Friday, December 05, 2008

Timely Suggestions

When someone gives me a manuscript or other text to read and/or edit, I return it with comments as soon as I can, ideally within a few days, though the time depends on the length of the document and what other priorities and deadlines I have at the time. There are certainly times when I take longer than a few days to return comments, but in general, a document to edit (e.g. a thesis chapter, a manuscript draft, a proposal draft, an abstract) is a very high priority for me, whether or not I am a co-author or co-PI.

Experience has shown that this is just one of many strange things about me, and also a reason why I am not always a joy to work with. Most people take longer to return comments on a document, and, in a collaborative relationship, this can lead to mutual annoyance. I can get annoyed at the delays, and my colleagues can get annoyed at how hyper I am about making progress and finishing projects and manuscripts.

Most of my students appreciate the timely comments, but not all of them do. If a student gives me something to edit and I hand it back in a day or two, the response can range from "Thanks for the quick turnaround" to "Oh no, I don't want to see this again so soon".

My students sometimes ask me how they can get more timely comments from committee members or co-authors who are taking a long time to read and edit drafts and therefore delaying the student's progress towards manuscript submission (and possibly degree completion).

Here are some options:

1. Do nothing. Wait. You can do this (a) calmly or (b) not calmly.

2. Do a few things. Polite reminders by email, casual questions in the corridor or restroom (if relevant) etc.

3. Blackmail/threats of the "I'm going to break down completely and it will be your fault if you don't read my thesis draft soon" sort; or the "My dying grandmother's last wish is that I get my degree by December 7 of this year, so can you please get back to me soon with your comments?" sort.

4. Ask the grad advisor, department chair, or someone else to intervene in extreme cases.

In fact, I don't recommend some of the items in this list. The situation can be difficult for all concerned. Everyone is busy, and some people are so insanely busy with work and life that there's no way they can provide thoughtful comments even within the time frame of a few weeks. This happens to me as well during extremely busy times (e.g. before a proposal submission deadline when my husband is out of town and I am teaching a lot and I have an exam in my language class and my daughter has lots of after-school activities and my cat has laryngitis). Fortunately, life isn't like that 24/7/365 and it should be possible to read and comment on a draft, even a long thesis, if given sufficient time.

Polite, reasonably spaced reminder emails (or phone calls or in-person conversations) can help make sure that a document doesn't get lost in the crowded inbox of a busy person, though try not to cross the invisible moving boundary between polite reminding and obnoxious pestering. If you have a deadline, it is of course important that you provide the document for review well in advance if at all possible. And it's OK to remind people of the deadline once it starts to loom large.

If a situation really starts to drag out because someone doesn't have time to provide comments after they have had a document for a reasonable amount of time, extreme action must be taken. Note, however, that 'reasonable amount of time' is a flexible concept depending on the length, complexity, and importance of the document, and the personalities of the readers. Ideally, the 'reasonable amount of time' is something that has been agreed on by all concerned, or involves a deadline that has been announced well in advance.

If you need something (text, data, comments) and the other person is extraordinarily slow at providing these (despite having agreed to do so), there's not much you can do other than the occasional polite reminder/query, working on other things in the meantime, and trying various calming activities and substances so that you don't spend inordinate amounts of time being anxious and angry.

If you're a student and you need comments on your chapters/thesis, it's a good idea to talk to each person who has to read your thesis draft, and find out when they want the document -- e.g. how far in advance of when you absolutely need/want to be done. I like it when students ask me this. If the student is organized, has a plan, and gives me the thesis draft on the agreed-on date, I can plan ahead, knowing that I have to make time to read the thesis during a particular week or two. I consider 2 weeks a reasonable time frame for reading a typical thesis (whether or not major parts of it have been published already).

If a committee member (or even the advisor) can't keep to an agreed-on schedule and the situation gets dire despite repeated calm but urgent discussions, it's time to talk to the grad program advisor and work out a reasonable solution for everyone.

There are always going to be people who are slow to respond to request for comments on documents. It starts with committee members/advisors who are slow to provide comments on the thesis, and proceeds to reviewers who are slow to review manuscripts and editors who are slow to make decisions. If you do collaborative research, there will always be some colleagues who are slower and less responsive than you might prefer, and this can make you extremely anxious if you need to submit manuscripts for various important career reasons, not to mention communicating your amazing research results and ideas. That's why it's be good to do some research on calming activities; you'll need these throughout your career.


Unknown said...

Excellent suggestions - having dealt with slow co-authors/committees before, this advice would have been helpful.

Coming from the other side now, I prefer to get manuscripts with firm due dates attached - "I need comments by Oct. 10 so I can get you a new draft by the 17th" ... with the polite reminder emails if I'm running behind. The reminders also help poke me to find trouble ahead of time (make sure I can open the files, read the figures, etc.)

A couple of friends had their defenses delayed by an advisor who did not read things promptly (we're talking months of delay here), and eventually one of them did have to go to the department chair to get permission to schedule a defense. In that case, it helped that the student had kept the series of email exchanges with agreed upon due dates.

Anonymous said...

Your post made me think that maybe it would be interesting to comment on how busy people really are. I always suspected people are much less busy than they say they are:) For example, I am very busy, a single mom on the tenure track, but somehow I always seem to find time to read your blog (and some others). At the same time I put away reading the manuscript I just received yesterday from a collaborator:)

Anonymous said...

As anonymous@8:57 says, some people sure seem to get more done than others, and they are not necessarily the people who think they are the busiest.

I think the key thing for truly busy people to do is to give people the info on their availability ahead of time. For example, if you have a student defending in the spring, and know you're going to have a lot of committments then, sit them down and say, I'm going ot need your thesis in january if you want me to give you constructive comments before your defense.

Then, you've committed to reading it on time if they give it to you on time. And, if they don't? Then be perfectly clear about when you can get it done, even if that means telling them the defense date is going to have to be pushed back (i.e. they give it to you in March, and you won't be able to read it until June).

(And, I'm presuming that the comments are necessary for the defense).

BTW, different people really do take different amounts of time to do things -- FSP seems to be good at writing, editing, and revising, so a 3-day turn around for her might work, when someone else might need a few weeks to do the same work. Of course, that means that everyone should pick FSP as an advisor, but we'll presume that other advisors have other relevant skills.

Anonymous said...

I would agree that two weeks is sufficient time to get a thesis to a committee member - IF you have verified ahead of time that that faculty person will be in town and available at the time you plan to give them a thesis. Two weeks is insufficient if the faculty is out of town (lugging a paper thesis around is often undoable); or has a major deadline or commitment (grant deadline, study section). I've known students who have given faculty thesis with two weeks notice only to find the person will be out of the county for those weeks. Tough luck on the student.

EcoGeoFemme said...

Thanks for a great post, FSP! Unfortunately, your suggestions aren't anything I've haven't tried in the 9 months that I've been waiting for comments. It kind of confirms that I've done just about all I can. Except maybe for the fucking Jameson. :)

Ms.PhD said...

Actually FSP, you left off one important option:


My thesis committee members all received alcohol gifts. My advisor regularly receives alcohol bribes when I'm trying to get permission to submit manuscripts (which is always).

So EGF, if you haven't tried that yet, you should. There is a certain species of faculty member who responds only to the carrot.

Anonymous said...

The worst is when you wait three weeks for comments and all you get back are a few (mostly questionable) wording changes. Are you kidding me?!?!??!

Professor Staff said...

(I know this is a late comment - I'm at a conference in a far away time zone)

I suffered from a PhD advisor as well as a postdoctoral advisor who both took far too long to return comments back. They self-delusionally always promised "tomorrow" for up to 2 weeks at a time. As a result, I try to be prompt with my own students, or at least provide an honest estimate of my expected reply date.

A tactic I adopted in graduate school which worked well in these situations is "guilt by piling it on." I would date each manuscript when given to my advisor. If I didn't hear back after many promises of "tomorrow", I would then provide a revised manuscript with "improvements since the last version that you have not returned."

Somehow this approach triggered some sort of guilt response (for both advisors), and the "2nd submission" was usually returned within a day or two.

Ms.PhD said...

Professor Staff,

Are you kidding? 2 weeks is NOTHING. 2nd draft?? hahahahaahaha! If that was all it was, we wouldn't be complaining.

Try on the order of months to get comments back. And if you're really lucky the paper MIGHT get published after a few years.

No, they don't make promises, but maybe the occasional announcement of whose papers would get looked at and in what order (because apparently once you become a professor, some people completely lose the ability to juggle more than one thing at a time). So with that calculation of months in mind per paper, let's say your PI announces that the next 3 papers going out are from Bob, Dick and Hairy.

Do you

a) bribe
b) scream
c) go jump off the roof
d) drink Jameson and then go jump off a roof

Ever wonder why we're all going fucking nuts as postdocs? THIS IS WHY.

Female Science Professor said...

Alas, it is not just beleaguered postdocs and students who are afflicted with this situation. Slow co-authors are a fact of academic life.

Anonymous said...

Within a few short years I have gone from being the student/postdoc/collaborator who waited not-so-patiently for months to get feedback on my papers, to being the advisor who (remembering this experience) consistently gets comments back to my own students within days-to-a-week, but whose own students ask me to vet their fellowship applications and thesis chapters within hours-to-days of their own pending deadlines... At a recent group meeting I tried to raise this directly but kindly, explaining "my world" (busy schedule etc) but quickly saw their initial embarassment turn to boredom. My students are wonderful people, but they have a mental block about treating me as they expect me to treat them... How to break down this barrier???