Friday, February 27, 2009

What Do Students Want?

This term I have gotten to know a lot about the medical and personal situations of some of my undergraduates. I have received scanned reports with the details of appendectomies, I have heard very dramatic accounts of the symptoms of stomach flu, and I have observed the tragic ritual of grandparent quiz-death. Some of this information has been necessary, and some of it has been a bit too much.

At the other end of the information spectrum, recent email messages from students have contained requests for a decision or action by me, but have not provided enough information for me to understand or evaluate the request and to provide a meaningful response.

Am I becoming less able (or willing) to decipher student email with time (=age)? Is an increase in vague email related to the increasing use of cryptic text-message-like rapid communication? Will I reconsider my philosophy of sending a prompt and polite reply to all email, no matter how annoying?

The answers are: probably, maybe, and alas yes. I have been crazy-busy this month and will be for the foreseeable future, and that certainly affects my patience level, especially if the email is especially vague.


Hi FSP, I'm a student at X University and I will probably be applying to work with you this summer. What do you think my chances are?
Unknown Student

OK, so I know two things about this student: his name and his university. If I were feeling ungenerous, I would say I know at least one more thing.

Hi, professor I am in your BIG SCIENCE CLASS and my doctor thinks that I should rest as much as possible this semester. Are you willing to accommodate me?

What part of accommodate don't I understand? Most of it, actually. I could guess, but I'd rather be told specifically.

I am a student in your BIG SCIENCE CLASS and I did not do well on the last quiz. I think some of the questions were about things you did not talk about in class.

And the point of this email is what exactly? To ask for help? To complain? I wrote back to the student and asked in a non-confrontational way what specific questions/topics she believed I did not discuss in class so that we could talk about these and so that I could help her with the concepts she was finding difficult. She did not reply. Perhaps I should have sent her a vague email.

FSP, I am a student at ANOTHER UNIVERSITY and next year I want to apply to do graduate studies with you. Can you tell me about a research project that I can do this year so that I am well prepared to work with you?


Thursday, February 26, 2009

Dire Straits

In recent weeks a few of my colleagues and I have had the unpleasant task of trying to find ways to cut a department budget that is already very lean. Nevertheless, cut we must, and reduce the department budget to a level mandated by the powers that be. After two weeks of meetings and looking under every budget rock and cutting everything that could reasonably be cut, we are left with a situation in which we cannot cut anything else without harming the core functions of the department.

We could, however, reach our target cut if:

- We vote ourselves pay cuts, or

- One well paid senior faculty member retires.


None of the senior faculty are willing to retire owing to the recent devastation of their retirement accounts.


The topic of pay cuts was extremely upsetting to my fellow budget-cutting committee members. I didn't argue for a pay cut, but I was willing to discuss the possibility. I'd rather not have my pay cut, but I would be OK at a lower salary for a year or three if necessary. My husband and I both have good salaries, one child, and thrifty cats (when they aren't falling out of trees).

Some of my colleagues, however, have more precarious finances owing to being in a one-income couple, having > 1 offspring, and/or having other important expenses (mortgage, college) that would be endangered if they endured a pay cut.

So that leaves us where? I think that leaves us with begging the Dean for mercy and/or winning the lottery.

None of us would want to be in the position of having a vastly reduced retirement account just at the time when retirement would be a reasonable option owing to age and low(er) level of activity in the job. Even so, everyone in the department knows that the retirement of any one of a number of faculty of advanced age and salary would save the department. I would not want to be one of these faculty right now.

Whether these non-retiring faculty are viewed with sympathy or contempt is somewhat dependent on their level of activity, and perhaps also on the age of the person holding one of those opinions.

In a previous post I discussed whether tenure-track faculty were more or less vulnerable owing to the budget crisis, but inactive senior faculty who would most benefit the department by leaving now are also in an uncomfortable position, even if it is nearly impossible to make them leave.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Finite Space

A common complaint when a student has to write something (a proposal, a short paper, an abstract, a fellowship application) with a strict word limit is that the length limitations are so restrictive that it is difficult to get the main point across.

A common complaint when a student has to write something longer (a long paper, a thesis) with a more generous (or no) length limit is that there it's hard to know how to structure such a long document.

A common complaint when a student has to write a medium length document.. never mind, you get the point.

Some documents are long, some are short. This is something that most of us in academia deal with all the time. Learning how to make your case in a concise, convincing, and interesting way (written or spoken) is an important skill. Learning how to hold a reader's interest in a long document is also an important skill.

Learning how to do these things with content and not relaying too much on ATTENTION-GETTING FORMATTING and empty phrasing ("The implications of these results are very significant for many reasons") is also an important skill.

I have had students say "I could have written a better proposal if I'd had more space." I do not find that excuse compelling even though it is well known that writing shorter documents is more challenging than writing longer ones ("If I'd had more time, I would have written a shorter letter", T.S. Eliot).

Even so, you should be able to deal with whatever restrictions you are given. Everyone submitting a proposal or abstract or paper to the same program/conference/journal has the same restrictions. Those who figure out how to explain their research well in the given amount of space will succeed.

And if you can extend that to speaking concisely and clearly about the most essential and fascinating elements of your research, that's even better. You can use these skills to impress hiring committees, colleagues, prospective students, and perhaps even your mother.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Grad Planet

Last Friday I wrote about how undergrads and professors exist on different planes or planets with respect to expectations and general views about certain educational issues (grades). Graduate students and advisors can also exist on different planets and have very different views of issues relevant to graduate research.

For example, some graduate students apparently feel that they are being exploited as cheap labor, employed at low wages to work long hours accomplishing various tasks that benefit the research endeavors of an advisor who doesn't really care about them and whose own 'work' may not be apparent to the student.

There are surely extreme cases in which this description applies, but I do not believe that it is an accurate description of the typical graduate experience, at least not in the physical sciences with which I am familiar.

The description is not accurate for at least two important reasons:

1 - Grad student stipends may be low compared to other employment options, particularly in science and engineering fields, but grad students are not 'cheap' for advisors. When salary + benefits + tuition are factored in, grad students may cost the advisor as much as a postdoc. Grad students don't see these additional costs; they just see their modest salary. In fact, grants may be largely consumed by grad salaries and indirect costs; research expenses may be the smallest component.

2 - Most grad students do not arrive in grad school knowing how to do research. It takes time to learn, and, unlike most postdocs (who have already successfully attained a Ph.D.), some never learn. If the training time and the uncertainty that a grad student will do well in research are factored in, one could reasonably conclude that grad students are an extremely inefficient way for an advisor to conduct a research program. When students tell me how lucky I am to have so many students working for me, I wonder if they have any idea how much work it is for me to advise a large group of students.

In fact, the most efficient way to conduct a research program would be to hire non-student workers who require little training and who would stay in the position on a long-term basis rather than leaving just at the point when they finally know what they are doing. This would be more efficient even than hiring postdocs who only stay a couple of years and then move on. Alternatively, if I wanted to have a small research program and work on 1-2 projects at a time, the most efficient scheme would be for me to do all the research and writing myself.

That would be fine if efficiency is the only thing that matters, but a completely efficient scenario of trained workers doesn't sound very appealing to me, nor does working in isolation. Most of us science professors aren't here to manage a group of technicians or even to work alone. I do like to get results, and as I've ranted many a time in this blog, I expect students who are paid on a grant to get some results, but I also expect a bit of inefficiency along the way.

I like having a research group, and I like working with students. I enjoy doing research and discovering things and developing new ideas and communicating the results, and I enjoy teaching others how to do all this as well. It takes a lot of time and energy for both advisor and student, even when it works out well and even when the student thinks he/she is doing most of the 'work'.

Some advisors are more involved with their student's research and education than others. Some leave a lot of the day-to-day advising to other members of a research group. Maybe some advisors would prefer to have more 'workers' and fewer students, especially if an advisor has had a lot of negative experiences with unproductive grad students. It can be extremely frustrating and demoralizing to (try to) work with a dysfunctional grad student.

But I think most of us advisors have enough good experiences to balance out the bad. By working with many different students over the years, we can acquire a reasonably upbeat perspective on the overall experience. Most grad students, however, work with only one or two advisors, so a bad experience with a bad advisor can be crushing.

A science professor who is at a research university and who has no students is not viewed in a positive way. There was a time in the 1990's when some advisors stopped taking on new PhD students because the faculty job market was so bad, but things are better now in the physical sciences. Now the most common reasons for not advising students are (1) the faculty member doesn't have the energy, ideas, or funding to advise students; and (2) the faculty member has extremely high standards for students, and few/no students meet these standards. I hope I never fit either of those categories.

Most of us science professor types at universities advise students, for better or worse, and sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't. Successful advisor-student interactions require of both parties a balance between being patient and being assertive, keeping complaining to a minimum except in your blog, and realizing that what seems like insensitive and/or strange behavior in the other might have a reasonable explanation.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Not Worth Saving

This weekend I was working in a lab room alone for a couple of hours, eventually emerging when I had to retrieve something from my office. I walked out into the corridor, took a few steps, and slipped dramatically and painfully on the hard floor.

A custodian at the other end of the hall started screaming at me "Can't you read signs? This floor is CLOSED. You are NOT ALLOWED here now." I picked myself up and pointed at the lab and said "I came from THERE. There were NO signs. There was NO advanced notification that the floor would be waxed today."

I went to my office, got the item I needed, and returned to the lab via the slippery floor and another screaming session by the custodian. It was not an option for me to leave the lab unattended for more than the few minutes it took me to go to my office, so I had to make another trip across the waxed floor.

I decided I did not need to be screamed at again, especially as the points were irrelevant and redundant, so I went into the lab in the midst of the custodial rant. The last thing I heard before the door slammed shut was that I should stay in my room and not come out again until he was done working. It's been a while since I've been sent to my room for bad behavior.

It wasn't the custodian's fault that his supervisor didn't notify anyone in our building that today was waxing day. When I fell I created an unsightly skid mark in the new wax coating, so I can understand why the custodian was annoyed, even if it wasn't particularly nice that his main concern was to establish that I was to blame, not him.

When he was screaming at me from the other end of the hall, I noticed that a research scientist was standing there with him, having just realized that the main entrance to the floor was blocked and there was no entry allowed for a while. Many hours later this research scientist came into the lab where I was still working and asked, somewhat hesitantly, "So... are you.. OK?" I said yes, sure, I was fine. My arm hurt because I fell on it but it wasn't anything serious.

Another hesitation, then "When you fell, I was torn between asking if you were OK and pretending I didn't see you fall, and I decided to pretend I didn't see you fall."

Me: Why???

Research scientist: Because it's embarrassing to fall. I thought your dignity might be wounded. But then later I felt bad for not asking.

Me: But I had a really good reason for falling. That's not embarrassing.

In fact, this incident made me wonder. I may not be dignified enough to avoid being screamed at by custodians who treat me like a disobedient child, but perhaps some of the research staff think I am at least sort of dignified. That would be kind of interesting, but if I had a choice between saving whatever shreds of dignity I have managed to accumulate and having someone ask me if I'm OK when I fall, I would choose the latter.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Earth to Students

This post could also be called "Earth to Professors", as it is about the different planes (spheres?) of existence of most students as compared to most professors. It is not surprising of course that there are gaps in experiences and expectations between students and professors, yet from what I've seen, students and professors alike are continually amazed at the mystifying behavior of the other. Or maybe it's just me; I don't understand many of my colleagues either.

This disconnect has many varieties, but one that I encounter when teaching an introductory course is a mismatch in perception of what is an Essential Concept that must be understood for the student to understand the world and what is a Random Fact that students have to memorize for no apparent good reason.


A week or so ago a student came to talk to me about her quiz. She pointed to one question that I had put at the very beginning as a confidence booster/at-least-I-will-get-some-points-even-if-I-can't-answer-any-other-questions kind of question. It was a question that 99% of the class got right, just not this student. I was amazed that a living human being in college could miss this question.

She said "That's a random fact that I just didn't happen to memorize. I didn't know you were going to ask us about details like that." Her "random fact" was something I consider a basic concept that most people over the age of 5 know, but I didn't want to make her feel worse than she already did. So I didn't say that. I said "Even if you consider it a 'random fact', it is something I mentioned in several classes as a basic concept and it is covered in Chapter 1 of the textbook." She said "But I didn't go to those classes and I didn't read the textbook." Oh, OK. In that case, let me give you the points back. No, I didn't say that either.

Another example:

Another student who was unhappy about his quiz came to talk to me. He pointed to a question he got completely wrong and for which he received no points and said "I read the question wrong, but for the wrong way that I read it, I gave the right answer. I think I should get some points for that." I looked at the question, which contained 6 words, and asked him how he had (mis)read it. He said "I didn't see that word" (points to the one noun in the sentence). In fact, he was right that if you substitute a completely different and unrelated noun for the real noun, you could possibly explain his bizarre answer. I didn't think it reasonable to give points for that; he didn't think it reasonable that I didn't even give him partial credit for his completely wrong answer.

Last example:

A student emailed me: Hi, I missed the class today and I am thinking that I really need to know the things in this class before the exam. Please tell me when you will be giving the lecture again so that I can attend this time. your student, X

This email surprised me at first, but once I thought about it I realized that he must have taken an intro class in another department in which one person teaches multiple sections of the course. Perhaps the email reflects how the student has thus far experienced a big university, but if so, it's too bad that he hasn't encountered more professors and/or smaller classes and gained a clearer idea of how a large part of the university functions. I don't expect students to have a detailed understanding of what my professor job entails, but I'd like to think that most students know a bit more than this student seems to. I looked him up in my class list and saw that he's a senior, so he's probably not going to get a broader view before he leaves here.

These types of interaction will always happen. They remind students that professors are strange, and they remind some of us professors that we are talking to people whose experiences and points of view are very remote from our own.

Fortunately for the student, if he/she doesn't like the exam questions or how they were graded, the student can give the professor a low grade on the end-of-term evaluation. I personally think that all professors should get an A just for the effort of teaching, but I understand that we can't have teaching evaluation inflation and that it is better for the reputation of an academic institution if professors get average evaluations.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


An article ("Student Expectations Seen as Causing Grade Disputes") in the NY Times describes how many students today think they should get a good (= A/B) grade if they just show up for a class and do the required reading or other assignments.

The article doesn't present the issue in a very coherent way, but a few items in the article will probably resonate with many professors, especially those who teach large classes at big universities.


Some [students] assert that they have never gotten a grade as low as this before.

I have many students tell me "But I'm an A student" (when they get a B or lower), as if they've signed up for the A Plan and I am too clueless to understand that essential point.

.. a third of students surveyed said that they expected B’s just for attending lectures, and 40 percent said they deserved a B for completing the required reading.

Some students in my intro science class think they should get an A because it is an intro course. I am quite happy if many students get a grade of A, but a student has to demonstrate some comprehension of the material to get an A.

Students often confuse the level of effort with the quality of work. There is a mentality in students that ‘if I work hard, I deserve a high grade.’ “

I have an inbox filled with student email saying "I studied really hard for the quiz.." (so why didn't I get an A?).

This post might sound cynical, but I must not be completely cynical because this surprised me:

Nearly two-thirds of the students surveyed said that if they explained to a professor that they were trying hard, that should be taken into account in their grade.

That certainly explains a lot though.

I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade,” [a student] said. “What else is there really than the effort that you put in?

What else is there indeed? One would hope that with effort would come understanding of essential concepts, but I know it isn't as easy as that for some students.

"If your maximum effort can only be average in a teacher’s mind, then something is wrong."

That's a tricky statement. What is maximum effort anyway? Is it measured in units of time?

Something that bothered me about the article is that it was written as if students and instructors only interact via grades and complaints. If one of my students feels that their effort is not translating into success with quizzes or whatever, they can talk to me.

They can talk to me not to complain or impress upon me how hard they are studying, but to ask me substantive questions about the course material. I can give some study pointers (come to class; look at the review questions on the website; do the sample quizzes), but mostly what I can do is explain things.

[Professor Brower] said that if students developed a genuine interest in their field, grades would take a back seat, and holistic and intrinsically motivated learning could take place.

OK, maybe I am really cynical. Having a genuine interest in a topic and caring about grades are not mutually exclusive. Most students at most schools have to care about grades; the academic system requires them to. I would much prefer not to give grades,

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


In various posts over the years, I have discussed the concept of a Research Group and how it is important that all members (students, postdocs, faculty) be productive.

There are many topics to discuss, e.g.: What are the roles and responsibilities of being the advisor (manager) of a Research Group? What are the roles and responsibilities of being a postdoc? A graduate student? An undergraduate? And let's not forget the technicians, who are essential to the successful functioning of many research groups.

I don't know if I'll cover all of these topics (and certainly won't in this post). Today I am going to focus on graduate student research assistants because sometimes I feel like I emphasize too much (in this blog) the fact that students and other group members are workers who are doing specific tasks, and I've been meaning to give a more complete view of the subject.

My point of view is of course very much influenced by the norms of my field of the physical sciences, the size of my research group, and the specific type of research we do, but some things may be relevant to other situations.

Regarding graduate student research assistants -- that is, graduate students being paid a salary, benefits, and in some cases tuition by a grant -- I have two coexisting and perhaps apparently contradictory beliefs:

1 - Students paid on a grant must do the work they are paid to do.

2 - Students are students who are learning how to do research and who should be given the freedom to do some independent thinking and discovering.

The reason these statements are not entirely contradictory is that the phrase "the work they are paid to do" is actually not as well defined as it may seem.

For some projects, there are certain tasks that need to be accomplished. If a student is being paid to do these tasks, the student should do these tasks, even if they are boring, with assistance as required. Even if there are these specified tasks (and for some projects there are not), the student still has the time and resources to explore other ideas. I wouldn't mind at all if a student ended up doing something different from what the grant proposal described -- maybe the student will find a more interesting aspect in the general topic of the project. In fact, I would be thrilled if a student did some independent research, even while paid on a RA to do something else, and came up with something interesting.

But whatever the student does, there has to be a tangible product in a reasonable amount of time, ideally in time for the annual reports we have to write to our funding agencies, and certainly by the time of the final report. This is not some unfair requirement foisted on oppressed students. This is something we all have to do as people fortunate enough to be given money to do Science, and it is a reasonable expectation to show results from our research.

The student isn't the only one responsible for research progress. I also do research as part of grant-funded projects, and I take the lead in writing some conference abstracts and papers. Even so, I believe very strongly that, barring unforeseen and unavoidable obstacles to research progress, students should be getting results and writing abstracts and manuscripts, with lots of help at first, and then less and less as they get more experience.

Part of being in a research group is recognizing that it is a little community, with all that implies about doing one's share but also benefiting from the activities and support of others.

I have high (but, I think, reasonable and clearly articulated) expectations for how much 'work' graduate RAs should do. And by 'work', I don't count time spent physically in the department but not doing anything. And I don't actually care when the work is done as long as I see the student once in a while so that we can discuss things and interact to some extent.

In many cases my expectations are met, but it is amazing how many times they are not. For example, I have spent what I consider to be an inordinate amount of time advising students (male and female) whose research progress as RAs was essentially shut down for months while they planned their weddings.

And I once had a student who informed me that, because he had spent 6-7 years working in industry before returning to grad school for his Ph.D., he was not going to do any work that was of the level that he used to have underlings do. He wanted me to pay an undergrad to be his assistant so that he didn't have to do anything he considered beneath his dignity. At one point, it was urgent to accomplish a certain thing and he clearly wasn't going to do it. It had to be done, so I did it, and a visiting colleague kept me company while the grad student sat and did nothing nearby. I said to my colleague "What would you do if this were your student?". My colleague replied, very calmly "I would kill him." [This student did not remain my student for much longer but as far as I know he yet lives, albeit PhD-less]

Most advisors of graduate students can trade stories like this for hours. We also like to talk about our successful students, but in many cases it seems like the successful students were going to succeed anyway. It's also easier to take the failures and difficult cases personally, so maybe we talk about them more to try to convince ourselves that it wasn't (all) our fault. And the failures may be more interesting as stories.

Whatever the case, there are going to be successes and failures and everything in between. No matter how many years I've been an advisor, I'm amazed at the immense number of ways that things can go wrong, and the limited number of paths to success. Perhaps that is a failure of the academic system, but I can't say that there have been any student-failure incidents in my personal experience in which I've sighed and said "If only the system could be more accommodating of people who wanted to be paid for 3 months to do no work except plan their wedding" or "Wouldn't it be nice if that student could have a personal assistant to do all his work for him, thus freeing him to have big ideas?".

That doesn't mean the system shouldn't and can't change in other ways and for other reasons, but I still keep coming back to the numbered points above, which I will restate here as: (1) Students paid to do research should do the research; and (2) It doesn't matter what the results are, as long as there's been a good effort that ideally involves some creative wondering and thinking and writing.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Some scientists need Science Stuff (equipment) in order to do their research and train their graduate students in the techniques they may need for their careers. Science Stuff can involve zippy new machines that do new things that couldn't be done before, zippy new machines that other people have but that we want to have as well, and zippy new machines that replace similar but old/malfunctioning equipment we already have. To get Science Stuff, we write equipment proposals to programs that fund big-ticket equipment items.

When writing a proposal to acquire research equipment, it is advisable to get matching funds from one's department and other academic units (i.e., a school or college within a university). I don't know about other funding agencies, but NSF does not require matching funds (cost sharing) for some equipment proposals, but good luck getting an equipment proposal funded without them.

Cost sharing is viewed by funding agencies as a sign of "institutional commitment", and typically involves actual $$, not just the commitment to provide space for the equipment, even renovated space. Many institutions have a standard formula for how cost sharing is shared among the various academic units; i.e., so much from the department, so much from the college/school etc.

Or, I should say, many institutions used to have a standard formula for calculating cost sharing. Now the formula would look something like

(department share of matching funds) * (Dean-level share of matching funds) * zero = zero.

Matching funds are hard to come by in these days of economic crisis. It appears that NSF will have funds available for equipment, thanks in part to the economic stimulus bill, but scientists at public universities may have a hard time getting matching funds because universities are in budget-cutting mode, not cost sharing mode.

If researchers at public universities can't get matching funds, perhaps only those at financially less desperate universities will be able to write successful equipment proposals. Perhaps my public university colleagues are being pessimistic and paranoid, but the lack of matching funds may well be a reasonable concern.

Will NSF continue to require-but-not-require matching funds, or will NSF take pity on matchless researchers?

My university has been severely limiting commitments for matching funds lately, and some administrators recently suggested that only those faculty who chip in some of their own (non-grant) funds will be eligible for consideration for matching funds.

This doesn't mean that we dip into our own bank accounts and sacrifice our kids' college education in order to get more scientific equipment, but there are only a limited number of ways that we can acquire non-grant funds. Examples include funds that are:

- associated with an endowed chair (either a lifetime endowed chair or a temporary (folding) chair;

- provided by a wealthy patron;

- added to a personal research fund as part of an award for outstanding research, teaching, or service, either as a one time infusion of funds or on a recurring basis;

- added to a personal research fund as part of additional administrative duties (such as being an academic advisor) that are time-consuming enough to involve additional compensation;

- part of the microscopic amount of indirect costs that, at some institutions, trickle back to the PI's department, where a small fraction of the small fraction is put in an account for the PI to use for research-related expenses that grants are not allowed to cover but that are essential for the research;

- remaining from a start-up package. Some of my colleagues try to make their start-up funds last for many many years because of the occasional need for such non-grant funds; and

- acquired through various legal/ethical but somewhat devious means; e.g., PI salary that can be put in a different accounting category and that by doing so is designated as non-grant funds and that, if the PI chooses not to use this money for salary, can be used for research-related expenses that aren't otherwise covered.

I am feeling fortunate to be in a secure job, and the world (and my research) will certainly survive if I can't acquire more scientific equipment for a while. This post is meant only partially as a complaint about the possibility of scientists at public universities being at a disadvantage relative to colleagues at other institutions.

Mostly it is a list of the ways that we can acquire and use research funds that are not tied to a particular project. These funds have always been important, and perhaps now are becoming essential to keeping individual research programs afloat.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Budget Axe

As the economic crisis drags on and worsens, I would like to discuss some more issues of how the poor economy affects Academe, in addition to the ones I listed in a previous post. Some topics this week:

1. Will tenure track faculty be denied tenure for budgetary reasons? and
2. How can researchers get equipment proposals funded if the proposals require matching funds and matching funds are scarce to non-existent?

Topic 1:

Some of my tenure track friends who were nervous about coming up for tenure in the next year or so were already nervous even before the economic crisis. The tenure process does seem to have that effect in general. Some of them are now even more nervous, convinced that their academic unit will try to save money by denying them tenure.

Let's assume that a certain assistant professor was likely to get tenure under ordinary circumstances. A department is very unlikely to vote against tenure for budgetary reasons because economic decisions of this sort are seldom made at the department level and therefore economic considerations aren't used in evaluations of tenure at the department level. It is not in a department's interest to solve a budget problem by losing a tenurable tenure-track faculty member and therefore possibly the faculty line altogether.

In fact, at least one of my tenure-track colleagues wonders whether the economic crisis makes it even more likely that she will get tenure in her department, owing to the department's wish to retain the faculty line (not to mention their acknowledgment that she is doing her job well).

At higher levels of administration, economic considerations may be more important, but even so, according to various university tenure codes that I found online and read recently, there are strict requirements about whether and how economic considerations can be used in personnel decisions involving tenure-track faculty. In fact, universities that are having a major fiscal emergency can also shed tenured faculty after following various procedures and trying other money-saving measures first.

Will universities deny tenure for economic reasons anyway but not admit to this being the reason? Maybe, though I am not quite so paranoid yet as to believe that. Most universities have pre-tenure evaluations for probationary faculty, and possibly also annual progress reports, and it would be unusual (and lawsuit fodder) if the pre-tenure indications were positive but the tenure decision was negative.

So far, my friends and relatives who have lost their jobs have been computer programmers and lawyers. Although universities in economic crisis can fire tenured faculty, those of us with tenure have a lot less to worry about than many of our friends and relatives with less secure jobs. Tenure-track faculty have the usual things to worry about, but I don't know yet of any budget axe tenure victims.

Perhaps the most precarious positions in academia right now are those of adjunct faculty, who have difficult and uncertain positions even in better economic times.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Grant Utopia

In a perfect world:

I would have a grant in place during grad student recruiting season, and this grant would fund an excellent student from the very beginning of their grad program. Having a grant in advance allows me to recruit international students whose English speaking abilities might not be sufficient for them to be teaching assistants in their first year.

This grant would allow the student to get started with a research project, but it would have sufficient flexibility to allow the student to take the proposed research in new directions.

The student and I would together write a new proposal for new research based on the exciting results and ideas that emerge from the initial research.

This new grant would be funded the very first time it is submitted, and it would start just as the original grant expires.

The grant might not provide an RA for every semester, but it would provide an RA for most semesters and every summer. The student would also be a TA for a semester or three when their schedule permits, as it is important that students who want a faculty career get experience teaching and learn how to balance teaching and research.

The new grant would carry the student through to the completion of their degree.

The research will be awesome and the student will get the job of their dreams.

In a still-great but not-perfect world, some of the above might not occur, but everything mostly works out. I may have the proposal pending (rather than definitely funded) during grad recruiting season, but the grant is awarded in time for it to benefit a student early in their grad studies. Or, I may not have the relevant grant in hand for the first year of a student's grad program, but we write the proposal during the first year and it funds the student for the rest of their grad studies.

Grant utopia is very rare. I can only think of one of my Ph.D. students for whom things worked out more or less as described in the ideal case. In that case, things worked out because I was fortunate with funding and because the student was extraordinary (and efficient).

In some cases, I get a grant, but I don't have a student who is working on that exact project, either because a student starts working on the project and fails, or because my students have other projects they want to work on instead. In the latter case, I may pay a student some or all of an RA to do work related to the grant, but I only like to do this if the student is interested in the work and will benefit from it in some way related to their education or career goals.

In other cases, a student works on a project with funding cobbled together from various sources, and just as they are finishing the major part of their research, we finally get a grant for their research.

In still other cases, students take a long, long time with their research and they outlast a grant.

Unless a grant is in hand or is funded on the first submission, getting the student/grant timing to work out can be tricky. If a proposal is not funded on the first submission, the resubmission must wait a year from the first submission. And it takes a while to hear about the fate of a proposal. And some programs have subterranean success rates.

Imagine a case in which a student starts grad school, and the advisor writes a grant proposal during the student's first year. Let's say that the proposal deadline is sometime in the middle or near the end of the academic year, and the proposal's fate is not known for 4-6 months after the deadline. Now assume that the proposal is not funded the first time. It is resubmitted at the next possible deadline. Add in the waiting time to hear about the proposal. Add in some stress related to submitting a proposal to a program with a very low success rate.

If the proposal is funded on the second submission, the student might start to be supported on the grant in their 3rd year of grad school. Depending on the program, that might be considered early, intermediate, or late relative to when the student is expected to complete their degree.

Some advisors might be reluctant to start students on a project that is not already funded, given the great uncertainties about obtaining funding for a particular project and given the long time that might be involved in acquiring the funding. Is it fair to start a student on a project that might not be funded during that student's graduate program?

On the other hand, it's nice to be able to put the name of an actual student in a grant proposal and explain how their Ph.D. research fits into the overall research scheme of the project.

After years of research on the matter, I have concluded that it's worth making some effort to try to have grants and students correlate, but it's not worth trying for grant utopia. When it happens, it's mostly by luck, or, at least, it has been for me. Instead, my approach is to try to write awesome proposals about interesting things, submit proposals to a variety of programs, and encourage students to get some of their own funding/fellowships. I try to get make the funding situation work out as best I can for my students and postdocs, but sometimes there is a mismatch in timing and research activities.

Severe mismatches are difficult to deal with, but not in comparison to not getting a grant at all.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Selective Viewing

Agree or disagree:

Graduate advisors should show grant proposals to their Ph.D. students so that students can see what is involved in a proposal (particularly a successful one).

I agree with this statement.

Agree or disagree:

When a Ph.D. student's research is funded by a grant, the student should see the grant proposal.

I also agree in general with this statement, but the situation may be complicated. I have known and advised students who, if shown a proposal related to their research, became so influenced by what they read that they lost the ability to think critically and independently about their own research.

This is not a good situation. Although it sometimes seems like one must have a ludicrous amount of preliminary data before getting a proposal funded, a proposal is still a proposal. There should be some element of discovery about the research, and there might be unexpected results. Some research outcomes discussed as likely in the proposal might become more unlikely as the research proceeds.

After a grant is funded, the proposal may be useful to read for its presentation of the context of the research, description of methods, and outline of ideas and hypotheses, but it should not be a rigid template for the research once the project is underway.

I have also seen cases in which students, after seeing the advisor's grant proposal, were unable to write about similar things in their own words when required to do so. I am not talking about plagiarism -- I am talking about being unable to think of any other way to express similar ideas. In fact, some students, after reading the proposal and then having to write about the research in their own words (e.g. in a written document related to an exam) wish they hadn't seen the proposal first.

For these students, the best way to proceed is to discuss the research with them, including ideas outlined in the proposal, but not show them the proposal until they've had some experience writing about the research.

For most students, reading the proposal that funded their research is a positive experience. By reading the proposal, they can understand more completely the motivation of the research, and have the ancillary benefit of seeing how a proposal is constructed. I think that in most cases, students are able to move beyond the confines of the proposal.

Even so, I've encountered enough exceptions that I don't have a one-size-fits-all rule that all students are automatically given the proposal to read. They can see a proposal -- every student should see (and write) a proposal -- but it doesn't have to be the proposal that funded their research.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Grant Canyon

In an ongoing but intermittent effort to rid my office of filing cabinets that I have not opened for 9 ± 1 years, I have been making random forays into the filing cabinet drawers and tossing the contents into the recycle bin. A bonfire would be more fun, but for various reasons is not a good idea.

Most of the filing cabinets contain old papers and proposals, but there are also some academic skeletons in the drawers. For example, I excavated memos and other documents related to various personnel crises over the years. After mulling for a picosecond about whether to keep them or toss them, I tossed them, in some cases shredding the documents.

In one file I found documents related to a troubled graduate student. This brought back such memories.. which made me shudder, so I definitely threw these documents out. This student's situation was complicated by his longstanding (pre-graduate school) psychological and other problems, but glancing over these documents reminded me of the chasm that can exist between advisor and student points of view even in normal situations.

In one long and rather nasty letter, the unhappy student detailed all of the ways in which I had been unfair to him. Many of his complaints stemmed from his lack of knowledge of how grants work.

For example, this student wrote about how unfair it was that I didn't tell him about his future funding until March, even though he had asked me in January. The uncertainty was painful for him and it was cruel of me to make him wait. Yes, it is painful to wait to hear about a pending grant proposal, but I couldn't give him news until NSF gave me news. I know that I had explained to him why I had no information for him in January, but for some reason he didn't believe me.

He had been supported on a previous grant, but had started grad school mid-grant and I suppose he had assumed the grant would last forever (despite being told the end date) or that the next one would be in place long before the other one ran out. I had other students to support as well, and so a new proposal for the continuation of his research was submitted during (but not before) the last year of 'his' grant, causing him some stress.

In another instance he wrote about how I limited the amount he could spend on research activities. Yes, that accusation is quite true. NSF limits me to my budget as well.

And he wrote about how insensitive I was in dealing with an episode in which he informed me, a day before we were all to leave for a conference, that he wasn't going and hadn't done anything to prepare his talk. He wanted to withdraw his presentation, but I refused to let him do that and instead I put together the talk and gave it myself, thereby humiliating him.

All of this is also true. I did not let him cancel his talk that was to be part of a conference session that I was convening. I somehow couldn't imagine standing at the podium and announcing that a presentation with my name on it was canceled, with my NSF program officers likely sitting in the audience. I explained this to him at the time, but to no avail.

The list went on. In every case in which he felt I was being erratic, unfair, evil, controlling, passive-aggressive, vague, deceitful, and insensitive, I felt there was a reasonable explanation, in most cases related to routine grant management issues, proposal/grant deadlines, or the realities of managing a research program that involves more than one person.

This incident was particularly horrifying because the student was so deeply disturbed (and receiving psychiatric care, fortunately) and I was an inexperienced assistant professor who, because I needed to show that I could successfully advise a Ph.D. student, tried too hard and too long to pull this highly dysfunctional student along in his Ph.D. research.

Even so, over the years I have found that even moderately well informed and apparently sane graduate students have trouble understanding some basic issues involving grants and research. These issues include:

- Grants have start and end dates. They do not go on forever. This might be confusing in part because PIs can get no-cost extensions for a year (or two), so grants may have a longer life than their original start and end dates might suggest.

- Grants have budgets. They do not contain an infinite amount of money. Even when some students are told exactly how much is available for a certain activity, they seem to think that somehow there will be more and/or they are surprised and upset when the money runs out.

- The total $ amount of a grant is not equivalent to the amount the PI has available for the research. A substantial amount of the money in a grant goes to the university, not to the PI.

- Grant funds for grad students may be much more than just salary. Some institutions also require that the PI pay tuition and benefits. Grad students may not be highly paid, but they may be a significant component of a grant budget.

- Proposal budgets for most proposals can't be too high. PIs develop a sense for what the funding agency/program would consider to be reasonable vs. too high. For this reason, PIs have to do some delicate balancing between grad stipends (+ related costs) and research activity expenses.

- Students supported on a grant may start their graduate studies before or during a particular grant's lifetime. It may not seem fair to the student, but this timing relative to a grant's lifetime may affect the advisor's stress level about doing the research on a particular time scale, and that stress level may be transmitted to the student.

- The time between proposal submission and notification of the proposal's fate may be long.

- Some university accounting systems are so bizarre and complicated that it can be difficult for a PI to know exactly how much money is left in a grant. For example, it can be difficult to determine what is encumbered and what is not, and whether all outstanding invoices have been paid. There have been times when the actual amount remaining in one of my grants has been off by tens of thousands of $$ from what the accounting tables indicated. This is particularly stressful near the end of a grant. Budget stress level may fluctuate depending on when PIs look at accounting statements. A graduate student might perceive this as erratic behavior in an advisor.

- In some cases, departments/institutions make new policies that cost PIs money in existing grants even if this money was not originally budgeted. For example, my department occasionally mandates that graduate students receive raises that are effective immediately, even for existing grants. I supported the raises, but the money has to come from somewhere in finite budgets. This means less money for research activities.

Most of us could do a much better job of explaining the proposal/grant system to our students, but I think that it is inevitable that when issues of money, time, and stress are involved, as they are during a typical graduate program in Science, there are going to be difficult situations. I also think that grant management is one of those things that you have to experience yourself before you can really understand what is involved.

Maybe some computer science person will create a video game - SimGrant. Advisors can give it to students and postdocs to play and see how they do with the various decisions involved in writing transformative proposals, keeping various members of a research group funded, and dealing with kafkaesque accounting situations. I think this would be great, but the only problem is that the game couldn't use a proposal submission system like or else no one would play, and those forced to play would end up shooting their computers.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

It Takes a Village Idiot

An essay titled Want to Engineer Real Change? Don't Ask a Scientist appeared in the Washington Post on 25 January, but I just saw it today.

The essay by a distinguished Professor of Civil Engineering, Dr. Henry Petroski, highlights examples in which science was useless for progress, but engineering was transformative. People didn't need science to invent steam engines or airplanes, only engineering. Thermodynamics might explain how things work, but it hasn't been necessary to understand thermodynamics to make important engineering advances. And so on.

I am sorry that Professor Petroski's feelings were apparently hurt that President Obama mentioned science and not engineering in his inaugural speech, but that doesn't seem sufficient justification to attack science.

The essay is remarkably narrow-minded and short-sighted. Or perhaps I am the one who is narrow-minded and short-sighted, as I would have thought that it was obvious that we need both science and engineering.

A world with scientists but no engineers would be just as limited as a world with engineers and no scientists. It is pointless to set the two communities in opposition, as if one has been important throughout history and one has been comparatively useless.

The essay doesn't deserve any more discussion, but I will just mention that when I showed it to a colleague and said something along the lines of what I wrote above, he said that my conclusion that we need both scientists and engineers was like saying that everyone is special and so I must be an it-takes-a-village-ist who thinks that we should all have a seat at a nice round table etc. etc.

OK.. maybe.. I get the point (and the H Clinton reference), but I don't think that recognizing the importance of both science and engineering is a uniquely feminine point of view.

My colleague went on to say that my everyone-is-special philosophy betrayed my liberal-artsy roots. OK.. maybe.. and maybe my colleague will now be inspired to write an essay about how science has been responsible for many major advances in civilization but poetry has gotten us nowhere. Or he could write about how the second law of thermodynamics has been more important for civilization than the collective works of Shakespeare. The possibilities are endless.. and idiotic.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Public Rejection

Save your rejection letters for manuscripts. Maybe you can get the letter published in The New York Times. Example: A rejection letter for a scholarly article was published in The New York Times, Saturday, February 7, 2009.

The American Historical Review rejected an article about omissions and mistakes in “Abuse of Power,” Stanley Kutler’s collection of transcripts of Watergate tapes, on Friday. In a response to Peter Klingman, a historian who submitted the essay, Robert Schneider, the review’s editor, wrote that the piece, “despite its intrinsic interest, is too narrow in focus for this publication. He added: “Essays must therefore reach beyond the issues, concerns or jargon of a particular sub-field and speak to larger theoretical, methodological, or substantive issues. It seems to us that your essay is more appropriately placed in a more specialized journal. The screening report for the review, which is the profession’s premier journal, also stated, “This submission is too short (4,868 words) for consideration by the AHR.

[NYT article by Patricia Cohen]

Editors for most journals are presented with a template email for sending editorial decisions to authors. There is a template for each category of decision (accept, minor revision, moderate revision, major revision, reject and resubmit, reject and take a hike etc.). The templates that I use when sending editor email to authors are editable, and this is fortunate because the templates were written by a robot with stilted diction and a penchant for vague and convoluted prose.

Particularly when rejecting a manuscript, I always try to edit the template sufficiently so that it is clear that I have actually read the manuscript, thought about it, and have specific, substantive reasons (which I list) for rejecting the manuscript.

I don't know anything about the American Historical Review and of course have no idea whether the manuscript was rejected for inappropriate or unstated reasons, but that rejection letter screams TEMPLATE to me, even though the editor kindly inserted the specific word count for the rejected manuscript.

The line about "more suitable for a specialized journal" is a classic one. In some (many?) cases it is an appropriate comment, and I suppose it must be said somehow. It says "Your work is narrow and provincial" and "Send your manuscript to a journal that only a few people read" or possibly "The editor is narrow and provincial and is unable to appreciate the brilliance of your work, possibly because it is so poorly written and possibly because the editor is a dolt.".

If I am making a negative decision about a manuscript that I perceive to be too narrowly focused for the journal of interest, I provide some brief but specific information about this in my own words, and I omit or rewrite the "specialized journal" sentence from the template email. Maybe I deal with many fewer manuscripts than the AHR screening committee, but it only takes me a minute to de-templatize this aspect of the letter.

Another intriguing aspect of the rejection letter in the NYT article is the problem of the manuscript's being "too short". Many journals have strict limits on the maximum length of a manuscript, but I didn't know there were journals that had a minimum length. I can imagine that an article that consisted of very few words might not be appropriate in some cases, but I would hope that journals to not mindlessly adhere to a strict minimum number of words. It should theoretically be possible to make a very concise but compelling case for something important enough to be published.

(word count = 589)

Friday, February 06, 2009

The Mood is the Message

My daughter will soon be giving a certain talk at her school. She practiced her talk for us (her parents), and my husband commented "That's a great talk, but you sound angry."

My daughter said: But I thought you were supposed to sound angry when you give a talk.

Science Professor Dad: Why would you think that?

Daughter: Because that's how you sound when you give a talk, Dad.

[They check with me for confirmation or denial.]

FSP: It's true, you do.

In fact, he does, but in the case of giving a talk (e.g. at a conference or to a university audience), he doesn't care. In the case of teaching, however, this angry-sounding-speech thing has been a problem. If you sound angry when you teach, even if you don't feel angry, students will think you are unapproachable and that you don't like them or the material you are teaching. And then they will not like you, especially when filling out evaluation forms at the end of the term.

While teaching this term, my husband is trying very hard not to sound fierce or angry. He is teaching the usual material, but the difference is his tone of voice and his facial expressions. He used to grimace and glare, and now he effects a pleasant demeanor. He says that for the first time in 12+ years of teaching this class, he can sense a different feeling in the classroom. A friendly feeling.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

This is 2009

Thanks to a friend in a frozen part of the country for sending me this link to a public radio program that focused today on Women in Science, including discussion with Nathalie Angier, Evalyn Gates, and Marlene Zuk.

I just listened to the recording of the show, and there's the usual stuff about choices and lifestyles and sexism and childcare and hobbies (it's official -- you can have hobbies and be a science professor!).

There is also an interesting/depressing anecdote from a female caller to the program. This woman experienced wow-you're-good-at-math-and-you're-female-how-weird comments 25 years ago and now her daughter is getting these exact same comments as an undergraduate science major. The daughter/student is getting the how-weird-that-you're-good-at-science comments from fellow students, not from older people (professors).

Some of the discussion that followed addressed the fact that bias against women in science isn't just a phenomenon of the old guys who will retire/die soon and then the problem is solved -- the young guys, including current undergraduates, also have these biases.

The radio host seemed to be blown away by this and also accounts of things that women scientists and engineers experience even today in terms of lack of respect or visibility owing to gender. She said "This is 2009", why are we still dealing with these problems that should have gone away many years ago?

In the immortal words of professors of all genders and ages: That's a great question.

The motivation for the show's topic today was Obama's statement in his inaugural speech about restoring Science to its "rightful" place, leading to the question: Is this going to result in changes in the culture of science and how it includes, recruits, and retains women? I suppose if Obama's emphasis on Science inspires more public awareness of science and scientists, there may well be more (positive) changes than we have seen in recent decades. Dare we HOPE?

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Hobby Horse

This post is related to yesterday's and takes into account some recurring themes in the comments.

When applying for an academic position -- grad school, a postdoc, a faculty position -- do you have to 'pretend' that you live only for research and have no personal life in order to be taken seriously?

Some may disagree, but my cosmic answer to this is No, of course not, but that doesn't mean that your application materials should contain information about your personal life. If your application statements are focused entirely on your background and interests, you are not pretending by omission that you have no other life. You are not entering an implicit contract in which you promise to have no other life. You are simply providing the relevant information that will form the basis of the evaluation of your expertise and potential.

There are exceptions. If an applicant has a personal issue that is relevant to the position for which they are applying or is necessary to explain something about the academic record, these issues should be mentioned in their appropriate context.

During an interview or visit, there are opportunities to discuss non-work issues. This is the time when you get get a sense for whether a program/advisor is a good fit for your priorities. Visiting students and postdocs can get a sense for what the expectations are for particular advisors/projects, and you can typically figure that out by talking to other students or postdocs rather than asking the advisor something red-flaggy like "So how much are you going to expect me to work?". Even a reasonably sane advisor who is happy to have advisees who have outside interests and don't work 24/7 would wonder about the motivation level of someone asking a question in that way.

There are many anecdotes, real and unreal, of applicants/candidates having to pretend they were monomaniacs focused only on research and uninterested in other human beings, particularly those of the infant sort, in order to get an academic position. I did not encounter this in my own applicant/candidacy experiences, but I have met people who believe in it fiercely. Example:

Many years ago, I had an interview at a college and, as part of the interview process, I met with a hiring committee that included faculty and administrators from various departments in the college, not just people in my field. I enjoyed my conversation with this committee, which was interested in my views of Science in general; for example, as it relates to other fields and to society, and how we teach students about Science. Soon after my interview, I was offered the job, but, because it wouldn't have been a good place for my husband, I turned down the offer.

Six years later, I visited a certain university as part of a lecture tour and had dinner with a science professor I had never met before. As soon as we sat down, he said "I know that you were offered that job at X College in 199x. I interviewed for that job too and they rejected me right away. So here's what I want to know. When that hiring committee met with you and asked you what your hobbies are, what did you say?".

I only vaguely remembered being asked about my hobbies by that committee, so I had to think about it for a few minutes. Finally I replied, "I don't really remember. I probably didn't say much because I don't really have anything I consider a hobby."

My dining companion said "I knew it! I knew I gave the wrong answer."

I asked him "How can there be a wrong answer? As long as you didn't say that you eviscerate kittens as a hobby or something else disgusting and illegal, how can there be a wrong answer?".

He said "For the last six years I have been kicking myself about this. I should have said that I have no hobbies. That would mean that I work all the time. Or, if I did tell them a hobby, I should have said that I read The New York Review of Books."

Me: Why didn't you tell them that?

Him: Because I don't read The New York Review of Books.

Me: Oh... So what did you tell them?

Him: I told them that I like fishing. What an idiot. I admitted to having a hobby and I admitted to having a non-intellectual hobby.

We argued about this in a friendly way a bit more, but I was unable to convince him that his fishing hobby confession had not cost him the job. I don't think he realized that he was being inadvertently a bit insulting by saying that if he had just given the 'right' answer to the insidious hobby question, he would have gotten the job offer instead of me. He was absolutely convinced that that committee wanted candidates with no hobbies or at the very least an appropriate intellectual one.

I do know of departments in which the vast majority of faculty are droids, and I even have one colleague at another university who only accepts grad students as advisees if their hobbies are on his personal approved list of acceptable activities (example: stamp collecting is bad), so I am aware that extreme/insane advisors are out there. Even so, most of my colleagues, postdocs, students have hobbies of various sorts. Many have families. An important part of life is learning to balance work and non-work. That's what most of us are doing.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

2-Body Grads

Sometimes there is a cosmic convergence of real life, email messages, and the blogosphere about a particular topic. This is one of those times.

Last week an anxious colleague worried that he would lose his top choice from this year's grad applicant pool if the department did not also admit another student from the same department/university. What if they were a couple but only one got an offer of admission?

He did not know whether these two students were or were not a couple, and he asked me what to do. He showed me a draft of an email message he wanted to send to one of them (his top choice applicant), and I was horrified by what he had written. I told him that he could not ask her directly about her personal life. He did not like that advice, but he did not send the email.

Just then, a post by Zuska on a related topic appeared, and I showed it to my colleague. He and our very savvy grad program staff person then devised a way to ask the applicant, who already knew she had been accepted to the program, what factors might influence her decision about whether to come here or not. She did not divulge anything about her personal life and replied with additional information about her research interests.

She had written very passionately and impressively in her research statement about her experiences as one of very few female students in Science in her university/country. I can imagine that she has not had an easy time being respected as a scientist thus far, and would therefore not easily discuss her personal life with a potential advisor.

Meanwhile, my colleague found out via an indirect route -- by asking someone who knows someone who knows someone at that university -- that this woman is in fact engaged to the other applicant in question. Although qualified, the male applicant wasn't a top priority for admission, but now he is going to get an offer of admission in the first round.

It is possible things would have worked out eventually anyway. Perhaps if the female applicant received an offer and her partner did not, a Zuskaesque exchange of information would have occurred and the partner would then have received an offer. He is certainly qualified and might have received an offer after the first round; he's just not a superstar like his fiance. My colleague feared, however, that by waiting he risked losing the superstar applicant.

I respect the young woman's reluctance to say anything about her personal life. I didn't deal with the 2-body problem until later, as an applicant for faculty positions, but I think I would have done the same at an earlier stage. I would have hoped that something would work out in one place that was good for both of us.

That's what I would do (and it seems that at least one other person in the world agrees), but now the question is, if an applicant to a graduate program wants to volunteer information of a personal nature, is this a good idea, and if so, how best to do it?

The 'best' answer may depend on the place. In my department, we've had grad applications from both members of self-confessed couples before, and in most cases one or both are accepted or not depending on the usual admissions criteria. The example described above is an extraordinary situation.

What if one person is applying to one unit of the university and another to a different unit? Different units typically have absolutely no influence over each other regarding graduate admissions (or anything else), so mentioning that a partner is attending or hopes to attend a graduate or professional program elsewhere in the university is likely to be treated as random information of no particular relevance.

Even so, I know some faculty who would consider a statement such as "I am applying to your program because my girlfriend wants to go to the vet school there" or even "I am applying to your program because I am interested in pursuing research with Professor X on Cool Science Topic, and also my significant other has applied to the Nanoneuroengineering Department" would be considered evidence that the applicant was not motivated by the Right Thing -- that is, a pure, intense, and unwavering laser-like focus on doing graduate Research in that particular department because of -- and only because of -- the awesomeness of the faculty. My advice is not to mention your coupleness in your application.

I hope that we faculty can look at applicants as real people with research interests and other interests and then make decisions based on who looks like they will be a motivated, smart, and creative student, even if they do take an evening off once in a while to go to a movie with their beloved. I hope that, but at the same time, what I want to see in an application is someone who is seriously focused on graduate research. That doesn't mean you can't have a life outside grad school, but there are only a few circumstances in which it is relevant to describe your personal life in your application.

Once you are accepted to a graduate program, however, you can volunteer information about your significant other's pending application to the same or different unit of the university if you wish to do so. In the case of applicants to different units of a university, it is likely to have no effect on whether your partner if admitted to the other program. I don't think it would hurt to ask, though -- but correct me if anyone has information to the contrary -- so maybe it would be worth bringing it up with the graduate advisor or your potential faculty advisor in an exploratory way.

In some ways, because there is less (money) at stake for a university and because students can apply to many universities to increase the chances of being together, it may be easier to solve the 2-body grad issue. Even so, some of the 2-body issues are the same and just as difficult whether the situation involves grad students or faculty -- Is there a best place for both of you? How do you decide that? And even if you agree on that, how do you both get to that place? Are you willing to be apart? If so, how far apart and for how long?

Monday, February 02, 2009

Bad Economics 101

There are some obvious ways in which the current World Economic Crisis is affecting Academia -- students unable to pay tuition, academic and staff positions going unfilled owing to hiring freezes, and building/renovation projects delayed are among the most prominent -- but what about other effects?

I wrote last year about how the lives of some of my graduate and undergraduate students have been disrupted by their having to move, with little notice, out of their apartments and find a new place to live, owing to the financial problems of their landlords. Since then, I've read that tenants in some places are being given more time to move out of foreclosed properties, as tenants are innocent victims in these situations.

The following are other examples of which I am aware, based on my own experience and discussions with colleagues at other US universities and colleges:

- Despite hiring freezes, some open faculty positions are being converted into non-tenure track, temporary appointments, and some are being left empty, resulting in canceled classes and/or higher teaching loads for other faculty, and uncertain employment options for those on the job market.

- Fewer funds are available for graduate teaching assistantships, even though undergraduate enrollments are not down, so there are the same number of labs to teach. I am not sure how this is going to work. Some of the slack can be taken up by eliminating coveted non-teaching TA positions (e.g., grader, AV/demo facilitator positions). Some departments hire undergrads as TAs because undergrads are cheaper than grad students (and, according to a colleague of mine who keeps track of these things, their teaching evaluations are as good as, or better, than those of the grad student TAs).

- Fewer/no funds available for teaching supplies. This happens from time to time anyway, even in non-crisis years, but is always unfortunate because there is always a significant amount of teaching-stuff carnage during a typical academic year and so there is almost always a dire need to replace the worn out, damaged, destroyed materials.

- Fewer/no funds for 'luxury' items such as speaker series; people to help with website construction and maintenance; social events; support for student travel to conferences; department newsletters..

- No raises this year or next.

- Don't even think about the possibility of getting a new building or renovated space.

- Adoption of bizarre and inefficient new accounting practices that don't seem to have any cost-saving benefits and that make everyone cranky but that perhaps have the effect of making it seem like Action Is Being Taken. Example: Some colleagues, owing to their university's new rules about hiring and justifying grant-related expenses, are unable to spend $ that is in existing grants. This grant money came from a funding agency and the expenses were justified in the original proposal. It is difficult to think of a (sane) reason why grant funds cannot be spent on the materials and activities for which they are intended.

Consider the following: More than a year ago, a colleague hired a postdoc. It was a 2-year position, but as is common practice at that university, the official offer was for the first year, with the second year contingent on adequate performance during the first year. The grant contains funds for two years: year one at Salary 1; year two at Salary 1 + raise. The postdoc did an outstanding job from the very beginning and was assured of the second year, but when it came time to start the second appointment year at a higher salary, the university said No to the promised raise.

The supervising faculty/PI argued with the accountants, argued with the Chair (who was sympathetic and tried to help), and argued with the Deans. The accountants and administrators were not convinced by the reasoning that the money for the raise was in the grant and the university was not saving any money by denying the postdoc the raise. The university people said that because the raise was not promised in the original offer letter, the raise could not be paid, in keeping with a hiring and salary freeze across the university.

Despite many many hours of ethics training on how to be responsible with grant funds, the PI came up with a creative solution to the no-raise problem, and this solution actually made the postdoc very happy. In the PI's opinion, not giving the postdoc a raise was more unethical than the creative solution.

This situation and others like it have generated much discussion among a group of my colleagues. Is it possible that university administrators, even at a big R1 university, do not know how grants work? Or is there something we faculty don't understand about spending grant funds on the items specified in the grant?

Maybe everyone is in Crisis Mode and not thinking clearly, and an efficient (and maybe even ethical) way forward will become apparent in the near future. I hope so, but at the moment it seems that the already difficult situation is in some cases being made even more difficult by strange and unhelpful policies that harm students, researchers, and faculty.