Tuesday, June 30, 2009

This is My Brain on Vacation

When I am on a family trip, roaming around with my daughter ± spouse on a vacation-type experience, I still spend a fair amount of time thinking about work. This is not a problem -- I enjoy thinking about my research while I'm off doing something else. And I can't imagine turning off that part of my brain just because I'm on vacation.

While on vacation last week, I
  • thought about existing and proposed research
  • did some writing/editing of my own manuscripts and proposals
  • did some editing/reviewing of other people's manuscripts
  • did some professional service obligations that had to be done by a certain date
  • stayed in contact with students/postdocs when they wrote to me with questions or requests
  • visited with a former PhD student and discussed future research we might do together
These work-related activities did not dominate my vacation, but they occurred, woven into the vacation time. I also spent long days having family adventures exploring, chatting, laughing, reading, writing, photographing, eating. My daughter asked me to teach her Latin, so I got an introductory book and we started working through it together a little bit each day.

Perhaps this will help her in her future career: she has decided to be a psychologist when she grows up, and she says that she will specialize either in horses or graduate students.

In any case, a comment on yesterday's work/vacation-related post made me wonder:

If I were to get bad news about a proposal or manuscript, would I prefer to get this news while on vacation or while at work?

The most accurate answer is of course 'neither', but if I had to choose, I might choose vacation. I don't think bad news (a.k.a. rejection) would destroy my vacation and it might actually be good to have some distance from work and an opportunity for pleasant distraction when dealing with severe disappointment about a work-related issue.

An ideal vacation for me is one that involves roaming around an interesting place, seeing and learning new things and having fun and, from time to time, thinking about my research and my students and other professional activities and getting a bit of work done here and there as time and mood allow.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Texting the News

During my recent travels, I had limited internet access. I have trouble breathing and feel a bit faint if separated from the internet for too long, and this sporadic internet access was particularly difficult for me because I was waiting to hear news of a proposal. Whenever I did have internet access, I quickly scanned my inbox hoping for (good) news about the proposal. I last checked my email at the equivalent of about 1:30 pm on a Friday in the program officer's city. Nothing.

Later that night, after I'd turned out the light to try to sleep, my phone vibrated with a text message from my co-PI: "xx funded!". My daughter woke up, I told her the news, and she offered to roam the city with me looking for an internet connection so I could get more information. This was kind of her, and I was briefly tempted, but I decided that would be a bit too insane.

I replied to my co-PI and sent a text message to the postdoc whose funding depended on that grant.

I was very happy and relieved. Even so, I had anxious dreams that night:

- Maybe I had misunderstood the text message? The 'xx' in the text message was a 2-letter abbreviation that had seemed unambiguous when I first read it, but what if my co-PI meant something else?

- Did "funded" really mean "funded" or was it a "I hope this proposal will be funded" kind of message?

- Would the budget be cut substantially? What if the email from the program director actually said "I am going to fund the research except for the postdoc." I had already texted my postdoc with the great news. What if that was premature?

And so on. I am not an extraordinarily anxious person under normal circumstances, but I was very worried about this proposal for various complex reasons that had nothing to do with the intrinsic merit of the research proposed.

I also thought that this proposal was one of the 2-3 best proposals I had ever written. If it had been turned down in this year of supposedly abundant $$ for research, I would have been more devastated than usual at the rejection of a proposal.

Proposal anxiety certainly did not ruin my family vacation, but it was always there at a low to moderate level, not far from my mind, with occasional spikes of more intense anxiety.

Checking email the next day confirmed that the proposal really will be funded at close to the requested level. Now I know that the grant really will exist, the postdoc funding is intact, and all is right with the world. And now I have a new idea for another proposal.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Off the Grid

My professional trip has now merged with a family trip. Internet access is still sporadic (I am typing this in a park using a non-password protected signal from a nearby apartment), so I am going off-line for a few days, or maybe the rest of the week.

Friday, June 19, 2009


I am on the road (hence the random comment moderation and short posts). Somehow I thought internet access would be continuous, but I have been forced to go to great lengths and expense to get occasional access. Next week might be better. Or not. In the meantime, the photo shows some graffiti I saw today.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Professor Dreams

What do professors dream about? One of my colleagues had a strange dream recently: one of his graduate students was in prison.

Was this a bad dream? In fact, it apparently was not.

Both my colleague and his student, who was imprisoned for unknown reasons, were happy (in the dream). The advisor was happy because the student had access in prison to everything he needed to do his research, and the student was happy because he would have something to do while in prison.

It is probably not a coincidence that this colleague has recently had trouble getting one or more of his graduate students to focus and complete some projects.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Exploratory Research

Early in my career, I had an "exploratory" grant that, although not large in $$, turned out to have an immense impact on my career because it allowed me to start a new project involving completely new research. I don't think I would have been funded by a standard grant for this research. I had no track record in this type of research, and would likely have been sliced and diced in review. A kind and optimistic program officer, however, gave me a chance.

I later went on to get standard grants for related research, published ~ 20 papers on the original study and research that branched off from it, and am now well established in this field.

Although that exploratory grant was successful, I have not sought to obtain other such grants. Lately, though, I have been thinking about making another attempt. Exploratory grants can be extremely important for early-career researchers, but can also be important for mid-career researchers who want to "explore" something new or a bit risky; i.e., research that may involve dangerous ideas.

NSF has long had programs for funding exploratory research. In its latest incarnation, one program has the annoying name EAGER, as in EArly-concept Grants for Exploratory Research. I think NSF's acronym-makers maybe should have kept working on that one.

EAGER grants are a way to fund exploratory research that is of course transformative (as are all NSF-funded projects) but that also could be designated as "high risk". The concept of "high risk" is still a bit murky to me, but NSF includes these items as possible elements of "high risk - high payoff" research:

- radically different approaches
- new expertise
- novel disciplinary or interdisciplinary perspectives

All of the items in this list could be appropriate for a standard proposal, but EAGER-funded research must be of the sort that would not be appropriate for a standard proposal.

It may well be, then, that "high risk" actually means "high risk of rejection by standard review processes". This is a very real risk for some research (and/or some PIs), so it is important that NSF has these programs, not because they circumvent peer- and panel-review, but because there should be a mechanism by which program officers can identify and fund intriguing ideas.

So why I am I contemplating "exploratory" funding possibilities now? An idea that some colleagues and I are working on would be rejected in a typical peer-review process; we know this for a fact. So maybe it shouldn't be funded for the various reasons that the reviewers mentioned? Maybe. Or maybe, as I prefer to believe, the reviewers were short-sighted.

I do not envy program officers who have to sort out things like this. Is this person proposing a crazy idea that shouldn't be funded or is it in fact a visionary approach involving awesomely transformative research?

I don't know, but I hope I get the chance to find out.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Summer Reading

Way back when, nearly 3 years ago, one of my first (perhaps even the very first) poll I did as FSP was to find out the favorite academic novels of my readers, who at that time numbered few.

Despite the low voter turn-out, the majority vote-getter was also my personal favorite, Straight Man. I was thinking about Straight Man the other day as I walked across campus with a colleague and I used the phrase "a goose a day", a literary allusion instantly recognizable by other SM fans such as my colleague.

Although not on my original list, another favorite of mine is White Noise (DeLillo), which is only partly an academic novel. I suppose this means I tend toward the absurdist sub-genre of academic novels.

I found this old (2000) list online when searching with the keywords "academic novels". There are 42 novels in the main part of the list. Another long list is here, and it's interesting to examine the differences in the lists (e.g. one contains Bellow, one does not). A recent but shorter list is here, but this includes some novels that I personally would not classify as academic novels.

In my professor-centric world, an academic novel is about faculty ± administrators and not "a chronicle of college sports, fraternities, drinking, coeds, and sex" (I am Charlotte Simmons, T Wolfe; a novel I read and kind of loathed). Those types of novels need another name, e.g. collegiate novel, or something like that.

I was thinking about the general topic of academic novels because I was looking for some books to read and was looking through the lists in the links above. And then I wondered: Why do I want to read an academic novel during the summer? Why do I want to read an academic novel at all? What is it that I like about (some of) them?

I don't know why I like (certain) academic novels so much. In general, my reading preferences tend toward international literary fiction, so in most other respects I am not inclined to 'read about myself' in my leisure reading. There is something very satisfying, however, about reading a really good parody of a faculty meeting or faculty-administrator interactions, even in the summer.

Instead of a poll today, I have a general question related to academic novels:

If you are an academic, do you like this genre of novel or is academia the last thing you want to read about in your leisure reading? Can academic readers be classified according to whether they love a scary-funny parody of a faculty meeting or whether reading about faculty meetings (however fictionalized) is a kind of torture?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Dining el desco Data

The results of Friday's poll about how often people eat lunch at their desk are very surprising to me. Who knew that so many people ate lunch at their desk every day or, if not every day, very often (1-2 times/week)? I certainly did not know there were so many.

I showed the results of the poll to a European colleague, and he said "That must be an American thing."

I suppose that the decision about where and how to dine is in part related to priorities about how work vs. personal time is spent. I would rather spend some time working in the evening or on a weekend than eat lunch at my desk, but I can see how others might prefer to be efficient with lunch time on weekdays and use this time to get caught up, talk to students, and so on.

During the week, I spend so much time talking to scheduled and unscheduled visitors to my office, I like having a bit of time away from that. When not attending a lunchtime seminar or meeting or teaching a class over that time period, I use lunch time to eat and chat with my husband or a friend or colleague about various topics of the day/week. For me, lunchtime, however brief, is a needed break in a busy day.

This topic reminds me of an incident in days of yore when I taught at a small liberal arts college, when I used to eat lunch every day with a particular colleague. We sat in a somewhat secluded common area of the department building and chatted about work and life and so on. Once some of our students realized that it was our habit to eat lunch in that particular place each day, they started stopping by to chat. I didn't mind this at all when the students wanted to stop by and have a conversation about something.

One particular student, however, liked to come by and use the time as an extra office hour and/our counseling session, and no amount of saying "Could we talk about this during office hours" could convince her that we weren't thrilled to share our lunch time with her and her problems. One day, this student told us in great detail about her complex relationship with her boyfriend. My colleague had just taken a large bite of his sandwich (he was hurrying through lunch so he could retreat to the relative safety of his office), when the student said "It must be so special for you to have students talk to you about these things". When she said that, my colleague spit out his sandwich in shock, so great was his surprise at the difference between his view and the student's view of the specialness of these lunchtime interactions. He did not stay long in the small liberal arts college world. I wonder where he eats lunch at his current institution; probably in a locked room or a faculty center.

In any case, I learned something from the poll, and I am still contemplating getting a large sign that signals my unavailability for visitors when I am eating lunch at my desk.

[note: comment moderation might be a little more sporadic than usual for a few days]

Friday, June 12, 2009

Eating al desco

As happens from time to time, even in summer, I was recently eating lunch 'al desco'. While I was eating-working, a student walked in my office to ask me a question, saw I was eating lunch at my desk, and said "Oh, I'm so sorry for interrupting your lunch. I'll come back later."

I was stunned. This has never happened to me before. In my experience, no student has ever before acknowledged that eating lunch @ one's desk means one is busy and therefore perhaps non-urgent questions can wait until another time.

I already had a very high opinion of this student, but he shot up even higher in my estimation after this incident.

Alas, his polite response to seeing me eating @ my desk makes him a rare beast indeed.

Memo to visitors: If you walk into someone's office and see them eating lunch at their desk, this probably means they are busy. If you aren't sure and ask "Are you busy?", this is more polite than not asking, but this question, however well intentioned, might elicit a glare, an incredulous laugh, sarcasm, or insincerity (just so you know).

I certainly can't speak for all professors -- perhaps there are some who so love their desks and offices (and office chairs!) that eating@desk is a pleasurable activity that is done by choice and that has the added benefit of attracting cute little rodents (and insects!) -- but I typically eat at my desk if I am so busy that my only other option is to skip lunch.

Lunch-skipping occurs now and then too, but it is not a good idea if I am teaching an afternoon class, and dangerous if I have an afternoon faculty meeting.

Yes, I know that I could close my door. I have tried that, but then people knock and
I either have to get up and go to the door to tell the visitor(s) that I am busy, pretend that I am not there even though it might be obvious that I am (causing emotional trauma to some, as I have learned from experience), or yell Go Away I Am Busy.

I once tried a Do Not Disturb sign, but some people didn't see it and knocked anyway, some saw it but wanted to know why I didn't want to be disturbed, and others told me later they thought I was probably taking a nap in my office. So maybe I need a Do Not Disturb Because I Am Really Really Busy Right Now and No I Am Not Sleeping sign.

I find all of these options less appealing and more time-consuming than having someone step into my office, ascertain that I am busy, and go on their way until another time when I am not in simultaneous mid-chew and mid-something-else.

None of this is a big deal, of course, and it doesn't punch a hole in my day if I encounter someone who starts talking to me without even asking if this is a good time to interrupt, but when I encountered a real live polite person this week, I realized how nice it was to have such an experience for a change.

That said, it's time for a poll:

How often do you eat lunch at your desk?
Sometimes (1-2 times per term or year)
Somewhat often (1-2 times per month)
Often (1-2 times per week)
Every day
pollcode.com free polls

Thursday, June 11, 2009


The issue of honorary degrees became a rather hot topic this year in large part owing to Arizona State University's decision that Obama hadn't yet earned such an immense honor. It was not difficult to expose the hypocrisy of that decision by glancing at a list of previous ASU h-degree awardees.

In any case, some universities award honorary degrees and some do not. I have been occasionally aware of the general issue of honorary degrees when controversy arose at some university or another owing to the awarding of a degree to a controversial person (e.g. Oxford/Thatcher/1985; Yale/Bush/2001) or non-person (some school in the 1990's/Kermit the Frog) or owing to the rescission of an honorary degree to someone (e.g. Robert Mugabe) who may have besmirched the reputation of the awarding university after the awarding of the degree.

I was recently somewhat unwillingly involved in one stage of the selection process for honorary degrees at a particular university. Back in the days when I was completely -- rather than just mostly -- ignorant of the inner workings of the h-degree decision process, I'd have guessed that some BigName famous people who had done amazing things were routinely given these degrees by various universities around the world just as a way of saying "Our university community thinks you are great", even if the honoree didn't have any particular reason to care about that particular university. Mandela. Havel. Saramago. Hockney.

And I probably could also, if pressed, have guessed that some NotSoBigName people got these degrees as well, for being great at whatever it is they do, even if their names are not known to most people. Such persons might include the CEO of a successful but not galactically famous company, the inventor of a gizmo we cannot live without, the tireless proponent of a worthy cause, an artist of some-but-not-cosmic repute, the Secretary of Agriculture in the Ford Administration. Maybe these people would have an association with the awarding university, maybe they wouldn't.

In a cynical moment, I might also have predicted that some BigNames got them just for being famous. Queen Elizabeth comes to mind.

In another cynical moment, I might wonder if some BigDonors to a university might get such degrees as thanks for sharing their loot with the university, or at least with the athletic department ± a new biomed building or two, but that would be unworthy.

One category of potential awardee that has surprised me is the awarding of an honorary degree to someone who already has a PhD from the university that is considering giving them an honorary doctorate. What is the point of that? Don't most universities have Awesome Alumni/ae awards they could give out instead of an honorary degree to someone who already has a PhD from the same place? I can see giving an honorary degree to someone who has an undergrad or MS degree from the university, so maybe it's not so different to give someone an honorary degree even if they have a PhD from the university. Maybe not, but it still seems strange to me.

Maybe it would be less strange if the honorary degree were given for something unrelated to the PhD field; e.g. someone with a PhD in comparative literature who achieves greatness for work as a human rights campaigner.

In another situation with which I am familiar, a scientist was nominated for an h-degree on the basis of his semi-illustrious career in science. The nomination packet contained the scientist's Web of Science citation report, including his h-index. I wonder what the minimum h-index is for getting an h-degree.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Co-authorial Rights

Something caught my eye in a recent NYT article about a supposedly falsified biomed study in which the first author forged the signatures of co-authors whom he selected without informing them about the study or their co-authorship. When problems with the (published) paper were revealed and the co-authors realized they were co-authors on a paper they had never seen, involving research they had not done, at least one of them tried to gain access to the reviews of the manuscript and other editorial correspondence with the first author. He was denied access.

This is from the article, with additional info added by me in brackets:

Dr. Andersen [one of the co-authors who didn't know he was a co-author until the paper was published], curious about what Dr. Kuklo [the first author] had actually submitted, asked Dr. Heckman [a journal editor] for copies of those reviews. But the editor turned him down, even though Dr. Andersen was supposedly one of the study’s authors. In a recent interview, Dr. Heckman said that his journal, like many others, considered such reviews confidential and shared them only with a study’s lead author.

“It is all confidential information,” Dr. Heckman said, when asked by a reporter for the reviews. “It is protected by the peer-review process.”

I can see why a random person couldn't write to a journal editor and request to see so-and-so's reviews, but why is this information confidential with respect to co-authors?

This general issue reminded me of a conversation I had at a conference last spring with a colleague. He hates the fact that he almost never gets to see the reviews and editor comments for manuscripts to which he has contributed as a co-author. Some of his first-author colleagues won't send him the reviews even when he asks. He had never tried asking an editor if he could see the reviews as well, but perhaps it wouldn't have mattered.

Is Dr. Heckman right? I am not sure he is, but if he is, why can't co-authors see review materials? If co-authors are responsible for the content of papers, shouldn't they have the right to see the reviews?

In a few instances, I (in my role as first author) have not wanted to share review and editorial correspondence with co-authors, for reasons I will outline below, but if any of these co-authors had asked me directly if they could see the reviews, I would have complied with their request. And if a journal had a policy of giving co-authors access to reviews, I would not object.

The exceptions I can think of at the moment occurred when:

(1) the co-author was a somewhat junior student and the reviews were 'not constructive' (= hostile and unprofessional, possibly including insulting comments). Eventually students should see reviews in their raw form and learn how to deal with negative comments displaying various magnitudes of rudeness; I expect senior grad students to participate fully in reading and responding to reviews. However, I have seen the crippling effects of harsh first-reviews on students, and would prefer to ease them into the experience of being attacked for no obvious good reason.

(2) I hated my co-author. I can think of one case in which I ended up not having much choice but to co-author a paper with someone who was not only hated by me but by most of the rest of the world. My other option was not submitting the manuscript, but I had a lot of time and effort (and $$) invested in this project and was unwilling to drop it without at least attempting to publish one paper. Communicating with my odious co-author about anything, however benign a topic, tended to unleash paranoid rantings about all the people he hated (they were wrong about everything, he was right), and I didn't want to know what his response would be to reviewer comments, even though they were mostly mild and constructive. I took care of all the revisions myself and presented the finished manuscript to him as a fait accompli.

Despite my aberrant and hypocritical behavior in these cases, my general opinion is that co-authors have a right to see reviews and be fully informed of the review process and editor decisions.

I realize that some manuscripts have 57 authors and it might not be practical to involve everyone, but perhaps in these cases the corresponding author could indicate the 5 or 10 co-authors who should have access, if they so choose, to information related to the review process.

Or am I missing something? Is there a downside to allowing some or all co-authors to have access to reviews?

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Except One (2009 edition)

Last June I wrote about how every student but one in my medium-sized course for science majors gave me a positive evaluation for my teaching. What I wrote last year applies to this year as well for another medium-sized course for science majors that I taught this past term. Last year I wrote:

In the evaluations for my class this time, every student except one said that they learned a lot. Every student except one said they would recommend my class to others. Every student except one said that they would recommend me as an instructor. Every student except one said that I treated students with respect, was approachable, gave timely feedback, was organized, and so on.

But here's the difference between last year and this. Last year I wrote:

I know which student hated the class. This student was unremittingly rude throughout the entire academic year.

and I asked the question:

Is it better to know in advance that at least one student hates your class, or is it better if you don't know until you read your evaluations?

I now have more data to answer this question. This year, I have no idea who the exception is. I was shocked that one student hated me and the class so much and I was completely unaware of this until I read my evaluations.

I would understand it more if this were my big intro course with hundreds of students. In a big intro course, it's not unusual to have a few students who check off all the most negative ratings on an evaluation. In my big class this past term, I was surprised that I only got one extremely negative comment (maybe one of the cheaters I busted? the student I caught lying about needing to miss a quiz for an athletic event? someone else entirely?) and one moderately negative evaluation (from someone who hated the fact that when I was asked a question by email, I typically explained how and where to find the information rather than just giving the answer directly). I expect those sorts of evaluations in a big class, and as long as there are only a few of them, I don't worry about it.

In a small to medium-sized course where you know all the students by name and see them around the department all the time and chat in the halls etc., it's troubling to find out that one of them was extremely unhappy throughout the course and never said a word despite having ample opportunity. The one unhappy student wrote no specific comments to explain what exactly he or she hated about me and the course, but checked off all the most negative ratings on the multiple choice part of the form.

So, is it better to know in advance that at least one student hates your class, or is it better if you don't know until you read your evaluations?

Both are lousy situations, of course, but I guess overall I'd have to say that I prefer the latter. I feel great regret that I didn't know one of my students was so unhappy with the course and there was no time to discuss the problem, but I enjoyed teaching this class this term, thinking (delusionally, as it turns out) that all of the students were also enjoying the class.

Last year, the one extremely hostile and vocal student had a serious negative effect on the the class and my feelings about teaching it. Each day of the course last year, I dreaded going into the classroom and seeing that student sitting there, arms crossed and frowning, in the back of the room, preparing to whine about something. The rest of the class was intimidated by this student and the atmosphere of the entire course was affected.

This year, the class seemed cheerful and filled with motivated, perky students who were very interactive about asking and answering questions during the class. It was a pleasure to teach that group of students.

So I lost one student along the way and I am sorry about that, but if you forced me to choose between the two unappealing options, I would choose the unknown hostile student over the in-my-face hostile student.

Monday, June 08, 2009

They Heart Powerpoint

We have all seen horrific examples of presentation software abuse, I am sure, but I don't think there is anything inherently evil about presentation software. I think that if used with care and thought, it can be a force for good (learning).

Consider these comments from my teaching evaluations from students who took my Huge Intro Science Class this past term:

Created great presentations
Had a well prepared powerpoint
Her powerpoints were great
Power point worked well!
Presented the material clearly through the slides
Provided great visuals.
Really great powerpoints
She had great powerpoints
She had really great powerpoints
She had very well written powerpoints
her powerpoints helped me learn a lot.
She used power points that were easy to take notes from
She used powerpoints during lecture
Spoke effectively and used powerpoints
The Power Point slides were very easy to follow
The Powerpoint presentations were very well done
The power points were very helpful
The prepared slides were really helpful
The slides were great.
great visual aids

Etc.. you get the picture that they liked the pictures. Those comments were not prompted by any sort of directed question, but were part of the general comments section of the course evaluation.

I was pretty sure that the course had gone well overall, but I was stunned by the overwhelming positive comments about the presentations. I have taught this course many times but I have never gotten comments like these on the presentation aspect of the class. What was different this time?

Although I have taught this course many times, I don't teach it so often that I can just walk into the lecture hall and automatically emit coherent words of great wisdom. I also change the course a bit each time in terms of materials and emphasis and examples. The re-thinking that I do before every class to make sure that I have a good idea of what I want to say and how I want to say it is accompanied by tinkering with the visual aids (The Powerpoints).

This past term I did in fact spend a lot of time working on the presentation part of the class. I think the presentations are good, but I don't think there is anything extraordinary about them, despite the raves in the evaluations. I think that what mostly improved was how I used The Powerpoints.

Or, at least, I like to think that it wasn't The Powerpoints alone that the students found useful. I don't use text slides (I write on the board and talk as I go along) and I used the images as one component of the class. My hope is that the students found the combination of teaching methods effective, and not just The Powerpoints -- that is, the images and what I said and how I said it and the pace that I went and the amount of material I covered in a certain combination of depth : breadth and the jokes that I told and maybe also the interpretive dances that I did on the table at the front of the room.

Friday, June 05, 2009


Something that I find very funny but kind of bizarre is when someone sends me a link to FSP or a copy of a post or even part of The FSP Book with a note saying that I might find this relevant, interesting, or funny. Fortunately for me, so far the sending of FSP to FSP has been accompanied by a nice comment and not "Look at the garbage written by this raving moron"... or worse.

In most cases the emailed FSP has been sent to me somewhat indirectly -- e.g., from person to person and eventually to me, or to me as part of a group email.

In all but one of these cases the person forwarding (or re-re-re-forwarding) FSP to FSP was not someone I knew well, but in one case I was truly shocked. How could this person not know that I wrote the thing he was sending to me?

I have assumed that anyone reading FSP who didn't know in advance that this was me would immediately figure it out, but this does not always seem to be the case. Do I sound different as FSP than I do as me?

Apparently so, but I am quite confident that 2/3 of my cats would recognize me (and themselves) if they read this blog.

There are some bloggers who used to be anonymous but who now are not, and it has fascinated me that their non-anonymous blogging voice is different from their anonymous blogging voice -- not just the topics, but the writing style and tone. Perhaps it is this way with me, though I haven't yet run the experiment of non-anonymous blogging to test the idea.

I checked with the FSP Editorial Board about this issue. I asked whether I sound different as FSP and whether my FSP 'voice' is inconsistent in any way with me in real life. The answer is no, FSP sounds exactly like me.

Another possibility for why I have escaped detection by readers who do in fact know me in real life is that people who know me just can't imagine that I -- a middle-aged science professor -- am a blogger. I am kind of entertained by that.

And no, it doesn't bother me that people who download The FSP Book send copies along to others. Even though this might deprive me of minor profits that would otherwise be used to support my cats' catnip habits, I consider sharing e-versions of FSP The Book to be like lending a book you like to a friend. It's not as if it's a pirated song or a DVD.. and I wrote the book for people to read and use and discuss, and, apparently, to send back to me to (re)read.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Mother Figure

At the end of the final exam for my Large Science Class, most students silently placed their completed exam on the front table with varying degrees of force -- some tentative, some emphatic. Some students smiled and said goodbye, a few even said thanks.

One student left without smiling or saying anything or even looking at me, and I was a little surprised because I had helped that student a lot during the term. She had been failing and I worked out a plan with her to keep her on track, and she ended up doing much better as the term progressed. She had feared she would not graduate because she was failing this course, but unless she completely blew the final exam, she would pass the course and she would graduate. I hoped her lack of eye contact during exam turn-in didn't mean that she had failed (or thought she had failed) the exam.

A few minutes later, though, she came rushing back in and came up to me and said "I forgot to say goodbye because I was so distracted but I wanted to thank you" and then she gave me a quick hug.

I have never been hugged by a student before and it was kind of weird. I told my husband about it later and he said "You have finally gotten old enough that you seem like a mother to them".

I had to think about this for a while. This was a new concept for me even though I am quite aware that I am old enough to be the mother of an undergraduate. I think that I am having trouble getting used to the idea not because the old-enough-to-be-their-mother thing freaks me out but because I do not feel maternal towards my students.

Alternatively, the hugging incident could have been a random event involving a student who likes to hug people.

Let's assume that my husband is right (this time) with the Mother Hypothesis.

Is being a motherly professor a good thing?

I used to think it wasn't. Early in my teaching career when I taught an enormous class in a giant auditorium, I imitated a technique that one of my teaching mentors, a male professor, had used very effectively to quiet a large class down so he could start teaching: I said "Sssshhhh". When he did this, the students quieted down and he started class. I saw him do it at the beginning of almost every class.

It wasn't quite as effective for me, but I didn't think anything of it until I got my teaching evaluations at the end of the term. A number of students commented that they found this Ssshhhing "offensive" and "insulting", as if I were a "kindergarten teacher" or " a mom".

I asked the person from whom I had borrowed this technique whether this was a problem for him. He was very surprised. Not a single student had ever commented on this to him before, not in evaluations, not in person, not ever. It was not a problem, not even an issue.

When a male professor said Sssshhhh, the students saw and heard a professor who wanted them to be quiet so he could teach them things. When a female professor said Sssshhhh, the students saw and heard a kindergarten teacher or (horrors) a mom who was treating them like disobedient children.

I never Sssshhhhed a class again, and I have worked very hard over the years to erase the preconceived idea that female professors aren't real professors or somehow lack that professorial je ne sais quoi that male professors have.

But now that I am middle aged, maybe it's OK if I seem mom-like, as long as I seem professorial at the same time. Maybe the fact that more moms are professors and more professors are moms will come to represent a good thing, not a cause for feelings of discomfort and humiliation by students.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

National Stress Foundation

What do you do if one of the program officers at a funding agency to which you send proposals is not as professional, sane, objective, and/or non-hating-of-your-guts as you might wish them be?

How common is this?

I suspect it isn't very common in its most severe form. I can think of maybe 3 colleagues in the past 15-20 years who have had this experience at such a serious level that they had to change their research topics because there was no way they were going to be funded in a certain program by a certain program officer no matter how awesome their proposals.

Even so, I am wondering how common it is for someone writing a proposal to feel some anxiety about the program officer's personal opinion of them, objectivity about certain types or subfields of research, or other aspects that don't strictly involve the "intellectual merit" of the proposed research -- whether or not the anxiety is based on experience or even reality.

There are many things to be anxious about when submitting a proposal. Where does anxiety about program officers rank among them? I refer here specifically to anxiety about program officers, not reviewers or panel members or others who might be in the reviewing chain.

For me, anxiety about program officers has always been extraordinarily low or non-existent, but lately it has shot up to close to the top of the list. I hope this is temporary, and I hope certain program officers are very temporary.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

P-Mentoring (2)

Thanks to all who sent email or made comments about postdoc mentoring. Here are some ideas for things to mention and discuss in a postdoc mentoring statement and plan:

- PIs will discuss with postdocs the goals and timelines for conference abstracts, papers, proposals, and things like that. These goals can be somewhat flexible and can be revisited as necessary, but should give the postdoc a clear idea of what they need to aim for.

- The statement can describe existing or planned research group meetings and/or regular individual meetings between the supervisor and postdoc.

- It should be mentioned if postdocs will be involved in project planning and new grant proposals.

- Postdocs can be encouraged to meet with visiting speakers and other visitors (describe the relevant visitor/seminar series).

- Postdocs who are interested should be given mentoring opportunities (e.g., undergrad research students, interns).

- Postdocs who are interested should be given the chance to organize or help organize graduate seminars and perhaps teach (as a visitor/substitute) a few undergraduate classes.

- Postdocs should definitely participate in conferences (with travel funded by the grant) – if possible, they should attend a variety of conferences, ranging from the giant ones to the small focused ones.

- Postdoc mentoring statements can list the various other faculty and researchers whom the postdoc will encounter, thereby showing that the postdoc will have a community of researchers with whom to interact.

- If a university has such things, postdocs can participate in workshops or courses designed to prepare them for academic and other jobs.

- Postdocs can be encouraged to participate in national workshops focused on academic or other careers.

- Postdocs should be given information about various resources related to careers; e.g., for academic careers, The Chronicle of Higher Education.

- Once a proposal is funded, the postdoc can participate in creating a more individualized plan for their mentoring.

- Postdocs who are entirely unproductive and publish nothing despite being given ample funding, opportunities, and time should pay back all the money they have taken from a PI's grant. Actually, I just made that up to see if anyone was still reading.

I don't think any of that would result in a dramatic change in how I do things, but it's helpful to see it written out and to contemplate the possibilities.

I'm not sure how NSF will evaluate the plans. My experience with the Broader Impacts component of proposals has been that reviews are extremely inconsistent. It is also likely that mentoring statements will be taken more seriously by some programs than by others.

All I know is that we've got to write these things, we PIs should do what we can to provide an excellent career-launching experience for our postdocs, and that postdocs should in turn take full advantage of the research opportunity with which they've been presented to do great things.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Postdoc Mentoring

When I was a postdoc, I was just happy to get through a day without being groped (by an emeritus professor), excluded from using the research facilities I needed (by technical staff), yelled at (by office staff), unnerved (by a large male grad student who frequently expressed the opinion that 'girls like to be hit'), insulted (by one of a wide range of people), or the target of a scary lab prank (by one particular technician). The concept of 'postdoc mentoring' was not even a gleam in anyone's eye. I did my work and got out of there as soon as I had the opportunity.

That said, during my postdoc I made some lifelong friends, I discovered that I was good at research, and I learned how to keep going in the face of adversity. I dealt not only with the above-listed items but also the possible tanking of a research project owing to a colleague's reneging on part of the research. I was left to fend for myself in terms of research projects, so I used some of my own ideas to create a project, carry it out (in part by traveling to other universities to do the work), and publish it. It was an important experience for me, and I emerged from it angry but confident.

Would my experience have been more positive if my supervisor, an entirely decent if somewhat clueless person, had been required to at least contemplate 'mentoring' me and assisting me with career development skills?

Starting this year, NSF proposals that request funding for postdoctoral researchers must include a statement about how the postdoc(s) will be mentored. For a brief time this mentoring statement was supposed to be part of the body of the proposal, but, perhaps in response to complaints, the postdoc mentoring text is now a supplementary document, up to a page in length. As with the required Broader Impacts component of proposals, NSF is serious about the mentoring statement: proposals that request funding for postdocs but that do not contain the mentoring supplement will not even be reviewed.

The proposal guide lists the following as examples of mentoring activities:

1. training in preparation of grant proposals, publications and presentations;
2. career counseling;
3. guidance on ways to improve teaching and mentoring skills;
4. guidance on how to effectively collaborate with researchers from diverse backgrounds and disciplinary areas;
5. training in responsible professional practices.

I am trying and failing to imagine my own postdoc supervisor giving me guidance on mentoring skills or responsible professional practices, so I think I will move on and consider instead my experience and philosophy as a supervisor of postdocs. How am I doing with respect to the listed items? In fact, I'm not doing so well, although I think overall I am a decent supervisor of postdocs.

Item #1. For me, this is the easiest one to accomplish. It is difficult to imagine a reasonably sane and functioning postdoc in my research group not getting a lot of experience with these activities in the course of a typical postdoc. I certainly work closely with my postdocs on writing papers and preparing presentations, and there's typically a grant proposal in the works that can involve a postdoc interested in such things.

Item #2. I'm not exactly sure what this means but I know that the only career counseling that I do is of the informal, conversational sort. My own experience begins and ends with academia. I can speak at length about academic jobs and how to approach acquiring one at various types and sizes of institutions based on my own experiences in several different countries, but career counseling about industry, government, or other career modes would have to come from someone else. There are, however, workshops and conferences and colleagues with this expertise, but other than pointing these out to my postdocs (who are generally more aware of them than I am), I don't have anything compelling to say about this possible item in a mentoring statement.

Item #3. My postdocs, if they so choose, can supervise or help supervise undergraduate and MS students, but they typically do not teach. Perhaps I am failing to provide my postdocs with the necessary career skills they need to succeed in a faculty position, but those who want teaching experience during their postdoc either participate in some workshops that prepare grad students and postdocs for the various components of a faculty position, or they acquire a visiting assistant professor or lecturer position before or after the postdoc.

In a short (1-2 year) postdoc in particular, there isn't much time to do anything except the research. Most postdocs enjoy having this time to really focus on research. It may be the one time in an academic career (other than the occasional sabbatical) when you are free of taking/teaching courses, taking/giving exams, and doing endless managerial and administrative tasks. On the one hand, research-only experience may not prepare you for a faculty position in which you have to balance teaching - research - service, but it can set you up well for the research component if you start some long-term projects and develop important collaborations that will carry you through the first few crazy years of a faculty position.

Item #4. By this point in the list it is clear that my mentoring skills -- at least according to the items listed by NSF -- are not as organized or complete as they could be. In my opinion, the best way to effectively do item #4 is for the postdoc to work on a research project that involves a diverse group of other scientists. Most of my projects are diverse in terms of disciplines involved, most involve international collaborators, and I suppose I add a splash of diversity as an FSP.

I'm not sure what to do about the word 'guidance' for #4, though. I probably rely too much on the 'lead by example' type of passive 'guidance'. If I saw a problem with how a postdoc interacted with another scientist owing to their being from a different field, country, ethnicity, or gender, I would certainly leap into action, but other than that, most things get figured out just by working together and doing the research. I don't think this philosophy would sound very impressive (or competent) in a postdoc mentoring statement, and it may well be an example of the flawed philosophy that resulted in the need for such statements.

Item #5. Well, there are certainly a lot of opportunities for this at my university. I am required to participate in them from time to time as part of being allowed to be a PI on grants, but I have found every single one of them without exception to be a huge waste of time and largely irrelevant to my experience as a professor of the physical sciences. I would not voluntarily subject my postdocs to these ethics training sessions.

Here again I prefer to lead by example and discuss informally issues related to co-authorship and credit and sharing/stealing ideas and so on, but once again I don't think that would look good in a mentoring statement. I suppose I could still list the possible opportunities for ethics training. Would that be ethical if I had no intention of requiring or even encouraging a postdoc to participate in them?

What else could be on the list for mentoring activities? What do postdocs want? (other than higher salaries, better benefits, and, in some fields, more respect). Perhaps I am lacking in imagination about this because I am currently interacting with extremely happy postdocs. In fact, my postdoctoral supervisory experience has either involved happy, productive and energetic postdocs or deeply dysfunctional insane and/or unproductive postdocs. If mediocre postdocs exist, they have not come to work with me.

I am glad that NSF is taking postdoctoral experiences seriously, not just in terms of the research but in terms of the overall experience of postdocs and at least asking PIs to contemplate career development issues with respect to supervising postdocs. Perhaps just recognizing the importance of these activities is a major first step towards realizing the goal of improving postdoctoral experiences.

That said, I hope that NSF will cut me some slack if I write a rather lame statement and will consider my track record of postdoc supervision.

If any readers have already written one of these postdoc mentoring statements and is willing to share it (or a draft), please send it to me by email and I will post some/all of them. In addition, postdoctoral readers should feel free to add to the official list of NSF items above; what else should it include?