Thursday, May 31, 2012

So Long and Thanks for All the Wombats

When I was young, I hated saying goodbye. For example, when it was time for friends or relatives to leave, I would hide if I could. It wasn't that I was all broken up about their leaving, I just hated the ritual of saying goodbye -- the stupid things you always have to say, the hugs etc., even if you were going to see that person again in the very near future. And when I was the one doing the leaving, I would sometimes pretend I wasn't actually leaving in a final way. My hope was that the goodbye ritual could be put off, and then I would really leave, avoiding the goodbyes. It was strange, I know, and the feeling has sort of persisted in a mild but mostly controllable form into my adult years.

So, I have been writing this FSP blog for 6 years now and have decided that it should change, and perhaps end, but I am too cowardly to do this in a dramatic, sudden way. Why am I considering departing from the blogosphere, decreasing my presence, or at very least changing my blog-focus or format? I am certainly not bored with blogging (or with you, commenters and even lurkers) and I have not run out of things to say (or cat photos to share), but there comes a point in the life of semi-anonymous bloggers -- or, at least, this one -- when it isn't really right or fair to the people in my immediate vicinity for me to continue this type of blog.

Although I don't think any one particular blog is essential, I do think it is important that certain blog-niches be well represented. I am therefore happy that there are some excellent blogs that share the same blog-niche as this one (senior women physical science professors) -- not many, but they exist, just like FSPs in real life. And maybe there are some incipient bloggers out there who have been considering starting a blog but have hesitated. I would very much like to read some new blogs by F/SPs.

The options I am considering for the future: I could confine my blogging to the format I use over at Scientopia for the Science Professor blog; that is, mostly answering questions that people send me by email and encouraging discussion from readers about these questions and issues (I seldom have what I consider to be a real or sufficient answer myself, but I am happy to facilitate discussion). I could do that over there, or over here. And/or I could just continue with my contributions to The Chronicle of Higher Education for as long as they'll have me (comments can be made on these, although the discussion isn't typically as lively as it is over here).

In terms of writing a blog, six years is kind of a long time. Over the years of blogging, and in particular at various blog anniversaries, I have described things that have changed in my career and in my field of Science since 2006, so I will not summarize those here. I will just say for now that some things have changed dramatically and some things have not. Over the years, I have had a lot to talk about, apparently, and I have appreciated having this platform to discuss incidents and ideas. Perhaps at some point, when my thoughts are more organized, I will do a better job with summing things up.

Mostly, of course, I have appreciated the comments and the quiet readers who kept reading. I have learned a lot, and it has been a great pleasure for me.

Did I mention that I have been blogging for six (6) years? Aside from various changes in my professorial existence, these 6 years also mean that I am rather older than I was when I started blogging: When I started, I was in my early 40s and my daughter was in elementary school. I am still in my 40s, but no matter how you do the math, 50 is looming. My daughter is in high school. One thing that has not changed is that she is an amazing, interesting, and happy person. And we still have huge cats whose mission in life is to destroy the stereotype of the aloof feline.

Anyway, I will continue to contemplate my blog future as I do some intense, job-related traveling in the next few weeks, and I will go off the air during that time. But before I go, I don't want to forget that at least once/year at about this time, I like to say Thanks for reading, so here it is: Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

What You Don't Know

It came to my attention yet again recently that many grad students don't know that professors at many universities in the US are not paid by the university in the summer; we have 9-month base salaries. I have written about this before (I know, I say that a lot in this blog, but the blog is ~6 years old). I don't think it matters a lot if students know or don't know the details of how professors are paid except that it might help them understand the behavior of some professors in the summer.

Most of us don't take the summer "off", and most of us don't like being asked to do department service in the summer. Of course advising is a 12-month/year responsibility, but I know some professors who think nothing of spending lots of time working with their own grad students in the summer but balk at having to participate in a large number of prelim exams or defenses for our colleagues' students in the summer (a few here and there might be OK as long as the student is diligent about scheduling well in advance). etc. etc.

What I want to know is: if you are or have been a grad student in the US, do/did you know whether the professors have a 9-month or 12-month base salary? Does/Did it affect how you view/ed the types and amount of work that professors (including your advisor) do/did in the summer? Did you, or are you likely to, take a prelim or final exam in the summer and therefore need your committee to assemble?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Making Change

The topic for today is whether/how much some of us academics change our research focus over the years. Some of you are too young to have sufficient data to answer this question for yourself, but even you youngsters can look around at more senior researchers and see whether and how much people change research focus over the years, from very dramatic changes to a small but perceptible shift.

Some possibilities are:

(1) dramatic: this could be very dramatic, like a change from chemistry to classical languages, or it could be within the same general field but with a change to a totally different subfield.

(2) semi-dramatic: this could involve a shift motivated by interdisciplinary research -- for example, a physical scientist who increasingly became involved in a major way in the life sciences or engineering such that they develop a new field of expertise. In this case, they still have their feet in their original field and subfield, but they also have a new research identity. This type of change is not so rare, or even surprising in some fields, but it still does involve a rather major shift.

(3) perceptible but not very remarkable: this type of change could involve a change in the types of research problems addressed, but the researcher would still be mostly identified with their original subfield; maybe someone develops new research methods that can be applied to different types of problems and this motivates a bit of branching out in research questions and subfields, probably with lots of help from colleagues in these other subfields. Or maybe interests shifts, new collaborations lead to new interests, and so on. There are lots of ways that this type of change can (and probably should) happen during a career.

And then there's:

(4) no change worthy of note.

Although I certainly know some in the first two categories, I think many of us are in the third category, which describes what I think is a rather normal sort of change in the course of a career. I am trying to think of examples of category 4, and I can think of a few people who have done the exact same thing for many many years (some with great success), but I still think various shades of category 3 are more common.

Do any of you consider yourself a category (1) or (2) or (4), or are most of us (3)s? You could answer about your advisor or other academics you have observed if this question isn't relevant to you (yet).

Monday, May 28, 2012

No Jerks Allowed*

* with some exceptions

At, in, on, under, and through Scientopia today, I meander from pseudo-answering a question about whether to explain grad-recruiting decisions to current students to a question (for discussion) of how we advisors get a sense for group dynamics among our advisees.

Friday, May 25, 2012


This post is a continuation/follow-up on a post from last September.

Before I rip into what I consider the incompetent and corrupt practices of those who build and renovate university facilities such as, say, a Science lab, let's first spend a moment being grateful for the skilled, efficient, and polite people involved in this important work. I have not met any recently, but I believe they must exist and I am glad to think that they exist somewhere and wish that some of them had been involved in my recent project.

Now please join me in a collective scream of anger at the other ones. What boggles my naive little professorial mind is that these people work at a university and, in theory, know how a university works and know that we professors don't have endless sources of money for any particular project. Consider my situation in which I

(1) got an estimate for some work,
(2) put that estimate in a grant proposal (with a bit of a cushion to account for likely unanticipated price increases of other expenses),
(3) got the grant,
(4) got a visit from the same people who gave me the original estimate, but this time, with the project a reality, they came up with an estimate that was nearly ten (10) times the original estimate.
(5) So I begged, pleaded, sold part of my soul, and got the additional funds to pay for the new estimate, and then
(6) put in the order for the work, and then
(7) watched in horror as the actual amount was way beyond the amount of even the second estimate.

In the end, the total cost was many many many times the original estimate and significantly more than the second estimate. The work was done by the university, with one subcontract. Where does the university think I am going to get the money to pay these extra costs to the university? Why am I responsible for these inaccurate low estimates? The 'extra' costs did not involve anything unusual or unexpected. There is no reason the estimates couldn't have been more accurate, and then I could have used real numbers in my grant budget.

In fact, some of the costs were for things that were not even done, or for time that was not even spent: one item on an invoice says that something took a week but in fact it took one day, as originally planned in the quote. Somehow these imaginary costs add up to many thousands of dollars. Why should I pay these?

I have asked around about what recourse I have if I want to dispute some of these costs. I get lots of shrugs and the typical response, "Oh yes, those guys are out of control. We can't do anything about it."

Maybe I just won't pay the deficit and the university can sue itself?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

What To Reject When You're Rejecting

The title really should be: How to reject when you're rejecting. Lately there has been a deluge of email in my inbox with questions about rejection: not just how to deal with it, but also how to do it to someone else. The academic-rejection season is mostly over for undergrads and grads, and applicants for faculty positions, but it is more of a year-round event for postdocs, researchers submitting grant proposals, and a few other academic citizens, so the issue never really goes away.

It is important to note that rejection doesn't only involve those higher on the academic food chain rejecting those below; of course applicants for various academic things can have multiple offers and reject some of those who are offering them.

Anyway, it is clearly a year-round topic, and maybe I need to subdivide my "criticism or rejection or failure" blog-label (20 posts so far; for example: Writing the Perfect Rejection Letter, 2007), but here goes: as usual, the answer to the how to reject question is.. it depends, but it seems to me that an all-purpose approach is the obvious one:
  • just do it (don't leave people hanging longer than necessary even if you have what might be unwelcome news), 
  • don't go overboard with verbose explanations of why it is painful for you to send this rejection letter -- be professional and respectful, and 
  • provide additional information if relevant (number of applicants for number of positions etc.), and (mostly) sincere; I know that it is tempting to give a rejectee an inkling of how close they came to being not rejected (assuming that they did come close); for example, "You were a close second." Does/would that make you feel better, not better, worse?
I certainly don't pretend to know what is appropriate in all situations, so as usual I am just writing from my own experience (as a rejecter and a rejectee) and creating a forum for comments and discussion.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

What To Expect

Yesterday I described two different views of an undergraduate student I mostly only know from classroom interactions. Here is another (evolving) view of a different student I also mostly only know from classroom interactions:

A few years ago, I taught a particular student in a Science class. It was a class mostly for Science majors, but it was not a very high level class. For the first half of the course, I wasn't sure about this student's abilities; he worked hard, but, at least at first, his questions tended to be of the "Is this what you want?" and "Can you tell me if this is right before I turn in my homework?" sort. By the end of the class, he was over that and he did well in the class because he worked hard and understood most of the essential course material. I thought he had a lot of potential, but didn't have enough information to predict how the rest of his undergraduate Science experience would turn out.

Fast forward a few years to a fairly high-level talk in my department -- the sort of talk attended mostly by faculty, postdocs, and grad students, but a few motivated undergrads attend as well. In the questions-from-the-audience time after the talk, this undergraduate student asked the speaker an EXCELLENT question. This question showed that he understood the talk very well and could apply what he had learned in classes to ask a perceptive question involving application of the speaker's results to an interesting and relevant concept not mentioned by the speaker. This made my day.

Particularly when our interaction with certain students is largely confined to one or more classes taken early in a Science major, we may form an impression of them as not knowing much. Of course there are always some students who understand everything easily, and there are students who don't seem to understand anything, and those impressions may turn out to be applicable beyond the initial impressions. Many students, however, are somewhere in between, at least when they start taking courses in their major. Those in-between students can change a lot during their undergraduate years, as they progress toward their degree.

If we see them in other classes over the years, the progression may not seem dramatic. If we see them at the beginning and then not again in any substantive way until their final year, the difference can be startling, not because we don't have faith in the ability of students to learn and grow, but just because we didn't see those intermediate stages.

I feel like attempting an analogy with the Stages of Life: If you don't see a student much between their scientific "infancy" and their scientific "youth", is it like seeing a baby and then seeing that "baby" years later, walking and talking? I suppose it is sort of similar, at least in the sense that it can be startling to see a dramatic change from helpless non-verbal baby to a mobile talking creature, but it is also different because we expect this of babies. I think we also expect it of students, but maybe not quite with the same degree of certainty. (Discuss.)

And in the anecdote described here, it wasn't so much that the former "baby" was walking and talking, but was also doing elegant cartwheels while demonstrating fluency in a new language. It was awesome.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Goes Without Saying

The other day, less than hour after I had provided a recommendation for an undergraduate, saying in the recommendation (essentially) that the student was mature and thoughtful, showed good judgment, and was smart, I stood on a busy street corner near campus and watched this particular student ride through the intersection on their bicycle: no helmet, no hands, ear buds in ears, ignoring traffic signals, trusting that the cars, buses, and trucks would somehow not be in the way.

Ah well, this student is young and immortal, that goes without saying. And the things I did say in the letter are still (mostly) true, when considered in the relevant context.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Fuzzy COI

In Scientopia, I use a reader's question about whether to serve as guest-editor of their advisor's and other close colleagues' manuscripts (short answer: no) to discuss more ambiguous examples of possible conflicts of interest (COI).

Friday, May 18, 2012

Let's Ask The Cats: Work-Life Balance

The result of Wednesday's poll was a big surprise to me: nearly 40% of those who voted went for the new-agey balanced-rock image as a symbol of Work-Life Balance. However, I sensed a bit of dissatisfaction with the options, and, although it may not have been clear from what I wrote in that post, I share this feeling.

 The Winner

So I leaped into action. After participating in some intense meetings involving likely-pointless but nevertheless Crucial Things, talking to students, and then working feverishly on a manuscript that never seems to end, breaking only for an infusion of caffeine-and-sugar, I went home and had a serious talk with one of my cats. The topic: Work-Life Balance Symbols, of course.

I told him about the flattish polished rocks as powerful symbols of work-life balance, and he was skeptical. Because this cat happens to be an experimentalist who likes to develop theoretical models to explain complex interrelated systems and because I happened to have a bunch of these rocks handy, we decided to to make our own symbolic work-life balance rock-tower. But because these things are rather unstable (no kidding, that's probably the point), we decided to make our rock-tower an extraorindarily powerful and versatile symbol by gluing the rocks together with superglue.

Once we had stabilized our work-life balance rock-tower, we knew what we had to do: take a nap. Actually, no! There was no time for that! It was photo time!! My cat and I conspired to create our own images to symbolize not simply work-life balance (because we don't even really know what that means), but instead to try to show the real-life consequences of seeking a work-life balance symbol. That's when our project became a bit circular, but here are the results:

Here we use a tilted work-life balance tower to symbolize the imbalance that can afflict those who do not nap sufficiently during the day because they have to spend all this time stacking rocks into towers, or whatever.

Here my cat was saying: work-life-work-life-work-life-work-life-phooey

The search for work-life balance can be overwhelming at times, and probably isn't really worth it.

In this photo, my cat cleverly adopted a blank stare to emphasize the dire and perhaps damaging effects on the psyche resulting from a too-rigid definition of work-life balance, undermining attempts to create a symbol that isn't bizarre.

The ultimate image: the real-life consequences of the search for the mythical work-life balance symbol.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Long-Long Name

One of my most-read posts of all time is a rather ancient one, from 2006, on a non-academic topic: my husband's and my decision to hyphenate our daughter's last name. She has my last name and my husband's last name, with a hyphen in between. Our decision about name order was based on which order we thought sounded better.

In 2006, I wrote about how having a hyphenated child was a good decision for us. That was six (6) years ago, when our daughter was in elementary school and shorter than I am. What about now? Is our tall teenager happy with her rather unwieldy last name? Are we all still happy with our decision?

As it turns out, yes and yes, emphatically so.

The occasional inconvenience of dealing with a name that is "too long" has thus far been more than offset by our family's unanimous happiness with our name choice lo these many years ago. I think some parents worry that giving their kid a "different" last name (even if it has elements of each parent's name) will somehow make them all feel more apart -- less cohesive -- as a family, but in fact the result can be the opposite. Since my husband and I have different last names, our daughter's hyphenated name is our family name-glue.

She knows that if she ever doesn't like her hyphenated name, she can change it and we will not be upset. It's her name and she should have a name that she likes. For a while when she was very young, when asked her name, she would give her first name, middle name, first part of her last name, and then an animal name instead of the second part of her last name; her two favorites: "kitty cat" and "hippo". It was very cute, but she outgrew that phase about 12 years ago.

So far, she really does like her long-long name. In fact, she commonly also uses her middle name along with her first and last-last names, even though this makes it all even longer, just because she likes her entire name and how it sounds. And she likes the fact that her name directly connects her to her father and her mother. She has friends who share a last name with their father but not their mother (because the mom didn't change her name on marrying), including some friends who have their mother's last name (or some other family name) as a middle name, but she prefers her hyphenated name to those options.

Also, she is the only person on the entire planet with this name, and she likes being unique in that way (and appreciates how useful that can be, for online purposes that involve one's real name). She knows it may complicate her life later in ways that it doesn't now, but that's an issue for later.

I am most definitely not writing this update to say that hyphenating is the best thing to do for all families, but it has worked for us (so far).

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Picture It: Work-Life Balance

On occasion, I seek out images of Work-Life Balance (WLB), and today I decided that it was time to share some of my image-research results, inspired by assorted posts on WLB on other blogs this week (for example, here and here).

Here's how it started, this image-research: Every once in a while, I encounter an image that attempts to depict the challenges of Work-Life Balance. I find most of these disturbing, disappointing, and/or bizarre. Some don't even illustrate what the accompanying text is attempting to say. For example, if your message is that Work-Life Balance Is Possible, why show something impossible in the illustration? If you are writing about the particular difficulty of WLB for mothers with young children, why have an illustration of a frazzled man in a suit? etc. There may be a disconnect between the people doing the writing and the people providing the graphics. This is obvious from even a cursory search of WLB images.

Nevertheless, I started actively searching for WLB images, for no real reason, and I have even tried to create one of my own, with less than satisfactory results. It's difficult. Clearly.

I am sure you can easily guess some of the major elements in typical WLB images. The Big Three are:
  • scales, balances, see-saws (I hate these); non-rigorously-tested observation: about equal numbers of these either show "work" and "life" as balanced or show "work" tipping the scale. Rare ones show "life" tipping the scale;
  • people (typically women) apparently juggling lots of different fake objects (I hate these too);
  • road signs (at 90° or 180° to each other) (more hate);
with a not-insignificant number of:
  • Venn diagrams (snore).
Slightly more interesting, though not necessarily better, are:
  • people (typically men in suits) on bicycles;
  • people (typically women) doing more than one thing at once, in some cases with more than 2 arms;
  • rounded beach pebbles in piles or other precarious configurations.
In my non-extensive, non-systematic search, I found no images with cats. I think that is worth noting.

There are, however, a lot of clocks, of the old fashioned tick-tock kind, many with alarm bells.

Does anyone actually like WLB images involving scales?: for example, with the word "work" on one side and "life" on the other. Let's find out! A poll for choosing which of the following images you think is the best, most evocative, accurate, and/or compelling WLB image is below a series of images that I found online. The heading of each image is a link to the source of that image, and biased editorial comments are in the captions.

Here is a slightly-more-interesting-than-usual example of the balance/see-saw type of WLB image. Is that a man-figure balanced between a child-clinging-to-woman-who-is-turning-away-slightly and a clock that seems to represent work? Why is the man-figure falling backwards? I personally hate this image, but don't let that influence you. Do you think this shows 11 AM or 11 PM?


This one shows up in more than one place, and I'm not sure what the original source is. Again, I don't want to influence your vote or anything, but I am not fond of this one because the guy in the suit seems to be balancing a briefcase with nothing. What does that even mean? Also, the terrain is a bit flat, so I am unimpressed overall with this image.


zzzzzzzz. These things almost always have a laptop and a baby. The other stuff varies: briefcases, cell phones, hobby items blah blah blah.


An example of a road sign image. One bizarre thing about this one is that it is associated with the headline "Work Life Balance - Yes!". And yet, the image screams "Work or Life: You Choose, or Go In A Totally Different Direction for Balance". Or something.


Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! This may be the one I hate the most! This one tempted me to change the contest from voting on the best image to voting on the most appalling, but I decided not to 'go negative' with the contest. I hope at the very least that she is ironing her own shirt.


This one isn't as bad as the typical "scale/balance" image, mostly because it asks the cosmic question: which rock = work and which rock = life? It doesn't seem to matter! This is a very positive image, even if I don't believe it is "real".


More rocks! There are quite a few of these beach-pebble images, with rocks in towers, cairns, apparently precarious but structurally sound arches etc. Why?? Is it because roundish flattish pebbles such as can be found on some beaches can be balanced up to a point and that is a powerful, gender-neutral image?


Whoa. The woman is balancing the kids and the man in the suit is.. what? Walking towards them to help? Is he insane? He should walk the other way or the whole thing will tip over?!


This might as well be a photo of me at work when my daughter was an infant, except that computer monitors were not as flat and cell phones weren't as common and also my daughter took her work as my research assistant much more seriously than this frivolous baby and my daughter was much much cuter. Other than that, this is an inspiring photo for all professional women.

WLB 10

The railroad track imagery is a bit disturbing. Is there a train coming? Is this person suicidal? A dare-devil? Where is that right foot about to land? Is there a "third rail"? Is this person wearing clothes or did they forget to put them on owing to problems with work-life balance?

There are of course many more image and types of images, but I think is time for reflection and voting now. You will have to decide how you define "favorite", but if the poll settings work as they should, you can vote for more than one "favorite".

Vote for your favorite WLB image free polls 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Nobody'd take me seriously anyway

The title of this post is also from song lyrics; in fact, by the same artistes who provided the title of yesterday's post. Their lyrics are a treasure-trove of wisdom about life, and very applicable in many cases to academic life. It is quite incredible, actually.

I was thinking about this as I walked across campus recently: how many of this obscure band's lyrics can I use as post titles without getting too bizarre? Realizing I am not a good judge of that, I nevertheless think I could get quite far, but that doesn't mean I should or will. Instead, I will scatter some lyrics-references at various places in this one post.

Anyway, what I was wondering was whether you

have ever decided against doing something in your professional life because you were fairly certain that you wouldn't be taken seriously.

And if so, was this self-doubt or reality-based cynicism?

If self-doubt, it is likely related to the notorious "imposter syndrome" (also sensitively illuminated by this brilliant band, which was my favorite for at least a weekend circa early 1980's: "Step in my shoes, you'll see that I don't fit.").

If reality-based cynicism, there were probably incidents in which you weren't taken seriously, and then you wondered "Why put myself out there again just to be eaten by sharks?" (as addressed in the song "Shark Attack" by the lyrics, "Please don't mess around with me, I'm a shark fatality, in the sea, I'm the one with the bleeding heart.")

The "something" vaguely referred to in the question above doesn't have to be something major; it could be something as simple as making a decision about whether to speak up in a particular setting (such as a meeting, or even in a conversation). Or it could be something big like making a decision about applying (or not) for a certain position or volunteering (or not) for a leadership role.

Ideally, such decisions, whatever the motivation, will not be setbacks but instead overall constructive moves. For example, you might decide not to waste your time and energy on one thing, but devote yourself to something else that is a better use of your time and talents. Although it's too bad if you turn down a good opportunity owing to misplaced lack of confidence, you don't have to hurl yourself at every opportunity.

Or, if that optimistic scenario doesn't apply, maybe a decision based on a prediction of being disrespected is a feature of one stage in your life/career, but not of later stages (but, again ideally, not too much later).

I was also reminded of the general issue of being brave (in your career) by some of President Obama's words in a recent graduation speech at Barnard College. Speaking to the women of Barnard, he said, "Fight for your seat at the table. Better yet, fight for a seat at the head of the table."

Do you find that inspiring, exhausting, or both? (I am ignoring the option of 'none of the above'.)

I say: OK, let's do that, but while we are doing that, let's keep in mind that there are many ways to "fight" for what is fair and right. The fight is a complex one, involving some guerrilla warfare, some tactical retreats, some heavy artillery, some diplomacy, and every once in a while an assist from the cavalry. I think it is also important to keep in mind that the "fight" is not a solitary one, as implied by the quotation in its most simple interpretation.

I think what Obama was really trying to say was that you shouldn't just accept oppression and wallow in defeatist self-pity, as eloquently expressed by the ex-band with the tragically awful name of Split Enz,

If war broke out I'd be the last one to know
If there was a fire they'd just leave me to burn
I got just as much to say as any [wo]man
But I never seem to get my turn.

Instead, be aware, leave the burning house, speak up when you want to, and take your turn.

Monday, May 14, 2012

I Really Wonder If You See Today Like I Do

The title of this post is from some song lyrics, in case you are wondering, and I will be semi-impressed if you know the reference without looking it up.

This song got into my head last week and refuses to leave. The instigating incident for the infliction of this song in my head was the nth in a series of similar, recent incidents that I will describe below; apparently, there was a tipping point, the consequences of which for me are these song lyrics in my head.

What happened? Not much, actually, but on several separate occasions, groups of people were sending me files. Imagine that a group of people -- say, students or colleagues serving on a committee with you -- are all sending you files by some electronic means (email attachments, uploads to a website etc.). Imagine that there are a 10 or 20 or more of these files, and you have to read them on your computer (for various reasons, you can't read them online).

Because you have to store them, at least temporarily, on your computer, it is useful if these files have distinct filenames. But some/most of these files don't have distinct filenames unless you change the filenames. Imagine getting 10 or 20 or 57 files all named "homework7.pdf" or "myreport_2012.pdf" or "proposal-text.pdf" or even "CV.pdf".

Even worse, for some of these documents, some file creators didn't even put their names in the file, assuming that you can match their file with their name in some other way. Well, you can, but only if you do it right away; after the file has been detached from its original source, you have to go back to the original source to figure this out, assuming you can do that.

In an average year, I spend more time than I would like renaming people's files.

This is possibly rather fascinating(ish). Does anyone think that filenaming habits indicate anything significant about the personality, world view, level of empathy, or something of an individual? For example, is there a deep and important difference between a person who anticipates that (for whatever reason -- your convenience and/or their own) it would be better to put their name in the filename vs. someone who gives the file the most immediately convenient name?

I don't know, but I think that anticipating that it might be more useful to use lastname_CV.pdf instead of CV.pdf does show an ability to think beyond your immediate computer environment.

I realize that in some cases we don't really know how our files will be accessed and by whom. For example, only once I was on a particular committee did I realize that files uploaded by individuals to a website were not compiled into a single pdf with the uploader's name attached to it; committee members just got the files with the original filenames, exactly as they were uploaded. It was a lot of stupid work to rename files (typically 4-8 files for each person) and create folders and keep track of everything. At the very least, I thought that if that particular organization/unit couldn't get its act together to have a decent website, they should at least give some instructions about file names, Clearly, leaving file naming to individuals was not a good idea. I am no longer on that committee, thank the committee gods.

I was thinking about this not only because I got a bunch of generic-named files recently but also because I received instructions from someone who requested that those of us in a particular group only send him email with one very specific subject heading (which he listed) and with information organized in a very particular way. This was clearly someone who had dealt with uninformative emails and files before and wasn't going to take it any more. I give similar instructions to my students when they send/upload homework files.

I sympathized, especially since I had just searched my computer for a CV that someone sent me a month or so ago.. finally found by returning to the original email, which I had saved (unusual for me).. and the file was named: CV.pdf. What was that person thinking?

Friday, May 11, 2012

Freed By Vidal Sassoon

Explanatory note/caution: It's Friday, it's mid-May, and this post is no more substantial than yesterday's.

If you have read the recent headlines and/or obituaries, then you have seen things like this:

Hairstyling legend Vidal Sassoon, who freed women from (bad hairstyles)..

The London-born hairstyling pioneer.. freed women from (time-intensive haircare)

Vidal Sassoon used his hairstyling shears to free women from .. etc.

Vidal Sassoon.. was the man modern woman has to thank for her freedom.. blah blah blah

I'm not crazy about the 'he freed women' theme, but that's not what I want to write about today. Instead, (see above note/caution), I am going to tell you my very own Vidal Sassoon story. It is not quite as gripping as my Ayn Rand beach story, but it is more timely for this week. [A suggestion if you have even more time to waste: Google "Ayn Rand beach story" to find the original post, then click on to read a different but more entertaining version of that old post.]

Anyway, many years ago, when I was young but already deeply involved with Science, I spent quite a bit of time in London. I was very happy there, and I had some nice flatmates with whom I had absolutely nothing in common. They were not interested in Science. They were interested in clothes, fashion, going to clubs, and so on. I realize that those interests are not mutually exclusive, but I was not interested in those things. I got the impression that my flatmates felt a mixture of mystification and pity for me, but they were nice about it.

One day, they kidnapped me and forced me to go with them to the Vidal Sassoon School of Hair Design (or whatever it was called). They thought it would be entertaining to force me to care about my hair, or at least to do something about it for a change. (I have never been fond of getting my hair cut.)

We (and other young women) were put in a line, and some sassoonists walked along the line examining each person's hair. They ran their fingers through our hair, making comments, and dismissing everyone whose hair was deemed inferior. All of my flatmates failed this hair test; their hair had been worked over too many times by chemicals and heat. They were told to leave.

My hair passed! I was one of only 3 selected! In fact, my hair generated a great deal of excitement, and I had a small crowd of sassoonists circled around me, touching my hair and oohing and aahing. My flatmates watched in amazement. What was so great about my hair? It was pristine hair. Some of the sassoonists told me that they had never before seen pristine hair on a female over the age of 12. They stared at me like I was an endangered species of bandicoot, or a never-before-seen mythical creature. It was a bit unnerving.

They put me in a chair, argued about who would get to work on my pristine hair, and then set to work. What did they do with my special hair? Without consulting me, they cut it off, all of it. They left me a few vertical millimeters that made me look like a Q-tip for most of the next year.

Thanks for nothing, Vidal Sassoon. I did not want to be freed from my hair.

It was convenient in some ways, but I immediately noticed a difference in how people reacted to me. In fact, I gained a degree of invisibility as a short woman with short hair, and mostly that's not a good thing when it is already a struggle to be taken seriously.

And those who knew me couldn't resist rubbing my head, as if I were a strange pet. That is also not conducive to being taken seriously. 

Now that I am old(ish), I could probably cut off all my hair and people would either not notice or think I had cancer. But, even though cutting off all my hair (again) would be an awesome gesture in honor of the late Vidal Sassoon, freer of women, I will keep this as a blog-thought e-gesture.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

I Heart Jet Lag

Does anyone else like jet lag? I must admit that I kind of enjoy it, but I have not met m/any others who do. It isn't so great if I arrive at a distant conference and almost immediately find myself sitting in an afternoon session, struggling to keep my eyes from rolling back into my head, but there are some aspects of jet lag that I like. For example, jet lag sleep is strangely deep and satisfying for me.

I can't sleep on planes, and I don't even bother with any particular strategy involving sleep aids, flying at a particular time of day etc. I just take whatever flights work best for reasons of schedule/economy and then roll with the jet lag. I do not struggle against it. I am at peace with it. It might even make me a nicer person (temporarily).

I have been known to cultivate jet lag. When I get home from a trip, I don't mind waking up insanely early for a few days. I am not typically a 'morning person'; in my non-jet lagged existence, I require alarms and severe cat activity to start to wake up, and then I need a few snooze alarm episodes. When I am jet-lagged, I wake before the alarms and even before 2/3 of my cats. This is quite interesting and novel, at least for a few days.

You might think that jet lag would make routine administrative work even more difficult, but in fact it can be quite helpful to have a temporary, jet lag-induced feeling of detachment and distance from some otherwise tedious activities (some meetings, paperwork etc.). It wouldn't be fun all the time, but for a few days, I am happy to recover slowly from the rigors of travel, eventually emerging from jet lag into my usual mode of existence. That's fine, too, I am usually ready for things to go back to what passes for normal around here.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

That's Not What I Meant

As an editor of a journal, the feedback that I give to authors of publishable papers varies from:

optional advice, along the lines of "I think your paper would be improved if you added/deleted/considered X, but this is just a suggestion for you to use or reject. I'm accepting the paper anyway, so whatever you decide is fine" (although I don't word it exactly that way);


make these changes or else, along the lines of "Reviewers (and/or I) found the following errors that must be fixed. Most of the paper is fine and quite interesting, so I'm inclined to accept it but you have to do a very thorough revision or I will not hesitate to reject the paper" (although I don't word it exactly that way).

I always think that I am being unambiguous about whether I am giving friendly (optional) advice or a do-or-die editorial command, but I can tell from some author responses that they are reading between the lines of my editorial decisions, even the friendly ones.

This possible case of reading between the lines was particularly troubling to me:

In a paper that I thought was quite likely to be acceptable after moderate revisions, the authors did a good job with the revisions, but the manuscript needed re-review because the revisions were rather extensive. The reviewer (who had also reviewed the first version) liked the paper, but made a few more constructive suggestions to improve the paper; these did not require additional work or $ (other than thought/time) -- the reviewer (and I) just thought the authors should give some more thought to a few things that would potentially broaden the readership of the paper. In my decision, which clearly stated that I was going to accept the paper whether or not the additional changes were made, I explained why I thought these suggestions were worth consideration. 

The revised revised paper came back with a few changes, but the most significant one was the addition of at least 4 new references: all to papers on which I am a co-author!!

Did the authors think my advice was somehow code for "I want you to cite my work more?" If so, this is disturbing, as this was definitely not my intention and quite a stretch to interpret this from my words or actions. As it happens, the citations are relevant, but the paper was fine without them.

It is sad if the authors were so cynical as to think that I would only be satisfied if they cited my work more. I had already told them that I was going to accept the paper, so it would be very strange (and deeply disturbing) if they thought my decision hinged on their citing my papers. One of my colleagues thinks that my general instruction (based on the reviewer comment) inspired the authors to read more widely in the relevant literature, whereupon they encountered some of my papers and decided that these would be good to cite. Maybe, and that might explain 1, maybe 2 new citations, but 4? Strange.

The paper was accepted, as originally decided, but I involved another editor in further interaction with these authors, as I was no longer comfortable dealing with this group alone.

Have you ever deliberately cited the work of an editor (not a possible reviewer, but specifically the editor), hoping it would increase your chances of having the paper accepted? At what stage did you do this: in the first version (if you knew the likely or certain identity of the editor) or during a revision stage? Do you really think it matters? This is either a test of your cynicism level or of my delusion/naïveté level.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

How Many Times

In Scientopia today, I pose a question from a reader who previously went through a retention process (years ago) and is considering doing so again. Is this too much? Is there a limit to how many times one should do this?

Monday, May 07, 2012

Research Triangle

Over the years, various colleagues have explained to me their personal beliefs about what they consider the optimal number of PIs involved in research projects, not for any particular research project, but just in general. The proposed optimal number of collaborators is most typically 1 or 2, although some people make a case for higher numbers.

Note that these hypotheses refer to general situations, not necessarily to any particular individual or project. This is mostly a "thought exercise"; fodder for musing and discussion. In real life, of course, the nature of the project, the culture of the discipline, the amount and type of funding available, the type of institution, and the personalities and career stages of the people involved are important in determining the Optimal Number of Collaborators (ONC). Some people prefer to work alone, so for them, the ONC =  0. In my own case, the ONC is a very stable 1-2, but I am happy to work in larger groups for some projects.

I say "mostly" a thought exercise instead of entirely, because I know of some cases in which the organizational structure of a research unit (and even the design of research space) has been planned based on a hypothesis about the ONC.

The theoretical limit of certain types of grants can also affect this. For example, with most NSF grants (at least in my field), it's possible to have 2-3 collaborators, but more than that would blow the budget up beyond a reasonable (fundable) limit.

Eveb so, is there a general ONC that applies in many cases, considering mostly human factors such as how many people are likely to get along well and have good, productive discussions and overall collegial relationships? That is, can we say, without being too far from unrealistic, "The most productive and collegial collaborations involve n people"? Does anyone want to make a case, for yourself or for the wider world of researchers, for:

ONC = 1: collaboration with one other person, perhaps even the same person on many different projects over the course of a career (= research line, or dyad?);

ONC = 2: collaboration with two other people (= research triangle);

ONC = 3: collaboration with three other people (= research quadrilateral);

.. and so on, with various polygons describing higher ONCs.

And does anyone want to generalize about ONC > 3? Do these collaborations tend to be more/less productive than smaller groups owing to their larger size (the bigger the group, the more research results), or does the increased chance of personality clashes, miscommunication etc. make (some of) them more unwieldy than the lean, mean research machines of smaller teams?

I am veering back and forth between the general and the personal here because there are two different levels of questions I am posing:

(1) Do you think that in general the ONC concept is relevant to the World of Research? (and if so, what is the ONC?); and

(2) What is your personal ONC for most projects (or does this number vary a lot?), and do these collaborators tend to be the same ones for project after project, or do you play the field with collaborators and work with many different people (even if your ONC doesn't change)?

Friday, May 04, 2012

Special Treatment

Quite often, I get a comment or e-mail along the lines of "Why do women need special treatment?" (to get a job), "Men have to struggle too" (but no one is helping us), "Why are you so obsessed with gender?" (just do your Science), and/or the tired old question "Why are you Female Science Professor and not just a Science Professor?" (like the men). Some of these questions are politely expressed, and some are not.

The answers to these questions are in the blog archives in various places, so that's not what I am going to write about today.

What I'm wondering about today is whether there is any significance to the fact that some people (men and women) don't see sexism and discrimination in academia or elsewhere, although supposedly objective measures as well as the personal experience of many indicates that these problems persist.

For the sake of this discussion, let's ignore the more extreme, rude, and what-about-me viewpoints (including those held by people who think "feminazi" is a really clever word). Today, in May 2012, let's consider instead whether an apparently neutral, non-hostile lack of awareness is:
  1. overall a good thing, indicating a change for the better (sexism is so rare, some people have no idea it exists because they have never encountered it); or
  2. the same-old bad thing: sexism is as prevalent as ever and the fact that some people don't see it -- in their own lives or in the experiences of others -- is one reason why it persists.
Does anyone believe in the more optimistic of the two possibilities listed above? I think that it might apply locally to some people and environments, and in that sense a 'lack of awareness' (again, of the non-hostile sort) does indicate progress. But I don't think this is the primary explanation, alas.

In coming to that conclusion, I dove into the archives to see what I have written about this topic over the past 6 years, and thought about whether I have -- in my own career and life, keeping in mind the effect of my increasing age and seniority on my experiences -- seen a change just since I have been writing this blog. I have seen a change for the better -- a substantial one in my own life/career and a not-insignificant one in my general field of science -- but still not as much as I would expect given the increasing number of female students, postdocs, and faculty in the STEM fields. The feeling (by some) that women get jobs, grants, awards etc. because they are women and not because they are highly qualified persists at a disturbing level.

The persistence of this view is surely related to the still-low numbers of women in some fields, but I wish it did not have to correlate quite so closely, given the slow rate of increase in the participation of women in some fields, particularly at the post-graduate level. For now, I suppose we have to hope that there is some critical level of representation -- << 50% but >> 1-2% -- at which these perceptions become exceedingly rare.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Losing By Speaking Up

In Scientopia, a discussion of whether women "hold back" their comments in professional settings, out of concern for being perceived as too talkative. Studies have shown that being talkative may be a positive trait in men, but not so for women, in terms of career advancement.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Inside Job

And speaking of job ads (as I was in some posts last week), have you ever seen an ad for a faculty position, research scientist, or postdoc and been suspicious that the type or level of detail in the job description indicated that the department had an "inside candidate"?

I have found that this topic comes up quite often in discussions about particular jobs, based on reading (between the lines of) the job description in the advertisement.

Another suspicious aspect of some ads, leading some to wonder about inside candidates, is an application deadline very close to the appearance of the ad.

There are many possible explanations for unusually detailed ads and imminent application deadlines, and I think the existence of an inside candidate is one of the least likely of these explanations (at least in North America, the system with which I am most familiar).  (agree/disagree with this assessment?)

And yet, I know they do exist. I have written about this before, and described my own (now ancient) experiences with applying for jobs that real, not just inferred, inside candidates.

What I am interested in is: how common it is for someone to infer (without specific information) the existence of an inside candidate, based only on the job ad, and then not apply for the job?

Or: how common is it to know that there is an inside candidate, and have that piece of information affect your decision to apply (specifically: not apply because you think it is pointless)?