Friday, November 30, 2007

$ Matters

The typical procedure when invited to give a talk at another university is for the invitee to get the plane ticket and then get reimbursed after the travel is completed. Lodging, meals, and other transportation costs are taken care of directly by the host institution.

I was recently thinking about all the professional travel expenses my husband and I currently have that have not yet been reimbursed. Including past travel that has yet to be reimbursed and future travel that won't be reimbursed until various times over the next 5-6 months, the sum is quite large at the moment: in the range of $7000. It is so large in part because the system has broken down a bit in terms of timely reimbursements for past travel relative to payments for future travel. In addition, because my teaching schedule is lighter in the spring term than in the fall, I scheduled most of my invited talks for next term. I just got a flock of plane tickets and loaded up my credit card.

For one talk I gave months ago but for which I have yet to be reimbursed, my hosts have been very apologetic but say that their departmental accountant has been deliberately losing receipts and taking a long time with all reimbursements. I have sent my receipt and social security number to the accountant 3 times so far. Methinks my department isn't the only one with a hostile zombie staff member. My hosts say that I am welcome to call their accountant and yell and/or whine, but that option doesn't appeal to me very much (yet).

The delay is annoying but not a huge problem for me. It occurred to me, though, that hostile zombie accountants could cause major problems for financially vulnerable people, such as some candidates for faculty positions (e.g., recent/current Ph.D. students interviewing at several/many places).

As long as there is a constant stream of reimbursements to offset the constant acquisition of new plane tickets, the system works pretty well. For me right now, the system is out of whack, with a drought at one end and a flood at the other. If things got dire, I would ask a host department to get my plane ticket for me, avoiding the reimbursement issue entirely. In the meantime, I will just try to enjoy the glorious adventure that is air travel in the U.S. these days, and not worry so much about $ matters.

Thursday, November 29, 2007


For the past year and a half, I have been doing pretty well in the language class I’ve been taking. I do much better at writing and reading than I do at speaking, but I’m making progress on all fronts. Recently, however, I encountered a major obstacle. As part of an exam, we had to listen to an audio clip that was played on a mini-laptop set on a table at the center of the classroom, and then answer questions about what we heard. The audio clip had background music, there was construction and traffic noise outside the classroom, the laptop vibrated on the table, and the speakers on the laptop were lousy. I couldn’t make out most of the words in the audio clip.

The other students also had trouble understanding the audio clip, but not as much trouble as I did. The instructor played the clip again and let me sit closer to the laptop, but that didn't help. When I was closer to the speakers, I mostly just heard the background music. I had to leave that page of the exam mostly blank.

I have been aware for the past year or so that I have been developing a mild case of Cocktail Party Syndrome, the inability to differentiate sound from background noise, but I hadn’t previously encountered a situation in which it mattered. I don’t think I have a severe case. We watch movies in this class and some of these have background music, but as long as the movies are played with a good sound system, I can understand them fairly well. When we have audio assignments for homework, I use headphones and definitely don’t have a problem then.

The instructor says that part of learning a language is learning how to understand the language even when the sound is not ideal. You have to deal with sounds as they come, even if the words are indistinct or partly obscured by other sounds. What if you are in a crowd? What if you have to understand a message broadcast over a loudspeaker in a bus station? It is important to understand what is being said outside a classroom setting, and therefore being able to do that is part of being able to do well in this class.

I agree with most of that, but there’s only so much I can do about my hearing in certain situations. I don’t know what I would do about this class if I were a real student and found that I couldn’t do the audio portions of the exams. Perhaps I would get my hearing impairment documented and request some accommodation, even if this involved creating an unrealistic language environment.

This situation made me think about all my students who need accommodations for exams and assignments owing to various physical and learning disabilities. It is rare to teach a class these days without at least one student needing to take exams at the disability services office, needing extra time, or needing some other accommodation. For example, I recently taught two hearing impaired students who needed interpreters in two different classes, and had to alter my in-class teaching style accordingly.

Providing accommodations for students with disabilities involves time and effort – sometimes a lot of extra time, and that can be difficult for an instructor. There have been times when I have been frustrated by the additional time and effort required, especially when I didn't have any time to spare.

However, these accommodations are an important part of making university education accessible to as many people as possible. I have heard the but-that’s-not-how-it-is-in-the-real-world argument against these accommodations before and have never found it very compelling. Now – much to my surprise – I find it being used as a reason for why I should just try harder to discern sounds from background noise*. Although my situation is not dramatic or dire, I am more convinced than ever that accommodations in a course can make the difference between success and failure.

* As it turns out, I didn't fail the exam after all, as the instructor just informed the class that she won’t count that part of the exam very much. However, she does want us to work on our listening skills more, and we may encounter an audio clip on the final exam.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Academic Economic Unitness

Today in a conversation with a colleague, my husband was stunned when the colleague made a somewhat bitter remark about how much easier my husband’s life is than his because my husband has a professor-spouse and therefore two salaries. This and some comments that followed offended my husband because he felt that the colleague was saying that one of us should work for lower pay and not be such an economic burden on the department. Perhaps there would be more salary money for those in one-salary families if the two of us weren’t sucking up so much of the department’s cash to fund our lavish lifestyle? I am exaggerating -- this colleague would never state his opinion so crudely. Even so, what millennium is he living in that he thinks that my husband and/or I should make a lower salary because we both work?

And why stop with penalizing members of two-career couples? Why should single/childless faculty get paid more than a meager amount when they are just going to spend their money on themselves? Why don’t we scale faculty salary according to the number of children and dogs that each person has? Cats should count as well, but they don’t seem to be as expensive as dogs, so there would have to be a different coefficient for cats in the salary equation unless n(cats) > 12. I’m sorry if I’m offending anyone, but I would not include a salary adjustment for rodents or reptiles, and I am ambivalent about fish and birds. Should boy offspring count the same as girl offspring and/or should the offspring coefficient be adjusted for age and desire for high-end audio/video/computer equipment? [end of bizarre hyperbolic rant]

[start of serious blog-text] My husband’s negative reaction to this conversation was based in part on a long history of our both being underpaid relative to our colleagues in the department. The previous chair considered us an Economic Unit and saw no reason why either one of us should be paid according to our merits since together we made a decent salary.

The previous chair, as well as the person my husband was talking to today, are both in one-salary families, with wives who stay(ed) home with the kids. That’s their choice, of course, but it should be irrelevant to departmental decisions about faculty salary.

Perhaps it is harder for some of our colleagues to deal with our Economic Unitness because we are both Science Professors. If one of us were in a different career, would some of our colleagues still think the professor in the couple should be paid less, or would it be different because only one salary was coming from the department/university?

It struck me as kind of amusing that this colleague envies our situation. Salary considerations aside, I am sure he faces challenges in terms of balancing career and family, but I am fairly sure that he doesn’t have some of the difficulties that we do; for example, a sick kid or a no-school day doesn’t throw his work day into chaos. He probably also doesn’t realize that for years we spent half of our combined salary on day care. None of that should matter, however, to the simple fact that members of an academic couple should each be paid a fair salary, no matter how many spouses, offspring, or pets we have.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Museum of Me

Being efficient doesn't necessarily correlate with being neat; at least, not in my case. My office is piled high with lots of stuff, old and new. I was thinking about this recently because I am contemplating a major cleaning and tossing-out of old stuff. I did some office cleaning during the Thanksgiving break, but nothing dramatic: there are still piles on my desk, but these piles now consist only of the 57 most urgent things I have to do in the new few weeks. The dramatic cleaning, if it occurs, will have to be after the term ends.

I was also thinking about my office-as-archive in the context of last Friday's post. Specifically, I was musing about why I have a proclivity for deleting emails and having a neat electronic inbox when my physical office is a mess. I briefly considered the possible lingering psychological effects of a job I had in graduate school: organizing the office of a deceased professor to see if any of his papers or letters should be saved for a university archive. [This blog seems to have a bit of a death theme this month: Editing the Dead, 11/7; Friends, 11/23).. sorry about that].

In that case, my office-organizing job was not a sorrowful task -- the deceased professor had been exceedingly mean (in fact, the word vicious readily comes to mind) and a sociopathic harasser of women. Organizing his office was, however, a sobering task in that he had saved everything. He had saved every letter he had ever received in a 50+ year long career, and he had also saved carbon copies of letters he sent. It was not surprising to find that many of the letters he sent were hate letters. My personal favorite began: "Dear X, You are a parasite..". I made sure those went to the archivist for review, as they nicely captured his personality and approach to professional relationships.

I have never sent a you-are-a-parasite letter to anyone, but I still don't like to save a lot of my correspondence. I do save some messages -- mostly ones that amuse or interest me -- but I delete more than I save.

After a bit of pondering about the discrepancy between my email neatness and my overall lack of neatness, I decided that my tendency to delete email isn't because I am constantly contemplating my own death and not wanting to leave a personal record. More likely, the explanation is the obvious one: that it is easier to delete email than to organize the flood of papers and other stuff that is constantly flowing into my office. Perhaps if paper could be vaporized as easily as pushing a delete button on a keyboard, I wouldn't have such a messy office.

The big question for me now is whether I am ready to toss out some of the older items in the Museum of Me -- e.g., notebooks from college and grad school, ancient textbooks, paper copies of articles I can now get as pdf's, and maybe even .. giant floppy disks filled with beautiful data from obsolete machines.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

My Mother-In-Law Is Worse Than Your Mother-In-Law

The reason I have time to write today, on this Major American Holiday, relates directly to the title of this post. I have been pondering the deep philosophical question of whether I would rather spend today with my mother-in-law or with my most loathsome colleague (mentioned in previous posts as Professor Troll). I think I would choose the latter, though if this question about my preferred holiday companions were on a multiple-choice test, a better answer would be none of the above or cats (Figure 1).

The reason I might choose my trollish colleague over my mother-in-law for a holiday companion is that I can respond to his rude comments as I wish -- sarcastic comments without guilt, faux-innocent remarks to him about his former classmates who are now all retiring in droves, passive-aggressive mention of my recent papers or grants, etc. However, on the rare occasions I have to see my mother-in-law, I am nice to her, however not nice she is. I am nice to her in person and I am nice to her in absentia (I never say anything negative about her to my daughter, for example). I can't even be sarcastic, and that is difficult for me.

Academic families are complicated, but real families are more so. Even so, I am glad to have a few days off from appointments, meetings, and so on, before diving back into the last few weeks of the term.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Why Do Professors Give Exams..

Today I had a major exam in the language class I am taking. I don't mind taking a test the day before Thanksgiving, but I don't think I would give such an exam in a class I was teaching. In one of the classes I am teaching this semester, I asked the students if they had exams in their other classes this week, and most did not. The few who did asked "Why do professors give exams the week of a big holiday?".

Quite a few of my students either had tests last week or have tests next week. One student asked "Why do professors give exams the week after a holiday?" and another asked "Why do professors give exams the week before a holiday?" and another asked "Why do professors give exams so close to the end of the semester?". The students also hate exams on Mondays and Fridays. I think that leaves a Wednesday in mid-October as the only acceptable date, though it's difficult for students to have lots of exams on the same day or in the same week, so maybe that possibility is out as well. When I was discussing this with my students, I laughed and said "It seems that your real question is Why do professors give exams?".

The class in which I had this discussion doesn't have any exams, so it was an easy topic to discuss openly, although I kept the discussion on the topic of exam scheduling rather than the cosmic question about the existence of exams. It really seemed to surprise some students that professors don't have evil motives when picking exam times, and that the amount of material covered relative to the type of exam is perhaps the main factor in deciding when and how many exams there will be.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Young Pup

Every once in a while I give a public lecture on a topic related to my research. These talks are challenging to give in a coherent and interesting way because the audience is so much more diverse in scientific experience than even a typical introductory science class. There is also a huge range in age: in a recent talk, my audience ranged in age from 12 to 80-something.

In this most recent public lecture, I spoke in a large dimly lit auditorium. I used a microphone, paced around on a stage-like thing, showed some cool images, and talked about some interesting research questions and results. At the end of the talk, I answered questions from the audience; some questions were very fun to answer, some were easy, some had no answers, and some were bizarre. After the general question session, some audience members came to the front to ask me additional questions one-on-one.

One man (estimated age: 60-something) came up to me and looked at me very closely. Then he said “I am so relieved to see that you aren’t actually as young as I thought you were.” I pointed to the wrinkles at the corners of my eyes and said “Observe the dramatic evidence for aging.” And he said “I know, that’s what I was just looking at.” He said he’d spent my whole talk thinking I was a “young pup” and it “really bothered” him to think that someone so young could “know so much” and “be so smart”. He repeated that he was very relieved to know that I am not so young.

OK.. whatever. I have definitely learned a lot over the years, though sometimes I think that the wisdom I have accumulated through experience is being eroded at the same (or greater) rate by the effects of aging. At least I can still put on a good (science) show.

I think I could have done without that particular conversation, though, and maybe next time I will ask the person who introduces me to be sure to mention the dates that I acquired my various degrees. That way, the “old dogs” in the audience can do the math and figure out that I am deeply middle aged.

Despite the random encounters with strange people, I enjoy giving these talks. It’s nice to see big groups of real people who are interested in Science, who turn out for an evening’s random Science talk because they want to be there, and who are thrilled when they learn something new.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Extreme Reviewing

Lately I seem to be suffering from a strange syndrome that could be called review addiction. I could also call it extreme reviewing, not because my reviews are extremely negative/positive or extremely long/short, but because I am currently reviewing what I would typically consider (for me) to be an extreme number of manuscripts (8), in addition to a few dozen proposals.

Another way to describe this syndrome is that I have become a reviewing doormat, unable to just say no to editor requests to review.

There are many possible explanations for my extreme reviewing behavior of late, including:

- Based on the manuscript titles/abstracts, I was interested in reading and reviewing these manuscripts. It just so happens that I have lately been asked to review some interesting papers. I was curious to read them, so it was difficult to decline to review them.

- As someone who seeks reviewers in the capacity of being an editor, I know what it's like to have trouble finding a reviewer for a manuscript. I could easily decline to review a manuscript on the basis that I am unable to take on more reviews. However, if I've got a manageable editorial load at the time I am asked to review another manuscript and I'm interested in the topic, I say yes.

- A year or so ago I started publishing on a research topic that was a new direction for me, and now I get asked to review manuscripts related to this topic. I am interested in establishing myself more in this particular subfield, and reviewing is one way to become part of the scientific community related to this topic.

- I have a manuscript in review or am about to submit a manuscript to all of the journals that recently asked me to review a manuscript. I feel that I have a moral obligation to review for these particular journals, as their editors and reviewers are (or, I hope will soon be) taking the time to consider my manuscripts.

- Some of these manuscripts cite my work, and I have an interest in making sure that this was done appropriately and accurately.

- As I learned last week, I am not quantitative. Perhaps I can't count. Perhaps the number 1 is conceptually the same to me as the number 8.

The perceptive reader will note the use of the Sarcastic Font in the last item, but it could be that I succumbed to a bout of extreme reviewing owing to a related effect, which I will call the incremental effect. That is, I got asked to do a review and said yes. I got asked to do another, and said yes because I can certainly handle 2 reviews. Then I got asked to do another and I figured, what's one more? The end of the semester is approaching and it's an interesting paper and.. then I got asked to do another and it was also an interesting paper and didn't seem to be too long and .. so on.

I wouldn't have agreed to do all these reviews if I didn't think I could do them well and get them done in a timely way. I don't think I will take on any more until 2008, though.

Evidence that I am not a complete review doormat: I turned down one recent review request because one editor sent me two requests in a single day for two different manuscripts for the same journal; I accepted one to review and declined the other.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Homework Help

This is probably cheating to ask for help with this, but I am puzzled by a question on my language homework this weekend. Here is the question (translated):

To be a good teacher, it is necessary to be

(a) patient
(b) strange
(c) optimistic
(d) hard

Too bad 'all of the above' is not a choice.

(and yes, I do know which one I am 'supposed' to choose).

Friday, November 16, 2007

FSP as Student, continued

This week in the intermediate-level language class I am taking, each student has done an oral presentation on a topic of our choice. These presentations are not supposed to be practiced talks, and we certainly can't read from notes. We are supposed to stand in front of the class and start talking -- e.g., about a book, movie, recipe, trip, friend, relative, pet etc. -- and then the presentations evolve as we are asked questions by the others in the class and by the instructor.

I decided to talk about some of my research experiences relevant to the countries where this language is spoken. In these places, being female has definitely affected my experiences, but that point wasn't central to the story I wanted to tell today. It was important for understanding the context of my experience, but mostly I just wanted to tell a story that I thought was funny.

The others in the class kept interrupting me with questions like "Why did Person X say that to you?" or "Why did you have to do that?" and in each case the simple answer was because I am female. The students asked me why that mattered. So, for a while the discussion was about gender roles and sexism, something that had not been a topic of direct discussion yet in this class. This is the second year of a class that meets 5 days/week, so we all know each other fairly well by now and have talked about a lot of things, but not this particular topic (and hence my knowledge of the relevant vocabulary was limited). The instructor had not had exactly the same experiences, but she had come to the U.S. so she could teach at a university, so some of it resonated with her as well.

Eventually I got back to telling my funny story, and by the end, everyone was laughing. Perhaps this says something about my priorities (at least for today), but I was more pleased that I was able to make people laugh in another language than that I had educated my fellow students about the international nature of sexism, though perhaps it is possible to accomplish both.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The MisCitation of Me

Today I was perusing the titles of articles that just appeared online in one of the journals I typically read, and I saw one title that seemed sort of interesting in a peripheral-to-my-research but might-be-relevant kind of way. I skimmed it, and saw a citation of one of my papers. My first reaction was to be very pleased -- one of my 2007 papers was cited by someone else's 2007 paper, and that is nice. My second reaction was What?!??

The sentence that preceded the reference to FSP et al. (2007) was about a topic not discussed by FSP et al. (2007). In addition, the sentence seems to imply that FSP et al. (2007) has certain data on this topic, but in fact it does not. It has other data -- very nice data, in my opinion -- but not the cited data.

In other examples of incorrect citations of my work, I have been very annoyed, particularly if the citation accompanies an interpretation that is not one that I actually made. I have also been annoyed by examples of what I thought were abuse of my data or other research results.

But what about a citation that overall seems harmless, however wrong? My paper doesn't contain the indicated data, but that doesn't bother me nearly as much as having my interpretations or results distorted or otherwise misrepresented.

On the plus side, I have the citation in my citation index. On the negative side, what if the (mis)citation leads people looking for the non-existent data to my paper, resulting in massive disappointment and heartbreak when the sought-for data are not found? That would be so sad. I will try not to think about that and be glad instead that someone (mis)read my paper.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Qualified v. Quantified

Today a random grad student stopped by my office to ask what he described as a random question. He said he was going around asking various people a particular question, and even though my research is "not quantitative" and I "probably never use equations", since my door was open, he thought he'd ask me his question anyway. He was asking people which equation editor they use.

I am "not quantitative"? Those are fighting words in some fields..

I did not challenge the student to a duel or shove my equation-filled reprints in his face; I just answered his question, simply telling him which equation editor I use. He was surprised that I use equation editors and have opinions about them, but he didn't comment further.

Not all of my papers have equations, but some do, including a few very recent ones. Since this student has clearly not read my papers, I wonder what about me screams "not quantitative" to him. Of course I have a hypothesis, but then, I just happen to be wearing my gender lenses today.

To many, being quantitative shows that you are a serious, rigorous scientist. I was discussing this with one of my students recently in relation to the main goals of his research. He said that a main goal was to quantify things. I said "Why?" and he seemed surprised, as if quantifying things was an end in itself. This turned into a wide-ranging and interesting conversation about his research and future directions for his work, including discussion of where quantifying things fits into the general scheme of his work.

Another frequent quantitative topic is something I call my you can always get a number speech. This speech has several parts: (1) You can always get a number.. but does it mean anything? and (2) You can always get a number, but even if it means something.. what does it mean? (i.e., the number itself is not an end in itself, you have to think about it).

It is surely a sign of age that I have these little speeches that I find myself giving over and over. There is probably an equation I could write (if I ever did such things) that relates my age in any given year to the frequency with which I give these speeches. Or something.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

On Failure

To follow on the last couple of posts on success, it might be timely to discuss (again) the topic of failure. In this case, I mean failure in an academic sense -- e.g., failing to obtain a degree or failing to do well in research (as a student, postdoc, or faculty member).

There are of course many scenarios, reasons, and types of people who don't do well in the academic ecosystem. The various types include:

- those who could do well if the powers-that-be weren't evil, biased, and/or lacking judgment, or who could do well if the academic system weren't so inflexible;
- those who could do well but are hindered severely by problems beyond their control (e.g., physical/mental illness or family issues);
- those who could do well if they tried/worked harder (that's a loaded statement, I know);
- those who are intellectually unable to do the work;
- those who are intellectually able but lack other essential elements (e.g., creativity; ability to complete a project, including writing)

I am not going to discuss the first two items today.

I have observed examples of the other three species throughout my academic career. They have always existed and will always exist. A challenge for faculty advisors is to identify them before accepting them as advisees. At this I have failed repeatedly, providing me with some expertise on the topic, as well as my own experience with failure.

It is important to note that I am not talking about people who could do well with good advising, mentoring, and a flexible research program -- I place them in the first two categories in my list.

It might seem to be easiest to identify in advance those who are intellectually unable to do research, but this is not always the case. Some of my best graduate students have had not-so-stellar undergraduate records, and some of my worst were undergrad stars.

Determining whether someone is going to be enthusiastic about their graduate/postdoctoral work is also difficult. Example: a graduate student who, as an undergrad, had done a research project and apparently done it well, with excellent reference letters from the undergrad research advisor; applied to grad school because of an apparently deep interest in research and excitement about an array of possible projects; arrived at grad school and suddenly lost all interest in research, appearing in the department occasionally to attend a class and teach a lab. I can't help but think of all the applicants we had to reject (owing to the limited number of grad positions available) the year this student was admitted; if we had known, of course we would have chosen differently.

Judging someone's ability to do research can also be difficult to do before that person is given a chance to demonstrate their abilities. However, giving someone a chance to get started with a research project to a sufficient level to judge their abilities fairly takes time. That, combined with time for courses, exams, and teaching labs (in some cases), means that you might not know for 2+ years whether a grad student is going to be able to do Ph.D. research. In the case of a 'failing' grad student, although the right decision may become more obvious with time, it also becomes more difficult to make.

I know of no fool-proof way to know in advance if someone has the ability and passion to do research. Genetic testing? Personality quiz? Crystal balls or tea leaves? I think it's going to have to continue to be an educated guess + trial-and-error kind of experience.

Failing is seldom an unemotional thing. I have never had a student who, after a year or two, just shrugged and said "oh well, I guess this research thing isn't for me but thanks anyway for trying to help me". Nor have I had a student who, after leaving the program (voluntarily or involuntarily), said "I am tormented by regret about all the money that was spent on me, including precious grant funds that you worked so hard to obtain and that I have essentially wasted because I didn't do the work I was paid to do. Here's the money back." [hands the department a check].

Some of my colleagues hope that there is a special circle of hell reserved for those who waste a substantial amount of everyone's time and money before quitting or failing. I am perhaps not so extreme, though I admit to having unkind thoughts about such people from time to time. Instead, I think it is better to wish our 'failures' well, and hope that they will succeed in their non-academic lives and be happy .. and perhaps also make a lot of money and send us that check.

Monday, November 12, 2007

More On Success

Speaking of ambition and success (Friday’s post).. Last week I got a nice but bizarre email from my former advisor. He wrote: Among the pleasures of my life as a prof has been the opportunity to witness the great successes of some of my students, and you and Superstar Guy come to mind immediately of course. That was nice of him to say, even though I am not in the same league as Superstar Guy (you’d have to use a log-scale to plot us both).

My former advisor has had a lot of Ph.D. students, but only a small fraction are professors at R1 universities. [maybe he sent us all emails saying that he is particularly proud of Superstar Guy and (insert name)?!].

I am quite sure that my former advisor is proud of me because I have done well as a professor at an R1 university. He is definitely of the success is being a professor like me school of thought. If I had been spent my career thus far being an excellent teacher at a small liberal arts college, I am quite sure that he wouldn’t see me as so much of a ‘success’. Even so, I should say that although I don’t agree with that point of view, I am nevertheless pleased that he is proud of me. I have worked hard, I love my career, and it feels good to have accomplished what I have done so far.

The bizarre aspect of the email is that it came from someone who never said anything personal and never gave any but the lamest of praise ('nice effort') when I was a student. Even more bizarre, there is not a chance in the world that, back in the (grad school) day, my advisor would have imagined that he would one day consider me among his most successful students. It would have been too absurd to consider back then. Not remotely possible. Laughable.

When I was a student, my advisor had a large research group, including several ambitious male Ph.D. students with their sights set on jobs at R1 universities. I was quiet and, if asked, stated that my goal was to teach at a small liberal arts college, assuming I even got my Ph.D. from this program, which back then chewed up and spit out its few female grad students at an alarming rate. Among my advisor’s research group from that time, the only ones who got (and kept) jobs at R1 universities are Superstar and me. This fact amazes me to this day.

I hope that one day I am in a position to look back at my career and think similar fond and happy thoughts about my former students. In my case, though, I think that I will be equally proud of the science writer as the science professor. The point of this job isn’t to clone oneself and define success accordingly. That said, I admit that I would very much like to help increase the number of FSP’s in the world.

Friday, November 09, 2007


Today I had an argument with a colleague about the concept of ambition. He and another colleague had been discussing their shared opinion that many young scientists today, especially women, lack ambition. That is, young scientists are easily derailed by obstacles and/or choose an unambitious career path; i.e., one that doesn't involve seeking a faculty position at a research university. This lack of ambition is caused by many different factors, including: lack of confidence, laziness, an inability to deal with obstacles, lack of passion for Science, or poor choice of partners (e.g., women marrying unsupportive men).

I must first note that both of these colleagues are strong supporters of women in science and equally apply this definition of lack of ambition to men and women. For example, I don't think they believe that lack of ambition is a major reason for the so-called leaky pipeline that results in so few senior women in science. Even so, I disagree with their view of what it takes to be a successful science professor.

When I argued with my colleague today, I objected to his definition of ambition and his characterization of young scientists who choose a different career path as unambitious. By this definition, only those who have successful careers as professors at research universities are ambitious, and anyone who 'fails' at this (or doesn't even try) lacks ambition. My colleague used me as an example of someone who didn't let obstacles derail her career as a science professor at a research university. That is, there are obstacles to succeeding at this career, but they are surmountable (with ambition).

I hate it when people use me as an example to argue that the current academic system is fine. If the current academic system were just fine, there would be a lot more FSPs than there are. It does not follow that just because I "made it" as an FSP, academia is a family-friendly place that fosters the careers of women in science. That would be a bizarre and unscientific conclusion for anyone to make. That is where the argument today kept reaching an impasse. I would say "What does ambition have to do with it if a young woman decides she doesn't want to spend her life dealing with sexist men?" and my colleague would say "But you did that. And you did that because you are ambitious."

I have never felt particularly ambitious. There was never a point -- not in college, grad school, or even during my postdoc -- where I had my sights set only on a faculty position at a research university. At my graduate and postdoctoral universities, the faculty were not people whose lives I aspired to emulate. I continued doing research because I love the discovery aspects of it -- the creative thinking and the always-learning-new-things aspects. I think I have always been more driven by curiosity than ambition.

If young scientists today do not find the prospect of being a science professor at a research university appealing, perhaps this is because universities have not changed sufficiently from the days when all it took to succeed was to be a white male with the right academic pedigree (and perhaps a wife to take care of things at home). Some people probably lack sufficient passion for science -- surely this has always been so -- but I don't believe this has anything to do with ambition. For example, considering the pluses and minuses of a career as an FSP -- 'get to work on interesting scientific problems' vs. 'get to work daily with sexist trolls' -- some women will decide that such a career is worthwhile and conducive to an overall happy life and career, and others will decide it is not worth it. The latter may not indicate a lack of ambition so much as problems with the academic ecosystem.

I hope at least some of this discussion makes sense. This afternoon, I had a long and frustrating meeting that was an excellent demonstration of an obstacle to enjoying life as an FSP, and I would not be surprised if my ability to be lucid were severely impacted.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

That's A Great Question

As I wandered the halls of two academic buildings today, I passed various classrooms with classes in session. No fewer than 3 times did I hear the phrase "That's a great question" uttered. I wonder how many times each day this phrase is used, and I wonder whether anyone says "That's a good question" any more. Good is not as good as great, so perhaps it is damaging to a student's self-esteem to label their question as merely good and not great. (?)

Other variants include: That's an excellent question. That's a really great question. That's an important question.

Is there an alternative? I'd rather not replace it with a more modern expression, e.g.: That's an awesome question. That question totally rocks. But is there anything as succinct yet effective?

That's a great question is distinct from I'm glad you asked that question, as the former in theory should mean what it says, but the latter can be used as a pedagogical technique for making a student feel better about asking a stupid question; i.e., the subtext is: Your question demonstrates a lack of understanding of the topic, but I'm going to use your question as an example of a common mistake that many students make and therefore you shouldn't feel bad about asking it because I can use it as a 'teachable moment' and therefore resolve what might be widespread confusion about this issue.

Earlier this semester, a student in one of my classes asked a question that indicated confusion about the topic of the day, and I said the typical professor I'm glad you asked that question thing and then did the teachable moment thing. Then I asked the class how they felt about a professor's saying I'm glad you asked that. Some students said they hated it because they know it really means That was a stupid question and you don't understand the topic, but they also admitted that they would rather a professor be kind that way than say directly what they thought of the question. They also don't like it when a professor tries too hard to find something positive about a totally wrong answer given by a student in class, even if the answer is totally wrong, as that can be confusing for everyone.

In a small or medium class, it is not so difficult to create an environment in which students feel comfortable asking questions. It is more difficult to do this in a large class, but it is certainly possible. That's a great question can be used to create just such a comfortable environment, but once it is clear to everyone that you welcome and enjoy answering questions in class (as I do), it can be tricky using the phrase. For example, what if you use it for some questions and not for others? Results of a brief informal and statistically invalid survey of a few students indicate to me that they notice things like this.

Thus far, I have been talking about the uttering of That's a great question by professors to students. I don't think this phrase does any harm, even if it is overused. However, there are circumstances in which it is not a great idea to use the great question phrase. In particular, people giving job talks during an interview might want to avoid this phrase. I have seen it annoy a number of colleagues to have a perky young interviewee tell them that they (a distinguished and brilliant person) asked a great question. Of course their question was great! Aside from the ego issues involved, it is particularly bad if That's a great question is used to mask the fact that the person hasn't thought about a particular issue and has no good (or great) answer.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Editing the Dead

A manuscript that I have been reviewing/editing was sent back to the author for revisions, the author and I corresponded about the revisions, and then recently I got an email from someone at the author's institution informing me that the author had died unexpectedly. This manuscript, if published, will therefore be the Last Paper of this scientist.

Too bad the Last Paper is kind of awful. It is also too bad that there aren't any co-authors who can fix it up and make it good.

I never met the late author, but I am familiar with his name from his publications over the years. In his correspondence with me, he was very nice and was not at all upset about the extensive revisions required for further consideration of his manuscript. In fact, he seemed quite pleased to sink his teeth into the work and improve the paper.

The deceased person's co-workers want the manuscript to be published. I doubt if they know that it isn't a good paper, and are seeking only to honor a colleague they admired.

I have never rejected a dead person's manuscript before. If the author had lived and had not revised the first version of the manuscript, I would have rejected it. The only difference between that situation and the current situation is that the author's excuse for not doing the revisions is a very good one.

Should editors lower their standards for the dead? If we do, I doubt that large numbers of people will want to take advantage of this route to getting their manuscripts published. Therefore, publishing mediocre/bad papers by dead people from time to time is unlikely to set a dangerous precedent.

My concern isn't actually with standards in this case. If I accept this not-so-great manuscript, I can 'live' with myself [apologies for insensitive word choice]. It makes me sad, though, that this scientist's Last Paper is so lousy. Would I want my Last Paper to be like this or would I want an editor to be unsentimental and reject it?

However sad it is for one's Last Paper to be awful, the alternative isn't so great either. If someone dies just before publishing an outstanding paper, they wouldn't be around to enjoy the experience of stimulating new discussions, ideas, research etc.

The publication of this manuscript seems to mean a lot to the late author's students and colleagues, and I will probably accept the manuscript after doing what I can to fix the writing without altering the content of the paper. It's disconcerting, however, to know that the author won't be checking my editing.

So, the manuscript will probably eventually be published as this author's Last Paper. I guess that's OK -- no one would judge someone's overall scientific legacy on the quality of the Last Paper. The late author had a long career and published quite a few papers, and ultimately no one will care which paper was last. I hope.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Cat Search

If anyone doubts the warping effects on one’s brain of being on a faculty search committee that involves reading 100+ files and 100+ reference letters, perhaps this post will serve as evidence that the effects can be severe.

We have had a cat vacancy in our home since last winter, so we convened a diverse and distinguished search committee consisting of three experts (us). We recently interviewed several candidates intensively, following the European model of interviewing all candidates at the same time (very efficient). We were, in theory, open to hiring at any level, and we did interview one very intriguing candidate who would have had to have been hired at a senior level, but we were unsure about how this older cat would interact with existing cats in our home department. And, although the cat appeared active during the interview, we couldn’t help wondering: would she essentially retire once securing a permanent position?

Our short list of viable candidates ended up consisting entirely of kittens. None had had a previous home position before, not even as a postdoc. There can be a great risk in hiring such an inexperienced feline, but the rewards are potentially great if they thrive in their new environment and have a long and productive feline career in your home.

We evaluated each kitten’s background, their potential for interacting with humans and other felines, and we tried to gauge their potential for creative (but not too creative) behavior. In the end, I must admit that we favored stereotypical kitten behavior over kittens who seemed to be pushing the envelope. The kitten to whom we made an offer (which was instantly accepted) actually looks a lot like some previous members of our cat faculty. We weren’t expecting this, but it somehow just happened, perhaps because we feel most comfortable with this type of cat and weren’t ready to deal with one that was too different from what we are used to.

Introducing a new kitten into a home department dominated by senior felines can be tricky, and can involve some less-than-mature behavior on the part of senior felines, who feel threatened by the energetic addition. Even so, we are looking forward to the energizing effect our newest feline hire will surely have on our older faculty felines. We are reasonably confident that the new kitten will get tenure and have a productive career in our home, even if none of the senior felines has thus far been willing to be his mentor.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Terminal Advising, 2

Topic: The different ways that advisors deal with graduating students or departing postdocs in terms of continuing research projects. The ‘data’ on which this post is based represent an amalgamation of the experiences of several colleagues and me.

Two scenarios representing the best and worst case examples (from the point of view of the advisor), both of which involve a former advisee moving on to another position that involves research, are:

Best case scenario: The departing person is a creative and productive individual who contributed significantly to a shared research project and who is either moving on to research projects that are entirely their own or who is taking the ‘old’ research in new directions. In the first case, the advisee intellectually owns the project, and although there are likely some rules about archiving research materials, there should be no problem with the departing person's taking the research project with them. Even in the latter case, most of us are more than happy to help our former advisees continue working on shared projects and for them to take relevant research materials with them (again, leaving archived copies of some materials – e.g., notes – as required by university/funding/ethics requirements). It is in a former advisee’s best interests to become independent as soon as possible, but in some cases it can be important or necessary to continue existing projects for some time.

[This post is told from the point of view of the advisor, although there are probably cases of evil advisors cutting off excellent advisees from their promising research for nefarious (selfish) reasons. I am not personally familiar with such situations and I hope they are extremely rare.]

Worst case scenario: A marginal student/postdoc demands to continue working on a particular project although he/she has not demonstrated the ability to take the research any further, at least not independently. If the project was not their original idea, even if the student/postdoc has provided some data (and is therefore a co-author on publications), it is not their project to take, intellectually or physically. This particular scenario has resulted in problems ranging from illegal/unethical situations (former advisees taking research materials without permission) to uncomfortable interactions (telling a former advisee that you aren’t willing to continue working with them).

It is difficult to tell an advisee that you don’t want to continue working with them after they leave your institution. Even if there is historical evidence to show that in general you are happy to continue working with former advisees, you will seem like an evil, grasping ogre who is selfishly trying to keep for yourself all the glorious rewards that obscure basic science research can provide. And what do you do if you have several advisees all finishing their degrees/projects at about the same time and you are not treating them all the same in terms of your willingness to work with them after they leave?

And then there are the complex intermediate situations: In one recent case involving a colleague, a very talented and hard-working former student is demanding that the former advisor and fellow researchers not be coauthors on his publications, even though everyone contributed ideas and work to the project. It remains to be seen whether this demand will be met. In general, being unethical and manipulative (“I thought you wanted me to succeed”) is not a good route to take to demonstrate independence, and will likely backfire anyway (most people in their field will know that the advisor and other people in the research group were involved in the project and will wonder why they aren’t coauthors..).

There is no cookie-cutter approach to handling the terminal stages of advising, as each case is different and comes with its own special mix of pride, hope, and anxiety.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Terminal Advising

There are some interesting issues related to the professional relationships of advisors and advisees at or soon after the end of the latter's graduate or postdoctoral programs. There are several aspects of this I want to explore in the near future. Today I will write about issues related to an advisee's job search efforts.

Some graduate students and postdocs show me their application materials when they apply for academic jobs, and I am happy to give general advice and assistance based on my experience reading many such applications. Application materials should be an accurate reflection of the applicant’s ideas and abilities, but I think it is entirely reasonable for an applicant to discuss and get input about general issues of content, tone, type and amount of information, and balance between research and teaching statements.

Some advisees prefer not to show me their application materials. At this stage, some advisees want to be more independent, and that is fine with me.

In an effort to help my advisees with the job search process, I am giving a series of informal Applying for Academic Jobs 101 talks to my research group this fall. There are also formal courses on this topic given by the university, so students and postdocs have many options for getting advice and information. Other resources are available for those interested in non-academic jobs.

Of those who show me some or all of their application materials, some show me their application materials before sending them and some show these to me after submitting them, in the latter case just as a FYI kind of thing to help me “focus” my reference letter (as one recent applicant phrased it when he sent me the cover letter for a submitted application). Either way is fine with me; it is up to the applicant to make this decision.

The conundrum: what to do if application materials have major problems.

Example: This fall, I was given a copy of an already-sent cover letter, and the letter was filled with glaring writing errors of a non-trivial sort: e.g., sentences that made no sense, missing punctuation and words, typos.

The issue is not the content of my reference letters. The difficult questions for me are: (1) if a flawed application is not yet submitted, how much help with the writing should be given? and (2) if the flawed application has been submitted, should the applicant be told about the problems?

The general issue is the extent to which someone should get assistance with job application materials in terms of writing and other technical aspects. It would be wrong for me to rewrite or provide major editing of an applicant's letter or statement, but just saying “This writing is bad” seems insufficient.

I am trying to figure out the best way to help applicants fix their applications, but without crossing a line between providing an unethical level of assistance. Ideally, I would also be able to do this without causing great anxiety at a time that is already anxious owing to the usual uncertainty of a job search process, but somehow I don't think that is possible. I can imagine how I would feel if my advisor told me that all the job applications I just sent off are deeply flawed. I would want to know that before I sent off more, but it would still be a mortifying experience.

Yes, it is possible that someone can be a brilliant and creative scientist but a poor writer, and that is the kind of thing an advisor can deal with in a reference letter. Most situations are less clear-cut, however, resulting in yet another psycho-socio-ethical dilemma for us hapless professors to confront.

Thursday, November 01, 2007


Recently I had a meeting with a woman who just became part of a publishing team with responsibility for publishing some books I'm involved with. I generally avoid such meetings, preferring instead to focus on the writing/ideas part of the books. Lucky for me, the first author of the books is a socially skilled person who excels at most interactions with humans (and I am not just saying that because he occasionally reads this blog), and he mostly takes care of the author-publisher communications.

I could have refused to have an in-person meeting with this new person, but my co-author talked me into meeting with her. He said that these publishing people like to get to know authors in person, and this helps them be more interested in and enthusiastic about the project.

So I met with her and I liked her well enough, but we spent 90% of the meeting talking about her kids and her husband and her personal life. I think it's fine to get to know each other beyond the immediate project at hand. For example, it's important to me that the people I work with are aware that my life involves a family (including a young child) as well as my research and teaching -- but in this case I wish we could have spent more time talking about books.

Maybe I am missing some sort of bonding gene that would allow me to value this personal interaction with a business associate. I kept trying to turn the conversation to some new ideas that my co-author and I had recently discussed for a new book, and these ideas were well received, but the conversation always turned back to the woman's troubles with one of her children or decisions she was making about her kids' education.

I greatly sympathize with her difficult personal life and admire her for her successful career in publishing, but given the limited time of our meeting, I think we should have used the time more 'efficiently' (see earlier post this week). Is this evidence of my lack of compassion for people dealing with major obstacles in life? Am I incapable of valuing an interaction of this kind? My own answers to these questions are no to the first question and perhaps to the second. If this woman were a friend or close colleague, I would give her all the time she needed to talk about whatever she wanted/needed to talk about, but in this case I think it was an inappropriate use of a business meeting, even one whose apparent purpose was for us to 'bond'.

For me it was more of an anti-bonding experience. I hope to avoid in-person meetings with this woman in the future, even though I feel sincerely sympathetic about her problems. I think I conveyed my sympathy, even if I did (gently) try to change the subject a few times.

When I compared notes with my co-author about an earlier meeting he had with this person, he had a very different experience. They mostly talked about book ideas, though she did share a few pieces of information with him that she also shared with me (e.g., her age).

I repeat: lucky for me my co-author excels at this type of scientist - non-scientist interaction. As with research collaborations, it is nice to be part of a team in which the strengths of various people on the team can be used in different ways (i.e., effective ways, to use the Word of the Week). This also makes the work overall more successful and fun for everyone.