Friday, February 29, 2008


There is always something exciting going on in Academia World, and this time of year is no exception: among other things, it is Decision Time for many students who applied for graduate programs, jobs, or internships. Some applications are still ongoing for jobs/programs with late deadlines (I got asked to write a letter of reference yesterday for an application deadline of today), but late February to mid-April is typically a very busy time for weighing options and making decisions.

In the past few months, I have, as usual, written many letters of reference for undgrads and grads. My own advisees let me know what happens regarding their applications, of course, but I am always amazed at how many students don't bother to tell their letter-writers the results of their applications. This applies to undergrads applying for internships, jobs, or graduate programs; and also to graduate students (other than one's own advisees) applying for faculty positions and postdocs. I typically say "Let me know how it turns out" or "Let me know what you decide to do", but it is surprising how few follow up on this.

Perhaps people get busy and just don't think about updating their ancillary letter-writers, or maybe they think we don't really care (?). I just looked through my files and counted fourteen (14) letters of reference that I wrote for a graduate student whose committee I was on. I don't remember how I found out he had gotten a faculty position (for which I had written a letter and had a phone conversation with the search committee), but it wasn't from him. ??

My intention here is not to whine or complain. My intention is to say to any students who read this: if someone writes you letters, and especially if someone has written > 10 letters for you (each one special!), let them know the outcome. It doesn't matter if it's for a summer internship or tenure-track faculty position: some of us want to know. Maybe some don't, but err on the side of assuming your letter-writers are interested, that we do care, or even that we have idle curiosity about your fate.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Maintaining that Hard Core Persona

Today I heard an amazing thing. A tenured professor in another department hid the fact that he and his wife had had a baby because he thought that being a father might make him seem less 'hard core' and 'serious' to his graduate students. Ah yes, the dreaded humanizing effect of an infant..

That the professor in question is a tenured male professor and not an early career scientist makes this an unusual case (I think/hope). I know early career scientists (students, postdocs, assistant professors) and, in fact, women of all academic ranks, who worry about being taken less seriously because they have a child. From what I have seen, this concern is entirely justified in some cases.

In this case, however, the professor is someone who (according to his current graduate students) wants to be feared by his students and who worried that students wouldn't fear a dad-like person. According to my student-source, he need not worry about this.

Both men and women academics with young children may be concerned about being taken less seriously be colleagues and others. It will perhaps not surprise my readers when I say that I think it is a more serious problem for women, as I am aware of recent examples in which early career women scientists were discriminated against owing to having a young child, but I recognize that it may be an issue for men as well.

The more rare (?) example described above, however, is likely dominantly a male phenomenon, as it is more difficult for a woman to hide the fact of having a baby. (I am not ignoring the possibility of adoption; I think that would be difficult to 'hide' as well).

I can think of at least two general questions that arise from this anecdote:

Who wants to be feared by their graduate students?

First, I think we need to make a distinction between being feared and being respected, and also between being feared and having the effect of unintentionally intimidating students. What is the point of being feared anyway? To motivate students? -- I hope not, but I am trying and failing to think of reasons why being feared would be useful. To me, being respected seems like a more important (and desirable) element of an advisor-advisee relationship.

While I'm at it, I will also make a distinction between being liked and respected. We advisors don't have to enjoy our students' company immensely and hang out drinking coffee or beer and talking about sports or tropical fish. We just have to be able to work together (and respect each other if at all possible).

What effect does being a mom or dad have on your advisor-advisee relationships?

Logistical effects: When you are an advisor-parent, you can't always be in your office during normal working hours as much as you would be if you did not have a kid. This is a fact, though I will mention (as I have before), that members of my research group who have dogs spend as much time or more during working hours on activities related to their high-maintenance dogs than I do dealing with no-school days or school concerts that are scheduled for the middle of the work day etc. Even when my schedule gets erratic owing to parenting activities, I am almost always accessible by email or phone, and I work non-standard hours during which my students are welcome to stop by my office. So, although there clearly is a logistical effect, I do not think that being a parent has limited my accessibility as an advisor to my students.

Emotional/Intangible effects: If you are a parent, do your students perceive you in a way that is different from how they would if you were not a parent? And if so, does it matter? This is the issue raised by the anecdote discussed today, and it is the effect that is most difficult to assess. I suppose one could also ask of parent-advisors: Do you treat your students in a different way than you would if you weren't a parent?

I don't know -- I need to think about it some more, perhaps collect some data -- but I do think that if you truly value being feared by your students, your fearsomeness will probably not be significantly decreased by your parenthood, even if you start wearing Elmo socks and singing Raffi songs around the department.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

It Gets Easier But..

There is no question that parenting a healthy, happy 10 ± 2 year old kid is easier than parenting an infant, but one thing that has surprised me in the past few years is how much more challenging it is to balance work with the school calendar.

When my daughter was in preschool, this aspect of being a working parent was easier because, although the preschool was closed for vacations etc., it typically followed the university calendar pretty well, and it was open from early to late. We seldom needed our daughter to be at preschool for the full, long day, but the option was there if we did need it.

At my daughter's current school, the school-day schedule is excellent, and there are after-school activities 5 days/week. School gets out at 4 pm, and she loves having an extra hour or so after school to play with her friends or participate in a play or musical or dance performance.

The main challenge now is that there are at least 2, and commonly 3 or more, no-school days/month on days when my husband and I have to teach and do the usual essential academic things (meetings, meetings, and meetings). On such days, we try to arrange for our daughter to play at a friend's house for part of the day, but sometimes she has to come to campus with us. She is old enough to entertain herself for long periods of time with a book, a pen and paper, or a computer, and sometimes she comes to a class or meeting with one of us. In fact, attending her dad's large intro-level class last year was a revelation for her. After class, she asked, "Daddy, did you know that no one in the back of the room is listening to you?".

It has been semi-difficult to deal with so many no-school days, especially when there are 3 or more in a month, but it has been manageable. Next year, however, our daughter will be attending a new school. All our options involve a decrease in the amount of time she is or can be at school. She will have the same number of no-school days, and there will only be the option of after-school activities 3 days/week.

Most of the time it won't be a major problem for my husband and me to take turns to leave campus an hour or two early 2/days week, but it will be difficult when one of us is traveling or ill or just generally insanely busy.

Fortunately we both have very flexible jobs that will allow us to manage this new situation somehow, but in general, what are working parents of school-aged kids supposed to do? Work part time? Hire a baby-sitter? I guess I didn't think we would need to hire a baby-sitter for our daughter at this age when we have not needed one up until now.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Troll Tales

Lest anyone wonder if my previously mentioned most trollish colleague (1, 2, 3) confines his denigrating, patronizing, and rude comments to me, fear not: he treats other women faculty the same way.

Today, in the presence of an undergraduate student, Professor Troll loudly berated a female assistant professor in the hallway, telling her that she was irresponsible, that she was selfish, and that she was endangering her students' futures. My colleague said, as calmly as she could, that she had no idea what he was talking about. He said that she had a responsibility to provide letters of reference for student applications to graduate school, but she had not fulfilled this responsibility. She said that she believed she had.

She went to her office to investigate what had happened -- perhaps her letters had gone astray or not been uploaded correctly? As she was checking, she got a message from the department chair asking to see her. He told her that he had heard she had not written letters of reference for her undergraduate advisees etc. etc.

Soon after, she got the information she needed. All her letters of reference had been received, but another referee, a senior male professor in our department, had not yet sent his letters. Professor Troll just assumed that the problem was the FSP, and, without checking his facts, not only embarrassed her in front of her student and others within earshot, but he went to the chair and complained about her. When he does things like this to me, it is obnoxious; when he does this to an assistant professor, it is evil.

Will he castigate the malingering senior male professor in the same way, with raised voice and a lecturing tone? Will he apologize to the FSP? I don't know, but past experiences do not give much reason to think so. I hope to be pleasantly surprised, though, as this might at least demonstrate that his main interest is in the welfare of the students and not in the thrill of reprimanding a FSP.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Talking about Failure

Most professors who advise graduate students have had one or more students who did not do well, for whatever reason. I use the vague phrase "did not do well" to cover a wide spectrum of unsuccessful outcomes, including failing. Last year, I discussed some of the reasons why some students fail.

In the following discussion, I use the term "failures" to mean failed experiences advising graduate students, whether or not the failure was mostly/entirely the responsibility of the student, the advisor, the academic system, or factors beyond anyone's control.

Some recent conversations with colleagues made me think about how we talk about these failures. That is, how do we discuss (or not discuss), describe, explain, or justify this part of our academic life?

The simple answer is that it depends on context and audience. Many of us have stories to tell about some of our more exasperating and bizarre experiences advising students, and we talk about these experiences at various times, either by choice or when we are asked. The circumstances of a 'failure episode' might be difficult to explain simply* and without seeming defensive, but most other faculty will understand if the situation is described in a sincere and professional way.

For example, in a recent conversation, younger colleagues at another university told me about some of their problems with advising grad students. I could relate very well to what they were experiencing, as I had had similar problems over the years: e.g., students being paid an RA but doing no/little work. These colleagues said they were relieved to hear that others have had the same experiences, and that their problems didn't automatically indicate that they (we) are bad advisors.

I think that this was an important conversation to have. These failures can happen to anyone, no matter how experienced the advisor. However, it can be especially difficult for early career faculty because they don't have a long record (yet) of successfully advising students. When you've only advised a few students, the failures may loom large.

No matter how many students we have advised, we should never be so accepting of the fact that failures can and will occur that we don't try to learn from them (and of course prevent them if possible), but neither should anyone feel like a failure who sincerely tried to help a student. Hearing about the experiences of others can be useful in a practical way (e.g. sharing ideas) and also in an emotional way (e.g. not feeling like you are the only one with these problems), and I think we all need to have these conversations from time to time.

In another case, a professor at yet another university bragged about firing a student who was not putting in much effort. From the description of the situation, the firing seemed quite justified, but nevertheless it was shocking to listen to someone who seemed proud of failing a student. Everyone (faculty and students) who heard the boasting, which was repeated at least twice to two different audiences, felt either uncomfortable or angry. That was not a conversation that any of us needed to have.

* .. though sometimes it is very simple. As I have previously described, my Advisor's Guide to Advising a Heroin Addict is very short and very simple: You can't.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Culture Clash

During a meeting today with a diverse group of 8 other Science professors, we found that our disagreement about a particular issue stemmed from one particular source that transcended our differences in scientific field (various physical and bio sciences), age, gender, race, or sanity level. We divided neatly into two subgroups, one of which was comprised of scientists whose research is highly focused on a particular topic, and the other by those who tend to work on a wide range of research topics at the same time.

I think that both modes of research can be quite interesting, successful, and inter-disciplinary, so the issue isn't whether one is a 'better' way to do science than the other. I think that scientists gravitate towards one mode of research or the other depending on what works best for their personality and/or environmental factors (availability of facilities, funds, students). I identify more with the second group because I like working on a wide range of projects - this is the mode of research that I find most enjoyable and exciting.

In the meeting today, some members of the Focused Group put forward the opinion that those who work on a wide range of topics tend to be 'too ambitious', 'too scattered', and 'superficial'. Some members of the Unfocused Group put forward the opinion that those who work on a specific, very focused topic are 'too narrow', 'can't see the Big Picture', and won't know what to do when that topic has been studied to extinction.

I should say that this was a very friendly discussion, and our disagreements were not expressed in a hostile way at all. Nevertheless, we found ourselves at an impasse, and have not yet found a way to reconcile these two different views to the extent of reaching a decision (nor did we have to in today's meeting, so we didn't try too hard).

Surely the answer is that the scientific community needs both kinds of scientists, ideally working together now and then. In our committee, however, we have to choose one species over the other, and that is difficult.

There have been times earlier in my career when I worried that I was too defocused -- that is, working on too many different things rather than concentrating on doing one thing very well. I knew it was what I enjoyed the most, but what were the implications for my career? If you work on lots of different things, is that good because your work is known by more people, or is it bad because you don't have a major body of work in any one topic (so perhaps are not an 'expert' in any one thing)? I never figured that out, but being 'scattered' among different projects doesn't seem to have harmed me at all, and it has been a lot of fun.

I don't know what my committee will ultimately decide, but I think that individual scientists are probably most productive and happiest if they have the freedom to work in whichever of these modes feels best for them. We should value both modes of research and shouldn't designate one as better than the other (and denigrate those who operate in the other mode). I don't know if my committee can get past this issue, but if we do, I am confident that we will find something else to argue about.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

(Im)personal Question

Recently someone in my general field of the physical sciences called me and asked if I would be willing to share information about my funding history with him. He is trying to make a case to his department that they hire someone in my sub-field, and he wanted to have some data to show what the possibilities were in terms of amounts and types of funding. He spent a while working gently up to his request for my funding data, as if he were asking me an intensely personal question. And then he was very apologetic about asking, and told me he would understand if I didn't want to share this information with him.

I don't know this person well, so I can understand that he might have been unsure about my response, but I thought his apologetic and hesitant request was strange because, as is typical for my field, all of my grants are from funding agencies that post grant information on the internet. Anyone can search these databases for my name and find out the amounts, durations, and subjects of my research grants, past and present.

I don't know why he didn't just look up my funding history, but for whatever reason, he decided to ask me in person. Even though funding information is publicly available, this colleague's apparent belief in the intimacy of the Grants Question is not unusual. Asking someone employed at a research university how many grants they have (or whether they have any grants) is not an impersonal request for information. It's the same as asking someone whether they are successful or whether they are desperate and anxiety-ridden (or deadwood).

In any case, I was happy to share the information with him because at the moment my funding situation is quite good. If it weren't, I probably wouldn't have been quite as happy to discuss this topic with him. Maybe I would have snarled "Go look it up!" and offered to tell him my salary, age, and weight instead.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

On Innuendo

Although I have a continuous supply of my own experiences involving women-in-science issues and phenomena, I also have a group of friends who feed me additional anecdotes. Today's story comes from one of my informants, who recently attended an exam-related meeting involving 4 male faculty and a female graduate student, and who was bothered by the choice of words of one of the other male professors at the meeting.

The male professor in question has a long history of inappropriate behavior with women students. As far as I know, he stopped sleeping with undergraduate students at least 20 years ago when he was reprimanded and temporarily banned from unsupervised interactions with students. In more recent years, he has confined himself to innuendo and occasional 'casual' touching of women students (hand on arm, arm around shoulders, 'friendly' hugs). It's hard to tell if his more recent behavior would seem as sinister without his prior history.

This post is not about why he wasn't fired and why he continues to lurk the halls of academe, but is instead about his current interactions with colleagues and students. People who know his history find some of his current actions and words offensive, although perhaps the same words and actions would not be offensive for someone without his record of appalling behavior.

This much is clear to me: He should not touch women students ever. More difficult is the 'free speech' issue. If this professor leans close to a female graduate student in a committee meeting and makes a remark that the other faculty present think is inappropriate innuendo, he can do that. He shouldn't, but he can and he does.

It is obvious to me that the best way to deal with this particular person is to stop inviting him to be on graduate student committees, and, for his colleagues who are so inclined, to tell him why. Students and advisors typically have a choice in the members of examining committees, within certain limits to assure objectivity and breadth. If someone cannot behave in a professional way, this person's access to graduate students can easily be reduced without any formal action or attempt to restrict what words he can use. This is something that individual advisors can do. There should be substantive reasons for making such a decision, but if that's the case, just do it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Out of Blog Experience

It is always a very strange feeling for me to read about my blog elsewhere on the web, especially if, as in this example, I don't recognize myself in what is written.

It's great that there was a forum on women-in-science blogs and other internet venues at the AAAS meeting, but after a brief description of this blog and Zuska's, the article quotes a journalist who describes blogs as “a way of getting your work out there to the public and also to the attention of your colleagues.. [They are] kind of an end run around the citation system.” Right.. and that's why so many women-in-science blogs are anonymous? Or maybe that quotation refers to the description of a science fiction website in the next paragraph in the article.

OK.. I still don't get that quote, but the article is clearly about women-in-science internet sites.

Although a substantial portion of the content of this blog could be described as involving General Academic topics, clearly my blog has a women-in-science theme, as is subtly implied by the name. As I was thinking about this, I realized I had no idea what % of my posts explicitly involve my experiences as a FemaleScienceProfessor as compared to those that could be described as General Academia (& Other) Topics.

I just scanned my archives for the past year, and a quick count indicates that the % of blog posts with a women-in-science theme ranges from ~9-50%/month (average = 30% over the past year or so). The months that have a high women-in-science content seem to correspond to times when I have a high frequency of interactions with colleagues, typically through conferences, other meetings, or committee work.

Although my quick survey indicates a topic frequency of General Academia > Women-in-Science >> Random/Bizarre Topics, it's all part of my experience as an FSP, however you want to classify this blog. Too bad this blog is a total end run* around the citation system.

* reluctant use of sports (football) terminology

Monday, February 18, 2008

Deadwood : A Guest Essay

Last month I wrote about the phenomenon of deadwood tenured faculty at research universities -- that is, those (mostly senior) faculty who do not do much, if any, research or grad advising/teaching, and yet do not retire. Although some readers were offended by this post, others could relate to it, and one of my readers in the latter camp felt that I could have pursued this topic even further. I didn't feel like writing more about the topic myself, at least for now, so I invited this reader to write a guest essay and give his own perspective on the issue of deadwood/ageism. Also, co-blogging seems to be in these days. So, at least for today, FSP is not written by a short ranting blonde woman but by a distinguished senior male professor.

Anticipated FAQ

Q: Did you read the guest essay before agreeing to post it?
A: No. I agreed before reading it, though I was quite sure the essay would be well written and well reasoned.

Q: Does that mean you agree with everything in the guest essay?
A: Not necessarily.

Q: Are you saying that you are not a distinguished senior professor?
A: Yes.

Deadwood, Ageism, and Academia

FSP has often shared her views about deadwood and has even more often been reprimanded for her unedulcorated opinion of some members of the old guard. I have a similar view on my own “senior” colleagues. I like many of them, but some are hanging on to active duty while having had no paper written, no grant funded, no doctoral student advised, and no new idea for many, many years. And yet my department can’t even discuss their possible retirement without flirting with illegality? Something is not right.

I just passed the mid-career hump and yet, I look around me and although in my fifties, I stand as one of the youngest professors on the faculty, due in part to hiring freezes in the 90s and also to a federal law that did away with mandatory retirement age on the basis of age discrimination. This law may have been a good thing, but its side effects are, in my view, detrimental to academia. For example, the very subject of retirement has become taboo, and I don’t know about your department, but in mine, retirement is something that we are not allowed to discuss openly at faculty meetings or any other venue. Retirement deals, infrequent as they are, are made in smoke-filled rooms and involve some cash, a phasing plan over several more years, or a combination of the two. What is the result of all this? A dramatic decrease in the rate of junior faculty hires. This effect should be offset to some degree by demographics, since the boomers are coming of retirement age as a wave, but the long-term collateral damage of the age discrimination law may haunt us for a long time.

I have spent my academic career in both the U.S. and in Europe. In Europe, professors are, in general, forced to retire around the age of 65, and they do, and the academic institution is, in general, better for it. Of course, a few of these European professors who think they still have a lot to offer come flocking to the US where their age is protected and they can collect both their European pension and their American salaries. But many professors in Europe, like in the US, are given emeritus status and a smaller office in their universities, and they are allowed, in some places, to apply for research funding and advise graduate students. They keep doing whatever they want and are typically a great source of knowledge and wisdom. It is very nice to have them around, knowing they are not preventing a junior faculty from being hired.

It is not clear how the law on age discrimination has affected U.S. universities. The potential impact of the law was discussed thoroughly in the literature before and shortly after it was passed in 1994, yet, by the end of the 90s, when the stock market bubble burst, the discussion shifted to the economics of retirement, some professors retiring early because their pension sky-rocketed, and other professors, who were victims of the market bust, staying on to reconstruct their assets. Since then, the economy has stagnated and the U.S. health care system is still defective, which does not encourage retirement.

I am not necessarily advocating the very inflexible European system for U.S. universities, but I think a target age for retirement is overall a good idea, and age 70, as it was before the law took effect, is a very reasonable goal. It gives people an objective, and therefore they can prepare for it ahead of time, psychologically and financially. Instead, the present situation is, in general, one of confusion. A perusal of the literature over the last 10 years on the subject shows that more questions are asked than answers given: When should I retire? Am I ready for retirement? How will I know I should retire? Well, if you are in a science department and you have not published anything, advised any doctoral student, or written any grant proposal in many years, whatever your age, you need to think about bailing out. If you are a very successful professor at age 70, then you can also retire and take full advantage of the emeritus status to get out of committee work and spend unlimited time in your lab, with the personal satisfaction that your retirement has opened not just a position for a young person but also new possibilities for academia.

Friday, February 15, 2008


When I was recently serving on an interdisciplinary committee that had to read dozens of CV's, the inevitable topic of authorship order conventions arose. In order to fairly evaluate these CV's from across the entire spectrum of Academe, we had to know what the convention was in each field.

Even when told that the convention in, say, economics is for alphabetical ordering, it is difficult for faculty who are not in alphabetically-ordered fields to overcome a bias against someone whose name is always in the middle of a pack of authors. I have read with great interest about studies that show that even within fields in which alphabetical ordering of authors in the norm, there may be a subconscious bias against authors with surnames late in the alphabet, and therefore negative consequences for hiring, promotion, tenure, and awards.

On my committee, as we evaluated one CV from a professor in a field with alphabetical ordering of authors, a committee member was very frustrated because the article citations listed the CV person's name first, followed by 'with A. Person and B. Person'. This committee member wanted to see the citations written out in the correct order. I said "But we know the correct order because the order is alphabetical." Even so, my colleague insisted that seeing the authorship written out in the correct order was essential. He felt that the CV person was somehow being slightly dishonest by making his name the most prominent in each citation. Well, given that the CV person's last name began with R, I didn't blame him. If he wrote out the citations completely, he would have been last or near-to-last in them all, and this was not a field that valued last authors. It seemed like a lose-lose situation to me.

Regarding fields in which being last author is customary and prestigious, indicating the research group leader: I also saw on my committee that people in fields in which last author implies the least contribution to a paper have trouble overcoming a bias about the (in)significance of last authorship.

In one of the 57 ethics training courses we have to endure at my university, I was told that even if I provide the funds for a particular research project that is conducted in my lab, unless I contribute something else to the study (e.g. ideas, data, writing), I cannot (= should not) be a co-author, not even as a caboose author. Conflicted feelings and ethical issues related to last authorship led to discussion in my committee of whether someone whose CV had his name listed last on every single publication had really done any of the work. I think it was obvious that he had, based on other information we were evaluating, but again, people in fields in which last authorship = the least contribution had trouble overcoming a negative reaction to last authors.

I have participated in both alphabetically ordered and non-ordered authorship cultures and think that there are problems with both schemes. Alphabetical ordering seems simple enough, but if anyone with a surname after D is going to be disadvantaged in their career, then that system is not as objective as it might seem.

Ordering by relative level of contribution has its own complications because in some cases you have to decide the order of authors who contributed at similar levels to the paper. And who should be first author if one author supplied the ideas and one supplied the data?

In some cases, the addition of a third author to a paper means a major decrease in exposure (and therefore name recognition and therefore possibly career advancement) for the second author, who is relegated to being part of the 'et al.' rather than having their name listed more prominently in journals that have such citation formats within the text.

Maybe we should publish more single-author scholarly articles? No, that's not good either because that makes us look like we don't work well with others, and are not multi-, inter-, or even transdisciplinary. Single and few-author papers were, however, important to me earlier in my career because I wanted there to be no doubt that I had played a major role in these publications. I think this is particularly important for early-career women scientists.

These days, I don't care where my name falls in a multi-author paper for which I was a mid-level contributor, though sometimes having my name buried in the et al. of a paper can lead to strange situations. Several times in the past year, I have had people talk to me about a particular paper on which I was a co-author, and I initially assumed that my role was known because my name is on the paper, albeit somewhere in the middle of the author list (which is not long). The repeated use of "they", as in "they said this" and "they concluded that" is a clue that this assumption is flawed. I like to say "Yes, and their paper is so well written, and I particularly love Figure 4" etc. I don't actually mind it if someone doesn't instantly recognize my authorness -- I certainly don't have the author lists memorized for all the papers I read -- but it would not be so entertaining if being recognized for my contribution mattered to my career more than it does at this stage.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Discovered Science

Not long ago, I sat next to a Business Man on a plane and we started chatting about random things. We went through the basics of what we do and where we do them etc., and he was very surprised to learn that people such as me exist -- that is, that there are scientist-professors who spend their time researching things about the world. He said that he often watches the Discover Channel and that he particularly likes shows about science and scientists, but he said that these shows gave him the impression that all the really major questions have been solved already.

Au contraire, as we say in my francophone research group. I reeled off a list of Big Questions in my field of Science, though I was aware as I was doing so that there were at least 2 possible opposite responses to this list: (1) How fascinating that there are still so many interesting and essential things for Physical Scientists to figure out; or (2) What have you guys been doing for all these years that you haven't figured these things out yet?

His actual response was a bit more ambiguous; something along the lines of "Well, I guess you can't believe everything you see on TV." But then he wanted to know more about my research, and he asked a lot of questions as I explained my work. His interest seemed genuine, and my hope is that I convinced him that Science is interesting and that Scientists still have many important things to discover.

I am actually not much of a travel-chatter, and prefer to work or read on planes. I don't mind doing the occasional Roving Ambassador of Science thing, however, especially if it takes my mind off the fact that I am on a plane, one of my least favorite places to be.*

* incomplete ranked list of some of my least favorite places to be, in order of decreasing preference, for illustration purposes only: faculty meeting, airplane, viper pit

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Big Invited Cheeses

For various reasons, I have found myself co-convening sessions for some conferences later this year. One of these sessions has so far been a pleasure to organize, as I am working with a congenial, compatible, and international group of colleagues. We have different but complementary expertise, and I think it's going to be an interesting session.

The other session is still in the early stages of organizing, but already I can tell that my co-convener and I do not share the same world view of session organization. I am not going to go into the details of how we came to co-convene this session. Just assume that I had little choice about whether I organized this session and no choice in co-convener.

In any case, my co-convener and I get to select some invited speakers. This is where we diverge in Conference Organizing Philosophy. I personally would prefer to choose speakers who would give the most interesting talks, whether or not they are the most famous people on the planet in our field of Science. Sometimes early career scientists give the best talks because they are doing the most creative work, and -- even better -- sometimes it is work that hasn't already been presented at the last 57 conferences.

My co-convener subscribes to the Invite the Big Cheeses cult of session organizing. Big Cheeses can be very interesting, there is no doubt about that, but this co-convener doesn't seem to be able to discriminate between someone who could either give an interesting new talk or an insightful review talk vs. someone who has not had anything new or interesting to say in n+10 years. When he sent me his list of suggested invited speakers, I was stunned. I would only have come up with the same names if you had asked me to come up with a list of people most likely to give boring talks about the same old stuff.

Yes, I am aware that opinions can diverge and that what is boring to me might be fascinating to someone else, but really.. this list was amazing for its potential snooze quotient.

I suppose the idea is that if you have Big Invited Cheeses in a session, many people will want to participate and attend. I could well be wrong, but I think that is more likely to work if the Big Cheese is someone who gives a good talk and has new things to say.

In the end, I suppose my co-convener and I will compromise and the session will be like most sessions -- a mix of interesting (i) and boring (b). My hope, of course, is that i : b will be high.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Cruel & Unreasonable

In previous posts, I have discussed issues related to working with the extremely non-confident, but today the central question is:

Can a lifetime of lack of confidence be overcome during graduate school?

I'm not talking about routine lack of confidence, as in not being sure you're going to do a good job at something challenging or feeling not as brilliant as the people around you. I am talking about a colossal lack of confidence, as in the kind that leads someone to cry at the slightest perception of criticism, even if no criticism was intended. I am talking about a recent incident that made me realize that, however good my intentions are regarding being a supportive and (mostly) kind professor/advisor, some students are so fragile that the best of intentions are no match for the reality of a colossal lack of confidence.

I suppose a smart but non-confident person can get through college just fine by doing well on exams etc., perhaps with a lot of stress, but without experiencing anything as distressing as what you encounter in grad school, where the level of scrutiny of your abilities is more intense. In grad school, in addition to being judged in exam situations (written & oral), you are also judged on what you say in research group meetings and on how creative you are. And once you've produced some results, you have to justify them -- why you got them, how you got them, and what you think about them.

In addition, scientists discuss things, and discussions involve examining issues from different angles. This can seem like criticism if you've placed your fragile confidence in an opinion that is then discussed by a group of people, each of whom has their own opinions and questions.

In academic life, we are all constantly judged. Grad students, postdocs, faculty - we are all evaluated, and we are evaluated often. I am a tenured full professor, but my manuscripts and grant proposals are of course evaluated, and not always kindly. My teaching is evaluated by students, and not always kindly. My overall job performance in terms of research-teaching-service is evaluated by administrators and a committee every year. I give presentations at meetings and people ask critical questions. I participate in committees and others disagree with my opinions even though I am right.

Being constantly evaluated can be exhausting and at times painful, but overall I appreciate the critical input. Of course there are examples of cruel and unreasonable comments in these reviews and evaluations, but in general the system works, and I feel that it makes me a better researcher and teacher. As long as the negative comments are balanced by positive comments, my self-esteem is not destroyed by the occasional bludgeoning.

Considering the magnitude and intensity of all this evaluating, it's amazing that anyone without an impermeable and titanic ego survives the process, but most people do. If someone is so lacking in confidence, however, that they fall apart during an informal, friendly discussion with faculty and other students, they are doomed in this field unless they can develop more confidence, or at least a coping mechanism for not being devastated by minor incidents.

I am not sure that the methods available to advisors for being supportive and kind are sufficient to help a student overcome a severe confidence deficit. The only way I know how to help a student is to give a balanced mix of praise and so-called constructive criticism, but in some cases this is not effective or sufficient.

It is certainly possible to progress from being unsure of your abilities to being more sure -- this has happened to me over the course of my career, including during grad school. But how much improvement is possible in the time frame of a few years? If you start at a very low level of confidence - as in, unable to be criticized without breaking down - can you improve to a degree such that you can function in an academic environment without feeling continually devastated? Can the improvement come by hanging in there and seeing that the world doesn't end if you make a mistake or if someone disagrees with you? Or it is too difficult to develop more confidence at this point in time and/or in this environment? I wish I knew, but I do not.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Fame, the Sequel

In January, I wrote about how even 'famous' professors aren't famous in a side-of-the-bus kind of way. In that particular anecdote, a childhood friend of my husband's had become name-on-the-side-of-the-bus famous owing to his success as a contemporary artist.

In a strange twist of fate, although my husband and I have not achieved side-of-the-bus fame in the past month,
we have nevertheless both recently had unusual experiences involving the intersection of our lives with Art.

In my case, part of my research has been incorporated into a visual artwork. I am pleased by this because something that I find intellectually beautiful is now part of something that is beautiful in a different way.

In the case of my husband, the situation is more complicated: we recently learned that he is a character in book written about another childhood friend. In the book, which is semi-biographical, the author changed the spelling of my husband's name slightly, but phonetically it is the same.

I immediately acquired the book and scanned it for the juicy parts -- i.e., the parts that mention my spouse. Although I did not know him in his youth, various aspects of his personality are quite recognizable, even though he is a 5th grader when he first appears in the book.

My husband refuses to read this book. He doesn't mind if I tell him about an incident or person in the book, but he doesn't want to discuss it or give his point of view on any incident or person. He says he doesn't want to read what someone else's imagination decided he was like as a kid. I can understand that. I would be unnerved if I showed up in someone else's book, especially if, like this one, the book is a
roman à clef. And who would want their tween to teenage years enshrined in Literature?

Neither of us actually had a choice about having our life/work incorporated into the Art of others, but overall, I think I got the better deal of the two of us.

Friday, February 08, 2008


The other day I sat next to someone with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) for several hours, and it was a fascinating experience. I mean that in a respectful way -- it was kind of startling to observe at first, but mostly I was impressed with the coping mechanisms that this person, who is an adult and a successful scientist, has developed.

We were each working on something different, each on our own laptop. At first, I wasn't really paying attention to my companion, as I was deep into editing a manuscript. Although there are times when I skip around from project to project, there are many times when I focus intensely on writing or editing or reading or thinking for a long period of time without interruption.

After I was finished editing, I glanced over to see what my companion was doing. He had said that he was going to work on a manuscript, but when I glanced at his laptop, he was reading a political blog. Seconds later he went back to his manuscript, wrote a sentence, then checked some news headlines -- then he went back to the manuscript to write another sentence or two, then he checked the weather online, then he went to some journal websites to scan the tables of contents, then he wrote a sentence, then he jumped up to get something to drink, came back and wrote a sentence, and so on. It was amazing. In the course of a few hours, he made progress on the manuscript, and entertained me with pieces of information gleaned from his internet expeditions.

Having ADD has long been a source of frustration for this person. There are times when it has made him extremely upset and angry with himself. The medications that he has tried over the years worked in that they helped him focus, but they also kept him awake for days on end and had other side effects that scared him. So now he just lives with it and, although he hates his inability to focus, if he keeps going back to his original activity, even if he can't sustain that activity for more than a few minutes, he gets things done. In fact, he gets a lot done. He published 10 papers last year and wrote at least 2 successful grant proposals. And he is very well informed about the news and weather.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Perfect Storm/Classroom Edition

Not long ago, the department chair asked me to look at the teaching evaluations and grades for a class taught last year by a less experienced (and non-tenure-track) professor. The grades were similar to ones that colleagues and I had given to this same group of students in previous classes. The evaluations, however, were a bit on the unkind side, to put it mildly, and the chair was concerned.

When I read the evaluations, my heart sank. Then I kicked myself for not being more assertive about helping my younger colleague. From time to time during the semester, I asked her how things were going with her class, and she always said everything was fine. I should know by now that just asking that question isn’t the best way to be helpful, and it puts a junior colleague in an awkward position.

Our department has no system for peer evaluation of teaching, but it should. If there is a system of peer evaluation for everyone who teaches, there is no stigma attached to having other faculty evaluate your teaching. My previous university had peer evaluation of teaching. Sometimes it helps, and sometimes it doesn't, but surely it is better than not doing anything until it is too late for a particular class? I don’t know if I could have helped this colleague by sitting in on some of the classes, but she made some basic mistakes* that might have been avoided with better mentoring.

* Examples: moving the date of an exam without sufficient notice and/or consultation of students; relying too much on PowerPoint presentations; not dealing well with questions from stressed out (rude, angry) students.

I can appreciate how frustrating it must be for students to be in a class taught by an inexperienced instructor, particularly if the class involves difficult concepts. Even so, I think that some of the students in this class were especially unforgiving. It was a challenging class, and this group of students had struggled in classes that were less challenging. When faced with a more difficult course and a somewhat (but not completely) inexperienced instructor, conditions were set for a really bad experience for all concerned. A subset of the students were particularly vicious in their evaluation of the course.

Based on what I’ve seen over the years, requirements for this particular type of extreme negative reaction seem to be (1) a challenging class taught by (a) an inexperienced instructor who (b) does not project a confident image and may (c) lack authority (e.g., non-tenure track faculty, adjuncts, grad students); and (2) a group of students who develop an unforgiving and increasingly negative attitude about every imperfection in the class. The collision of a group of unhappy, confused students with an inexperienced instructor who is vulnerable owing to a lack of status (adjunct or visiting professor) and/or lack of confidence, creates a perfect storm of negativity and an unpleasant learning/teaching experience for all.

Although I think that some of the students could have handled the situation more constructively during the course, this is not a ‘blame the students’ rant. The department should have done more to help the inexperienced instructor during the course, and I should have done more as the unofficial mentor of this instructor. You can’t infuse someone with decades of teaching experience instantly, but it should be possible to provide logistical or psychological (confidence-building) support to help a course while it is in progress.

Once a bad teacher, always a bad teacher? Certainly not. Some people are naturally great teachers, but many struggle in their first few years of teaching. The challenge is to keep your confidence from being further undermined, as that can create a spiral of disaster experiences from which it becomes ever more difficult to recover. If you stay calm and assess what went wrong and what went right, you can fix the problems and get on track for having a more positive teaching experience in the future.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008


Yesterday I worked on a manuscript with a long-time colleague. We work together pretty well, although I stress her out from time to time (where time, t = often). We also have fun and laugh a lot as we work.

After we'd been working and talking for a while, my colleague said "You were right, I was being stupid" (in reference to a minor and temporary technical issue that we easily sorted out together). I said "I never said you were stupid". She thought about it for a moment and realized that I had not said she was stupid, and she said that this was really typical of her. If she's not feeling confident about a topic, she feels stupid. We've been working together for 10 years. Of course I don't think she is stupid. This woman has a Ph.D., a faculty position, and a severe case of low confidence.

Working with me might not help her with her confidence issues on a day-to-day basis, but overall we make a pretty good team. She has some expertise that I do not have, but she does not like to write (and I do). The papers we have written together have been important for both of our careers. So, despite our very different approaches to research and life, together we get things done -- not as quickly as I would like and not as low-stress as she would like.

Last year, I created a cartoon for our research group newsletter. The cartoon fairly accurately depicts this particular working relationship, including how annoying I am to work with and how my colleague effectively neutralizes my insane plans. For this blog, I replaced my photograph with my logo, and my colleague's photo with a symbolic element.

On The Nose

My daughter is at a tweeny age when she is thinking more about her appearance than she did when she was younger. Her friends are also quite self-conscious about issues of fashion, weight, and height. So far, she seems to have a good perspective on these issues, and is willing to talk about them with me.

I hope she holds on to that perspective and her sense of confidence, and that these will also extend to how she feels about her intellectual and social capabilities. It seems like there are so many ways that girls (and women) can lose confidence in themselves.

Most recently, my daughter has become worried that her nose is too big. She doesn't seem too anxious about it, but she wishes her nose were smaller. I think she's beautiful, inside and out, but I'm just her mom.. In any case, the nose situation reminded me of something that happened to me when I was 13, a bit older than my daughter is now.

When I was 13 years old, I went to a family party. An ancient relative was turning an ancient age, and the entire extended family had gathered for a dinner party. Sometime during the evening, one of my aunts sought me out and pulled me aside for a quiet chat.

Aunt: You're probably thinking a lot about plastic surgery these days.

Me: What?

Aunt: But your nose really isn't that bad.

Me: What?

Aunt: It's really not as bad as you probably think it is.

Me: What?
[Note: My complete lack of articulateness was a function of my age and the fact that I had no idea what my aunt was talking about. I felt my nose, testing for injuries.]

Aunt: I wanted to tell you that I think you should wait before having plastic surgery. Some day you may like having such a distinctive nose.

Me: What?

Well, that set me up nicely for spending my teenage years feeling self-conscious about my nose, a part of my face to which I had never previously given much thought.

My nose is neither particularly large nor particularly small (and no, I have not had plastic surgery). No one to whom I am genetically related has a large nose. My nose is, however, not as petite as the typical FSP Family Nose, and there is a slight bump from when I got hit by a flying baseball bat during a Little League game. Despite my lack of nose perfection, I am at peace with having a somewhat distinctive but nevertheless un-huge nose.

But now my daughter is worried about her nose. We recently went to a museum together and looked at the noses of women portrayed in classical statues and paintings. We saw many impressive noses, and we agreed that we'd rather have an interesting face (+ distinctive nose) than a 'perfect' face (+ little nose).

My wish for my daughter is that she not worry too much about her nose (or anything else about her appearance), that she like how she looks (however she looks), and that she not spend any time alone with her great-aunt.

Monday, February 04, 2008


One of my senior grad students is under pressure from his parents to finish his thesis in time to participate in the spring graduation ceremony. As it turns out, the university doesn't really care if all the official paperwork is done by graduation ceremony time. They will let pretty much anyone put on the silly gowns and caps and march around and listen to speeches, so I think it will work out just fine for him to enjoy the day with his family, even if his thesis is not completely finished.

My student is nicer than I am. He says he doesn't care about the ceremony, but he will do it if his parents really want him to. I had zero interest in my own grad school graduation ceremony, and did not attend. I think it is fine if someone wants to though. After years of very hard work, if you want to put on the academic robes and be part of a ceremony, go for it.

The two graduation ceremonies I have attended were somewhat stressful, although there were enjoyable aspects as well. In high school, I was the valedictorian of my class, and by tradition, the #1 student gives a speech at graduation and at one other end-of-year function, and is the m.c. of the school awards ceremony. I don't know if a female student had ever done this before or if the school administrators were lacking confidence in me in particular, but they were quite anxious about my having such a major role in these festivities. The principal had a private chat with me to try to convince me that someone else should take on these roles in my place because it was very important that the speeches be done well. Unfortunately for the principal, the top 11 students in my graduating class were female. When he told me that his preferred alternative to me was not one of the many outgoing, bright, and articulate girls he could have selected but instead a smart but goofy male student (#12 in the class), I got mad. So I said I was going to give the speeches, in accord with tradition. I endured a lot of "Are you sure you can do this?" from various school administrators in the weeks leading up to the events, but I did the speeches, they were no more or less boring or profound than any other graduation speeches, and the principal later apologized for doubting me.

My college graduation experience was strange in a different way. For any reader out there who has a shred of doubt remaining as to whether my life is more bizarre than is typical, this should blast away any remaining uncertainty. In fact, I think I've mentioned this incident briefly before, so will keep it short: a friend played a practical joke on me, which I sort of deserved, but which resulted in the campus and environs believing that I was associated with a controversial organization that espoused political views that were in fact quite opposite to my own. Apparently these views were also opposite to many other people's, as I soon began receiving death threats by phone and mail. The college president intervened, as did the local media and other groups, and the threats decreased. Even so, not long before graduation, I got an insidious threat that mentioned snipers waiting for me at graduation. I didn't really believe this, but the thought of snipers hiding in the ivy added an extra element of tension to my graduation ceremony, which was held outdoors.

I probably should have gone to my Ph.D. graduation ceremony. No snipers were promised, I wasn't giving any speeches, and I could have just enjoyed the excitement of being one of many people dressed absurdly and marching around. In fact, I have never regretted missing my graduate graduation, but I will support my student's effort to make his parents happy and finish his thesis in the vicinity of this spring's graduation ceremony.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Competition, Survival, and Academic Niches

None of my graduate students graduated in 2006 or 2007. Apparently they were all waiting to graduate in 2008, an auspicious year in which 5 of my students may obtain graduate degrees. This is going to be the biggest year yet for students graduating from my research group.

2008 will therefore be a momentous and exciting year, but it will also mark a huge change in my research ecosystem. I would prefer that my group change more gradually, with intermittent degree-obtaining by my senior students at about the same rate that new students join the group. It's impossible to plan these things, though. I am very fond of my research group now, so my pleasure at watching my soon-to-be-former students move on to new and interesting activities will be accompanied by a hint of melancholy. Perhaps this melancholy will be assuaged by a new group of excellent students.

It is entirely selfish to feel sadness at the graduation of one's students, but I do think that the intermittent-graduating-student model would also be better for the group as well because it would then avoid the situation of people in the same group applying for the same positions. That can be stressful for all concerned. Fortunately, each one of my students has their own specific expertise and skills, and so, if required, I can 'compare' them in reference letters without saying that one is better than the others. Even so, I'd rather not compare them.

When I was a grad student, two of my office mates were applying for the same very small number of faculty positions in their specialty. This was at a time when the number of available faculty positions was exceedingly small, and these two office mates were very stressed out and essentially stopped speaking to each other. Even worse, we all shared a phone, and the ringing of the phone became a very traumatic time for everyone in the office: Was one of them going to get The Call? -- inviting one for an interview but not the other? offering one of them a job, but not the other? For some reason related to stress and their temporary loss of sanity, neither of them would answer the phone. I became terrified of answering the phone because one of these office mates often yelled at me for not answering the phone in a professional enough way, as if my casual phone-answering style would cost him his tenure-track position. (In the end, both got tenure-track positions.) I don't think things are quite at that level of stress in my group right now. Hooray for e-mail and personal phones and staying sane and collegial during a search for faculty jobs and postdocs.

When I was a postdoc, a group of us who had the same supervisor -- including several current and recent postdocs -- were applying for the same few faculty positions. Another postdoc and I had great fun discussing who was our supervisor's favorite postdoc, second favorite postdoc etc., as we tried to imagine what he was writing in his reference letters for us all. We both agreed that the wild-and-crazy brilliant guy who liked extreme sports and long nights in the bar was #1, but we disagreed about who was #2. My friend said it was me because I had the most publications (and our supervisor worshiped publication quantity), but I said it was him. I had compelling evidence: my friend was given the better office, was paid more (for the same job), and spent more time hanging out with our supervisor (beer, sports, science-talk etc.). Also, our supervisor kept telling me rude jokes about feminists and I didn't think any of the jokes were funny, thereby proving to him that feminists don't have a sense of humor. And, as if that weren't enough, our supervisor once somehow failed to notice that I was taking care of a grad student's very large cactus while she was traveling, and, during a visit to my office, he leaned back against the cactus and .. It was like something out of a cartoon, although I did not laugh in any obvious way at the time, probably because I am a feminist and lack a sense of humor. Later, I suggested to my fellow postdoc that he should offer to help pull out the cactus spines, thereby vaulting to the position of #1 postdoc, or at least cementing his position as second-favorite postdoc, but he declined.

If that last paragraph has a point, and I'm not sure it does, it is that members of the same research group can 'compete' for jobs and still have fun and remain friends, even while staring possible career extinction in the face.