Friday, December 22, 2006


Today was one of those fun days when the department was devoid of stressed out students and deadwood faculty, the number of emails and calls from students unhappy with their grades trickled off, and there was time to socialize with my favorite department people in a more leisurely way than is typical.

The halls were dimly lit but there were pockets of light and frivolity, including my office, where a group of us gathered to (1) celebrate with a junior colleague who was submitting a paper (she clicked the submit button, always an awesome event, from my computer, and we all cheered!), (2) compare the strange little gifts that some of us had given to and received from each other, (3) discuss and sign off on one of my grad students' papers, which she will submit next week and which is very great, and then (4) decide which cafe to spend the rest of the afternoon in to talk about science and other things.

The day was also particularly great because of the arrival of a friend and colleague from Europe. He says that he thinks that working with me has opened his eyes to some things that his department does that are very family/female-unfriendly, and I am of course happy to take credit for such eye-opening. He recently brought up with his colleagues the possibility of changing their faculty meetings from the evenings to the afternoons to make things easier for faculty with children or other commitments outside work, but his colleagues thought that was a bizarre idea. There are no women in his department, and the guys are happy with things the way they are.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

My Christmas time Birthday

I am one of those lucky people who has a birthday squashed in between Christmas and New Years. We late December birthday people are getting more and more company all the time. There is a news article today about how that week is becoming the most popular week of the entire year for births, and that statistically significant numbers of parents are having births induced just before the first of the year so as to get tax breaks. In fact, that's what my very practical mother did lo these many decades ago.

I like my birthday, though that doesn't mean that I have not at times felt scorn, disgust, and disappointment with those who treated it like an inconvenience or as an opportunity to efficiently combine Christmas-birthday celebrations. In fact, I hope there is a special place in hell reserved for the creator of "For Your Christmas Time Birthday" cards (especially the ones with birthday cakes surrounded by poinsettias and holly).

Given that we are fast approaching late December and the Holiday Season, I would like to provide parents, other relatives, and friends of people with late December birthdays with some helpful hints for how to be more sensitive about the situation.

Hint #1: If you sigh and say "I'm just too busy dealing with gifts for Christmas and planning my holiday parties to think about your birthday now, but I'll try to send you a card in January" or otherwise act like we are burdening you with our inconvenient birthday, we will hate you.

Hint #2: If you give someone a card/gift and say "This is for Christmas AND your birthday", we will hate you.

Hint #3: If you take your own useless Christmas gifts and stick birthday wrapping paper on them and give them to us, we will hate you.

Most - but not all - of that was meant as a joke.

In recent years, I have become exceedingly fond of my birthday because it is during the semester break. Many years ago when I was celebrating a Milestone Birthday, I decided I wanted to spend it in an ancient place, surrounded by ruins and History and beautiful landscapes and culture, so my husband and I went to Greece. Then life got busy with a baby and new jobs and getting tenure and stuff like that, so I didn't really do anything exciting for my birthday until my next Milestone Birthday. Then I decided I wanted to spend it in an ancient place, surrounded by ruins and History and beautiful landscapes and culture and so on, so my husband and daughter and I went to Italy. We had so much fun that we have gone somewhere fun and interesting every year since. Next week: Portugal.

My relatives will just have to regift their unwanted toasters and embroidered Santa socks to someone else. Five of my relatives have birthdays in January..

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Academic Rankings of All Sorts

This is perhaps not the best time to write about anything, having just emerged from a 5+ hour meeting in which I and fellow members of an awards committee attempted to compare excellent philosophers with excellent aerospace engineers. It was kind of fun, but I am not as lucid as I could be. The ancient science guy who annoyed me so much last year was not on the committee this year -- this is the person who said I was biased and showed favoritism to women because I had 2 women in my top-10 list (he had 10 men in his top-10 list but this was not showing favoritism to men, though I can't remember why he thought not). This was a much more congenial committee, but we still had an impossible task. It was interesting to see how everything came together. We have been toiling in isolation for 2 months, poring over lengthy files, and then today we got to see how our individual rankings and opinions compared with the others. For some reason, my rankings correlated most closely with those of an historian and another physical scientists on the committee, and were most disparate from the biomedical faculty.

And I see in the newspaper today (NY Times) that we at public universities are all striving to be in the top 10. This is not news to those of us who live with endless strategic (re)positioning initiatives exhorting us to provide deliverables to our student-clients so that we shoot to the top of the rankings.

And to continue the theme of ranking: I have just finished grading. Grading final exams is gratifying and depressing, involving violent mood swings from exam to exam. How can Student X have gotten that question wrong even though it was on the practice final and we went over it in class several times and I clearly identified it as a major concept? Why didn't he/she come to talk to me before the exam? But then in the next exam.. Student W writes an amazingly clear and perfect answer to a difficult question, and I feel really pleased for them and for myself.

Maybe now is a good time to finish up some reviews.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Science Women

Women in Science as an Issue is in the news again; or at least, women-in-science is in the weekly Tuesday Science news section of the New York Times in an article by Cornelia Dean. Even if it's not on the front page of the newspaper, the article's existence means that someone still considers the lack of women to be news. One engine driving the frequency of news coverage of the topic is the frequency of conferences and reports about the issue. Let's keep those coming and keep the topic in the face, if not the collective mind, of administrators, legislators, and others with the power to change things.

The part of the article that resonated with me was about how women are perceived:

Because people judge others in terms of these unconscious prejudices, she said, the same behavior that would suggest a man is collaborative, judicious or flexible would mark a woman as needy, timid or flighty.

And because science is still widely viewed as “a male arena,” she said, a woman who succeeds may be viewed as “selfish, manipulative, bitter, untrustworthy, conniving and cold.”

So true. Men who collaborate are open-minded and generous. Women who collaborate do so out of weakness because they are not capable of conducting research independently.

There was also a quotation about how successful women are not liked. I don't know about that. This could be yet another sign that I am delusional, but other than a few chunks of petrified wood, a.k.a. senior faculty in my department, and OK, maybe that guy who really wanted the faculty position that I got instead of him, and maybe just maybe a few people whose papers and proposals I did not give high ratings, but other than those guys, I think that most departmental and other professional colleagues like me (and by the usual objective measures of our profession, I am 'successful'). I don't think successful men are necessarily liked, even though they are respected and/or revered.

And then there is "the aggressiveness question". My take on that is that it is important to be assertive, but that is not the same as being aggressive. I am not aggressive in the least, but I am very assertive. Being assertive can be effective, and assertiveness is much more elegant than aggression. It requires persistence and being articulate about what you want or need for your research. It does not necessarily require social skills (which I do not have in abundance), but humor helps. It also requires that someone at some point listen to you and take you seriously, and that can be the tricky part.

A female colleague said to me recently "I am not thick-skinned enough to write as many proposals and papers as you do." I don't know that I am particularly thick-skinned. I hate getting negative reviews; they can really upset me. But I don't let them stop me. Being persistent is another way of being assertive.

The article says that "the idea that women are somehow unsuited to science is widespread and tenacious", but we can be tenacious as well.

Worse Than Sports Analogies

A female colleague of mine attended a long meeting today during which the meeting leader assumed that everyone in the room was a parent and would relate to his extended analogy involving raising children. She says he went on and on about parents and kids, and he kept saying things like “As we all know from raising our own children..” until finally she couldn’t stand it anymore and pointed out to him that she and perhaps others in the room did not know what it was like to raise a child, so should they leave the meeting since they had no clue what he was talking about? She thinks the group now considers her to be oversensitive and high-strung, but I think she made an important point.

I can understand why someone leading a meeting might want to use an analogy or a reference point to try to move the discussion forward, but it seems that so often the chosen device unnecessarily excludes people. I think my colleague was right to point out to him that he should cut off the extended parenting analogy and get on with the main task of the meeting. When my sports-analogy-loving department chair goes into sports analogy mode, I tune out or ask for clarification, depending on my mood. However, if an entire meeting depended on knowing the rules of football, I would either do what my colleague did or I’d just leave.

Quick comment on another topic: In an article in the business section of the NY Times last Sunday, a woman executive noted that having one woman on a corporate board didn’t have much effect because the lone woman was so concerned with not appearing to have a ‘female agenda’. Having two women wasn’t much different, as they mostly tried to avoid each other and not appear to be a voting bloc. Three women was critical mass for everyone acting like the businesspeople they are without regard to gender. I think the situation is similar in academia, but ideally there would be at least 3 women in each academic rank rather than several female assistant professors in a department dominated by tenured men.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Examining Students

We are still in the midst of final exams at my university. I refuse to do multiple choice exams, so I have to come up with just the right number of unambiguously worded questions that relate to my course's most central concepts and that ideally will challenge the students to integrate among concepts, but not in a way that is impossible within the time limits of the exam or that is unreasonable given the format and content of the course. I can do this, but it takes a lot of time. In fact, it takes me so much time that I will do almost anything to avoid having to make up more than one test. Fortunately, my class this semester is not so huge, and the students will likely all show up for the scheduled exam. And then I have to grade the exams and scientifically/magically convert number grades into letter grades, but I am not ready to think about that yet.

My husband is teaching a large course for non-majors this semester, so he is dealing with the usual end-of-semester chaos. One interesting thing about his course this semester is that 99% of the students who come to his review sessions and 100% of the students who come to his office hours are female students. His class reflects the gender balance of the university, which is similar to the nationwide trend of being 55 female : 45 male or thereabouts. I had a similar experience with the big non-major class I taught last year, and we have been musing about whether talking to the professor has become a female-associated type of activity.

In the course for science majors that I taught this semester, males outnumber female students by a lot. So far, the only students who have contacted me for help about the final exam are the male students, so any trend is confined to the non-majors classes and not upper level science classes.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Social Morons

It boggles the mind, but there are some people who are even more socially inept than I am. At a conference this week, I was talking to Famous Professor X, and we were having a very interesting conversation about a topic of mutual interest. A man I don't know and didn't recognize walked up and started talking to Famous Professor X, completely ignoring me and ignoring the fact that he interrupted a conversation. Famous Professor X glared at the interrupting man and said "I am talking to Professor W (me)", made a wonderful little shooing/dismissing motion with his hand, and turned back to me so we could continue our conversation. The interrupting guy slithered away sadly. It kind of made my day in a strange way.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Daily Stereotype

Example #57,892: My husband and I were riding in a taxi in a major west coast city and the taxi driver said to my husband "Are you in town for the science conference, sir?". My husband said "Yes, we are." The taxi driver said "Since you brought your wife, it looks like you'll be mixing science with being a tourist." How nice that my husband 'brought' me to this conference with him! Maybe while he is doing whatever it is scientists do at these meetings, I can shop! My husband needs a new sweater and I'd like to get some new kitchen utensils for myself. If I weren't chairing a session, going to other talks, meeting with my fellow journal editors, attending my students' talks and posters, and meeting with colleagues, perhaps I would have time for that.

Academic Starette

Someone told me today that I am an "academic starette". I don't even know how to spell that. I suppose it could be starrette (?). I suppose I am being ungrateful, oversensitive, and overanalytical, but what does that mean? Is that one of those 'you're a good female scientist' kinds of comments? Memo to those who wonder why I 'spin' everything to be about gender: I am constantly reminded that I am a 'female scientist' and not a regular scientist like all the men.

Monday, December 11, 2006


In the past few years, I've participated in several national workshops on teaching in my field of the physical sciences. At all of these, discussions are primarily geared toward the situation in which the professor teaches both lecture and lab sections to a small group of students they know well and interact with frequently. At one workshop, a group of college professors gave presentations on active-learning exercises that integrated lecture and lab time. It was interesting to hear about these activities, but, with a few exceptions, these activities would be difficult (or impossible) to implement in a university environment of teaching a large group of students 2-3 times/week, with the labs taught by graduate students.

I am of course aware of the huge differences in teaching environment between colleges and universities, but I was surprised that it mattered so much in terms of the topics of these workshops. I thought we would spend a lot of time talking about the content of our courses, and would share ideas of how we prioritize what information we teach and how we incorporate new ideas in our field into the undergraduate curriculum. That was part of the workshops, but not a major part. I suppose part of the reasoning for the small college focus is that that is the environment in which professors have teaching as their main focus. When you consider the vast numbers of students that take science classes at large universities, though, it's clear that science education initiatives shouldn't ignore that environment/population.

I am generalizing here, but from what I saw at the last workshop I attended, the small college professors either went the route of throwing textbook-based teaching out altogether and using an active learning approach, or they stuck very close to the textbooks. In the latter case, if information wasn't in the book, it wasn't taught. This was either because 'students hate it when class material isn't in the textbook' or because 'there's so much stuff in textbooks anyway, who has time to teach even more?'.

In contrast, the university professors, although dominantly using a lecture format in classes, were teaching new things that weren't (yet?) in the textbooks and jettisoning more of the textbook material. That may sound patronizing, but I think it is an example of why it was good to have a workshop that involved both small college and large university professors. Those of us at universities learned about teaching strategies from those who had time to construct and experiment with those, and we in turn showed how new research could be integrated into teaching classic subjects. I don't think this view was generally shared, though -- some of my workshop experiences have been very much one-way streets of 'let us teach you how to teach because we are the experts'.

In one particularly illuminating discussion in a small working group, we all listed the main topics of sophomore-junior level course we all taught. I was the only university professor in the group, and I was the only one whose list of main topics deviated from the rest. There were 2 concepts in particular that I teach that no one else in the group did. Professor Z said "But those concepts are too new and have nothing to do with any of the other concepts we teach", and everyone nodded. Hmm. I said that, in fact, those concepts were more than 20 years old (coincidentally? when Professor Z was a grad student), were among the most important advances in our field in the last few decades, and could easily be well integrated into the broadest possible view of our subfield of the physical sciences. I elaborated and gave examples, but don't know to what effect.

I think the most valuable part of the workshop involved talking about course content (as opposed to all those pedagogical techniques with cute names like think-pair-share and jigsaw..). There was a faction of the workshop that favored omitting vast amounts of course content and focusing instead of learning activities centered on a few concepts. I don't agree with that approach when it is taken to an extreme. I am sure there are better ways to teach than just lecturing for 50-75 minutes at a time to a class, but it's a mistake to go too far in cutting content. It's analogous to teaching kids to think about numbers and different ways to consider a math problem, and finding out years later that they don't know what 6 x 7 is. And 'new' topics that some of us think are central to a modern understanding of the physical sciences get omitted.

I have found that part of the divergence of opinions occurs because some people think of course content as 'facts' to be memorized, whereas others think of them as ideas and concepts (and, yes, facts) that are fundamental to understanding how the world works.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Multi-tasking & the Weight of Guilt

So much to do, so much to do before the week starts. My daughter had a piano recital today, and I brought some grading to do during the recital. Her part of the recital was about 2.5 minutes, but then there was the rest of the hour. I sat in an inconspicuous place, I looked up during all the introductions and bows, and I clapped for each kid (I was listening to the music as I graded..). Even so, I felt a microgram of guilt at not giving the event my full attention. But no more than that. It was necessary, my daughter didn't mind, and my students will be happy to get their graded assignment back before their final exam.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Grad-Time Continuum

How much grad students 'should' work (other than the 20 hours of teaching/research on which their salary is based), is one of those unanswerable questions that varies with the student and the research and whether the equipment gods are happy and so on. I've known and advised grad students who worked 9-5 (or 8-6), had a life/family, and did quite well. This is very rare; these people are super-efficient and have well-defined projects that don't rely on balky equipment and less efficient co-workers. Much more common are research projects that require some (to a lot) of night/weekend time. There are also many examples of students who tried to work 9-5, weren't super-efficient, and who flamed out because of their lack of progress with research.

With the exception of one of my current students, I work more hours than any of the others, and (with one other exception) this is OK with me. I have one student who works an insane amount because he wants to, but (with the one other exception) my other students have more of a balance between time at the department and time off campus. They are always telling me about concerts or crazy parties they went to, or a weekend trip they took, or a hike/bike-ride they went on, or a non-science book that they read, and I like hearing about their other interests. They are doing interesting and productive research and they know I am satisfied/happy with their work.

As for the one who isn't currently working much or well, we have an appointment to discuss the situation next week: is it a time-management problem, family/health etc. problem, lack of interest, lack of something else? I can deal with some of those in terms of adjusting the student's research program and/or my expectations. If it's a lack of interest or motivation, I want to know sooner rather than later.

Friday, December 08, 2006

TA vs. RA

I never had a Research Assistantship (RA) when I was a grad student. I had a Teaching Assistantship (TA) my entire graduate career. I was lucky enough to get teaching jobs in the summer as well, so I never lacked for funding. In my grad program, TA's were definitely second class citizens compared to RA's. We were expected to get just as much research done as the RA's, but we had all these other responsibilities as well. In addition, RA's got the best offices and were favored for awards and fellowships, I suppose the thinking was that because these students were RA's, they must be great(er).

This situation didn't bother me too much. I didn't like that I was given the lowest priority in the analytical labs, despite having a more restricted schedule than the RA's, but in the end, I felt that I got more respect for being a successful TA and researcher. This only happened during the final year of my grad career though.

At one point, doing the successful TA-research thing backfired on me: my advisor told me that he had considered rewarding my productivity with an RA, but then it occurred to him that being a TA would slow down his RA's, but it wouldn't slow me down, so he decided I should continue to be a TA. So I did, but it paid off. He wrote me an awesome letter of reference, which I didn't see, but which someone later told me had a nice part in it about my ability to balance teaching and research. This letter was important in my getting a faculty position. The year I got my first tenure-track job, there was only one position in my field available at a research university. When I got the job offer, the hiring committee told me that my extensive teaching experience gave me an edge over the candidates who had never taught before.

Also, my teaching as a grad student led me to collaborations involving education-related activites. I have maintained some of those connections and activities for decades, and it's an interesting and important part of my career.

Nowadays, I don't think TA's are valued less than RA's. At least, not in my department. Education has become such an important part of the mission of research universities, and it is well known that grad students need broad training in research and teaching. Most of my grad students do some of both. I try to give my students a mix of RA and TA depending on their interests, abilities, career plans, and grad program schedules. When one of my RA's finds his or her research a burden and has trouble finding time to get results, I am always amazed. I've never told my students that I was never an RA. It would sound too much like saying "When I was your age, I walked 17 miles through snowy monster-infested woods to get to school..".

I'm sure it affects my advising philosophy somehow though, or at least accounts for my difficulty being sympathetic when an RA doesn't function well.

I should say, just to end on a positive note, that when an RA does function well, as my current group of students do, it is really amazing. For one recent proposal, one of my grad students helped provide the preliminary data and participated in the writing, and when it was funded, he was justifiably extremely proud. Now he gets to do all sorts of interesting new things with his research, he is totally funded for the rest of his grad career, and he's doing really well. When it's time for him to apply for jobs, I will prominently state in my letters that he has participated in a major way in writing a successful NSF grant proposal. Win-win.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

This Post Contains "Words"

For weeks now, I have been reading research statements by faculty from many different departments on campus. Each statement is supposed to be as devoid of jargon as is humanly possible, and if one must use a technical term, the term must be defined. Most faculty from science and engineering departments make an obvious effort to avoid jargon in their research statements (though there are some spectacular failures at this), perhaps because we are aware that much of what we do is incomprehensible to most people.

And then there are the research statements from humanities faculty.. Nothing makes me more aware that I am a Scientist and have moved far away from my liberal arts roots than reading research statements by faculty in English, history, philosophy, and so on. I find most of the humanities statements very hard to understand. Fortunately there is a diverse committee evaluating these, and I learn a lot from discussing the files with colleagues from other departments.

My 2 main problems with comprehension of the humanities statements are: (1) when an unfamiliar term is defined, it is typically defined using one or more other unfamiliar terms; and (2) the extensive use of "quotation" marks "around" so many "words". Worse is when both occur in one sentence: e.g., Professor X has developed the novel idea that the literature of the Baltic states was strongly influenced by the unconscious retransfixation of "trees"(that is, the trans-identity of the arboreal "mind"). [note: I made that sentence up] I suppose that the quotation marks signal that a "word" might have lots of meanings for different people from different cultures or experiences and we don't want to limit ourselves to a single meaning as that would be "confining" or even hegemonic.

Eventually, we work these issues out in discussion -- the committee has broad representation from the sciences and humanities. One of the reasons this is a committee I actually like being on, despite the major time commitment, is because it is one of the few opportunities I have to meet and talk with faculty in other departments/colleges. Despite my lack of comprehension of some of the research statements, I do rather like reading them and getting a broad view of what's going on at the university. That's part of the fun of this professor job.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

It's All My Fault

Today a particular event triggered a memory regarding a former graduate student of mine. This student wasn't doing well with his research, but he was such a nice guy that many of us worked hard to keep him going for as long as possible. That was a mistake, as it dragged out an experience that became increasingly stressful for everyone. It's always hard to know when to call it quits with a student, though -- except in extreme cases, I am always optimistic that things will work out and that if we can just find the right level of structure, encouragement, and experience, things will work out. In his case, nothing worked.

He blamed me for his failure. That is rather classic behavior, I suppose, but his explanation for why I was to blame shocked me. He had an M.S. degree from another university, and he told me that one reason he did well there was because his advisor [a single, childless male] would go out for beers with him, and they'd chat about stuff, and this was very helpful to him overall in motivating him to work on his thesis project. But now he had an advisor [me] who was always rushing off to pick up her daughter from child-care and who never hung out with the grad students in the pub in the evenings. Needless to say, once he expressed this sentiment, it was the end of our advisor-advisee relationship. I asked him if he really meant what he'd said (he also wrote it in an email message), he said yes, and I cut my losses, which were considerable in terms of grant $$ and time. He tried to find another advisor. No one would take him, and that was that.

His M.S. was from a small regional university, his former advisor has no research profile whatsoever, and yet he felt that his success there and his lack of success here at this major R1 university must be because I am a mom.

You would think that these guys would self-select out of having a female advisor if they feel that way, yet I've had other male students who couldn't deal with having a woman as an advisor, though not recently. It gets easier now that I'm much older than my graduate students. In my first tenure-track job, I was the same age or younger than some of my grad students. One male student kept saying to me "We're the same age, so why do you think you know so much more than I do?". Maybe it was because he was a first year M.S. student and I had completed grad school, a postdoc, a visiting professorship, and was a professor at a research university? Somehow I had acquired knowledge in that process despite my gender. What a mystery. That guy didn't last long as my student. He told me that he'd be more "comfortable" with an advisor who was "more similar" to him. (stupid and sexist? no no no, I thought that, but did not say that). The weird thing is I didn't force him to be my student. He sought me out as an advisor. I guess he didn't realize how humiliating it would be to have a knowledgeable female advisor.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Species of Reference Letter Writers

I have just finished reading the 99th letter of reference I've had to peruse in the past week, and I happen to have a few opinions about what I've seen. My opinions are also based on the approximately 57,832 other letters of reference I have read over the years. I am going to list various reference letter 'types', in order from what annoys me most to what annoys me least, just because that's the mood I am in right now. Reference letter 'type' probably says something profound about the referee's character and/or personality, but I am not qualified to evaluate that (not that my lack of qualifications stops me from commenting on other things).

The worst: this reflects my own interests/biases, but I hate the letters that say things like "She is among the best young female scientists in her field". I don't need to point out that one never sees similar statements for male scientists, do I?

Tie for second-most annoying: the "I'm so great that just my sending this piece of paper back to you with my signature and CV is a royal seal of approval even though I have written nothing of substance because I don't have time and I don't really care" reference; and the "He's great because his advisor is in the National Academy of Science and/or Engineering and that's all I need to say", or even, "He's great because his advisor's advisor got a Nobel Prize". Wow. It's so cool that brilliant, award-winning people's students are also all brilliant. [note: I used 'he' in the example because all the examples of that I have seen have been male]. I am perfectly willing to believe that talented people had talented advisors etc., but give me more information!

Quite annoying: the "I really can't bring myself to say anything too nice because it would imply that this person might be better than I am". These can be quite odious, in fact. I saw this recently in several letters. For example, a referee wrote something like "Because I have won This Award and That Award, I have the authority to state that candidate X [a woman in this case] is showing signs that she might one day be at the level of someone who could also win these awards." Amazing.

Semi-annoying: the self-serving "this person is great because he/she does research closely related to my own and therefore his/her research is immensely significant". Well, OK, that's nice. I could be convinced with some additional information other than a statement to that effect, but sometimes that information is lacking entirely.

OK to good letter of reference: clear statement of how well (or not) the reference writer knows the person in question, and opinion with examples regarding research quality or potential in the context of the field.

Best: The above, but with some examples or descriptions that make the person in question stand out in some way. If a committee is reading hundreds of these letters, they really can all start to look the same after a while, so the really well-composed letters stand out.

Alas for the person requesting letters of reference, there may be no way to know what kind of letter-writer your referees are. And, for early career people, you might not have much choice anyway. Fortunately, committees (in my experience) can be very forgiving about poorly written reference letters that are otherwise positive recommendations.

I am leaving out of my list the case of reference writers who are insincere and who, in some cases, lie about a person's abilities. That's another topic. The candidates whose letters I have been reading recently really are all excellent, so it's a (difficult) matter of ranking the most excellent from the merely excellent.

I recently read a letter written by someone who didn't know the nominee well but who had been impressed by his work over the years. This letter was written from the heart and was so well written that it was very moving to read. It was a truly great letter. I wish there were more letter-writers like that. I aspire to write letters like that.

So far this fall, I've been writing tenure/promotion letters for various people. Now the faculty application/grad application season is getting into high gear, so I will try my best to write the kinds of letters that I find most useful and interesting when I'm the reader rather than the writer.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Manuscript Reviewing & the Fate of Human Society

A few days ago I wrote this as one reason why I would decline to do a manuscript review:
"I've already reviewed the manuscript for another journal, it was rejected, and I can't bear to read it again in its resubmitted form to another journal even if I feel that humanity will suffer if this paper is ever inflicted on the world."

If I get a manuscript to re-review for a journal different from the one in the first go-round and the manuscript looks like it has been substantially revised, then I will review it. BUT, if I see the exact same (or very similar) awful manuscript again, it means the authors have ignored my comments completely and are just going to try again in the hopes that they find an editor who will either not send it to me or who will ignore my comments and recommendation.

It's just not a good use of my time. I used to do it, but some manuscripts work their way down the journal food chain and appear somewhere, in some cases with an acknowledgment section in which I am thanked for my input (but no mention that my input was that the paper should never be published and that I violently disagree with the methods, data, interpretations, figures, title, punctuation, citations..).

I should mention that I almost always sign reviews, but being acknowledged in papers I think should never have been published is one time I wish I'd chosen anonymity. When I read a really awful paper, I always wonder "Who reviewed this thing?" and I check the acknowledgments..

I have a colleague who keeps a list of people whose papers he reviews and who don't take his comments into account when revising the paper. If he sees a published paper that does not show that the author revised according to his major review comments, he refuses to review a paper by that author again. I am not that extreme, and am not so far gone that I think all my review comments are so great that a paper revised without them is fatally flawed. But I can sympathize with the feeling that doing the review was a waste of time, so why waste more time?

From the point of view of an editor, I know that most authors provide a detailed and thorough response to reviewer comments, and seldom are major reviewer comments 'ignored' without a reason.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

My Nanosecond of (mostly anonymous) Fame

Life got a bit strange last week because some research I was involved in got noticed by the mainstream media. I was co-author on the paper that is generating the interest, and most news reports don't mention me by name, and some that do got part of my name wrong. I am happy to let the first author have all the glory because the few media interviews I did were very disconcerting. It's very different from teaching -- when you teach, you have lots of opportunities to say things in several different ways until you are sure you get the point across. In an interview, you get one shot to sound intelligent. Or not.

A common question I have been asked is how I got involved in this research. It is actually quite far afield from what I typically do, but a year or two ago a friend of mine from grad school realized that some of the types of analyses that I do for very different purposes might be useful for something he was working on. We tried it just to see if it would work, and it turned out to be really interesting. This was a nice example of collaborating across fields.

When asked that question about how I got involved in research with this researcher at another university, what I really want to tell the interviewers is that this colleague, a former collegiate football player, was my bridesmaid at my wedding. It is true, he was, and he was a lovely bridesmaid. I only had one bridesmaid, so technically he was my maid-of-honor as well, but he has said he prefers to be referred to as my bridesmaid, and I just have to respect his choice.

Friday, December 01, 2006


I have been proposal-writing lately. Mostly I have been working on the thorough revamping of a proposal that wasn't funded in a previous submission -- 'wasn't funded' sounds slightly better than 'was rejected', does it not? In the intervening time, I have been working on the project to acquire an awesome set of preliminary data because one of the main criticisms of the first proposal was that I didn't have enough preliminary data. This brings up two issues:

1. How much preliminary data is enough? It's a well-known conundrum of proposals that you have to do some of the research before you can get funded to do the research. informFortunately, many universities recognize this and provide small grants for pilot projects to acquire the necessary data to write a big proposal. For some projects, however, it can be difficult to know how much preliminary data you need before the proposal will fly.

In the past year or so, I actually did a lot of the research that I proposed in the earlier submission, and published 2 papers on this work. There are still a lot of interesting things to do, and the pilot study has resulted in some new and exciting directions for the work. I hope that my preliminary work has strengthened my new proposal by showing that the proposed work is feasible, and that the project is very cool.

BUT, I have had reviews for other proposals say that I had "too much" preliminary data. Figuring out what is too much and what is not enough and what is just right is a moving target because every reviewer is different. I've had other reviews by reviewers who basically wanted see all the results before they would believe the work was possible. This leads me to my next point:

2. When submitting a new, revised proposal for a previously rejected proposal, how much attention should you pay to the previous reviews? There is no one answer to that of course, but I will say that I don't think there is much point to including a 'response to reviewer comments' section in a resubmission. The worst of these sound defensive, and even reasonable ones typically focus on details and don't impress anyone. I think it's better to revise the proposal in the most compelling way possible and let it be reviewed as it is, without reference to previous incarnations. I am sure there are divergent opinions on that issue.

I know that in some countries, the project director can write a rebuttal to reviewer comments. I rather like that idea, but it's probably not practical for a system the size of the U.S. NSF. Lacking such a system, I think it's a waste of precious proposal space to write a rebuttal.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

If Only I Had Facial Hair (other than eyebrows)

If I had real facial hair, I could have participated more in a departmental meeting today. Once the conversation turned to beards, I tuned out and started reading/editing a friend's proposal. I did have a momentary fantasy of what it would be like if one of these old bearded guys found himself vastly outnumbered by faculty women colleagues having a conversation about their personal (feminine) grooming philosophy and practices. I don't think they would be very interested (or comfortable), but I could be very wrong. It is unlikely that I will be able to run this fantasy experiment any time soon.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

More Musings on Reviewing

If I do all the reviews I've promised to do in the next month, I will have reviewed 21 manuscripts this year for 9 different journals, not counting manuscripts I've handled as an editor of one journal and associate editor of another; an addition that would easily double the total and more. Add in proposal reviews, tenure/promotion reviews, and such, and the number gets a bit alarming.

A number I don't keep track of but am now curious about is how many reviews I decline to do. I can think of at least 5-6 I've declined in recent months. Reasons I decline to review, in order of most common to least common reasons:

- I have 5-6 reviews I'm already working on and just can't commit to another one (unless it is an absolutely fascinating sounding paper or one I feel I should do for various reasons)

- I've already reviewed the manuscript for another journal, it was rejected, and I can't bear to read it again in its resubmitted form to another journal even if I feel that humanity will suffer if this paper is ever inflicted on the world.

- The manuscript isn't something I have any expertise in and can't imagine why I was asked to review it.

My husband reviews a similar number of manuscripts each year, but we both think we do a lot of reviews compared to many of our colleagues. This opinion is not based on any data though.

Since writing a few days ago that I wasn't going to agree to do any more reviews this year, I have agreed to two more.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Graduate Student Reviewers

Is it OK for a grad student to do a review that their advisor was asked to do?

Pros: By doing a review, grad students are exposed to the process of reviewing (not just being reviewed).

Cons: Even if a particular student has the necessary expertise and judgment to do a review, grad students have enough to do without the extra time involved in doing a thorough review.

** I would never ask one of my students to do a review for me -- that is, instead of my doing the review. **

A few years ago, I was talking to someone at a conference who had reviewed one of my papers not long before the conference, and was horrified to find out that although he had signed the review, one of his postdocs had done the review. The review-signer hadn't even looked at the paper. I would have been fine with his postdoc doing the review and either signing or not as he wished, but I thought it was disgusting that someone had signed another person's review.

I recently involved one of my graduate students in a review, with permission from the editor, because the topic was directly related to the student's thesis topic. My student is about to graduate (Ph.D.) and had published on this topic, so I felt he was senior enough and in the right stage of his career to see what was involved in a review. In the end, 99.9% of the review comments were my own, but it was an interesting exercise for us both to read a manuscript and compare our opinions with respect to what should go in the review and how the comments should be worded to be clear and constructive. I have involved students a few other times in the past, but not often.

As an editor, I often ask postdocs for reviews. Postdocs, assistant professors, and other early-career scientists tend to do thorough and prompt reviews, though I also try not to overload any particular person with reviews just because they're a good reviewer. In general, I will ask someone for a review once/year.

Monday, November 27, 2006

To Review or Not to Review

Yesterday I wrote that I wasn't going to do any manuscript or proposal reviews other than the ones I had already promised to do. I have too many other things to do -- proposal, conference, teaching, editorial work, a major committee assignment that involves my reading hundreds of pages of text (including nearly 100 letters of reference), and I've already reviewed probably 20 papers this year (I am going to calculate this later -- maybe it just feels like 20?).


Today I was asked to review a manuscript for a journal for which I currently have 2 of my own manuscripts in review. I SHOULD do this review. As a general policy/philosophy, I say yes to journals if I have a paper submitted there myself. It just seems fair. So, I will do this review, but it might take a few weeks.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Blog 101

The title of this post refers to the fact that this is my 101st post, so I couldn't resist, even if the title is misleading. So many of us have fond memories of teaching and/or taking courses with 101 in the course name, and that makes the number extra special for academics.

What I am actually thinking about today is how to handle my annual end-of-term spectacular head-on collision of teaching activities with a research proposal deadline, a major research conference, and the other usual advising-committee-research-life time commitments. Somehow, what needs to get done, gets done, and other things have to wait.

It's a rather delicate balance that can be thrown off by unexpected events (e.g., a sick child, pet, or vehicle), but I can deal with those if I have to. I can even deal with the time needed to give extra help to students who have complicated lives involving athletic events, physical and learning disabilities, job/family commitments, emergencies, and such. That's all routine.

Also routine, unfortunately, are those who make appointments with me and don't show up (with no notice beforehand). Try doing that to a 'real' doctor.

Other things that have now been hurled onto back burners until 2007..

- reviews other than what I already agreed to do;
- acquiring new data myself (hooray for grad students and postdocs though);
- any committee meeting that isn't absolutely essential (unfortunately, that still leaves several meetings/week, since the definition of 'essential' is somewhat nebulous);
- cleaning my office except what is necessary to keep heavy things from falling off piles and injuring me or my office mice;
- finishing a couple of papers (alas)

.. but not blogging (obviously).

How Many Hours Do Professors Work?

"How many hours do professors work" keeps showing up in the list of keywords used by people who find this blog, and it has come up in some comments before, but I don't think I have ever really addressed it directly. There is of course no single answer.

Even if I attempt to answer it for how many hours I work, the number varies a lot from day to day and week to week. In general, though, it's somewhere between 50-70 hours/week.

Here's how it adds up:

In a typical week, I work the usual hours during the work day. The working day starts for my husband and me after we take our daughter to school in the morning.

My daughter's school gets out at 4 pm, then she goes to an afterschool play program until 5:45 (except for the day she has piano lessons, when we retrieve her early -- if there's a faculty meeting, we flip a coin to see who stays at the meeting and who goes to piano lesson -- the loser stays at the meeting). She loves the afterschool play time. She used to only do it a few days a week and my husband and I would take turns leaving the office early, but this year she requested to go to it all 5 days. Apparently, attending part time was disruptive to her intricate and exciting social life.

So, I typically stay at the office until 5:30. Three nights/week, I work after dinner and after some family/evening time, and I typically work until midnight-1 a.m. That 'extra' 12-15 hours each week is when I get my writing/thinking done, as the days are typically consumed by meetings, advising, teaching, and so on.

If I need to, I also work a bit on weekends. This is a good time to get some work done in the lab, get ready for the week's teaching, do some grading, and so on. I work while my husband takes our daughter to swimming lessons etc.

Therefore, in a week in which neither my husband or I are traveling, I work somewhere between 50-70 hours. For most of that time, my daughter is either at school or asleep, so I don't feel like I'm sacrificing anything but my own sleep (and housework.. we have a house-cleaner who comes every few weeks). This schedule works well for my husband and me because we see each other at work every day and we have lunch together every day. Also, he has the same kind of schedule/life so we're both in it together.

Friday, November 24, 2006

What To Wear (Again)

The issue of how our appearance affects people's perceptions of our abilities and authority has once again been raised (NY Times essay 11/21) and once again the focus is mostly on women (young doctors in this case). There are 6 photos accompanying the essay, each showing an attractive young woman showing 'too much' skin.

Studies show that people prefer doctors who look like stereotypical doctors. I am sure this is also true of people's preference for airline pilots, professors, and President of the United States, but isn't it obvious that we need to change the perception, not the preference?

I can't comment on many of the points in the article. Maybe women doctors shouldn't have long hair -- the article says this is not hygienic (are beards hygienic, by the way?) -- and maybe there are some ways of dressing that are unprofessional (for both men and women). Nevertheless, I think that such issues should be discussed more thoughtfully, rather than just as emphatic statements about how women should and should not dress. For example: women professionals shouldn't wear short skirts because it is too distracting to others. It may well be, but how do we decide when the doctor (or professor or politician) is dressing inappropriately and when the patient (or student or citizen) needs to change their perceptions?

There are probably obvious end members where most people would agree about what is professional vs. unprofessional appearance/attire. I have a feeling, though, that there is a rather large gray area, and that a lot of women are in this gray area, not because they don't dress appropriately, but because people's perceptions of what is appropriate for women is more variable than it is for men.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Professorial Thankfulness

Ignoring for the moment the rumor that most of us professors are real people with families and lives outside the Academy, let's imagine a Thanksgiving dinner in which we give thanks for things that are relevant only to our professional existence. Let's also dispense with the boring thanks to our graduate advisors, our students, NSF program directors, the guys who deliver the liquid nitrogen to the lab, and so on. What does this leave? A lot:

I am thankful for the night custodian who leaves the lights on in my corridor so that I don't have to walk through a dark building when I work late at night in my office.

I am thankful for the baristas at my four favorite cafes near campus, especially when they already start preparing my favorite caffeinated beverages as soon as they see me.

I am thankful in a personal, selfish, self-hating way for global warming. As a scientist and citizen who cares about the environment, I am aghast at global warming and our government's criminal rejection of even modest attempts to curb CO2-emissions, not to mention the attempt to silence climate scientists, distort climate data, and confuse non-scientists. But at this time of year, I find I am not a good enough person to strongly disapprove of the mild weather. I am struggling with this issue on a personal level, but may defer direct confrontation with my hypocrisy until my New Years resolutions.

I am thankful for my new Macintosh computer, which is fast and aesthetically pleasing.

I am thankful that no mice have died in my office recently.

I am thankful that I still have more than a week to write my NSF proposal.

I am thankful for the second law of thermodynamics.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Here or There?

Is it better for there to be senior women science professors in as many universities as possible, or is it better for there to be at least some universities that have a relatively high concentration of senior women scientists? [assume that it is not possible for there to be sufficient representation of women science professors at all universities on a time scale that is relevant to the reasons why I am pondering this question]

In other words: Should a senior woman scientist leave a university that does pretty good job at hiring and retaining women faculty for a university that does a dismal job of both? In real life, there are many other considerations about family and life and research facilities and so on, but let's ignore those for the moment.

I don't know the answer, but I have been thinking about it a lot recently.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Role Modeling

Today I talked informally with some women grad students (not my own), most from other universities. Some were considering not seeking academic jobs because they wanted to have 'a life'. I asked them why they didn't think they could have a life and an academic career as well, and the answer was that they didn't know anyone who did both. Some of these schools have no women faculty or, at most, one (unmarried/childless) in our general field. So I kicked into Role Model mode, telling them about my family and demonstrating that it is entirely possible to have a family and be a science professor and to enjoy both.

I am happy to do the Role Model thing, but I'm always amazed that it is as important as it is.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

I Volunteered For This

Our department has a boring, dry, ugly newsletter that appears every few years. One of the administrative assistants has always been in charge of it, and she has other priorities, and years go by without a newsletter. So.. I volunteered to organize, write, construct, create a new newsletter. In a way, it's yet another little task that I do while the important guys in the department make the big decisions, but only in a way. I actually like doing this kind of thing -- writing, putting together words and images to communicate with people. And I did volunteer. And now I have to create something.

I have been poring over a lot of departmental newsletters this past week, looking for inspiration. My first conclusion is that there are a lot of boring, dry, ugly newsletters out there. Newsletters filled with lists of names, epic poems written for men getting awards, and photos of diverse groups of young students Doing Science.

It's quite possible that my enthusiasm for doing something new and different will get stomped on by the reality of creating this thing whilst also writing a proposal, giving an invited talk a couple thousand miles from here, teaching, attending a conference a couple thousand miles from here, and finishing up some papers by the end of the semester. And studying for my own final exam in my intro language course!

But I would like to do something fun and aesthetically pleasing with this newsletter. I am getting sort of fond of the idea of 'interviewing' some of our new faculty members rather than just writing a few paragraphs about each of them, with questions like "Why do you do what you do?" and "How did you get here?", not just "What do you do and how do you do it?".

The Chair's view of this newsletter is that it is a vehicle for attracting donations. I will try not to let that harsh economic reality intrude too much on my enjoyment of the project, which I mostly see as a way to communicate with friends and alums of the department. I find myself imagining that I am writing it for some of my former students, and thinking about what they might want to know about the department now.

Any suggestions of what you like to read or see in an academic newsletter?

Monday, November 13, 2006


A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I am taking an undergraduate language class this semester. So far, it's been great, though it's always strange for me when we do conversation drills about what jobs we want to have when we graduate, what classes we are taking, and what our parents' hobbies are.

By far the strangest experience was when we had to show and talk about photographs of our family and friends. Many of the other students got out their laptops and opened their Facebook pages. It was just like what I've read about -- endless flash photos of drunken parties with people hanging off each other whilst holding alcoholic beverages. This might have presented opportunities for learning some words and phrases that are not in our textbook, but the instructor didn't seem to want to linger much on these photos.

I have a webpage with photos of my family (husband, daughter, cats), but these photos must seem boring to my fellow students, who are all at least half my age. What would a Facebook for science professors look like? Perhaps I should start bringing a camera to conferences so I can take crazy photos of people clustered around a poster display. Or, if I wanted to get really wild, I could take pictures at faculty meetings. Now that would be scary.

Saturday, November 11, 2006


When I got married, I didn't change my last name. I guess we both could have hyphenated our names, but that wasn't very appealing to either of us, and I certainly wasn't going to hyphenate if my husband wasn't going to. Instead, we did that to our daughter. It just seemed too strange to me to contemplate being in a family in which my daughter had my husband's last name and not mine (too), even stranger than our all having different last names.

Then we had to decide which name would go first. We decided to decide based on what sounded best, and we agreed that the order that sounded best was my name first.

Our first plan was that she would have two last names without a hyphen, but we were told at the hospital when her birth certificate was being filled out that it was illegal to have a 'space' in a last name. I said "What if our name were van Gogh or da Vinci?". They said no go(gh). Perhaps we got an uninformed person doing the birth certificate, but I was desperate to go home and they told us we couldn't leave the hospital until we gave our daughter a last name with no spaces. Bizarre.

So she has a hyphen, and a long last name that doesn't quite make it intact onto some forms.

At her preschool, which was associated with the university, she was not unusual for having a hyphenated last name. At her elementary school, there are a few others, but not many.

The only one who has ever been upset about our daughter's last name is my mother-in-law. She didn't like the hyphenation and she particularly didn't like the fact that my name was first. She told us that she hoped people would think that that name was a middle name and that the real last name was her son's (no matter that my mother-in-law has kept the name of a man she divorced and loathed for the rest of his life).

If at some point our daughter decides she'd rather just have one last name and lops off one (or both), or changes her name when she gets married -- that's up to her and I won't mind whatever she chooses. For now, though, her having a part of my name and a part of her dad's works really well for our family, and we're happy with the decision we made nearly 10 years ago.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Equal Rights for Girls and Boys

That was the title of an essay my elementary-school aged daughter wrote this week. She and her classmates each had to choose a topic related to a "right" that was important to them. I was impressed by her essay because (1) I'm her mother, and (2) The essay was written from her heart, using her own examples, which were:

- Politics. Even young children couldn't escape the onslaught of campaigning in the recent elections. We passed dozens of lawn signs on the walk to school, we had constant phone calls and knocks on the door by campaign workers, her school let the kids vote in their own voting booths set aside for kids, and the mother of one of her school friends was running for office. This led to conversations about whether there had ever been a woman President, Vice-President, how many women Senators there are, and so on.

- Her grandmother/my mother. The combination of the elections and my mother's recent visit reminded my daughter that her grandmother was the first woman mayor of the small city where I grew up. She was fascinated by the story of how people doubted her grandmother, but grandma was a great mayor and won over some of her critics. So she wrote about that. Role models work!

- Sexist chants on the playground. These have existed for eons. My daughter says she wasn't really bothered by them because they are so stupid, but she thought they were an example of how some attitudes might start really early and then never entirely go away.

I'm glad she chose this topic. It was interesting to see her pull together in writing various things she's been thinking about lately (maybe she should start a blog?).

I told her that I thought she was going to write about how kids should have the right to choose their own name -- she has a long, hyphenated last name, and I wouldn't be surprised if some day one name gets lopped (that would be fine with me; eventually it will be her choice). She said she likes her complicated last name because it's something unique and special about her and it makes her feel connected to both of her parents.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Too Many Women

Each fall, our department has a career forum for students (undergraduate, graduate) and anyone else who wants to come. There is typically a panel with representatives from various types of academic institutions (small colleges, research universities, medium-sized universities), from industry, and from government agencies. The panel members speak briefly about their jobs and then there is a lot of interactive question-answer time with the audience. After,there is informal social time for additional interaction between students and the panel members. It's a great thing, and it's organized by a female assistant professor in my department. What's not to like?

One of my senior male colleagues approached me to discuss his concerns about this forum. I don't know why he came to talk to me. I have nothing to do with the organization of the forum. All the credit for it goes to my junior colleague, who initiated it and organizes it.

He was concerned because the forum is "female-dominated". Most of the speakers are women, and of course the organizer is a woman.

I asked him: "Why is this a problem?" Apparently it is obvious, but he spelled it out for me, since I was having trouble understanding: Male students might feel "excluded" from the forum because there are more women than men involved.

This is the point at which I stared at him, stunned. And then I laughed. There were so many possible responses, and not all of them nice.

Opting for nice (as usual), I said: "If I refused to attend departmental events because they were dominated by the opposite gender, I would never leave my office."

He said: "But that's different." End of conversation.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

There They Go Again

I may be completely delusional (as opposed to partially delusional, which I freely admit to being), but I really don't recognize the academic universe described in a recent article in the Sunday New York Times (Education supplement). The article discusses which statistics reported by a college or university might not give a true picture of the institution.

I liked the start of the article: an example of a University of Michigan student who has taken small classes with a cohort of fellow students for much of her undergraduate career. The point is that these environments and programs exist at big universities, not just at small colleges.

But then there's a section titled: "Prizes and Ph.D's: They Don't Teach". I do not recognize the academic environment described. Not even close. Is there really any U.S. university, no matter how highly ranked and festooned with Nobel Prize laureates, at which teaching is not important? The scary thing is that the following quotation comes from a 'career and college counselor' and author of a guide to colleges:

"People who self-select into Ph.D. programs are academic research types, not teachers," he says. "Their knowledge is so deep and so profound they often don't have the ability to communicate well with undergraduates who need the basics." And this: "A person with a Nobel Prize-winner mind is in the loftiest stratospheres of their arcane pursuit and, in general, is not that gifted a teacher."

Where to start, where to start..

It's true that I often don't have the ability to communicate well with people, particularly when I'm asleep or alone. Otherwise, I typically do just fine.

Re. arcane pursuits: since I have no perspective, despite my deep and profound knowledge of some things, I Googled the term "arcane pursuits" to see if things like inventing magnetic resonance imaging and semiconductors or understanding the causes of diseases really are "arcane". Nope. It turns out that the following are arcane, though: Latin grammar, programming multicast applications, archiving television audio, fly fishing.

Anyway, I am really tired of reading this professors-can't-teach (or the variant: professors-don't-teach) myth in the mainstream press. Of course there are research professors and there are some not-so-great teachers at universities (and colleges), but I don't have any colleagues here or elsewhere who don't devote a lot of time and energy to teaching, to being very good teachers, and to integrating teaching and research. We are better teachers for our intensive involvement in research.

Another myth that is repeated in the article: that full-time faculty are better than adjuncts or part-time faculty: ".. being around (full-time) tends to increase their participation in the life of the campus and their students' development." Without getting into the issue of universities exploiting their adjuncts and not giving them sufficient respect or salary, it is clearly not the case that part-time faculty aren't as committed as full-time faculty.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Get A Job

Today I was perusing the recent issue of Physics Today, and read with interest a feature article on "Hunting for jobs at liberals arts colleges", by Suzanne Amador Kane and Kenneth Laws. There is much in this article that is applicable to any academic job search, including jobs at big research-focused universities.

First, a few things I disagreed with, as these come early in the article:

1."However good your PhD or postdoctoral mentor may be at research, the odds are that he or she knows relatively little about the small-college environment." In the first paragraph, the authors make the case that of 764 college physics departments in the U.S., 513 of them are at colleges or universities whose highest degree offered is the bachelor's. So.. doesn't it follow that quite a few graduate advisors and postdoc supervisors will have come from undergraduate-focused institutions? I realize that there are smaller numbers of physicists graduating from the undergraduate institutions, but even so, my impression is that graduates of small liberal arts colleges and other undergraduate institutions are legion in academia. I am one such SLAC graduate, and I am by no means rare or even in the minority.

2."Faculty positions at liberal arts institutions include a much more significant component of teaching and working with students than do similar jobs in research universities." OK, I know this is not a controversial statement, but it would be a mistake to assume that jobs at research universities do not involve substantial involvement in teaching and other educational activities (e.g., advising undergraduate students in research projects). In fact, I spend all of my weekday time on teaching or teaching-related activities (including graduate advising), and it is primarily at night and on weekends that I have time to do research (+ teaching preparation, grading, and such).

But let's focus on the excellent advice in this article for job applicants:

- In written statements and interview talks/discussions, show that you can articulate your research to a general audience. There will be opportunities to show how technically excellent and focused you are, but don't do this at the expense of showing breadth and awareness of the context of your research.

- Keep track of the materials/formats requested as part of the application, be concise in your cover letter and statements, and don't send a form letter. I have seen a surprising number of applications in which the applicant forgot to change University X to University Y. It's a detail (sort of) and everyone expects applicants to apply to multiple places, but it definitely undermines your message if you write a passionate paragraph about why you want to be at a different university than the one to which you are applying.

- A related point: tailor your cover letter to the specific place to which you are applying, and, if you interview, show that you spent some time learning about the place. This sounds straightforward, but there are some possible pitfalls:

- Don't dig too deep to learn about faculty and others. I have encountered a few interviewees who somehow learned my child's name and age, as well as other details of my career and life, and I just think that's weird. Another interviewee, who had no interest in sports, memorized the starting players and their statistics for the university basketball team. Don't be so insecure to think that there won't be anything of mutual interest that you can discuss with faculty and others.

- Don't treat the senior faculty with more respect than the junior faculty. This used to drive me crazy when I was an Assistant Professor. On more than one occasion, an interviewee would be obsequious to the senior faculty and administrators and patronizing to the junior faculty. Mistake. We all get a vote.

- Also: If you do a bit of research on a department, you won't make the semi-fatal error of assuming that a young-looking woman is a student (or secretary).

- And: I was going to write "Don't be a jerk at conferences if you are on the job market", but in fact, if you are a jerk, that's important information for prospective interviewers. Example: One year at a conference, I was at a social-professional event, and asked the organizer if there was anything to drink besides beer. He smirked and said to me "If you don't like beer, you should get out of here", then turned his back. When he arrived in my office a few weeks later as a candidate for a faculty position (I was on the search committee), he was very uncomfortable talking to me. I tried to put him at his ease, but the interview wasn't going well in general, so the whole thing was kind of unpleasant.

- And finally: It's fine to look into cost-of-living and other lifestyle issues, but I always think it's bizarre when interviewees have already contacted a realtor and selected neighborhoods and schools and such. There's plenty of time for that later, if you get an offer.

- Make sure your letter writers send their letters on time. Some of us write lots of letters of recommendation for lots of students, and it can be hard keeping track of deadlines and the nuances of different positions/schools. I don't mind if someone checks to see if I sent a letter or letters, and I don't mind polite reminders before a deadline. I like it best when I get an organized list of what letters have to be where when. If someone asks me "Can you send a letter to College X by December 1?", that's not enough. I need a copy of the job description and I need the address/email. If I'm writing 20+ letters for different students and different jobs, I am not going to go digging for the information myself.

- A related issue: I was recently concerned when a graduating Ph.D. student asked a research associate for a letter of recommendation instead of asking another faculty member. Junior scientists tend to take letter-writing very seriously, but, depending on the job/institution, the search committee might wonder why all the letters weren't from faculty. Maybe in some cases it's better to have a substantial positive letter from a postdoc, as opposed to a one-line letter from a Nobel laureate (<-- this really happened), but in general, get letters from faculty if at all possible. I have read about 150 letters of reference just this week, so I have more opinions on this issue for a later post.

- The CV: Don't list manuscripts that are "in preparation" -- no one will be impressed. Don't mix citations of abstracts/conference presentations with those for peer-reviewed articles. Put the peer-reviewed articles first. My personal preferences is for the most recent at the top, and then reverse chronological order.

- Whether you're interviewing at a small college or big university, ask to meet with students. You learn a lot about a place from talking to students, and having lunch or an informal discussion with students might well be the most fun part of your interview.

It is too bad that the article doesn't deal more with dual-career couple issues. Instead, the authors refer readers to a 1999 article in Physics Today. There is a website associated with this article, but some of the links are dead and/or useless, with some exceptions.

And finally: After an interview, send a brief follow-up letter to the relevant people (search committee chair and/or dept chair and/or search committee and/or others) to emphasize your interest, and to note any updates in your files (new publications, thoughts based on your interview and interactions with students and others). Don't be too schmoozy and uber-grateful - be succinct and sincere and professional.

That's a lot of information, but most of it is common sense stuff.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Sibling Promotion Rivalry

My mother, who lives about 1500 miles away, just visited for a few days. It was a nice visit, and of course thrilling for my daughter to have her grandmother visit. For me, spending time with my mother always highlights how odd my life is compared to the rest of my family. All of the adult males in my family have been or are involved in The Military and/or Religion as a profession. The adult women of my mother's generation never had careers.

I can accept and understand that they don't understand what I do and why I do it, especially since my research has few obvious relevant applications. What I find a bit annoying, though, is that my family celebrates every promotion step my brother achieves in the Navy, but my promotions to different professorial ranks are of no interest and even seem kind of pathetic to them. They are not sure whether they should be proud of me. After all, it's not as if I'm teaching at Harvard. I think they are also puzzled by my career because:

- Academic promotions are few and far between. My brother gets promoted every few years in the Navy, but my family wonders why my promotions have been so slow to occur. Why did it take 6 years for me to no longer be an "Assistant" professor? (which leads me to my next point):

- The names of professorial ranks are not very impressive. I am sure that this has been written about by many people in the past, but clearly being an "Assistant Professor" doesn't sound very impressive compared to being a Lieutenant or a Colonel. And then, after a few more years and a long involved process, one becomes only an "Associate Professor". My family wondered when, if ever, I would be a real professor.

My promotion to full professor a few years ago coincided with my older brother's promotion to Captain. His being promoted to Captain was a BIG DEAL in my family. There was a big ceremony and a party. My mother was very anxious that I give my brother a present that was suitable for the special occasion. My brother and I have a tendency to give each other joke presents that we think are hilarious but our mother doesn't. I gave him a large chain-saw wood carving of a bear; my promotion went un-acknowledged. I am very proud of my brother and his success, but I told my family that being a full professor was like being an admiral, and maybe one day my brother would get to this level. No one thought that was funny except me.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Conference Junkie

I really like going to conferences. I like giant ones with thousands of scientists, and I like small specialized conferences on a focused topic. To be systematic about it, my conference likes and dislikes include:

LIKES (in no particular order)

1 - Watching my current and former students and postdocs give presentations. At the most recent conference I attended, 2 of my students gave truly outstanding talks. There are few academic experiences more exciting than this.
2 - Seeing lots of friends from the various stages of my academic career.
3 - Talking in person to colleagues I don't see very often.
4 - Giving talks about my research. I am particularly excited about one of my current research projects, and it was very fun to give a talk on this recently.
5 - Meeting new people and learning new things.
6 - Exploring other cities/regions.

DISLIKES (in no particular order)

1 - Having people assume that I am a student or that my research is someone else's project or idea. Now that I've been around and semi-visible for a while, the former seldom happens, but the latter still does. Example: At the most recent meeting, I had a conversation with 2 colleagues about the research project that was the subject of my talk. One of these men, whom I will call Y, has a tendency to work on the same thing I do, after I have already started a project [I have written about this before]. Today I got an email from the other man, saying he would like to learn more about the research that "you and Y" are doing. Correction: This is my research idea and my initial results. Y will no doubt work on this soon, if he isn't already working on it, but the chances of my working with him are less than zero.

2 - Going to professional/social functions dominated by senior men who only talk to each other.

3 - Encountering people who are unhappy because I rejected their paper(s) (in my role as an Editor of a journal).

At a recent conferece, I cashed in on a bet that a colleague and I made in 1996. We agreed that in 2006 at a major annual meeting, whoever lost the bet would take the other out for a very nice dinner. I totally won this bet, and I had a very fun evening collecting on it recently. The bet was that I would regret leaving University 1 for University 2. I do not regret this move. In fact, this colleague, who has himself left University 1 now, conceded defeat long ago, maybe even in 1998, but we agreed to keep to the original agreement about the collection date.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

On the Lack of Women

Two of the letters to Science this week on the topic of "On the Lack of Women in Academic Science" demonstrate the main issues very well.

First is an inspiring letter by Professor Emeritus Eugenie Vorburger Mielczarek, a pioneering woman physicist whose actions as a department head and mentor fostered the academic careers of women and men in her department.

At the other end of the evolutionary spectrum, Dr. George Gordon Roberts joins the ranks of those who are 'troubled' by the underrepresentation of men on the National Academy of Sciences panel that produced the On Bias and Barriers report. I sort of know how he feels, though in my case the committees I encounter are typically all-male instead of mostly-female. I am constantly having to deal with decisions and reports issued by all-male committees, including some that have a direct impact on my career and life. It is indeed very troubling.

Even more fascinating is Dr. Roberts' idea that "we" should be telling women to marry men who make less money than they do, so that it is more likely that their husbands will be the stay-at-home spouse when it comes time to raise some kids. I have a higher salary than my husband, but alas, he rather likes his career, so we share childcare activities. Roberts' idea sounds like something an all-male committee would come up with.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

R U Serious?

This is probably a classic old professor rant, but what are students thinking when they send text-message-like emails to prospective graduate advisors? I don't pore over student emails, editing them for grammar and spelling, but I do like to see evidence that a student can be articulate in writing.

In the past few weeks, I've gotten email messages from students applying for graduate studies with me. Most emails are fine, but some messages lack capital letters and all punctuation except periods. Some email messages contain abbreviations that might be convenient when typing on a tiny phone keyboard but that aren't cute in a semi-formal letter to a potential advisor. For example: "i want to apply to work with u."

I am sure that it is quite possible for someone to be a creative genius at research and to write annoying emails like that, and I will keep an open mind until I see the full applications and meet the students, but still.. I just wonder why they think it is appropriate to send such emails to a prospective advisor.

And then there are the email messages from current students. Some of these messages are text-message-like as well, though I don't mind that so much if the student is writing to me with a question about class material.

I guess everyone has their own pet likes and dislikes regarding email etiquette. I have colleagues who hate it when their students use their first name in email greetings, or other informal greetings like "Yo Professor!". I get those too and I don't mind them, but I do hate the ones that start "Dear Mrs. X" (or Miss or Ms.). I'd much rather they just use my first name. My husband never gets "Dear Mr. X" emails, so the students are definitely deciding that I must not be a real professor.

I always reply, though. A few months ago, I read an article on professor preferences for email etiquette, and some faculty don't even reply if they don't like the style or tone of an email, but I can't see myself doing that.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Broader Impacts (2)

Lately I have been reviewing a lot of proposals. All of them note that female students are involved in the research and associated classes and internships, and in most cases the % of female students is > 50%. Every single proposal is by a male scientist or group of male scientists, including one that involves 12 men and no women.

I review the proposals based on the science and not the gender of the people involved, but it makes me wonder whether these guys are aware of the disparity. I've reviewed proposals by some of these men for years, and for years they have been writing in the *broader impact* sections of their proposals about the large number of women students in their programs. I just wonder if they look around their all-male or almost-all-male departments and wonder why there aren't more women colleagues.

In my own department, the male faculty definitely think that we're in good shape because we have so many women undergraduates and graduate students. They have said this directly in faculty meetings: we don't have a problem with diversity, we have lots of female students. Then they scratch their beards contentedly. [I might be stereotyping just a bit there; some of them have moustaches and no beards]

Saturday, October 28, 2006

I Still Don't Like John Tierney

In today's NY Times, Tierney's views of women's attire evolve owing to his son's interest in the Civil War. His initial impression of women at Civil War battle re-enactments is puzzlement as to why they would want to dress in heavy clothes just to play a supporting role for their warrior husbands, who get to do all the cool stuff, like pretend to kill people and die. I am inferring this from his statement: "We could understand guys wanting to play soldier, but why were their wives willing to camp out with them and swelter in as many as a dozen layers of petticoats and undergarments?". I'm glad he can relate to the guys wanting to play soldier, because I can't.

Anyway, he comes to realize that these women are in fact liberated by their bulky clothes. Even fat women look pretty good when encased in many layers, and the presence of hoops makes them even more appealing (to Tierney). These body-covering clothes allow women "to rebel against the American obsession with fitness..". How clever to work in the word "rebel" in an essay that mentions the Civil War!

I really don't see why Tierney stops his essay where he does, as he doesn't quite get to the natural extension of his argument: that women would find wearing a chador or burkha very liberating as well. If only they could find a man to bring them to a swell event like a battle re-enactment.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Friday Musings About Inequality

I finished the AAUP report, including scanning the data tables at the end. For my university, the numbers are not so great, and even so do not reveal the extent of the problem for women professors in science - engineering - math departments (2% women full professors).

It was also interesting to see that women's salaries as a % of men's decrease from assistant to full professor. I took a pay cut to come to this university because my husband and I were so glad to have two tenure-track positions in the same place, so I
wasn't in a good negotiating position when hired (despite having competing offers from the university where I had my first tenure-track position). I don't think my salary has ever quite 'caught up' with those of the men, and I make essentially the same salary as my husband, despite 4 years of seniority over him. Good thing he does all the cooking, and even helps with the dishes.

My main reaction to the report, however, is that I wish there were a way (1) to convince women that tenure-track faculty positions, even at research universities, are not incompatible with having a family, and (2) to make this true at places where it is not. At my institution, it is mostly true, but many things could be improved.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

AAUP Report

I am still slowly working my way through the text and tables in the recent AAUP report (AAUP Faculty Gender Equality Indicators 2006), but one thing that struck me right away was the drop-off in number of women from the Associate to Full Professor levels. On p. 11, the text says "Thus, promotion to full professor constitutes a further point where inequities persist in the career progrssion of faculty women."

There are so few women in my field that my personal (anecdotal) database is small, but I think women lose out at this stage in two different ways:

1 - I know several women who have stalled at the associate professor level because they don't have sufficient papers, grants, or international repute. By the current standards of our field at a large research university, these women do not meet the standards for promotion. BUT, I can think of many many men who have been promoted to full professor with similar moderate to low levels of productivity.

2 - I know several women who were not promoted despite numerous grants, publications, etc. (and high quality teaching). These women could sue, but instead most have accepted offers at other institutions that will value them for their excellence.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

What Is On Your Computer Desktop?

Question for Women: What image is on your computer desktop?
Photo of your kids
Photo of your pet(s)
Nature scene
Some other photo that you took (including people other than your kids)
Some other photo that came with your computer
Plain color or a pattern
Free polls from

Question for Men: What image is on your computer desktop?
Photo of your kids
Photo of your pet(s)
Nature scene
Some other photo that you took (including people other than your kids)
Some other photo that came with your computer
Plain color or a pattern
Free polls from

Desktop Kids

Today, a small group of colleagues (male and female) and I had a discussion about what photos we have displayed as backgrounds on our computer desktops. The men had photos of their kids. The women did not. This relates to my last post about how science professor men get points for being caring family men, and science professor women are taken less seriously as scientists if they are also moms.

I must admit that I don't really want a picture of my child as a desktop photo. I have a few photos of my daughter in my office, and on my walls I have a few pictures she drew for me, so it's not as if I ignore her existence when I am in science professor mode. I just don't need or want to be surrounded by cute photos of her all day.

I wonder if these male colleagues with child/desktops are actively advertising their sensitive-family-manliness, or whether they just like having a photo of their kid(s) on their desktop. Or both.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Incredible Invisible Professor

Some recent comments reminded me of a conference I went to recently with my family. My husband and I took turns attending the meeting and playing with our daughter. When I was in mom-mode, I became invisible to colleagues passing in the street of the small town in which the conference was held. When I was alone, everyone waved or stopped to chat. The difference was really striking, especially since my husband was visible whether he was with or without our daughter. When he was with our daughter, some people commented how nice it was to see a high-powered researcher in family mode. Men get cosmic credit for being scientists AND parents. Women get taken less seriously for being scientists AND parents.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Follow The Leader

This week, I was going through security in an airport, and was too short to reach over and get a gray bin from the stack behind the counter where we were all removing our laptops, shoes, and clear ziploc bags with < 3 oz. containers of liquids and gels. A tall man behind me reached over and shoved the stack closer, where we could all reach them easily, and I thanked him. He ignored me, but smirked at his friend next to him and said "Lead, follow, or get the hell out of my way.", which I believe is a slight reinterpretation of a quotation by Thomas Paine, and perhaps more recently a self-help book title. Somehow, I don't think this inspirational leadership mantra was intended as a means for tall men to insult short women.

On the plane, I sat next to a very polite and pleasant man who, when he saw me working on some papers, asked me what I do. I told him that I am a science professor (specifying my field of science). His first guess was that I teach at a community college. Nope. His next guess was that I teach at a local small college. Nope. His next guess was that I teach at a small church-affiliated university in the region. Nope. Finally I said that I am a professor at the Big University of X. He was surprised because he has a neighbor who was a professor there, and this neighbor was a very distinguished man who wrote a famous book. And his point was.. what?

The amazing thing is that I know his distinguished neighbor (long-retired), and I teach a class that he used to teach. By any measure (# of papers, grants, books, citation indices, honors etc.), I am more successful than the distinguishd professor ever was in his long career, but I will never be distinguished. I will never look it and I will never act it.

I once went on a lecture tour as a Distinguished Lecturer for a professional society. At one airport, I waited and waited for someone to meet me, and after a long wait, I was paged. It turns out that the student sent to pick me up had been waiting in the same place I was, and had seen me, but it hadn't occurred to him that I could be the distinguished professor he was supposed to meet.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Reviewing The Jerks

A member of my university's Board of Regents once asked a group of us who were assembled to explain tenure to them, "Do you have to be liked to get tenure?" The answer is no, of course. You don't have to be a nice person to do great research. But do you have to be a good person, in the sense of not being too much of an unethical jerk (as opposed to just a regular jerk)?

Almost always, I can focus on the science when I am reviewing a paper or a proposal by a regular jerk, and if I don't feel that I can be objective (to the extent that one should try to be, anyway), I don't do the review. Right now, I'm torn about whether to review a proposal that was sent to me recently. I think that the PI's department and the students and researchers will benefit greatly from the equipment that is part of this proposal, and the PI is probably just a figurehead senior guy who was available to put his name on the cover page.

A review of the proposal should therefore not focus too much on the fact that he hasn't published in decades and hasn't had an original idea since 1973, or on the fact that he is a flaming jerk, serial molester of students, and currently involved in an affair with one of his students (formerly an undergrad in his department, now his grad student). She is 48 years younger than he is, and her research project is, unfortunately, a sham (and is described in the proposal). OK, I think I just decided that I can't be objective about this one. I hope that other reviewers will overlook the unproductive jerk PI and be positive enough that the students (other than his girlfriend/student) and others in his department will get the benefit of the grant.