Monday, February 25, 2013


A reader asks the perennial painful questions about why others were interviewed for a tenure-track faculty position and not them, despite their PhD from an excellent university and their apparently better* publication record compared to some being interviewed. There are no satisfying answers to these questions, of course, mostly because there is so much variability in the process, but in case it helps to have one (more) person's perspective on this much-discussed topic, here are some of my current thoughts on the situation.

(*"better" could indicate quantity or quality: more publications or publications in journals with higher impact factors)

Here are the reader's hypotheses, sent in an e-mail to me, for discussion:

1) Doesn't matter how much you have published, they will only look for Nature or Science in your CV;
2) You must have a PhD from a fancy US university, maybe Oxford and Cambridge are accepted too;
3) You got to suggest something really similar (almost overlapping) to what the people are doing in the department, even if they say that the search is broad and open to any topic.

My responses:

1) There may be a kernel of truth to this, but the statement is too extreme (the part about nothing else mattering). Having a Nature/Science paper is typically seen as a very good thing if the candidate has apparently been a major player in the published research, but the absence of such a paper doesn't mean a candidate will not get an interview.

The likelihood of a Nature/Science (N/S) paper depends in part on the subfield (topic) of the research, so in some cases the absence of such a paper is meaningless. Even within a single search, if the search is broad, there will be candidates in subfields that at least have a chance of publishing in N/S, and others that probably do not.

I can say unambiguously that indicating in an application that a manuscript has been (or, worse, will soon be) "submitted" to Nature or Science does not impress.

In my department, we do look at number of publications and journal quality, but we have interviewed some candidates on the basis of a high level of interest in the research and our optimism that important papers would be forthcoming. Some non-interviewed candidates may have more publications than some of those we invite to interview; there are many factors other than number of publications and journal prestige.

2) Faculty with PhDs from the "fancy" US universities are very well represented in STEM departments at US universities, but "must" is too strong a word in this hypothesis. We do look closely at successful and highly recommended graduates of particular research groups, but such research groups can be found at a wide range of institutions in the US and beyond.

I have seen numerous examples of pedigree-worship over the years, as well as the syndrome in which it is assumed that all students of Famous Professors must somehow have absorbed their advisor's awesomeness and must therefore be highly creative individuals as well. I am definitely not alone, however, in being interested in searching broadly and looking at each application carefully to try to get a good sense for the individual's accomplishments and potential.

Even if you apply to a pedigree-worshiping department and you got your PhD at a "non-fancy" university, any disadvantage that this may cause in some searches can be overcome by doing a postdoc in a top research group (in the US or in another country) and/or by working with collaborators at top-ranked departments (especially if they will write strong letters for you).

3) I also don't agree with this one, at least not based on my own experience. You may have to work harder to explain why your research is interesting and significant if there is no one with closely related expertise in the department to which you are applying, but I have seen great interest in candidates who can explain convincingly why we might want to go in a new (for us) direction in a field in which we have advertised broadly.

So, why didn't you get an interview (yet)? I don't know. The individual who wrote to me has an extremely strong academic record and has put together an impressive application (though I would lose the "in prep" part of the CV, keeping "submitted/in review" manuscripts in a separate list from those published or in press). The research statement in particular is excellent. There is no obvious reason why this person would not be seriously considered for a tenure-track position at any research university that advertises in their field, other than that the field is crowded with excellent candidates.

In that case, it may well be that a high-profile paper in a high-impact journal would make a big difference (especially if other candidates have this, but you do not). Perhaps at this high level of accomplishment, anything you can do to stand slightly ahead of your excellent peers makes all the difference.

My only advice (of admittedly limited use) is to keep doing what you're doing: interesting research, publishing in high-quality journals, attending conferences, giving talks. Stay visible, meet people, network, collaborate. I hope your various advisors/mentors are helping you, and I hope something good happens for you soon.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Annoyance Avoidance

It comes as no surprise that (according to my unscientific poll) the two most-disliked questions that students ask professors are:

Did I miss anything (important)? and Is this going to be on the test? (and variation thereof)

And yet, clearly students want to know the answers to these questions. Is there a way for students to get the desired information and avoid annoying their instructor?

Probably not. At least, not without doing a bit of work first.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I highly recommend that students take whatever steps they possibly can to answer the first question on their own, and then approach their instructor with specific questions about the material. If a student comes to me and says "I missed class last Tuesday but I have read the relevant chapter in the textbook, looked at the review material you posted online, and read [my classmate's] notes that s/he took in class that day, and I just have a few questions..", I am totally happy to answer those questions.

For question #2 and its ilk ("Do we need to know...?"), a similar approach of asking specific questions about course material may be the way to go; that is, by asking substantive questions that show some thought. I realize that is not the same as asking whether something is on a test, but I think that a thoughtful approach to question-asking might result, in some cases, in the gleaning of information such as "I don't expect you to know that particular topic in that much detail" or "Yes, that's an extremely important topic". But again, some work (by the student) is required to get to that type of conversation.

As I was reading the comments and assembling the polls, it occurred to me that some of the items listed used to bother me more than they do now. Am I mellowing with age? In particular, I don't mind the "Is this going to be on the test?" question as much as I used to. It is a familiar and routine part of the teaching experience, and I am happy to roll with it and give a sincere answer, particularly to intro-level students (less so with majors). However, I have not yet achieved a happy coexistence with the first question, perhaps because that one bruises my delicate professorial ego and the second question does not.

In terms of the other items in the List of Annoyances, it is clear that the issue of greetings in e-mails and in person is a minefield. I think it would be very useful if new-student orientations provided guidance on this, as there is huge variation from institution to institution. There is also variation within institutions and we can't expect our intro-course (non-major) students to know the culture of our department/unit. It is probably a good idea, therefore, if students start with the most formal mode of greeting ("Dear Professor X" in e-mail; "Professor X" in conversation) and see if they can pick up on any clues whether it is OK to be more informal. It is probably always a bad idea to refer to men as "Professor" and women as "Mrs/Ms/Miss/firstname" by default.

Professors can also help with this: In the first day of class in my intro-level courses, I specifically discuss the topic of how I want to be addressed.

But now I would like to explore this topic of mellowing-with-age a bit more, not with a poll but just with a request for comments. If you have been teaching for at least a few years: as you survey the list of Annoying Questions (and maybe others not listed), think about whether your feelings about these questions have changed with time. This question does not apply to anyone who has never been annoyed by any of these questions, ever, but for the rest of us: has your annoyance level (whatever that is) decreased, increased, or stayed the same with time?

Monday, February 11, 2013

How To Annoy Your Professor : The Poll

Here it is: the poll based on your responses to my request for annoying questions and behaviors related to student-professor interaction. This was admittedly a one-sided request as it focuses entirely on annoying things students do. I have heard vague rumors that professors can also, from time to time, be annoying, but that is not relevant to our purpose here: to compile a handy list of advice for students to help them succeed in their academic life.

I was very gratified to find that others share my dislike of receiving 27 files all called homework.doc. I have found that if I instruct students about file-naming before the first homework is turned in, the majority of the submitted homework will have student names in the filenames, but if I don't mention it again before each and every homework due-date, the vast majority revert to homework.doc. 

Anyway, based on the comments provided, I have divided the poll into 3 categories: Annoying Questions, Communication, and Miscellaneous. I have not restricted voting to one item/poll, so you don't have to choose if you find some/all of the listed examples highly annoying. I suggest, though, that instead of just checking off all or most of the boxes, that we each attempt to pick our top-3(ish) from each category.

Annoying Questions free polls 

Communication free polls 

Misc free polls 

Monday, February 04, 2013

What Am I Missing Here?

This has surely been written about 57 million times before, but somehow it would be nice to get the message out to students about the perils of asking a professor the following question about a missed class:

Did I miss anything? or
Did I miss anything important?

How can we broadcast the information far and wide so that this question will never again be asked in this way? Is that asking for too much?

In fact, when my teenaged daughter heard her parents discussing this recently (we had both been asked this very question in this very way), she was a bit stunned, having asked a somewhat similar question of teachers in the past and intending no offense. Despite being the offspring of two parents who have infused her with secret professorial knowledge since the moment of her birth, she somehow escaped the knowledge that this question is considered offensive by sensitive professorial souls.

Her response, which is likely common to many students who ask this question sincerely, was: But sometimes my teachers don't say anything important during a class.

OK, understood. Ouch, but understood. But: if that is true, are you really going to get a useful answer out of aforementioned teacher if you ask them this question? So why not rearrange the words slightly, avoid causing offense, and maybe get some useful information?

So then we had an intense family discussion about how you should and should not ask that question. The difference between what a teacher might consider acceptable vs. not acceptable apparently seems subtle to some (students) even though others (teachers) think the distinction is obvious.


Asking: What did I miss? = good*

Asking: Did I miss anything (important)? = bad

* Well, not really. By "good", I just mean 'not as offensive as the other statement'. This question at least assumes that something was missed. And yet, professors may not like this question because it is so open-ended. When asked this question, I tend to reply, "Did you look at the review materials that I posted after class? Did you read the relevant part of the textbook? Did you get notes from a classmate?" The answer is typically no, so then I say "I recommend that you do those things, and then I would be happy to answer any questions you may have about the material." etc. This is just part of the normal day-to-day interaction of professors and students and is OK with me.

But anyway, back to my original question, which I hope you didn't miss: Do any universities/colleges include topics in their 1st-year student orientation sessions along the lines of 'how to communicate with professors' (writing and speaking)? This might be a way to give some helpful hints about such things.

What would these hints be? I am sure most professors could quickly come up with a list of their top 3 or 5 or 10 pet-peeves that are easily avoided. I wonder: can we collectively come up with a short list, or would it actually be a very long list (perhaps with conflicting ideas about dos and don'ts) because we are all such unique individuals with our own special eccentricities and so it is essentially impossible for students to avoid offending us? I don't know, but I think we should find out. So, if you are a teacher of some sort and want to participate in this important effort:

Leave a comment with your top-n list of annoying things that students make when communicating (in speaking or writing) with you.

Then, depending on the results, I will attempt to do a poll, and then we will know something, perhaps.