Monday, April 30, 2012

It Seems to Get Better

The results of Friday's poll are quite encouraging, I think. More than 75% say that they have gotten better at handling criticism, rejection, and failure with time. This is not to ignore the pain of those for whom it has gotten more difficult with time (or for whom it has always been difficult); nevertheless, ~77% is a hopeful proportion, even if it is based on a limited dataset in this case.

An interesting topic raised in the comments is whether dealing with criticism etc. becomes easier with time because there is less of it with time, as we advance in our careers. Some possible scenarios for how this might play out in the course of a career include:

- Reviewers etc. become more positive as you pile up achievements and other evidence for success in the relevant aspects of your career. This may because you are truly awesome and have an endless supply of excellent ideas that you express well, or it may because of the so-called "halo" effect; that is, if you reach a certain level of success, people assume even your stupid ideas must actually be great and you can coast on your reputation; or

- You may still get critical reviews, but the personal attacks that can appear in some reviews and other evaluations disappear or at least decrease with time; for example: "I don't agree with Professor X's interpretation of these data, and would suggest instead that s/he consider ...." instead of "Professor X is a total moron".  (a complication on this scenario is when the author list includes one or more students and one or more distinguished professors; what's a reviewer with a penchant for personal attacks to do in that case?)

- A combination of both: negative reviews and personal attacks decrease, but never go away entirely. This decrease, combined with an increased ability to deal with non-stop evaluations of various sorts, leads to a general feeling of being able to deal with criticism and rejection more easily (although there may be notable exceptions from time to time). I think this is a likely scenario for many of us.

Even for highly successful academics, criticism and rejection never entirely goes away. For example, the impressive scientist, person, and blogger Athene Donald wrote just the other day, "My first individual grant failed; my last one did too with a churlish email sent at some insane time of the night from our Research Councils ‘shared services centre’ only last week.  Clearly in between I have had occasional success, and for any individual receiving the sharp end of rejection it is well to remember Robert the Bruce."

Remembering Robert the Bruce might not work for those who are not citizens of the UK (and isn't he the one whose embalmed heart went on a Crusade?), so I am wondering if there is some other historic person for North Americans and others to think of in times of need. I personally just like to think about my cats when dealing with the sharp end of rejection (I do like that phrase), but perhaps I am not thinking big enough. Any suggestions?

Friday, April 27, 2012

Skin Thickness Monitor

Following on yesterday's post, which raised the issue of confidence (including fear of rejection, mentioned in the comments) when deciding whether to apply for a particular job (such as a faculty position), a colleague noted to me that those who are cautious about applications are likely also cautious about proposals, papers, and other important things in the life of academics at research-oriented institutions. That is, even if you get a job, the fear of rejection persists.

I think that is likely true for some (many?) people, given, for example, (anecdotal) evidence that impostor-syndrome feelings don't quickly vanish as a result of academic and career success. Similarly, most of us probably have one or more colleagues who devote a lot of time to "perfecting" manuscripts in response to imagined negative reviewer comments, or not even writing for long periods of time because it is too painful to think about the possible future negative comments. This seems to be a characteristic that is not easily vanquished.

Nevertheless, painful though the process may be, it is possible to become more impervious to criticism and rejection with time and experience, as long as you keep hurling yourself into the fray and finding ways to cope with the inevitable negative comments (and using those that are relevant/substantive to improve your work). Criticism is a feature of academic life, of course; that's why I have a blog-post label for "criticism or rejection or failure".

If you have been involved in academia (or any career) for awhile, do you feel that you have developed a "thicker" skin over time as a result of the constant judging and evaluation, have you become more sensitive, or have you stayed about the same (whatever that may be: from very fearful of criticism and rejection to quite calm about these things).

Has your ability to deal with criticism and rejection changed over time? free polls 

If you feel that you have developed a thicker skin over time, did you have any particular strategy or get any particular useful advice or was it just a matter of time and experience? I think for me it was the latter, greatly helped by the support of colleagues and friends, an element of stubbornness, and a feeling that the interesting and fun parts of my job more than made up for the difficult parts (criticism).

Thursday, April 26, 2012

It's The Thought That Counts

This is a title I have used before (in 2007!) for a totally unrelated post, but I am going to make use of it again today for another post about job ads.

Years ago, back when some science departments realized they needed to show that they were not obviously discriminating against female applicants even if very few (or none) were interviewed or hired, the preferred mode of proving a theoretical interest in hiring women was to place a job ad in the newsletter of an organization for women in the relevant field.

Of course the ad was also placed in the major venues for such ads as well, but advertising in the women's newsletter was given as evidence that "we tried" by many departments. According to my experience and that of colleagues at other universities, this evidence was always accepted by the various university offices responsible for seeing that hiring procedures followed the university's equal opportunity policies, even if no women were interviewed.

It didn't matter that there was no potential applicant on the planet who would only see the ad in the newsletter and not also in the major job-ad venues of our field.

I see it as a sign of progress that many (most?) departments don't do this anymore. They don't do it anymore because they don't have to make this meaningless gesture to show that they are theoretically willing to consider applications from women because many actually do consider applications from women, and invite them to interview, and offer them jobs. 

Does anyone disagree with that and think that it is a good thing for a department to place such an ad in a newsletter for women or other underrepresented group? (whether or not it is backed up by a record of non-discrimination?)

Do any departments still place ads for tenure-track faculty positions in newsletters of women-in-science organizations? I have not done a systematic survey.

And does anyone know of a human resources/equal opportunity office that has rejected this as the sole evidence of a non-discriminatory hiring process?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

I Can See Myself

If you have ever applied for a faculty position or postdoc, or at least looked at the ads and thought about possible future applications, how closely did the ad need to describe your research expertise and interests for you to consider applying? I am ignoring other factors here, such as type and location of institution etc. I am just interested in the point at which you 'saw yourself' in the job description:

- in the first-order, big-picture title, which presumably lists the field or subfield? or

-in the more detailed text in the ad; that is, did you need to see a more specific description of your research expertise/interests before you decided to apply?

In some cases, ads have a list of research specializations under the umbrella of the general field/subfield. Does it matter whether this list is prefaced by words indicating that these are just examples, or, without this information, do you assume that what is listed is what the hiring committee wants and therefore if you don't see your research specialty listed, they aren't going to consider your application?

I am asking in part because of the hypothesis (not mine) that men are more likely to apply for jobs that might sort of be relevant to their expertise but women tend to apply for jobs that describe closely their expertise. According to this same hypothesis, posed to me in an email from a reader who also applies it to postdoctoral applicants, the reason relates to confidence level. According to this person, if they advertise for a postdoc who works on bandicoots, there will be some male applicants with expertise in wombat studies, but all the female applicants will have specific bandicoot research experience.

Of course there is some variation in terms of culture of a field in terms of ads/hiring, and also in how detailed ads are; some places cast a broad net and some have very specific needs in terms of specialty. Even so, these questions are still of interest (at least to me).
  • Did you ever apply for a job that had only a very vague description of the research specialty desired? Or did you only apply for those that described your specialty more closely?
  • Did you ever apply for a job that didn't really describe what you do, but you thought the hiring committee might be intrigued by your research anyway, perhaps because you are a bit interdisciplinary and/or in an emerging field that they might not have considered (but should)? or
  • Did you ever not apply for a job that didn't list your very specific field of expertise even if the ad was related to your research field in a broader way?
Why/why not? (and specify male/female, if you wish to provide this information)

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Works Not Well With Others

In Scientopia, a discussion of working with others vs. being immersed in your own work, as a student, research scientist, or professor.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Spot the Scientist

The other day, as my husband acquired coffee in a cafe at a location quite remote from our home, the barista announced that he was going to guess my husband's profession. He guessed Silicon Valley software engineer. Not bad: from a distance, science professor isn't so different from various types of engineers, at least the sort who tend to be in casual attire.

My experience has been that it is a little more challenging for people to guess my profession from my attire/appearance, but that is mostly because many people have different expectations about women (just one small example is here). In many cases, I don't mind (it can be fun to surprise people and overturn their expectations), but in some cases I do (if people are rude/patronizing).

At a large conference, it is quite easy to pick out fellow conference-goers (male and female) on the street, even those individuals who remember to take off their conference badges/name-tags when they emerge from the conference center. This is easy in part owing to the tendency of conference-going scientists to roam in packs on city streets, but even when sighted in small units (1-2), it is easy to spot the science people.

In fact, at a very early age, my daughter learned how to Detect Scientists on the street. When she has attended conferences with her scientist parents, a favorite activity has been to sit in a cafe near but not too near the conference center, and try to pick the scientists out of the crowd of passersby. Perhaps she can use these skills later in life.

Can people guess what you do (approximately) for your job based on your appearance or are you constantly surprising people when you tell them what you do? Somehow I think this might break down somewhat along gender lines, but I imagine that there are also men who don't look like a stereotypical scientist (or engineer or whatever).

My husband is not one of these men, even when not wearing a graph-paper plaid shirt, but that's OK. I think it is important for the non-scientist population to know that nerds walk among us and are generally harmless and pleasant if supplied with sufficient quantities of coffee.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Out of Office

There are all different kinds of busy.

During some busy times, I find that I can get lots of different things done because I get into a 'bring it on' kind of mode and just do whatever needs doing (and then I collapse later). For other kinds of busy, I need more focus and I have to make stark decisions about use of time, like whether to blog or work on that paper that needs finishing.

I am in one of those stark times now, and am going to work on that paper that needs finishing while I'm doing some traveling and other things. It's kind of funny in a way because after I am done traveling, I will be even busier, but it will be the kind of busy in which blogging is a welcome distraction.

So: Happy Mid-April and I'll be back in a week or so.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Token Awards

Today in Scientopia, I discuss the practical aspects of awards that are given for "diversity" reasons; that is, the question of nominating (or not) students for these awards, despite being somewhat troubled by some aspects of these awards.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Human Games

Question from a reader:
What would cause you to treat grad students like they were people?*

What a great question! The answer is probably obvious, but I will explain it anyway. 

Of course, the first thing I do is throw students in a pond. It doesn't have to be a large pond, but it should be quite cold and there should be some unspecified monsters in it. Then I just stand back and see what happens!

Here's the interesting part: 

If a student sinks, it means they are human and I can treat them accordingly, in most cases by firing them without explanation or notice because who wants to work with a human? 

If they swim, either because they already know how or because they somehow figure it out by themselves, then it means they are not human and will likely do a successful PhD and will become a professor just like me and can continue these fun games with their own students.

But you already knew that and hence your perceptive question. I hope, however, that it is at least somewhat helpful to see it typed out here in a cold rigid font. 

* Note: Although this is a direct quote from an e-mail sent to me by a reader, there was also other text in the e-mail that was worded in a more polite way, and I don't think the question was intended to sound quite as rude as it appears. So, my response it not entirely fair in terms of addressing the individual who sent the question, but I get this and similar questions from time to time, and thought I would give a general reply.

Thursday, April 12, 2012


Does your department have a particular philosophy or practice regarding the make-up of search (hiring) committees for tenure-track faculty positions? And if so:
  • Is the committee chair the person most closely related to the subfield of the search, or is it someone from a bit outside this subfield (but experts are included on the committee)?
  • Are people from outside your department (or program or whatever the relevant unit it) typically included?
  • Are any of those people ever non-academics?
  • Are students part of the committee? Postdocs?
  • If students are on the committee, do they have access to all application materials, or only some? (for example, CVs but not letters of reference) 
  • Is there always at least one assistant professor on the committee (because they possibly represent the future of the department and have a good view of what is current in particular fields) or not (because serving on such a committee is a huge amount of work and assistant professors shouldn't spend so much time on service activities and/or your department doesn't want to give this responsibility to the untenured)? (or other reasons of philosophy, beyond just 'There are 3 of us in the department and one is an assistant professor' type reasons.)
  • Other? 
Those questions are designed to get a view of how search committees are constituted at different places (answers may vary depending on type/size of institution), but I am also wondering if you personally disagree with any of these or other aspects in your department?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Format Matters

When you are submitting a manuscript, do you format the text, tables etc. in the style of the journal or do you wait and see if the paper is going to be accepted before taking the time to do that?

Some journals (editors) get annoyed if the manuscript is not already (mostly) in the journal format at the time of submission, even if the paper may be rejected. One reason for this is that the formatting stage can add an extra step; that is, one more back-and-forth between editor and authors, so it's more efficient if the formatting is done at the beginning (and any problems fixed in the review stage). If the paper is accepted, this helps everyone; if the paper is rejected, the authors wasted some time.

Avoiding this extra step definitely makes the review process faster for the author. In my experience, it is the rare author who sufficiently takes care of all necessary formatting issues in the revision stage if they didn't previously make an attempt at following journal format in the first submission. If they try to format the manuscript correctly the first time, I can comment on any problems, and then these can be fixed in the revised manuscript. If the manuscript is not formatted until the revision stage, I typically have to send it back again for technical fixes. Some of the details of formatting can be taken care of by the diligent copy-editors employed by the journal, but the paper is supposed to be (mostly) in journal format when the editors send it along to the copy-editors.

And beware submitting a paper with flawed reference lists to some journals! Certain large publishing companies use manuscript submission software that detects even minor flaws that used to be dealt with at a later stage of the review process but that now can delay review of a manuscript. Wouldn't it be nice if these clever programs also formatted the manuscript (including references) for you, saving time for everyone? As an author and editor, I would like that. Formatting my own manuscripts and checking the formatting of manuscripts of others is tedious.

Anyway, there may be reasons beyond efficiency to format the manuscript in the style of the journal to which it is submitted. As an editor, when I see a manuscript submitted in the very characteristic style of another journal, it does cross my mind that the manuscript might have been rejected by that journal and submitted to my journal. Does that matter if this thought flits across my brain? Probably not, but, as an author, I'd rather an editor not have that thought.

A prior rejection may be irrelevant to another journal depending on why it was rejected by the other journal and whether any significant changes were made to fix potential problems. I am not necessarily talking about rejection by High Impact Journals, but also peer journals (in terms of impact factor and topic).

If a manuscript with suspicious formatting seems worthy of review, it will be reviewed by my journal despite the xeno-formatting, but on more than one occasion I have received an e-mail from an invited reviewer of one of these manuscripts saying "I already reviewed this for the X Journal and it doesn't look like they have changed anything. This is the same paper and I still hate it." That's not good. Not that formatting alone would improve the fate of the paper, but ideally the re-formatting and a serious revision would occur simultaneously, so re-reviewers (and editors) could potentially be more friendly to the revised paper.

So far I have mostly been discussing this from the point of view of an editor, but what actually inspired this post is the fact that I have been spending considerable time today formatting a manuscript for a particular journal. This journal has really bizarre and picky formatting rules, and I am sure I will make errors, but at least it will look mostly like a correctly formatted paper. Maybe that will help the editor 'see' it as a paper appropriate for this journal.. Or, at least, that is what I tell myself when I am making sure that I follow the correct rules for fonts, headings, first paragraph indentation (or not), in-text references, reference list...........

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Not a Monster

In the discussion on the Scientopia post yesterday there was a comment about whether professors worry that having some "failed" (possibly fired) students will affect recruiting of new students. I think the answer to that for many professors is Yes (but leave a comment/explain if you are one of those who does not care).

I know I have written about this before and there are relevant anecdotes deep in the archives, somewhere, so some of this is a re-discussion of this topic. I am going to assume for most of this discussion that the advisor is not evil or otherwise highly dysfunctional (but will get to that near the end of the post). I am also not going to make a distinction between failing and firing; for the purposes of this discussion, it might not even be widely known exactly why a student left.

The impact of failed/fired students can be an issue in recruiting because you can't really explain to potential students exactly what happened with a failed/fired student, especially if there are sensitive issues involved. I know one student (many years ago, not at my current institution) who had to leave a grad program owing to a cheating incident. I don't know what that advisor told prospective students, if anything, and I don't know how open the departing student was with fellow students about the reason for having to leave, but as an advisor, I would be very reluctant to explain such a situation to a prospective student. And yet, it wouldn't be fair to the advisor, who had only a few advisees at a time, if such an incident had a negative effect on their ability to recruit new students.

I have also mentioned before that I have advised or otherwise worked with students with major substance abuse problems (that pre-dated their working with me, in case you are wondering). Some of these students eventually finished their degrees, but at least one (the most severe case) did not. He told people that I had "fired" him, but in fact he was forced by his parents to try rehab (again). Mostly it was a human tragedy for that particular student, of course, but it was also a low point for me as an advisor. 

There was another interesting comment on the Scientopia post yesterday: a description of a student's point of view and a professor's point of view, as told by a third person who had talked to both about a certain difficult advisor-student situation. Based on what I read, I would say that both sides are "right"; in some cases, personalities and priorities just don't mesh between student and advisor.

So, even if a student has run-of-the-mill problems with grad school (nothing involving cheating or drug addiction..), there are still complex issues and different points of view. A student could complain "My advisor never checks on me to find out what I am doing and see if I need help ", and the advisor could complain "My student never comes to see me to show me what s/he has done recently and ask questions." Of course both should be talking to each other, but if that doesn't happen and the student flounders to the point of failing, should prospective students be cautioned about the advisor (uncaring, lets students sink then fails them) or just told about their advising style (works best with students who take some initiative and don't mind being a bit independent)?

The advisor can also tell prospective students about their advising style. I have been having this conversation more and more with prospective students in recent years. In fact, some ask me directly: do you have an open-door policy or do you prefer to have scheduled meetings with students etc.? I think these conversations are very useful, and can be a way for the advisor to signal in advance what won't work (implying past problems without discussing individuals).

Here is my hypothesis o' the day, for discussion:

I think that if the advisor is overall a reasonably good, well-meaning advisor and just has the occasional advising disaster (for whatever reason), there won't be a major (long term) negative effect on their ability to maintain a good group of successful advisees. This may be more true for senior professors with a track record of advising success, and more of an issue for early-career professors.

But this is the part that I am less sure about: the case of not-good, perhaps even evil advisors. I have seen some dysfunctional advisors lose their grad program entirely, but I know of others (mostly via e-mail from readers) who somehow keep getting students. I think the difference might involve the overall success and funding record of the advisor: if you have money, you can have students (??). In those cases, I would think that word-of-mouth cautions from former and existing students would nevertheless make recruiting new students difficult, and that this would be a way to try to force a change for the better, but I don't know of any cases in which this was tried and worked (do you?).

Friday, April 06, 2012

Sorry Professor!

From time to time, I peruse online reviews of various things: books, hotels, restaurants, etc., and am sometimes reminded of teaching evaluations, but not necessarily in a good way. For example, I recently read two highly negative reviews of two different books, and found that the negative reviews were motivated by technical problems with the e-version of the books, not the writing/plot etc. Is that fair to the authors? No. It reminded me of some negative teaching evaluations I have seen in which a professor was severely criticized for things the students hated about the physical classroom space.

I don't know why I even read reviews of hotels anymore. I guess I am looking for systematic information that will indicate whether a place has a major problem or is a good place to stay. Typically, though, reviews are mixed, indicating more about the review-writers than the hotel. Particularly when reading reviews of small, charming hotels outside the US, I must admit that I am not shocked to the core to learn that there was a crack in a tile in the bathroom, a strange stain on the carpet by the window, or even a front-desk clerk who was not super-friendly.

Sometimes I wonder if the ease with which we can all review almost everything* in our lives affects how some people approach teaching evaluations, either the writing or the reading of them.

* Did you know that you can review rivers and other natural features? For example, the River Seine in Paris currently has 611 reviews on TripAdvisor, has an overall rating of 4.5 stars, and reviews ranging from Average to Excellent. Hooray for the River Seine for not getting any ratings of Poor or Terrible! The River Danube, perhaps owing to its length and the fact that it flows through so many major cities and you can review it in each one, has more variable ratings.

Here is an example of a review of a small hotel in an international city (review modified slightly from original version but retaining its essence):

We are college students from [country that is not the US] and used to traveling but even for the low price and good location we won't be back to this hotel. The staff don't really speak English even though this is a "hotel". The breakfast wasn’t anything special but we didn't really mind because it was cheap and we are young! However the elevator is really small and has no door and that is very unsafe! Again we thought it's not that bad and we are young. The rooms are really small but again I thought it's cheap and we’re young and don’t care but it got worse because the room was NOT made up every day. By day 3 we had no clean towels! It got even worse because of the language barrier but we are young and cheap and don't mind most things, but the staff stared at us when we walked through the lobby and this even creeped me out and I’m a guy. This place is just not worth it, even for less than 30 euros a night for 2 people.
Is it just me, or do you get the impression that the person who wrote this is young? Despite my advanced age, I personally could probably go 4 or 5 days without clean towels. When I first read the review, I wondered if this young man has similar expectations of his classes and professors, and if he writes similar reviews of his professors, if there are student evaluations of teaching at his university.

Maybe he would write something like this:
I am a student in Professor X's class but even considering the convenient day and time of the class I can't recommend this class. Professor X uses words I don't understand, even though she is supposed to be a "teacher". The lectures weren't anything special but I didn't really mind because this is a required class I have to take. However the chairs in the classroom are really uncomfortable and this is unsafe! Also the classroom is really small but that's OK too except that it is not cleaned every day and sometimes I see writing on the white board from other classes and once I saw a candy bar wrapper on the floor. It gets even worse because sometimes Professor X makes eye contact with me during class, when asking a question, and this creeps me out. This class is not worth it, even if it only meets for an hour on Tuesdays at 11 AM.
I think this could be a very fun game (or creative writing exercise) for academics: converting real teaching evaluations into hotel/restaurant reviews, and converting real hotel/restaurant reviews into teaching evaluations.

The game will need a zippy name; something even better than ratemyprofessorsandhotels. Like the various versions of the game Monopoly that involve sports, animals, movies, and New Jersey, we could perhaps propose an academic version of the game Sorry!: Sorry Professor! (other suggestions welcome, although note that all suggestions will be subject to review by everyone).

Thursday, April 05, 2012


Many years ago when I was a non-tenure-track professor, I was taken aback when I learned that the quality of teaching by people in my position -- that is, all non-tenure track instructors -- was considered a priori sub-standard by my institution because we had no long-term investment in the college.

The Dean said this aloud in a meeting and repeated it in a memo. At the meeting, I thought I misunderstood the Dean, but the memo was unambiguous. Tenure-track and tenured faculty had a commitment to the college and the rest of us didn't, so their teaching was, by definition, of higher quality than ours. I doubt if this conclusion was supported by any data; it seemed to be more a belief. I didn't see the point of stating it so explicitly, as a generalization, but of course the focus was to make the the 'real' faculty feel good.

I found that somewhat demoralizing. I cared a lot about my students and my teaching, and I was working extremely hard at my teaching, as I also had in a previous position as a non-tenure-track instructor. Some of my tenured and tenure-track colleagues were doing the same, and some weren't. I channeled my annoyance into targeted loathing of the Dean (but not the college, my colleagues, or my students), and focused on my work.

Later, when I was a tenure-track and then tenured professor at a large university, I learned that the quality of teaching by people in my position was considered by some to be a priori sub-standard because we spent so much time doing research, we couldn't be as good at teaching as those who are entirely dedicated to teaching, including non-tenure-track (adjunct/contingent) faculty. This was the view, not so much of the institution itself, but of a broader community (and in particular those focused on college-level science education).

The reason both statements could be made and thought possibly true by some is that the first one involved a small liberal arts college and the second a large research university.

These generalizations are meaningless. There are good, bad, and mediocre teachers in all the possible types of jobs involving teaching at the different types of colleges and universities in the US and beyond.

Here is my own (possibly meaningless) generalization, or belief, based on no data, just observations in the past 30 years as an undergraduate, graduate student, instructor, and the various stages of tenure-track/tenured professor:

Teaching quality (TQ) for an individual or even a group of individuals in similar jobs does not correlate with type of institution or with job title.

If that is the case, then TQ is more a function of an individual's teaching skills and dedication, both of which are somewhat fluid concepts because they can change with time and circumstance, but are still more important than institution type of job title. There may well be some 'environmental' factors such as teaching load, support from the institution etc., but it is not useful to make assumptions about whether someone will be a good, bad, or indifferent teacher based on whether that person is employed at a small college, a large research university, a private institution, a state institution etc. or whether that person is an adjunct or a senior, tenured professor. I don't think this is a controversial statement, but I am still surprised when -- to this day -- I encounter these stereotypes.

The issue that is relevant to students is whether they are likely to encounter more good teachers in certain circumstances than in others, but I am not going to wade into these larger issues, including debates about how we measure TQ, the value of student evaluations of teaching, whether students are at a disadvantage (or advantage) if taught by large number of adjunct faculty, and so on (I have discussed these in other posts),
My point today is a small one, inspired by a recent experience in which someone from the small-college world expressed surprise that teaching excellence could be found at a large university, bringing back some memories and triggering this post.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Happiness Index

There are many ways to measure happiness in one's life and career. For example, I recall learning, as an undergraduate, that one's happiness could in part be calculated from the distance of one's home to the take-off and landing flight paths of major airports.

Anyway, for academic persons involved in research, happiness these days may derive in part from the number of times a publication is cited. In this case, the h in h-index does not refer to happiness, but for some people it might as well.

What I am wondering is, for any individual -- at whatever career stage, in whatever academic discipline, and with whatever personality traits you may have -- what is your personal minimum number of citations for you to feel happy, or at least moderately satisfied?

That is, when you look at your citation numbers for each publication, is there a particular number of citations that make say (to yourself, if not to anyone else), "OK, I am happy with that number of citations"? (leaving open the possibility that you would be happier if it were cited even more)

Is that number = 1? 5? 20? 37? 50? 100? 300? 1000? 7326? more?

What are the most important factors in deciding your personal minimum number of citations for happiness? I expect that the culture of each field plays a role. Is there are particular number that is considered pretty good in your field, and can you say what that approximate number is? For example, I have seen letters in support of tenure/promotion cases (not in my field) in which the letter-writer has asserted that the n < 10 citations of a paper is considered a very good number in that field. In my field, that would be considered not so good.

I expect that one's happiness with a publication's citation count experiences a bit of an uptick when that publication reaches a number that causes your actual h-index to go up, but is that your minimum number, or is your personal minimum number >> your h-index?

I don't want to give many details about myself, but my absolute minimum citation happiness number is indeed the one that makes my h-index go up (so this is a (slowly) moving target), but that milestone just causes a flicker of citation-happiness. For me, the true minimum citation happiness number is quite a bit higher, and therefore more elusive.

That's not to say that I am disappointed in or depressed about publications that don't exceed my citation-happiness threshold -- in fact, some of my all-time favorite papers are among my least cited ones. It's just that there is a certain bonus satisfaction that comes from having papers with (relatively) large numbers of citations, even for tenured professors whose careers don't hinge on these numbers.

The reason I have been thinking about citations recently (again) is because the other day, a (very) senior professor told me that he was upset about another colleague who doesn't cite his (the senior professor's work) when he should. He said that he wants his citation numbers to be as high as possible by the time he dies because "that's all we have" (as a legacy). I thought that was sad and disturbing, particularly coming from someone who has a large number of papers that have been cited more times than any paper of mine will ever be. I hope I don't feel that way when I am his (near retirement) age, even if it does make me happy when my papers are cited.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

You're Asking Me?

Earlier this year, I gave a talk at another university. Much later, I encountered the head of the department that I visited, and he apologized for missing my talk, explaining that he'd been out of town that day. He said "I heard your talk was very good", a nice thing to say, but not necessarily sincere, just a common pleasantry. But then he said something that surprised me. The very next thing he said was:

Was it?

I was surprised and just said something inane like, Well, I hope so. I got a lot of good questions. I enjoyed it blah blah blah.

Then he said I really did hear that it was good. OK... so why ask me?

Anyway, that was strange, but it made me think about how we feel about the talks we give, and whether this feeling (positive or negative) has anything to do with how most of the audience felt about the talk, at least during the times when they were awake. Of course there is going to be a range of responses in any audience to any particular talk, but I think we can still get a general sense for whether a talk went well or not.

I know people who always feel terrible after they give a talk, even if the talk was great (in my opinion). For some, the experience is such an anxious one, that is is difficult to enjoy the experience of giving a talk, even if the talk is interesting and presented well. I hope that for most people, this anxiety fades with time and experience giving talks.

Other people will give a range of responses when asked (by a friend or close colleague) how they felt about their own talk, depending on their perception of how the audience was responding. You can give very similar talks to two different audiences, and in one you feel like you totally rock, and in the other you feel like your talk fell flat. And sometimes you don't really know and just have a general sense that the talk went pretty well, but you don't really know.

The same talk can be a different experience in different places because there may be differences in your presentation style, your energy level (perhaps related to whether cookies and coffee were served just before the talk), and/or time of day (or day of week or month of year etc.). However, the experience is also greatly affected by whether the talk was on a topic and at a level that was appreciated by a significant number of people in the audience. I mostly use the number and type of questions during or after my talk as a guide to whether the audience is interested and if my talk is making any sense at all. I haven't found the facial expressions of the audience during a talk to be a very useful guide. And I am not offended when some people fall asleep, as long as most people are awake.

So: How do you feel your talk went? I think it is a strange question to ask someone you don't know well, but it is an interesting question to discuss among friends and colleagues.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Promote Yourself

Today in Scientopia, a discussion of how and whether to promote your work (and therefore yourself) without (necessarily) alienating everyone in your field, from the point of view of a non-extroverted mid-career science professor.