Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Facebooking Faculty

At a meeting last month, I discovered that a senior colleague from another university has a Facebook page. I asked some other colleagues if they had Facebook pages and was very surprised to find that many did. Soon after, I got a request from someone to be their ‘friend’ on Facebook, and lately this has become an almost daily occurrence.

I have been consulting with my Facebook expert colleagues to try to figure out how to proceed. At present, I don't see why I would want to participate in this aspect of internet culture.

One colleague in particular has thought a lot about issues of faculty-student interactions via Facebook, and shared with me his personal philosophy:

- Always accept an invitation from a student to be a Facebook ‘friend’ but never send an invitation yourself;

- Don’t do anything with Facebook except reply to messages and post photos from student-oriented events; for example, don’t write on a student’s “wall”;

- If you look at your student-friends’ pages, be careful about whether/how you talk about it with them. This colleague never discusses with students what he sees on their Facebook pages, but another colleague once advised a student to remove some offensive material that might have negatively impacted that student’s education and career options if a potential employer ever accessed Facebook.

I have no interest in participating in this aspect of student life, but my colleagues assure me that it is worthwhile as long as you limit use of Facebook to professional interactions. My colleagues say that in their experience many students think it is cool to 'friend' their professors on Facebook, and only a few are bothered by it. I think I still need more convincing.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Student-Troll Interactions

Last night I had dinner with several of my graduate students, and they spent a lot of time ranting about my colleague, Professor Troll. Some of their stories and impersonations of his more annoying characteristics were very funny, in a you-might-as-well-laugh-even-though-it’s-not-really-funny kind of way, and we laughed together a lot.

At one point, when one of the students made a remark about how patronizing and rude the Troll is to students, I said “Not just to students. He’s like that to everyone”. I wanted them to know at least that. I don’t know if that was any comfort to them, but they should know that I will most certainly not insist that he be on their committees, even though his field of expertise is relevant in some cases. On the contrary, I will make sure that he is not on their committees. It’s fine if they discuss their research with him, but I don’t want any of them to be in a position where he has power over their graduate program/future/career.

I was quite restrained in my level of participation of the anti-Troll rant. My students had enough stories of their own, and they are under no illusions about what I think of my colleague. They are also well aware that he thinks I am an intellectually defective, non-rigorous poser of a science professor. Perhaps the conversation was unprofessional, but mostly it was good to laugh about it together.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Thoughts on Efficiency

Several recent commenters asked me for more information about how I manage to be so ‘efficient’. Just to be clear about where I am on the efficiency spectrum: I do tend to get things done in a timely way (= efficient) but I am not a neat or extremely organized person (= less efficient than I could be).

In thinking about it, I didn’t really know what to say in terms of what would be interesting or useful or even accurate, so I asked a colleague to help me. Perhaps that is one example of how I am efficient: I ask people to help me and/or do things for me (?).

First, I asked my colleague if he considers me to be ‘efficient’ and he immediately said yes, he does. I asked him in what ways I am efficient and how/why I am that way, recognizing that the second part is an impossible and loaded question.

He mentioned the following, in no particular order of importance:

- I don’t procrastinate. I would amend that to say that I don’t procrastinate very much. I tend to ‘just do it’ when confronted with various tasks (reviews, committee work) and fit them into interstices of time. For such tasks, I tend to get them done on the time scale of days or weeks rather than putting them off and letting them pile up. I think he’s right, but since these tasks are endless – e.g., whenever I send off a review, the Editor Gods somehow know to send me another request for a review -- getting them done sooner doesn’t mean an end to the work, which is infinite.

- I don’t get distracted by things or wallow in negative emotions; ‘things’ includes unimportant things (e.g., obsessing over my rude and patronizing colleague) and important things (e.g., major life events that might be depressing or upsetting). That is, I don’t shut down in the face of obstacles. This is in part luck, as I have never had to face anything too dire. My family and I are healthy and thus far life crises have been few and manageable. I think this might be important on a day-to-day basis, though. I have some colleagues/students who are entirely stopped for days/weeks by such events as taking a pet to the veterinarian or getting their car repaired. I find great satisfaction in getting things done, so I like getting things done, even when faced with minor obstacles.

My colleague, who does not describe himself as efficient (accurately, I would say), and I also talked about how it is that we are able to work well together. Just because I am rather efficient, doesn’t mean that I can only work with other efficient people. I am definitely annoyed by people whose inability to get things done on time negatively impacts me (e.g., anecdote from last week about the committee member who didn’t read all the files by the meeting time), but in terms of scientific collaborations, I enjoy working with many different people. My colleague’s analogy involves gears of different sizes but that work together to get something done.

He also asked me if I make lists. I do not, with the exception of when I have a major deadline looming, such as a proposal deadline or departure for a major trip. In general I don’t need lists (yet), but my avoidance of lists may also have a deeper reason – my mother is a List Person. She makes lists while driving. Her phone conversations with me involve her reading to me from a list of conversational topics she pre-planned (and wrote down) before our conversation. Her visits to me involve her leaving lists for me – things I should do, things I should buy. My mother is great, but I don’t want to emulate her List Mania if at all possible.

Friday, October 26, 2007


Every once in a while I obsess about Letters of References. This is one of those times because:

- I have been reading hundreds of L of R's in recent weeks.
- I have been writing L of R's for promotion files, students seeking things etc., and
- I have been thinking about names of L of R writers for myself at the request of my department Chair, who is nominating me for an award.

I've written before about what makes a good/great L of R and what makes a bad/loathsome L of R, so in this post I will instead discuss issues related to selecting L of R people for one's own purposes.

As a grad student/postdoc seeking employment, I had letters from my advisor(s), a Ph.D. committee member or two, and someone who had been a teaching mentor. Later, as I moved from a visiting professor job to a tenure-track job, I had letters from a colleague at the institution I was visiting. When I was applying for jobs to move from one tenure-track place to another, I did not request letters from colleagues at the institution I was seeking to leave, but some people do that.

When I needed letters for tenure, I had letters from various luminaries in my field and a colleague from my first tenure-track job. There was much discussion at the time about whether to get a letter from my Ph.D. advisor. Some of my department colleagues thought that a letter from the former advisor was essential for tenure/promotion files because the advisor could make a statement such as "My former student, Professor X, is the best student I have ever had in 82 years of advising Ph.D. students." Other people thought that a letter from the advisor was not relevant, as the advisor was not objective, even though a letter from an advisor is essential when one is first applying for jobs. I felt ambivalent -- I knew my advisor must have written a good letter for me at one point or I wouldn't have had job offers, but I also felt that he had always been closer to his male students and I didn't know how I would fare if he were asked to compare. Also, we had had an uneasy advisor-advisee relationship owing to his unethical behavior involving other women students. In the end, he was not asked to write a letter.

For promotion to full professor, luminaries were again asked to write letters, including some international scientists. It was important to get letters from people from highly ranked universities, as committees like that kind of thing. Owing to a snafu that was only detected just before my file was to go to the Dean (something entirely the fault of an administrative assistant who somehow manages to be simultaneously hostile and near-comatose), the Chair asked for a letter from a distinguished professor in my own department -- someone with whom I have never collaborated but who is widely respected in the university.

For my ongoing exploration of possibly maybe moving to another university, I have mostly not needed letters. Faculty at one university didn't consult me -- they contacted the people they considered authorities in my field and asked them about me. Another university requested 3 letters, and I gave them the names of 3 people, only one of whom is a research collaborator.

Now I have to think about names for this award nomination. The chair thinks that the nomination will be more likely to succeed if I have letters from Chairs, Deans, renowned international scientists, National Academy of Science members, and Nobel Prize winners. Letters from at least one of those are not going to happen. Choosing letter writers for an award of this sort involves considering who will effuse the most in a letter, and that's not something that is easy to guess for some people. I am also stressing out because several of the obvious letter writers are at institutions that are considering hiring me, and that makes for a bizarre situation that I didn't want to discuss with my Chair when we talked about names.

Having someone write a letter for an award feels more awkward than getting letters for things like promotion/tenure. The tenure process can feel like a life-or-death situation. When I write tenure letters for others, I take this responsibility very seriously and work hard at writing effective letters. Awards aren't necessary in the same way, and it's asking a lot to request that someone take the time to write a letter for such a thing.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Random Update 2

Token Ignoramus (August 31, 2007 post): I am being a dutiful search committee member for a faculty search in a field that is far beyond my expertise. Although I found the initial organizing stages of the search to be painful (e.g., insider gossip sessions by faculty close to the field in which we are searching), once we started reading and discussing applications, things got much better.

At the most recent meeting, I was annoyed because only 3 of us had read all the applications – the search committee chair, the grad student representative, and me – although the meeting had been called to discuss all the applications. So now we have to have another meeting. It definitely takes a long time to read 100 applications. Am I less busy than the others on the committee? Is the fact that I made the time to read these applications proof that my life is unbalanced? I prefer of course to think that I am more efficient, but I recognize that I could be delusional about that.

I was happy to find that many of the applications are interesting, and some are intriguing. I do have some biases – there is one whole subfield of this field that I find boring. My department has invited a lot of speakers in this subfield in recent years. I will listen to my colleagues if any of them make a case for this subfield, but we haven’t had that discussion yet because the others haven’t read all the applications.

Memo to people actively applying for faculty positions now:

(1) Spell-check your application materials.

(2) Make it clear at the top of your CV what your current position is.

(3) Use your academic or business address/email if you have one, not your home address and your cute hotmail or yahoo username.

(4) If you are seeking to leave a tenure-track or tenured position, do not write in your statement/cover letter that all your colleagues are morons, you are the only one in your department doing transformative research, and you just can’t stand being in such an intellectual bog anymore. Perhaps this is true, but it would be better to explain your interest in leaving in a more positive way; e.g., mentioning interesting opportunities at the place to which you are applying rather than denigrating your current colleagues.

(5) Re. mentioning or not mentioning your spouse/partner: I don't have any particular advice about this because there is so much variation in how different places deal with the issue of 2-career academic couples. In the recent applications I have read, I saw 3 different classes of behavior with respect to this issue:

1 - not mentioned at all (even if the applicant is part of an academic couple); I think the lack of mention is entirely appropriate. It may be very relevant eventually, but it is not relevant at this early stage.

2 - explicit mention of being in an academic couple; I think this is fine as well. If someone wants to mention it, that is their right. In some cases it might make it easier for the university to be proactive in finding a good solution.

3 - explicit mention of not being in an academic couple; this is a political maneuver. It didn't affect my opinion of an applicant's credentials one way or another, but I thought it was bizarre to read in a cover letter/research statement something like "My wife, who is a [insert name of very portable job], and I are both very excited about the possibility of moving to X." Is there any reason to mention this other than signaling that you don't have a potential complication? I use the example of a "wife" because that is what I saw in this batch of applications.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Random Updates

Professor Magnet Hotel update (October 1, 2007 post)

I stayed again at the PMH and enjoyed my stay, as always. I recommended this hotel to some friends who were visiting the same city, and they recommended it to some friends, and this added to the professorial guest population. Even so, one of the very first hotel guests I saw, other than the people I knew, was.. a man wearing a graph paper shirt (October 3, 2007 post). After graph paper man had walked out of the hotel, one of my colleagues said “math professor”. I was thinking civil or mechanical engineering, but there is a high probability that he was a math professor.

That's Debatable update (October 2, 2007 post)

My students had their first in-class debate, and despite a few bugs, it went pretty well. I stopped the debate at one point so we could do a real-time assessment of how things were going and make adjustments so that the rest of the debate (and subsequent debates) went as well as possible. One student on each side was dominating the debate (a male student on the male-dominated team and a female student on the female-dominated team), but taking a break allowed the groups to ‘regroup’ and fix this in a gentle/diplomatic way. Several students suggested we should have a 10-minute pre-debate the week before the next debate. This will help the groups iron out any issues of terminology and to get a sense for the major issues that each side will emphasize. I think that’s a great idea.

I was impressed that when the debate reached the brink of becoming a bit hostile, the students found a way to calm things down and get the debate back on a polite and professional level. I was just about to intervene, but it was much better that the students solved the problem themselves, and did so very effectively.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Trolling for Insults

The week has barely started, but I have already had an encounter with my colleague, Dr. Troll. On Monday I went to a meeting of one of the committees I am on. Dr. Troll is not on the committee, but he has a class in the room in which the committee was meeting. The meeting ended a few minutes before his class was to start. As I was leaving, Dr. Troll arrived and asked me "What are you doing here? Are you taking a class from these guys?" and he nodded at the other professors in the room. It was a bizarre question and I didn't know if he was being obnoxious or stupid, so I didn't reply. Then he repeated his question: "Well, are you?"

I said, "This is a meeting of the X Committee", and he acted very surprised. I have no idea why he was surprised; I am on lots of committees. It is very possible that he was being obnoxious (or stupid).

Monday, October 22, 2007

Water Off A Duck

This weekend as I was contemplating some home improvement projects, I remembered an incident from when I first moved here. I arrived at my present job with an infant, I was coming up for tenure after only being at my new university for a year, and the tenure bar was higher than at my first university. My husband and I bought a house soon after arriving here, but we didn’t have time to think about the house or garden for the first few years that we lived here.

One of the technicians in my department lived in the neighborhood, and he and his wife (a grad student) frequently went for walks in the evening. Their walking route occasionally went past our house.

When this couple was about to leave the city to go to new jobs and I was saying goodbye to them, the technician informed me that there was something he had wanted to tell me for as long as I'd lived in my house: every time he walked by my house, it really bothered him and his wife that I had shades in my windows rather than curtains. He then proceeded to describe what he thought were the perfect curtains for my windows. Perhaps I could even make the curtains myself!

Aside from the fact that I didn’t want curtains and I don’t know how to sew anything more than the occasional button, at that time of my life, the attractiveness of my windows was quite far down on my list of priorities. Tech Guy didn’t understand that, but I sometimes wonder if he does now that his wife is a professor and they have kids and a house.

At about that same time, one of my senior faculty colleagues described me as a swimming waterfowl. He said that, at the surface, I appeared to be gliding along gracefully and effortlessly, but he knew that I was paddling furiously underwater at top speed. Those who heard this analogy then disagree now about whether he compared me to a swan or a duck, but whichever it was, I took it as a compliment. I certainly didn’t feel like I was doing anything gracefully, but it was nice that someone thought I was.

Ten years later, I am not so duck (or swan)-like, and my garden (if not my house) looks great, but I’m still not going to get (or make) curtains.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Naming Names

This morning I participated in an informal meeting with other professors and some graduate students in my department. The purpose of the meeting was to give advice to one of the graduate students, who was puzzled about some data and wanted to discuss possible interpretations. There were 4 Female Science Professors and 1 Male Science Professor at the meeting. The discussion was interesting, but after a while I realized that the student was calling us FSPs by our first names and the MSP (with whom she works much more closely than any of us FSPs) as "Dr. X". This MSP is quite happy to be addressed by his first name by students, but for some reason this student, who has been in the graduate program here for several years, wasn't comfortable calling him by his first name.

It is a classic phenomenon, and I have several FSP colleagues who complain about it because they feel that it means that students don't respect them as much as they do the MSPs. That may well be, but informality in form of address doesn't necessarily mean lack of respect. In the situation this morning, the student was interested in comments and advice from all of us, and has sought me out in the past for additional discussions about research topics. I do not feel disrespected and certainly don't want to be called Dr. FSP by students in my department. What I do want is for this student (and others) to get over their awe of tall MSPs with gray hair and beards.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Fishing Expedition

A favorite phrase employed by some proposal reviewers is to accuse the PI’s of proposing a ‘fishing expedition’, meaning that the PI’s don’t really know what they are going to find but are hoping to find something. This is typically meant as a devastating negative comment: that is, one should have a more certain prediction of the outcome of the research or the research should not be done.

The term is used in the sense of casting about randomly and wildly in the hopes that something interesting will turn up, and isn’t meant as a comparison with people like some of my fishing relatives who have specialized equipment, technique, and knowledge, and who are reasonably certain of getting an interesting fish.

Some colleagues and I were discussing the ‘fishing expedition’ phrase recently, as we had all, at one time or another, received this comment in proposal reviews. We wondered why 'fishing expedition' had come to be used in such a negative way. Some (most?) research has a very uncertain outcome, and that is not necessarily a bad thing, as the pay off if something interesting is discovered is potentially great. [insert any one of a number of famous stories from the history of scientific discovery]. In many cases, even if the outcome is negative, something valuable is learned. These arguments, however, do not make for a very convincing proposal to a funding agency, even though we are all supposed to be doing transformative research these days.

In some cases, the phrase is accurately applied and highlights a potential problem with the research. Some proposals describe application of a huge array of poorly-described techniques that will be hurled at a problem in the hopes that something will emerge. This can make for a bad proposal.

I received the ‘fishing expedition’ comment in one of my proposal reviews in the past year. Although the overall proposed research was favorably reviewed, a reviewer singled out one of the more exploratory aspects of it for critical comment and recommendation that that part not be funded (because it was a fishing expedition). This kind of hedge trimming suggests that only the safest, most predictable work should be done, and any exploratory tangents should be lopped off early. In these cases, I typically try to find a way to do the exploratory part of the research anyway (e.g., using funds from small grants from my university).

A previous trend in proposal-trashing involved the phrase 'stamp collecting' -- i.e., mindlessly collecting and organizing data. What's the next hobby-related pejorative, once reviewers tire of 'fishing expedition'? My personal preference would be 'zorbing'. Any other suggestions?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


A male colleague at another university has told me numerous times that he uses me as Exhibit A when discussing life/career issues with students and postdocs (particularly women). For him, I am living proof that It Can Be Done: have a research/teaching career and a family and a happy life.

He recently told me that a postdoc (whom we both know) said she didn’t think I was a good example because my life is ‘unbalanced’. My colleague was disturbed by this because he felt that she was being irrational about rejecting me as a Role Model. I don’t have a problem with it – everyone has their own definition of balance, and what works for me doesn’t necessarily work for others.

What does bother me is that the postdoc who thinks I am ‘unbalanced’ made this characterization with inadequate data. For example, she assumed that I never take vacations with my family because I couldn’t possibly ever take time off and get as much done as I seem to do. News flash: I excel at taking vacations. I go somewhere interesting with my family several times each year. Some trips are with my daughter alone, and some involve my husband, daughter, and me. Some trips are related to professional travel (e.g., tacking on a family vacation to a conference trip) but some are entirely vacation. And sometimes we just lurk at home and have fun doing random things together.

Another example: this postdoc assumed that I must not spend much time with my daughter, who is in elementary school. Owing to the flexibility of an academic job, I spend as much (and possibly more) time with my daughter as parents with full-time non-academic jobs. My daughter is a happy, healthy, interesting person, and we have lots of fun together. If the postdoc doesn’t want to work full-time when her kids are young, that is her decision to make, but it doesn’t mean my life is ‘unbalanced’. It’s just not how she wants her life to be.

My colleague went to great effort to convince the postdoc that I am not just an insane working machine, but he says that she is unconvinced. It’s possible that she doesn’t want to be convinced, and that’s fine. It would be better if she would just say that she doesn’t want a career at a research university for her own reasons rather than using me as a negative example, but I know it can be hard to admit that in an environment that considers desiring a faculty position at a research university to be the ultimate goal, with anything else indicating failure or a lack of ambition.

So, I hope I get to keep my credentials as a Role Model, even if being living proof that It Can Be Done is not enough to convince everyone that this is the best possible life – because it isn’t the best possible life for everyone.

Monday, October 15, 2007

I Could Have Done That

Many years ago when I was a second-year grad student, I gave my very first conference presentation. The topic was a project that was not my main thesis topic, but a 'side' project that my advisor let me explore because it interested me. It was a simple, focused project using some new technology not previously available, and it easily set to rest a minor debate that had been unresolved owing to the lack of such data. It wasn't a big deal, but it was a nice introduction for me to research, writing, and conferences.

My advisor and I presented the work as a poster at a national meeting, and I found the experience very thrilling, as a parade of scientists, including many whose names I knew from reading their papers, visited my poster and chatted with me about the work. One particularly Famous Scientist stopped by the poster, said "I could have done this", and walked away. He walked away before I could reply, but my response would have been something like "No kidding".

Over the years, I had several more "I could have done that" encounters with this Famous Scientist. For one project that I did, he told me that he had thought about doing it for years but just hadn't had time. If he had the time, he would have done this project long before I did it. For a paper that I published, he wrote to me a long letter saying that he had not reviewed my paper, but if he had, he would have had the following comments [there followed a long list of comments]. The comments were mostly positive, as it turns out, and many were along the lines of "I knew that already" (even though most people didn't).

Based on this brief description, you may have concluded, as I did at the time, that this person is an obnoxious jerk. In fact, he is kind of obnoxious, but I have come to appreciate him in many way. His passion for science is not driven by an interest in being famous or in putting people down. He is curious about everything, he reads everything, and he has an opinion about everything. Although he terrifies many students, he loves discussing science with anyone and everyone, and is fascinating to talk to. The list of his undergraduate and graduate advisees who have had successful scientific careers is awesome.

During visits to my department, he has spent hours with my students discussing their research. He finds something interesting in even the most boring talk, and likes to spark discussions with creative questions and comments. He is a very interesting person.

Although I wouldn't have guessed it from his "I could have done that" comments over the years, he meant them as compliment in a weird kind of way. It is surely an egotistical way to some extent, but now that I know him better (and am no longer an anxious young grad student), I can get past that kind of thing and have some great conversations with him. He even recently suggested that we collaborate on a project. I couldn't help but wonder if that meant there was finally something I could do that he couldn't, or if he just didn't have time to do the entire project himself.. but mostly I think it would be fun to work with him.

My point is that although some of the obnoxious people I have described in this blog may be incurable jerks, some are more nuanced jerks, though it may take some time (age) and distance to be able to appreciate them.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Not Special

In recent years, I have occasionally published papers in thematic “special volumes” and have edited one as well. Note that I am referring to the book-type of special volume, not a thematic issue of a regularly published journal. When deciding whether to submit a paper to a special issue, I have in the past considered the following:

- Whether a book comprised of a set of papers contributed by various authors will make an interesting compilation – i.e., that the sum of the parts (= individual papers) makes for an interesting whole (= book) – as compared to submitting the paper to a journal. At the time the decision must be made, it is impossible to predict how good a book will be, as you don’t know how many of the authors who indicate a tentative title to the hypothetical book will actually write the paper. The book could end up being amazing or lame, and you have to try to guess in advance.

- Are the editors going to do an efficient job of making sure the book goes to press in a timely way, or are they going to keep extending the deadline for slow authors? And if the deadline is extended, how much is it extended? This is a book editor’s dilemma: if you extend the deadline so that a few more excellent papers will be submitted, thereby making the book more excellent, the delay (if not excessive) may be worthwhile and everyone will be happy; if the deadline is extended and the other papers don’t ever arrive, the authors who submitted on time will be angry about the delay and/or about having a paper in a book that isn’t very good.

- Is the book going to have an extended introduction to the topic or just a brief overview that highlights the individual papers? Review articles can be very useful and interesting and may even be necessary if the other papers in the book are highly specialized and narrow in focus, but I generally prefer the latter because people tend to cite the introduction paper rather than the individual papers, even if there is no original research in the introduction paper. It is easier to cite one review article than a series of more specific papers. There is a place for comprehensive review papers, but perhaps not at the beginning of a thematic volume, especially if the paper includes all the important points of the individual papers.

- Is there some other benefit to submitting the manuscript to a thematic book rather than a journal (other than that mentioned in point 1)? For example, a reason I submitted a couple of papers to a thematic book a few years ago was because they were Big Idea papers of a type that I didn’t think would make it into a regular journal but that fit the theme of some special volume books.

These are all difficult things to evaluate, but my current thinking is that an additional consideration overwhelms all my previous calculations about whether a special volume was going to be worthwhile: Some of these books are not included in article search programs and citation indices. That’s become a clincher for me – if the paper isn’t going to be found by anyone doing a search on the topic, it’s not going to get read as much as it would otherwise.

I suppose I sound as if I’m obsessed with citations, but so much work goes into writing a paper, it’s kind of tragic if it disappears into the black hole of works not catalogued by Web of Science etc. The consequences for me, as a senior professor, are not so dire, but could be very serious for an early-career scientist. For early career people, I suggest that they avoid the special volumes unless they have an ‘extra’ paper in addition to their regular journal articles, the special volume really is special, and/or the editors are not closely connected to them (having an article in a volume edited by your former advisor might not ‘count’ as much). [though I may not be expressing a majority view there – I have been on committees in which someone whose advisor got a Nobel Prize – or whose advisor’s advisor’s brother’s uncle got a Nobel Prize – was considered to be a genius, or at least asymptotic to one].

At the moment, for various reasons involving a recent bad experience with inefficient editors and concern about papers that don’t show up in online searches, I am saying no to most opportunities to submit manuscripts to special volumes. I feel sorry about this, as some of these books are very interesting. If authors stop contributing to these volumes, I wonder if their number will decrease dramatically or if the publishers will work out a way for the papers to be included in citation indices and search engines.

Thursday, October 11, 2007


In a recent conversation with a young colleague (not in my department), I was amazed to find that s/he had given up on a project after a grant proposal was not funded on the first submission. I can’t remember my early career days well enough to recall how I came to realize that proposals can and should be resubmitted if there is any indication (e.g., from the program director or reviews) that the project has merit.

The revision needs to be a serious one in most cases, and this is a good thing. There certainly are cases in which review comments are bizarre and the reasons for a proposal’s rejection are difficult to understand, but even in those cases, the revised proposal is typically much better than the first version just because you’ve had more time to think about the research and may even have some additional ideas (or data).

Having a proposal rejected feels terrible, but if you still think it’s a great project and you have an idea for how to improve the proposal, resubmit resubmit resubmit.

A related issue is the fact that this young scientist was not being given advice about these things in his/her own department. It was random chance that we had a conversation, and I just happened to ask how things were going regarding getting new projects started. We ended up talking for hours.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Qualified Females/Deja Vu

Some American science organizations (professional societies, funding agencies) require that the meetings they sponsor have some representation from underrepresented groups, including women. At one such recent meeting, the male organizers (an international group of Europeans and Americans) were required to have at least one woman speaker give an invited talk. So they invited one (but only one), and met the minimum requirement. There is no lack of women who could have been invited to speak, and in fact I think it is quite a feat to organize a meeting in this particular field without involving more women.

With reference to this meeting, a group of men (all Europeans, as it happens) were discussing this American policy of inviting women. They thought it was a good example of absurd American behavior, and one said, with reference to being forced to invite at least one woman: “But what if there aren’t any qualified ones (to invite)?”. One of the men objected to the premise of that question – the one who told me about this (knowing full well that he was providing me Blog Fodder).

It is very difficult to organize a meeting on any topic in my field of science without involving women. Although men outnumber women, there are sufficient numbers of women such that any meeting, even those that are very focused, will attract women participants. Aside from the question of why more women weren’t invited to speak at the meeting in question, and even considering my deep cynicism about gender issues in the sciences, it still amazes me that any man in the physical sciences today can seriously ask the “what if there are no qualified women” question as if it is a sane question.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Professional Friends

Previously I have written about some of the things I enjoy about being mid-career (and middle aged), including: seeing my former students progress in their own careers but not being so deep into my own that I don’t still encounter my own advisors and teachers, and feeling like I’ve learned a lot but still have a lot more fun things to do with my research and teaching.

Something else that I really like is having colleagues with whom I have worked for a long time, including friends from grad school. Memories of my student years have largely receded into the mist, but the support and friendship of my fellow grad students is important to me to this day. This support network was essential to my sanity in graduate school – I sometimes wonder if I would even have gotten my degree if I hadn’t had this to counterbalance the negative weirdness of the faculty (see previous post on Anti-Mentors). Today, some of these fellow students are my colleagues.

When you’ve worked with a colleague for a decade or more, you have a long history of evolving ideas, you have lots of shared stories, and you have a working relationship that in many ways resembles a friendship. This can be a very fun and satisfying part of professional life.

Recently at a social function, one of my long-term colleagues was telling a group of other people about how I collaborate with friends from grad school and about some of my other long-term collaborations. He was saying it as if it is something unusual. I was surprised that he even thought this worth mentioning to a group of random people, but perhaps it is (and hence I am writing this short comment on it).

Friday, October 05, 2007

Dead Time

How to fill those gaps in time when students come to your office for help, but they are not organized about it? They arrive, rummage in their backpack for a while, pull out a folder, rummage in that, flip pages around and so on. Every once in a while there is a question to answer. I am not complaining about the students' lack of organization. I always wonder, though, if I could do something else while they are rummaging, or whether that would make it seem like I have more important things to do than give them my full attention. I am always tempted to go back to working on whatever I was doing when they arrived, returning my attention to the student when they are ready to ask me their questions, but I usually just sit and wait patiently, making conversation about the course or asking them questions about their semester/day/life. I kept track of the dead time (DT) : active question/answer time (AQT) for two students who came to my office this week, and in both cases there was more dead time than question/answer. I think a typical ratio of DT to QAT is about 60 : 40.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

World's Best Graph Paper Shirt

I apologize that the photograph is a bit blurry, but I think you get the idea.. this is the most awesome graph paper shirt in the world.

My Giuliani Moment

I do not get upset if a student’s cell phone rings during class (unless the student answers the phone). If a phone rings while I am teaching, I ignore it, laugh, or make a joke about it, depending on the situation. It doesn't happen very often, so it is not a major annoyance.

What I forgot to do today before class is quit the Skype application on my laptop. It wouldn’t have mattered for most classes because my laptop is typically not connected to the internet during class. Today, however, I needed to show the students (yet again) how to find online review questions for the upcoming exam, so I logged in and showed the class how to find the information. It still amazes me that some students can’t figure out how to find online course information (despite instructions about this on the syllabus, despite in-class demonstrations, and despite email from me about it), but that’s another topic.

So, in the middle of class today, when I had an image projected on the big screen at the front of the room, a colleague called me using Skype. The Skype window popped up on the screen and was superimposed on my Science Image, accompanied by the sound of a phone ringing (perhaps I should change that setting).

The resemblance between Rudy Giuliani and me, however, ends there. Well, I hope it ends elsewhere as well, but in terms of this story, it ends there. I did not answer my Skype call – I hung up on my colleague and quit Skype, then emailed him after class to explain why I went offline while he was calling.

I suppose it might have been sort of entertaining to answer the call in class and point the webcam towards the students, but I was on a roll with an explanation of an extremely cool scientific concept and didn’t want to interrupt that. Furthermore, although opportunities for me to emulate the former mayor tend to be few and far between, the thought of copying Giuliani's recent cell phone stunt was less than appealing.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

That's Debatable

The students in one of the classes I am teaching are gearing up for an in-class debate in the next few weeks. Through discussions in class, we selected a controversial science topic that rather neatly divides the students into two camps with opposing views.

It happens that one side is largely comprised of male students, and the other of female students; the students chose which group to be in based on which side of the argument most closely matched their views. I encouraged the students to organize themselves within each group in terms of how they apportion roles and how they will communicate with each other outside of class in preparation for the debate.

It was fascinating watching the students start to organize their groups in class today, though I was surprised at how closely their organizing activities followed classic gender roles. The male-dominated group organized itself to have one leader (a male); the rest of the students in that group will have specific designated roles, and they will probably communicate by email. In the female-dominated group, two of the women decided to act as co-leaders, and students in the group will share responsibility for topics that will evolve through discussions during a group meeting prior to the debate.

In the male-dominated group, the few women didn’t say much during their in-class organizational meeting, nor did the few men in the female-dominated group. In part because of this, I inserted myself into the group discussions to make sure that everyone had a chance to express their ideas. With only this minor amount of interference, it wasn’t difficult to get everyone talking within each group.

I told the students that this debate isn’t about winning or losing an argument; it’s about having an interesting and friendly discussion about an important and controversial topic. Ideally, both sides will be evenly matched in terms of their ability to make a clear and compelling case for their opinion (supported by evidence/data).

Based on what I’ve seen of these students in the past month or so, I expect both groups to be well prepared and articulate. I would be surprised if the major difference in organizational style of each group influences the outcome in a significant way, but I am very curious to see how it all turns out.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Professor Magnet Hotel

Later this fall I will be traveling to a large city to which I’ve traveled a number of times in the past ~ 20 years. A long time ago, I found a hotel that I really like, so I typically stay there. I have never bothered to read reviews of this hotel before, perhaps because I started staying there in the pre-online review era and already know that I like this hotel. Out of curiosity, I looked it up online recently and found to my surprise that this hotel is “favored by academics”.

I find it disconcerting that being a professor so pervades every molecule of my being that I am subconsciously attracted to a particular kind of hotel. When I’ve stayed at this hotel before, I have not noticed that it is swarming with professorial people. Next time, I will look around and see if there are people in shirts that look like graph paper or people dressed all in black editing manuscripts in the breakfast room.

I’m not sure what specifically makes this hotel a professor magnet. The hotel is architecturally interesting (= charming), smallish (= cozy), and conveniently located in the city center. So..?