Tuesday, August 19, 2014

3G Women's Colleges

When I started this blog in 2006, my daughter was in elementary school. Now she is starting to think about college -- what type of institution in what part of the country/world and so on. So far the reality/stress of actual applications and decisions has not yet arrived and it is interesting to discuss the options.

One thing that interests me is that my daughter is very serious about applying to women's colleges.

When I was in college-search mode decades ago, I was interested in women's colleges -- for different reasons than the ones motivating my daughter. I was interested in women's colleges in large part because I felt that I would be taken seriously as a scholar in such an environment. I did not want college to be a repeat of high school, where boys were the ones 'most likely to succeed' (no matter that the top 11 students in my graduating class were female). In that sense, my motivation was somewhat negative in that I was seeking a place that was very different from what I had experienced before.

My daughter's high school takes her very seriously as an intelligent, motivated, articulate person and she has every expectation of being taken seriously in college as well. So her interest in women's colleges is more of a positive one: she thinks of women's colleges as places where she would be surrounded by many interesting and ambitious women. She knows that she could also find such communities at other types of institutions but has a particularly positive impression of this aspect of women's colleges. This impression comes from a few visits to women's colleges and also from meeting graduates of women's colleges at various times over the years.

Her interest in women's colleges is also intriguing to me because my mother went to a women's college. In my mother's case she went to a women's college because her parents made her go to one, not because she wanted to. This was in the 1950's. My mother had been a bit wild in high school -- lots of boyfriends, smoking, parties.. mediocre grades -- and her parents didn't want her to go to a big state university (as her calmer younger sisters later did). So she went to a very small, somewhat obscure and quite isolated women's college. She has always spoken fondly of her college and has remained life-long friends with some of the women she met there, so it was a good experience for her despite her lack of interest in women's colleges. [She also met my father on a train during her sophomore year, got married soon after (allowed by her parents on the condition that she finish school), and had two babies within two years of graduating.]

Three very different women from three different generations with three different reasons for attending (or possibly attending) a women's college. Three decades ago I wondered if such places would still be around and relevant in the 2010's. I am pleased that they are and I am particularly pleased that strong and confident young women such as my daughter can have such positive motivation for being interested in them.

Monday, August 11, 2014

"In Science, It Matters That Women Come Last"

Emma Pierson has written a very interesting article titled In Science, It Matters That Women Come Last. The article is filled with data and analysis (and graphs!) about gender trends in publishing in some subfields of the physical sciences and math. She examined numbers of papers and authorship order for male and female authors using 23 years of papers from arXiv.

If you read the article, I recommend that you read it all the way through, including footnotes. As I read it I had some questions such as, "What about fields in which authorship is alphabetical?". These questions are answered. You may or may not agree with the methods but these issues were anticipated and the analysis considers the effects of different authorship-order practices in different fields.

There are many fascinating aspects of this dataset and Pierson's discussion of the data. One that particularly interested me is this:
.. I found evidence that women tend to work together. If a paper has one female author, the other authors on the paper are 35 percent more likely to be female given the share of female authors in the field overall.
It is possible that this is largely the result of female PIs tending to advise/hire more female students and postdocs (Pierson mentions a study that seems to show this). I wonder also about the tendency of women scientists to collaborate as peers and how data/trends related to such collaborations will change with time.

I see changes in my peer-collaborations with time in my own career. For the first 2+ decades, my female coauthors were my students and postdocs, with a few isolated exceptions of female-peer coauthors. More recently (the last few years in particular), I have had many female-peer coauthors. It has become routine. I thought this was because there were simply more women in my field now -- in fact, I am sure that is part of the explanation -- but now I wonder if there is more to it. I guess we'd need to know more about how the authorship dataset breaks down by advisee vs. peer coauthors to understand what it means.

What do you think this particular result (that 'women tend to work together') means, either for you or in your particular sub/field?

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Maybe Definitely Give This Person Tenure

By request, this is a follow-up post on last week's musing about being the external letter-writer for someone's tenure/promotion evaluation. Today I will compare the wording of positive letters vs. not-so-positive (but not killer negative) letters (in the US academic system) to demonstrate the differences; some differences are obvious and some are less so. Although some external letter writers evaluating candidates for tenure/promotion write unambiguously negative letters, most letters are either positive or positive-ish.

I don't think the opening sentence is necessarily very indicative, although letters that start by saying that it is a "pleasure" to write the letter (perhaps even a "strong letter of support") of course tend to be very positive. Letters that start with a basic statement and perhaps a description of how the letter-writer has interacted (or not) with the candidate could go either way.

Positive letters tend to start positive and stay that way, with any quibbles buried deep within them. In my experience, lukewarm letters tend to start positive or positive-ish and then decay in magnitude of positiveness for the rest of the letter. I am not sure that I have seen a letter start negative or lukewarm and end up highly positive, although I have seen letters that I thought were quite negative end with a statement that the candidate would get tenure at the letter-writer's (in some cases elite) institution; that can be confusing.

Unambiguous positive statements that might appear in a very positive letter:

Dr. (or Professor) X is a world leader/pioneer/internationally known and respected specialist in [research field].

Dr. X and his/her students/postdocs have published (many) excellent papers on [topic/s].

Faint-praise statements that might appear in a lukewarm letter:

Dr. X is a specialist in [research field].

Dr. X has made contributions to the field of [topic].

Dr. X's research appears to be quite solid. 

Note: To make those statements even more negative, the research field could be described as narrowly as possible.

Examples of very positive words and phrases:

strong (inter)national reputation, novel, creative, major/significant/signal/tremendous/impressive/insightful/brilliant contributions, rigorous, breadth and depth, breakthroughs, widely respected, widely sought as an invited speaker, key player, true scholar, fundamental/leadership role, taking the lead (etc.), groundbreaking, rising star, international star, exceptional, exceptionally strong case for tenure, original/originality, elegant (referring to research, not the person), high profile, swimming at the top of the talent pool, the world beats a path to X's door, having X on your faculty brings renown to your institution.

Note that the hyper-positive adjective-laden letters tend to come from US academics or those very familiar with the US system. Non-US letters tend to be more restrained (the same is true for proposal reviews) and readers of such letters need to calibrate for this. The statement "Dr. X's research is quite good" might translate into Americanish to "Dr. X is the world leader and pioneer in creative and insightful investigation of a wide range of significant research topics."

Lukewarm (US) letters are characterized by fewer adjectives and of course few/no strong-positive adjectives. They may instead have faint-praise type adjectives such as 'solid', 'good' (with or without some other mild adjectives). The mild equivalent of the very-positive description 'has been extraordinarily/very productive' might be something like, 'has apparently been quite busy'; the positive 'focused' and talk of depth/breadth could translate as a negative-ish description of someone's 'varied interests'. Other not-awesome words are 'reasonably' and 'rather'.

Positive letters may actively propose explanations for some perceived weaknesses in the file:

Dr. X's h-index is a bit low even for someone at this early career stage but [sentences about how the h-index is a meaningless indicator of anything useful].

Dr. X does not have as many publications as one might like to see for a tenure candidate but there is too much emphasis these days on number of publications. Dr X's publications are all of very high quality and are all in high-impact and very selective journals. [This may be accompanied by an anti-shingling rant or opining about how Dr. X is a true scholar who waits to publish high-quality results that will stand the test of time.]

Dr. X has worked on a wide variety of topics rather than focusing on any particular thing but this is remarkable confirmation of her/his versatility, breadth, and boundless intellectual curiosity.

Dr. X has mostly been a middle-of-the-pack coauthor on his/her papers rather than the obvious lead author but I happen to know that Dr. X's senior collaborators are very aggressive about promoting their own work and tend to do this to younger coauthors.

Any of the above can of course be turned into a criticism if the reviewer is so inclined.

Or, lukewarm letters might mention some of the same things listed above but the rebuttal would not be as strong:

Dr. X's h-index is a bit low even for someone at this early career stage but it may increase somewhat in the future. (etc.)

Strong positive letters typically end on an emphatic note:

I highly recommend with no reservations whatsoever that Dr. X be awarded tenure.

I have no doubt that Dr. X would be awarded tenure at my institution.

Lukewarm letters tend to end on an ambiguous note:

I hope that my comments on Dr. X will be helpful to your evaluation of Dr. X for tenure and promotion.

I hope that these comments on tenure and promotion letters are helpful to FSP readers who are curious/anxious about this even if they are rising stars swimming at the top of the talent pool buoyed by their towering intellects.