unlikely that he was trying to initiate a friendly conversation.

- A man does something a bit dangerous/scary in my vicinity, veering at the last second to prevent collision, in some cases laughing at how startled I am. I have no explanation for this phenomenon, but I hate it. Is it an attempt to show that they are more in control and/or more awesome than I am, or it is just for random thrills? What motivates anyone to scare another person for no (good) reason?

- If I pass a man, 92.43% of the time he will immediately speed up and pass me (if he is physically able to do so).

Incidents of the first two examples are relatively rare. The third one is common, but it amuses me rather than offends or frightens me, so that's fine.

I am writing about this because it mimics some aspects of my professional life; that is, mostly things are great/fine, but punctuated by incidents of Gender-Directed Weirdness (GDW). You can dismiss each individual incident as a Random Life Event if you want, but over time, when 100% of these incidents involve men and these incidents only occur when I am alone (and when similar events are not experienced by men I know participating in OAX), I think that GDW is a pretty likely explanation for some/most of these incidents.

Memo to the men: I could do without the comments and the scary games. And if you are passed by a woman, particularly one who is clearly not young or impressively fit, please don't feel emasculated and/or humiliated. If you immediately speed up and pass her, there is a 53.68% chance that she will be laughing at you, and not in a nice way.

(my apologies for continued sporadic posting/comment moderation as I spend time in various intense research activities and travel for at least another week.)

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Taking a Chance

In Scientopia, something about making decisions about one job offer when you are hoping for a different job offer but you have to decide about the first one before knowing about any other possibly-better ones.