Friday, January 29, 2010

Academic Shopping Around

By request, here are some of my thoughts on applying for, and possibly interviewing for, another tenure(track) position when you already have one.

My expertise on this particular topic comes from having left one university for another before coming up for tenure at the first place, and from various situations that have arisen related to my possibly moving from my current university (post-tenure).

Pre-tenure moves

As with most such issues involving life and career, there is no one "rule" to follow regarding whether you should apply to other schools when you are already on the tenure-track. Getting an offer at another (better or peer) institution is a well-known route to early tenure or at least a retention offer of some sort, and there are many reasons why you might want to try to do this.

If you want to apply for other jobs, you should do it. You should try to get the best job you can and not worry (too much) about what your colleagues will think.

If, however, you are very happy where you are and are wondering whether you should look around anyway, I suggest checking out a few things, such as: (1) What is your department/university's track record with retention offers? What has your department chair and/or the relevant dean done in the past?; and (2) Is it worth it to you, economically and/or emotionally, to go through the process of applying, interviewing, and negotiating?

This is a tricky topic because if you interview at another university and have no intention of accepting an offer if you get one, you are wasting a lot of people's time and another institution's money. I know that this is how the game is played, "everyone does it", etc. etc., but whenever I am on the receiving end (i.e., in the interviewing department) for someone who is just trying to get something from their existing institution, it's hard not to feel some hostility towards the person who just wasted our time and department's resources.

At the same time, I don't like it when hiring committee members spend time cynically wondering about the motives of a tenure-track or tenured candidate. I think we have to take everyone's application at face value, assume (perhaps delusionally) that they are sincere, and try to hire the "best" person for the position.

There's no good solution to this. It is how the game is played.

I've heard that women are more reluctant than men to go out and get other offers and negotiate a retention offer, owing to feelings of loyalty or insecurity or some other emotional factor(s). I'm sure there have been studies about this, and in my own case, I definitely found it difficult to apply for other jobs while I was working hard to succeed in my existing job, which I liked very much. Nevertheless, I applied for other jobs because it was the only way my husband and I were going to find academic jobs anywhere near each other. I therefore stayed in the job market for personal reasons, sincerely trying to get another faculty position that was better for my family and me.

I wasn't quite close enough to the promotion year for it to be realistic for University 2 to hire me with tenure, even if they would have considered that, but I got credit for my years at University 1, and came up for tenure not long after starting my new position at University 2. Some Assistant Professors may be hired with tenure at their University 2 if that university needs to do that to recruit them and is convinced they would easily get tenure anyway.

Each institution is different. I have several colleagues who were hired as Assistant Professors at a new university after they were already Associate Professors with tenure at the university they left. This may occur when University 1 is not even close to being a peer institution to University 2, but I think it is always worth asking if you could be hired with tenure.

Another option for "senior" Assistant Professors moving to another university is to be hired as an Associate Professor without tenure, but to be evaluated for tenure soon after arriving. You still have to go through the tenure process, perhaps within 1-2 years of arriving at your new institution.

Summary: If you think you might like to be somewhere else and appealing options arise, go for it. If the thought fills you with dread and exhaustion and you are content where you are, don't do it You're the only one who can determine whether it is worth it to you.

Post-tenure: active

If you want to leave your current institution for a better department, location, planet etc. or if you want to leave for personal reasons, just as in the pre-tenure case: go for it. Apply for whatever looks appealing and don't worry about what other people think. You can tell some trusted colleagues in your current department and even get a reference letter to attest to your sanity and awesomeness as a colleague. Then, if you get an offer and it's better than your retention package (relative to your reasons for applying in the first place), you can make your decision.

Another possible scenario is similar to one discussed for the pre-tenure cases: i.e., one in which you feel you need to get an outside offer to get ahead at your current institution. But again, do this only if it is worth it to you overall when considering all the factors, economic and emotional.

For some people, it seems easy. I have known faculty who were continually on the job market, accumulating offers and getting retention offers in return. Maybe that's how they gauge whether they still had "it".

The decision whether to apply to other institutions for reasons of dissatisfaction with your current institution might seem straightforward, but in fact it is not, especially when your spouse/family are in the equation. Even if there are things that make you unhappy at your current institution, how do you know that another place would be better? For example, if you have unpleasant colleagues in your current department, how do you know you won't have different unpleasant colleagues in another place? If you don't like your department chair, is it worth it to move, knowing that the insidious department chair might be replaced by someone more sympathetic in a few years?

Even if another place seems like it's great (colleagues, location etc.), there may be unexpected things that could profoundly affect your academic existence. Things like: how are graduate students funded? Do you have to raise grad student salary + other expenses entirely from your grants or is there some institutional support (TA, fellowship)? At your current level of funding, what are the consequences for the size of your research group in these different economic scenarios?

Also: If you rely on certain facilities, what is the situation at the Other University? At one place (to which I did not apply but which discussed employment options with me anyway), I was told that the institution would provide a substantial match to a proposal that I could write to get equipment that I already have at my current institution. That wasn't too appealing, although in some cases it might be a way to trade-up to a zippy new set of toys, if one is confident about getting an equipment proposal funded.

I have done one "official" post-tenure interview for a senior faculty position, and it wasn't hard to explain why I might want to leave University 2 for University 3. I didn't trash University 2, but just said that I was exploring other options, was interested in some of the new opportunities available at University 3, and that I was not considering leaving University 2 because I was unhappy there; it just seemed like a good time in my career to see what other possibilities there might be. The outcome of this adventure was reasonably satisfying for most concerned.

Post-tenure: passive

This is a strange one. At least, it has been a strange one for me. I would describe my position in my field of Science as "reasonably successful". I am not a cosmic superstar, but I am also doing pretty well -- well enough to be on the radar screen of other universities. I have been invited to give several talks that turned out to be more than just a talk (i.e., stealth interviews), I've been surprised by what I thought was a routine chat with a department chair who asked me if I'd be willing to move, and I've had several other somewhat surprising opportunities arise without my seeking them out. There seem to be a few of these every year. My husband has had similar experiences, as all these institutions know they would have to hire the both of us.

So what to do about these quasi-recruitment opportunities? In fact, we have been quasi-fortunate that our current department chair was proactive at one point and went to the Dean/Provost before another institution got too far with an offer. That's kind of an ideal situation, especially if you are relatively happy where you are and ambivalent about going somewhere else, however awesome the other place is in some ways.

There are still a few institutions with which we are in a maybe-in-a-few-years-we-can-talk-more limbo zone, and I guess it's nice to know there might be options in case our department/university becomes an inhospitable place. I'd rather not spend my entire career on the job market, but since I'm not actively applying for jobs, I don't really have to think about it much.

When an established faculty member moves to another institution, the move also has consequences for graduate students and postdocs, and there are good ways and bad ways to deal with moving with or without research group members (but that's too big a topic for this post).

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Interviewing Info IV

What is the most important part of the interview? The talk? The meeting with the chair and/or hiring committee and/or dean? The individual meetings with faculty? The 45 second elevator talk you have with the Famous Professor who is too busy to meet with you or attend your talk? All of the above? Or does none of it really matter because they've already decided and/or the decision will be based on an intangible sense for how well your research specialty/personality fit with the department?

Answer: Yes and no.

And how's this for another annoying non-answer: All of those things are important, but at the same time, you don't have to be amazingly awesome every second of your interview and you can even have a few less-than-great interactions and still do well overall.

For example, I have seen successful candidates who gave rather boring or somewhat inadequate talks but then did really well in other aspects of the interview. So maybe they haven't yet learned how to give a good talk (and might need some proactive help learning how to teach), but they are clearly creative, interesting, motivated people with good ideas and a sincere interest in being part of the department.

And I have seen very polished talks given by people who had nothing to say beyond what was in the talk.

So the talk is important -- in fact, it is quite important for those whose only glimpse of you is during that talk -- but it's not the only factor.

Clearly there are many factors, and there is a large degree of randomness in how a candidate is evaluated and perceived. Keeping in mind that my own evaluation method is likely different from that of other faculty because we are all individual special scary people, here's how I make my decisions during faculty searches:

- I have an initial general impression from the application files. We invite candidates based on this initial information, so that's the typical starting point. This impression may or may not end up corresponding with my final opinion and in fact doesn't seem to influence my final evaluations much, if at all. Whether or not I thought a particular candidate should be interviewed, I try to start with a positive attitude about each one, on the assumption that any one of them might eventually be my colleague.

- If I'm on a hiring committee, I might meet the candidate early-on in the interview, e.g., during breakfast the first morning. In many cases, however, my first view of a candidate is at their general talk, so the talk is the next data point in my overall evaluation. In the talk, did the candidate provide a general context in which we can understand the research or did he/she just dive right into the methods/data? Whether or not I personally think the research is interesting, did the candidate explain it well, present convincing results and interpretations, summarize the key points, possibly indicating future directions? Did the candidate handle questions well after the talk? (That last one is of course very subjective; I recall one candidate talk in which some faculty thought a candidate was "combative" but others thought s/he was "confident").

- In some departments/institutions, there is a second talk. There are different ways that the two talks are organized, including: (1) one is general, one is more specialized; (2) one is research, one is teaching; (3) one is a classic research talk, one is a 'vision thing' talk or discussion. Whatever the format of the second talk, I find that it is extremely useful for getting a better impression of a candidate's abilities and potential. Most people can get up and give a decent 50-minute talk on something related to their research, but you start to see the energy and creativity more in a second talk.

- During the individual meeting, typically in my office, I am not interested in grilling the candidate or making them outline their research plans in detail for the next 10 years. I just want to have an interesting conversation about something related to their research or mine or even just something interesting in Science. If there's time, I'm also happy to give my general perspective on the department/university -- there are things that I really like about this place and think are somewhat unique and worth discussing -- or to describe my research group and how I've organized it in terms of number of students, funding, and so on.

When I was a young professor, I had some truly bizarre individual meetings with faculty candidates. The bizarreness related in part to the (erroneous) assumption that because I did not have tenure yet and/or was a young-looking female, I didn't have a role in the hiring decision or, if I did, that my opinion wasn't as important as that of my senior colleagues. The fact that I was the only assistant professor in my department for a while (and a very rare FSP) probably enhanced this (erroneous) assumption by some candidates.

This (erroneous) assumption manifested itself in different ways in different candidates: some were openly patronizing or rude (a rather shocking thing to do even if I hadn't had a vote in the hiring decision), and others treated me as a source of inside information to help them impress the more important professors.

One hapless candidate started talking about people I had never heard of and saying that so-and-so was doing really well this year. I thought we were having a conversation about scientists in the candidate's field, and said that I wasn't familiar enough with this field to know these people. It turns out that the candidate had studied up on the university's athletic teams, learning the names and positions of key players and their scoring records, and thought it would be good to practice on me first before attempting this with the senior professors. I was stunned that (a) anyone would bother to do this, under the (erroneous) assumption that it would matter, and that (b) anyone would admit to having done this bizarre thing, much less admit to "practicing" on me because I was only an assistant professor.

All this is to say that my general advice is to BE REAL. Sure, go ahead and read up on the webpages about faculty and their research interests; this will help you learn about a place and also give you some conversational fodder for some of the individual conversations that might otherwise drag a bit. But don't pretend to have interests you don't, don't try to psych out the hierarchy of a department, treat everyone with respect (including students and staff), and try to enjoy the variety of people you meet.

But let's not forget one other chance for candidates and faculty to interact:

- Social events. Perhaps this reflects my own neuroses and lack of social skills, but these are my least favorite part of an interview. I found them extremely stressful as an interviewee, and I don't particularly enjoy them as an interviewer. Breakfast meetings are the worst, perhaps because I am not a so-called morning person.

On rare occasions, however, these can be very fun. I recall some interviews at which I got along really well with some faculty and we ended up having a great time at dinner or lunch or whenever.

In general, though, these events can be kind of weird and awkward. They are technically still part of the interview, but at the same time, you're all supposed to socialize and chat, in some cases for hours (but not about spouses or children!).

Unless a candidate reveals some truly disturbing behavior at a meal or other social event, I don't tend to consider this part of the interview to be as important as some of the other parts. If I had a great conversation with someone when we were talking in the department, but later I find their views on wine or weather to be dull, I will still have a very positive impression of them as a candidate.

By the time the exhausting interview is over, you and at least some of your possible future colleagues will have spent a lot of time together. It is likely that you and several other candidates all did well during the interview, and then the final decision comes down to factors beyond your control.

The faculty will discuss their impressions with each other, get input from students and postdocs (in some departments), and may then quickly reach consensus or spend hours/weeks bitterly divided.

In my experience, whether or not the person who shows up to take the job was the unanimous choice of the faculty or the choice of a small but powerful faction, we old faculty are interested in helping our new colleague get started, wish him/her well, and want him/her to succeed. Everyone should start with a clean slate when starting a new tenure-track job, no matter what happened during the interview process.

My wish for members of my own research group when they are out on the interview trail is that they feel good about their interviews, whether or not they get an offer. Of course I want them to get offers and have many enticing options, but if you come out of an interview feeling like you did your best and you had some positive interactions with faculty and students, that's an important thing for your confidence, and for your next interview(s).

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Interviewing Info III

Here are some more random thoughts about interviewing for a faculty position, based on questions from readers. I was hoping for some really strange questions, but I don't mind discussing some of the classic ones:

What should you wear to an interview for a faculty position?

The answer to this will certainly vary depending on the specific field. There may be some fields in which suit-like garb is the norm, and others in which a person wearing a suit will seem bizarrely dressed. I have three things to say on the issue of Interview Attire:

1. Look around your own department and at conferences and see what faculty wear when they need to look particularly professional. If you were alert to this issue during any faculty searches conducted while you were a grad student or postdoc, perhaps you have an idea what interviewees in your field typically wear.

2. If you're going to dress up a bit, at least wear something nice and comfortable. I remember one interviewee whose heels were bleeding profusely into her nice new shoes during her interview. I discreetly asked her if she wanted a bandage or if there was something else I could do to help her, but she refused all assistance and said it didn't hurt. There is no way that did not hurt. My advice: Try not to acquire physical scars from interviews.

3. Others may disagree, but I think that unless you wear something wildly inappropriate, what you wear does not matter much. If you dress slightly more formally or informally than is typical, this isn't going to detract from your awesome interview talk and the strong positive impression you make with your energy and your ideas for cutting-edge research. Even so, although you should explore new frontiers in research, it might not be a good idea to explore new frontiers in interview attire -- there are probably sartorial limits that aren't worth pushing past in the interview, but, although I shall avoid defining these limits, I will say that I think there is a broad region of acceptable attire. I have seen successful candidates, male and female, interview in suits and in jeans-and-nice-shirt. It didn't matter.

Summary: Wear something that is professional-looking within the norms of your field but that also makes you feel confident and comfortable.

Can you push the start-date back for starting a faculty position?

This is of course not an interview issue but, like salary and start-up, a once-you-get-an-offer issue. You may have other alluring opportunities, such as a postdoc you want to do to help launch your subsequent faculty career, and it might be in everyone's interest that you have this experience. Or, it might be essential to the department that you start as soon as possible.

If this issue comes up during an interview, you can be open about your options, but these types of conversations shouldn't really take place in detail until you get an offer and start negotiating. Your getting an offer or not should not depend on whether you can start by a certain date.

If the department insists that you start by a certain date, you can take it or leave it. If the department is more flexible, that's great. Either way, this is a post-interview issue.

Most departments with which I have been associated have been very flexible about start dates. If a candidate has an opportunity that will help them launch their research program once they arrive, that's seen as a good thing and the faculty and administration are supportive of this.

Should you mention marital status and/or kids in an interview?

Much has been written about this, here and elsewhere. In fact, there was something about it in The Chronicle of Higher Education just this week. A decade ago, the answer was a definite No. It is illegal for you to be asked, and there was no benefit (and perhaps even a penalty) for mentioning such things, especially for women.

Today the answer is still No, but there is a but.. You don't have to mention anything about this and you still can't be asked, but in some cases universities are trying to be proactive (in a good way) to increase their chances of getting their top choices in searches.

How do you know if you are interviewing at a university that wants to help new faculty with families, e.g. by helping spouses find jobs (academic or not) and parents find daycare? Universities that want to help, not penalize, candidates whose job decisions involve (or may eventually involve) family issues may schedule a meeting between the candidate and a human resources counselor who provides the same information to all candidates (so the candidate doesn't have to reveal any personal information). Or you may find some information online about a university's policies about hiring academic couples or the availability of daycare on or near campus, so you get the information you need but don't have to ask anyone during your interview. You may also feel comfortable talking to certain faculty who have dealt with similar issues.

Whatever the case, you don't have to mention anything about your personal situation during your interview. It is not lying and it is not being unfair to the department to mention Dr. Spouse only once you get an offer.

If you want to talk freely about all this during your interview, you can do that. I don't mind being asked for advice about these kinds of issues by interviewees, although I prefer if those kinds of conversations happen after we have talked about Science and other research-related issues for a while first. Whatever your priorities are re. career and family, you are being evaluated for your research and teaching potential.

Tomorrow's topic: During a search, how do faculty decide which candidate they prefer? I will describe my personal approach to this.

Tentative topic for Friday: Once you've got a tenure-track or tenured position, what are some of the issues related to searching for and interviewing for other academic positions at another institution?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Interviewing Info II

When interviewing for a faculty position, when do you bring up the issue of $$$? Do you bring up the issue of $$$?

In every interview I have had, the department chair or some other administrator such as a dean of some sort brought up the topic of money: salary and start-up. I never had to figure out the best time to ask about money; this is the responsibility of the administrators.

If for some reason you interview at a place that does not proactively mention salary or start-up and these things are critical to you at this stage -- i.e., before an offer -- then perhaps the chair or another administrator will at some point ask if you have any questions, and then you can ask the money questions. In this case, I would start with very general questions -- What is the likely starting salary? Is this a good time to discuss start-up issues?

At an interview for a faculty position in Science, I think the most important money issue that the candidate needs to think about in advance is start-up costs. I don't know about other fields, but in Science, start-up costs are so central to any hire that the topic is a normal part of an interview meeting with the chair ± deans.

Therefore, by the time you go to an interview, you should have a pretty good idea of what you want/need in terms of equipment, space, personnel, and other items that can be added to the start-up package. Know what you want and what it will cost. You may not know a final number -- e.g., setting up a lab may require some renovations, and it is up to the administrators to come up with the relevant sum for that -- but you should know an approximate amount for the things you can determine, and you should have an idea of how much space you will need.

You might want to ask around to find out what other people in your field have included in their start-up packages besides the obvious items of equipment.

I used to prepare a dream-estimate and a bare-bones estimate, and I adjusted these as I acquired more information during the interview about availability of certain shared facilities and space issues. If you get an offer, you aren't locked into the number you gave at the interview, but it's good if you at least get the order of magnitude right.

Other financial details might be more appropriate for discussion if you get an offer, although you could do some research into these issues so that you are well informed. I know that different people have different priorities, but I always think it is strange when a candidate asks about retirement benefits and moving expenses and real estate prices and so on. If you get an offer, by all means ask away, but these questions can wait (and some of it you can figure out yourself).

I realize that $$ issues can be stressful, but this should not be a major focus of anxiety at an interview. My advice to interviewees is to focus on the talks and personal interactions and, although you should certainly be well prepared to discuss your start-up requirements, don't worry that you're failing some sort of interview test if you don't know exactly what to say/when about the financial side of faculty hires.

Tomorrow: There are other resources that can answer the common and most basic questions about interviewing for a faculty position, but here's a chance to ask about more random issues that you might hesitate to ask someone you know. I have a few things lined up for tomorrow's post, but feel free to leave a comment with additional questions of the unconventional sort.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Views on Interviews

It is the season of Interviews in academia. Some of my former students and postdocs are on the interview trail (some with success already; very exciting), and I have recently received several requests for a post on the topic of interviewing for a faculty position.

It's been a long time since I experienced an entry-level type interview for a faculty position as an interviewee, and all my recent experiences with interviews involve my being on The Other Side as a professor, although I have gleaned bits of information from grad students and postdocs who have participated in interviews. My opinions are of course limited by my experiences and by the conventions of my academic field and academic homes, but I trust that commenters can supplement the information and views I provide to give a more complete picture of the Interview process.

Topics were selected based on specific questions in the e-mails I received recently. Today I will start with the following, with more to come in the near future:

What do you say/ask as an interviewee when you meet with the students?

Background information: Many interviews involve a meeting, perhaps over lunch, between the candidate and graduate and/or undergraduate students. These students may be selected specifically to meet with the candidate or there may be an open invitation for any student to stop by at a certain time and meet the candidate. If such an event is not on the interview schedule, perhaps there will be some other chance for talking with students in smaller groups or individually.

If there is no scheduled interaction with students, this might tell you something about a department's culture/priorities and that may or may not be useful information. I had a few interviews that seemed to lack a scheduled meeting with students, so in each case I asked about it. Sometimes the answer was "There's no time for that" and sometimes it was "We can arrange that; thanks for mentioning it."

If there is an organized meeting with students, chances are they have a set of questions that they ask each candidate.

Some of the general questions are quite predictable: What courses will you teach? Do you want to advise a lot of students or have a small group? In some science/engineering fields at a university, a typical question is whether you will be setting up a lab. And some students may ask: Why do you want this job? Why do you want to come here?

At most of the universities with which I have been associated, grad students have been involved to some extent in searches/interviews. In many cases, the top choice of the grad student population as a whole has coincided with the majority view of the faculty, but in some cases it hasn't.

When there is a discrepancy between faculty and grad opinion, a possible reason is that a candidate was patronizing to the grad students. In general, I have found that grad students as a group are very hostile about the prospect of hiring a candidate, however awesome as a researcher, who is condescending and/or visibly bored/uninterested in talking with students. When you are interviewing, even if you are concerned that your extreme youth (or, at least, youthful appearance) might make you seem like a student yourself and you want to take steps to distinguish yourself from the students, an extremely bad strategy is to be patronizing.

The candidate can also ask the students questions. It is good to have thought about some of these, in case there is a lull in the conversation (general advice that also applies to other parts of the interview process). These questions don't all have to be about the department and faculty; grad students are scholars who may be working on interesting things. Don't spend the whole meeting having a detailed conversation with a few students who happen to know something about your specific field of expertise, but perhaps you can have a general conversation about research topics of mutual interest. What is exciting in the field? What kinds of careers do the students want to have? Do they feel well prepared?

There are also things a candidate should not ask students. It is certainly legitimate to ask the students some general questions about the culture of the department, e.g. what do the students consider to be important issues in the department and university in terms of faculty-grad interactions? Or, what are their views on the position for which you are interviewing? This should not, however, devolve into digging for departmental gossip about who hates whom and who is a colossal jerk and who is insane. Keep the tone professional even if you want to know these things.

The meeting with the grad student can be one of the more interesting and enjoyable parts of the interview. Perhaps the grad students have a vote in the decision and perhaps they don't, but either way they are typically very interested in being involved in the process, are sincerely interested in meeting you, and can give you a good general sense for the department culture and atmosphere.

The best preparation is to participate in some of these meet-the-candidate sessions as a graduate student and get an idea for what these are like, or, if that's not possible to do before you have an interview of your own, you can ask someone who has been to a recent interview for additional examples of questions that may be specific to your field. And possibly there will be some additional useful suggestions in the comments to this post..

Friday, January 22, 2010

Analytical Writing

The GRE contains an "Analytical Writing" section that is supposed to be a good indicator of .. something. But what? This is what I would like to know.

Is the score relevant to how well a student might do with some important aspects of graduate school? I took the GRE long before the advent of the Analytical Writing (AW) component, so I don't have any firsthand experience with it. I've read some of the available materials about what it is and how it is graded, and all of my recent graduate students have taken the AW exam, but I don't really know what the score means, if anything.

From what I've seen, the GRE in general does not predict whether a student will do well in research. This is not news to many (most?) people. The Quantitative score does tend to predict how a student will do in quantitative courses, but that may or may not correspond to whether a student can apply quantitative techniques in research. I've advised students with perfect Q scores and apparently no ability to think about science in a quantitative way or apply quantitative skills to research. I've advised students with lower Q scores who were quite talented at quantitative research applications.

Also based on personal experience advising students, I surmise that the Verbal score seems to indicate something about the complexity of an individual's vocabulary, but doesn't predict anything about reading/writing ability. Maybe that's where the AW exam comes in, but I still don't know what the score really means.

An exam involving writing and text analysis should test some skills that we want a grad student to have, but I have increasingly encountered extremely smart and creative students who write well and have no problem with reading comprehension but who have low AW scores, and students with high AW scores who struggle with writing and synthesizing essential points from what they read.

The conclusion that some smart students take tests well and some don't seems inevitable; this is of course one of the oft-proposed interpretations of student performance on standardized exams that are taken with strict time limits.

I don't think the GRE scores are totally meaningless. I would be very reluctant to admit a grad student with low scores on one or more of the GRE exam components unless the low scores were convincingly different from the rest of the academic record.

I have recently been gazing at applications with AW scores ranging from 3 to 6, and in many cases there seems to be no correlation between the AW score and the rest of the application, even for students for whom English is the first language. I am willing to believe that a 6 (out of 6) means the student is a good writer, just as I am willing to believe that a student with across-the-board good GREs is smart, but then there are all the students with good-but-not-great scores. I have seen no evidence that a student with an AW score of 5 (or even lower) is necessarily less-great at the things supposedly tested by this part of the exam.

In any case, we get these scores as part of grad applications, we stare at them, we try to figure out what they might mean, we consider them in the context of the entire application, and then we make our best guess in the admissions process based on the entire file.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

You're the Best

Years ago, a friend of mine had a highly unsuccessful interview for a faculty position. According to the legend, the department chair, who had had the same adviser as the candidate, was upset that their mutual adviser had written in the reference letter that the candidate was the best graduate student he had ever advised. This was humiliating for the not-best professor and he did not support hiring the candidate.

Perhaps I am naive, but I don't believe that the wounded ego of one professor would be enough to sink someone's chances at a job if there weren't other reasons for other faculty to not prefer this particular candidate. The reasons might be good ones or bad ones, but I think there must have been other reasons. I also think in this case that it was true that the candidate was indeed the best graduate student of that adviser; the years since the fateful interview have demonstrated this well.

It's likely that the adviser sent the same letter to every institution to which the candidate applied and did not modify it out of consideration for his former student who was on the faculty at one of these places. Should the adviser have worded the letter in a different way for that particular institution? Or was he was correct to state his frank opinion, which was surely accurate and not a case in which every one of his students was the best?

I was recently thinking about this incident for two reasons:

(1) I have been writing reference letters for graduate students, and I always think about who is likely to read my letter -- anyone I know? anyone my students know? Does it matter in terms of what I write in the letter, or at least how I express my opinions?


(2) I just read a reference letter for an undergraduate student applying to graduate school at my institution. We went to the same college and had the same professor for a particular class, albeit many (many) years apart. Although the applicant is not the best student this professor ever taught, she is very close to the best, who is clearly indicated as a recent student (i.e., not me).

I laughed when I read the letter that states (indirectly) that I was not the best student of that professor. For one thing, I knew that. I did well in his course, but I did not excel.

Also, I was responsible for a practical joke that my class played on this professor and that he still seems to remember when I encounter him at conferences. When my friends and I graduated, he told us that he would miss us, but not too much.

His letter for the almost-best applicant was obviously a form letter sent to all departments to which the applicant was applying, but even if it had not been, this wouldn't have mattered in this case. The applicant is impressive and my ego has weathered the blow (this time).

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Like many of you who are university professors in the US, I have recently been poring over grad applications. These applications typically include various forms containing data of varying usefulness, a cover letter or statement of interest/purpose, the infamous Letters of Reference, and transcripts.

Some years I read only a subset of applications to my department, some years I read every application to my department, and some years I also read applications to other departments at my university. I am fortunate that this year is a subset-of-applications year.

Nevertheless, I've managed to gaze at quite a few applications recently, and the fun will surely continue for a while yet.

Transcripts are interesting to read because you can see a student's evolution of interests. Did they take an intro course in Science their very first term and immediately dive into the major? Did they meander around for a year or so, sampling a wide variety of courses before focusing? To me, it doesn't matter if a student has known since they were 3 that they wanted to be a Scientist or whether they discovered this late in their undergraduate studies; it's just interesting to see the academic trail as indicated by course titles over the years.

In yesterday's post, I mentioned something about the unusual courses that a character in a novel was taking at a large midwestern university. In fact, it is not unusual to see a few strangely titled classes scattered about an undergraduate transcript. Presumably some of these courses were taken to fulfill a graduate requirement or to fill out a course load with a 1-2 credit course that fits a busy schedule and would not be too onerous.

I am not surprised or alarmed to see Aerobics or Yoga or Introduction to Badminton or even INTRO BONSAI on a transcript. I think it is a little strange, though, when there is an actual grade for this type of course. Many universities evaluate this type of course as pass/fail or satisfactory/not-satisfactory; I suppose at others the students can choose whether to get a grade or a pass/fail score.

What does it mean if a student gets a C in Kundalini Yoga or Intermediate Ping Pong or Self-Awareness? They are not flexible, have poor hand-eye coordination, and/or are oblivious? More likely, the student put little time or effort into a low-credit course that was just an additional thing they had to do. Even so, I personally would have taken Building Self-Esteem as a pass/fail course so that I didn't have to feel bad about getting a B or a C. It would be devastating to fail a self-esteem course.

I prefer transcripts that have the entire course name typed out or that use only unambiguous abbreviations: ADV INT IND LIT INTRO PRINC LIN ALG DIFF EQ ENV MOD EUR. Some less ambiguous abbreviations can be figured out from context or from the course designation; i.e., whether COMP is Computer or Composition or Composers, or whether DIG is Digital or Digestive.

The strangest abbreviations tend to be for specialized seminars or upper level courses with technical names. For example: CONC FUND MAGN. Surely it is Concentrated Fundamentals of Magnesium. Or Magnolias..? Or something.

And what about this?: RESI PHYS. Residues of Physics? Residences of Physicians? Resilient Physiognomy?

It doesn't really matter. The names of the essential courses (for the grad app) are typically unambiguous, and if there are some unusual specialized courses or seminars that are relevant, the applicant or reference letter writers typically highlight them in their prose. The strange course names provide a bit of entertainment to a transcript-reader, as I hope the course itself did to the student when they took it.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Major Confusion

Last week I mentioned the novel, A Gate at the Stairs, which I mostly very much enjoyed, mostly because of the interesting writing (and not so much because of some of the strange characters, like a faux-Brazilian). Although the book is not an academic novel in the classic sense, there is much in it that is of interest to those who like to read fictional portrayals of academic culture.

The author, Lorrie Moore, is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the setting of much of the novel is a not-very-disguised Madison. The aspects of the novel that involve a parody of academia are therefore likely written quite deliberately.

In this novel, academia has a central role in that there is a stark juxtaposition of "real life" as separate from "academic life", the topic of the last couple of posts in this blog. The main character learns a lot about the world and people and life during the course of the novel, but none of this learning occurs in the classroom. If you read reviews of the novel, you commonly find statements like: "Life is more of an education than anything Tassie [the main character] is studying in college." No kidding.

At the same time, Tassie's brain is “..on fire with Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir". She's an intellectual, but of the free-range sort, as the courses she is taking are bizarre. This brings me to my next point:

The main character, who is 20 years old and has presumably declared a major of some sort, takes a truly weird set of classes. She seems to be reading Chaucer and Plath on her own because her courses are:

Brit Lit from 1830 to 1930, Intro to Sufism, Intro to Wine Tasting, Soundtracks to War Movies, Dating Rocks, and a cross-listed humanities/physical education course called The Perverse Body/The Neutral Pelvis.

Some of the strange classes seem to be intended to satisfy some of the graduate requirements of the university. And she ends up in the Sufism class because another course was full by the time she registered. Fair enough, but it's still a strange set of classes. I have lately been poring over many undergraduate transcripts, and not a one comes anywhere near this level of randomness, not even for a term.

When Tassie describes her courses to her father, leaving out only the pelvic class, which might shock him, he is most taken aback by the one science class, Dating Rocks ("The Sufism did not throw him"), perhaps because of its stupid name.

We learn the most about Intro to Sufism, which is taught by an Irish "Ottomanist" with an arm in a sling and no shortage of self confidence ("I know more about this topic than anyone in this department") but a shortage of something else ("I also know more about teaching while high than anyone else in this department"). It is the only class Tassie likes ("Except for the Sufism.. classes marched along forgettably").

At least she learns to make connections between her classes, sort of, and Science provides the key: "In Geology we were learning about the effects of warmth and cold, which at bottom I began to see was what all my courses were about."

Warmth and cold.. isn't that what nearly everything is about, ultimately? Life/death, love/hate, global warming/global cooling, wealth/poverty, cats..

Monday, January 18, 2010

Limited Experience

During the discussion of Friday's post about the perception of academics as living somehow separate from the real world, aside from disagreement about what defines the "real world", there were comments that many academics don't live in the real world because we have had no major work experience outside of academia.

Is there another profession that is criticized for this same thing? Do we long for our doctors to spend more time working for pharmaceutical companies or veterinary clinics? Do we wish that our piano tuners would stop focusing so much on pianos and learn to maintain tubas? Should librarians be encouraged to work in book stores?

Would I be a more real person if I had had a non-academic career before immersing myself in academe for the rest of my days? Would I be a better professor?

I have certainly had some non-academic jobs, most of them when I was in high school or college, but have had no sustained employment experiences other than in academia. I can see how that limits my ability to give detailed advice to students about non-academic career options, but that's why there are career panels and visiting speakers and so on.

Those who work in non-academic jobs but interact with academics may express frustrations about how academics don't understand the need to get things done efficiently and within a particular time frame. Such misunderstandings surely also occur between different companies and government agencies, just as they do between different academic disciplines (e.g., science and engineering). It's one of the (surmountable) challenges of doing interdisciplinary research. Those who must work with others who don't have exactly the same career path and background should expect to deal with differences in approach and priorities.

I must admit that I don't really understand the criticism that academics are unaware of deadlines and the need to get things done efficiently. Many of us live and die by deadlines related to acquiring grants, reporting progress, and advising students/postdocs. Perhaps the typical time frame of a grant (2-3 years) is long compared to the needs of non-academic research.

If I were not also teaching and advising and doing various and sundry service obligations within and beyond my university, and if I had time to do a research project myself or with an experienced and motivated student or postdoc, and if there were no major time delays owing to logistical situations beyond my control, I could get many projects completed to the point of journal publication(s) in less than half the time it takes in the more realistic mode involving training/advising students and divided attention.

But that's not what we're here for. That's not a job I want. I want to be an adviser and a multi-tasker and someone who has the time and job flexibility to explore various ideas and see what kinds of discoveries we can make. That's not a flaw or a liability of being an academic. That's central to what we do, and one of the great things about the job. And that's also why I don't mind that I am going to be in my office working on what is, for many people, a holiday in the US.

That also doesn't make it (or me) any less real than what people with other jobs do. Some people move very successfully between the academic, industry, and/or government spheres, and that's great, but that's not for me.

And yet, despite this lack of variety in my career path, I remain convinced that that I am a (mostly) real person and a (reasonably) good professor.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Extremely Large Esoteric Cats

Note: When I was recently roaming around in the FSP archives to classify my 2009 posts by general topics, I found that in some cases I had absolutely no idea what the post was about based only on the title of the post. In the future, if I look back at 2010 posts, I have a feeling that this may be one of those posts. Today's title, however, is not entirely random; it contains some keywords that are central to this post.

In the recent Lorrie Moore book, A Gate at the Stair, which I very much enjoyed reading*, there is a quote by one of the characters, the mother of a college-aged daughter:

"Hmph.. Academics.. They all shoot from the hip. And the hip is always in the chair."

I didn't really get her point, and neither did the character's husband, who asked "What did you say?" and she replied:

"Keeping a safe distance never keeps one from having an opinion, is all. Having no dog in the race doesn't keep people from having extremely large cats."

OK, I get it now (sort of). I even happen to be an academic with some extremely large cats.

The reference expresses the classic view about academics being far removed from the real life that everyone else is supposedly experiencing. We keep a safe distance from.. well, how would I know? Given that most of us professors do leave campus from time to time to do many of the things that real people do, why is it so common for us to be considered so isolated from the rest of the world?

Of course, one thing that makes many professors different from most non-academics is job security. That's an important difference, but I don't think it is sufficient to explain the view exemplified in the quotation above. Tenure alone can't explain why we don't have a dog in the race (but we do have extremely large cats).

And yet, for various reasons, only some of which are valid, professors are commonly considered and portrayed as living in a strange and different world. The way that campuses tend to be arranged and the apparent distance of many academic disciplines from "normal" life accentuate the appearance of isolation, but I don't see how this is substantially different from many other professions.

On the same day that I read the above passage in The Gate at the Stair, I also read a newspaper article that referred to the esoteric world of academia, contrasting it with the real world. Is academia just a long, strange dream that some of us are having (in our desk chairs)?

Esoteric can refer to something belonging to a select few. Presumably this applies to various types of knowledge, such as medicine, law, or piano tuning, but it is typically used to mean arcane when applied to academia.

Alas. What to do, other than to sit here in my chair shooting from my hip despite not having a dog in the race? I guess I will just give my opinions, such as they are:

- The view of academia as a separate entity from the rest of the world seems to be pervasive;
- This is undeserved in many cases and is a mild symptom of anti-intellectualism;
- I bet there are many professions in which people spend more time in their office chairs than professors do and yet this is not seen as a sign of being removed from the real world; and
- I have some extremely large cats. I may have mentioned that before.

* at least until the last 25% of it or so, at which point I didn't like it so much. But before it got too grim, I loved it. I particularly laughed at the description of the main character's first Intro to Sufism class.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Tell Me Something I Don't Already Know

Like many of you who teach, I have recently been poring over my teaching evaluations from last term.

Brief attempt to forestall a few of the usual cynical comments: Yes, I care about teaching even though I am a full professor and my evaluations don't affect whether I get to keep my job. Yes, I read my teaching evaluations even though I know evaluations are flawed (except when they are really positive..).

Let's say that you feel pretty sure that your class(es) had overall gone well, and the teaching evaluations confirm that. So, if the evaluations just confirm what you already knew (or thought you knew), are they any use at all to someone like me who doesn't 'need' them?

Yes, in some ways. For example, in one of my classes last term I tried some new things: I tried a slightly new format and I introduced some new reading materials. Also, in this class the students do a lot of writing. I wanted to know what they thought about all of these things. I asked them in class and got some opinions that way, but not everyone expressed an opinion at the time. I had 100% participation in the teaching evaluations, so I got a lot more information that way. It was interesting to read that many of the students liked the writing assignments and the feedback they got on them.

And when I teach a new course -- either one that is new to me or one that I create -- it is good to get some feedback on the content and organization of the course.

Of course there are the usual vague comments: "The order of topics didn't seem quite right." End of comment. Which topics seemed out of order? What would be a better order? This information is not provided, but even vague comments like that can be semi-useful because they make you think about the organization and whether anything can be improved for next time.

After reading my teaching evaluations, I started thinking about the correspondence between professorial perception of whether a course went well and student evaluation of how the course went. Possibilities:
  • Professor thought course went well : teaching evaluations agree
  • Professor thought course did not go well : teaching evaluations are negative and hostile
  • Professor thought course went well : teaching evaluations are negative and hostile
  • Professor thought course did not go well : teaching evaluations are very positive
My hypothesis is that the last two are more rare than the first two.

I think we generally know when students are happy or unhappy with a course. We may be surprised at the magnitude of the general assessment -- e.g., you might be fairly sure that a course went well and then be pleasantly surprised at how positive the evaluations are; or you might be fairly sure that a course had some rough spots but be unpleasantly surprised and distressed at the level of hostility in the comments -- but I think we generally know the result to the first order.

Agree? Disagree?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Title X

As I've mentioned before, owing to my being on various committees within and beyond the university, and to my being sent promotion/tenure dossiers for external review, in a typical year I gaze at many CVs from faculty and proto-faculty of all ranks in many different academic disciplines. In the past year, in which I was not on a hiring committee (thereby much reducing my CV-gazing responsibilities), I have still managed to end up evaluating ~50 faculty CVs.

I find CVs fascinating, especially in terms of how they are constructed: what is included, what is not included, the order of items, and so on.

Some items are of course fairly standard, even in very different academic disciplines. Other items are much more free-form, even within a single academic discipline. It's the latter that are interesting to me.

Today's subject: Why/whether individuals should list invited talk titles on a CV. These are the titles of talks given at a university or at a government or private research lab, not the titles of invited conference presentations.

This very issue was the subject of recent discussion by some of my colleagues. I don't believe that anyone's future hangs on whether talk titles are or are not included in a CV, but it interested me that some of my colleagues had rather strong opinions about this issue.

Some people put titles of invited (non-conference) talks on their CV, some don't. Is the title of the talk useful information? Are there any pitfalls to including the title? Does it matter?

Although I vary the level of detail of my CV depending on the purpose for which it is being examined, I don't typically include talk titles, even in the most detailed version of my CV.

Note: Even though I am a full professor, I have to keep my CV up to date. Submitting an updated CV is part of the review of tenured faculty by my department/university and I get occasional requests for my CV for random reasons. It is also easier to construct the abbreviated CVs needed for proposals if you have an updated version from which you can extract the necessary information.

Why don't I include talk titles on my CV? There are at least three reasons:

1 - I don't think it is important information to include in a CV.

2 - I am lazy and don't keep track of talk titles. Sometimes I provide a talk title far in advance of the talk and then I forget what the title is and I have to dig through my e-mail inbox or check the website of the department I will be visiting so that I prepare a talk that is at least somewhat related to the title I selected months in advance. And I certainly don't immediately type the title into my CV and then I don't make the effort to go back later and figure out what it was. If I thought it was important to keep better track of talk titles, I would try to do it, but I don't think it is all that important.

3 - I tend to give a short, general title that will cover a range of possible topics that I will select when I prepare the talk just before my visit. This becomes more difficult to do when an abstract is also requested along with the title, but I can still be sufficiently general to give myself the flexibility to talk about what seems most interesting when the scheduled talk day rolls around. In general, though, the titles for many of my talks might be the same or similar, but this doesn't accurately reflect the fact that the actual content varied somewhat or that I put a lot of effort into creating a talk appropriate for each place/audience. What looks like the same talks, based only on the title, might have been quite different talks. The titles would therefore be somewhat misleading if seen in a list.

Does it matter? In fact, that second point brings me to a potential pitfall that I recently encountered, much to my surprise. If you list talk titles in your CV and it turns out that you gave talks with the exact same title at, say, 8 different places, some readers of the CV will assume that you gave the exact same talk at those 8 different places and will be less impressed than if you gave different talks.

Maybe you did give the same talk; maybe you didn't. Either way, how does this compare to someone who gave 8 talks with different titles (albeit possibly on related topics)? In my experience, the latter is viewed as more impressive.

I personally don't have such a negative opinion about giving the same talk at many places. At least the person is being invited to many places to give a talk. So what if he/she didn't have 8 different talk titles? And anyone who has given a talk many times (e.g. as a lecturer for a professional organization, or for interview talks) knows how much work it is to give the same talk over and over.

If you must include the talk titles on your CV because it is the tradition in your field or because someone else with strong opinions about CVs thinks that talk titles are important to include, let me just say that I hope that your talk title isn't a yes or no question.

In my opinion, it is much more important to include the date of the talk, even if only by year, and of course the place. Many reviewers-of-CVs want to see the pattern of talks relative to time: Were all the talks clustered in one short time span? Have you given any talks lately? Are you continuously in demand as a speaker, or did you stop having interesting things to say a century ago? This is important information; adding the talk title may obscure more than it illuminates.

Update to my updated CV:

Last month I showed how I could organize the invited talk list part of the CV according to certain categories, but after a recent incident, I need to add a new category: Talks that I gave right after being in a minor car accident that was entirely the fault of a 'distracted' driver who somehow hasn't yet heard the news that texting-while-driving is dangerous and who hit the back of my car, which was stopped at a stop sign as I was en route to give a public lecture one evening, and whose profuse apologies made while waving an iPhone in my face did nothing to lessen the head/neck ache I had while giving the talk. I think the talk was OK but it was not as good as it could/should have been.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Key Keywords

There's an interesting article in Slate about the possible differences in outcome of scientific research based on the mode of funding: longer-term, more flexible grants vs. shorter-term, project-based grants. The article describes the results of a study that compared Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) funded investigators with NIH funded investigators who could be considered peers based on publication records and receipt of prestigious awards.

According to the study, the HHMI-funded researchers generated more highly cited work, as well as a lot of publications that had never been cited, highlighting the fact that even overall successful research results in some (many) dead ends. A possible explanation for the success of the HHMI researchers is that they had more freedom to "innovate" (the topic that is the main focus of the article).

That's interesting, but I was particularly intrigued by one of the measures used to evaluate innovation: the use of keywords in a publication:

They [HHMI researchers] are .. more likely to produce research that introduces new words and phrases into their fields of research, as measured by the list of "keywords" they attach to their studies to describe their work.

There's also some tentative evidence that HHMI scholars experiment more than their NIH-funded counterparts: ... their keywords change more often across studies, ... suggesting broader experimentation.

I can see that the variety of keywords for an individual researcher might indicate breadth or interdisciplinarity, but are keywords a good measure of innovation?

I am sure that innovation is difficult to quantify. Even citation indices are not necessarily a good measure. Some very highly cited publications are not innovative but represent a necessary technical advance upon which more innovative research can be based. And there are likely many examples of very innovative work that is not necessarily highly cited (especially if it becomes "conventional wisdom" rather quickly).

If keywords measure something important about a publication, however, perhaps I need to pay more attention to my keyword selection, possibly even making up a few new words now and then. When choosing keywords for my papers, I typically pick a few descriptive terms, but I don't give them a lot of thought. For me, keywords are an afterthought, selected quickly so I can continue with the manuscript submission process. Most of the important words are likely to be in the title and abstract anyway. Clearly I have not been thinking out of the box re. keyword selection.

I suppose if you invent something (even if it's just a new term, like thermofelinics) and it turns out to be important, you might want your paper to appear in searches as the earliest one on record that describes this new thing/process/idea. And for that to happen, perhaps you need to choose the right keywords. Perhaps you need to choose a combination of prosaic keywords and hot new keywords; let's call them: lowkeywords and keykeywords (K2W?), respectively.

So: Do keywords indicate something fundamental about us as researchers? And if so, should I take more interest in keywords and their careful selection?

Keywords: keywords, lokeywords, keykeywords, thermofelinics

Monday, January 11, 2010


As I have done once in the past, I rummaged through the FSP archives to see how often I discuss particular general topics. The last time I did this, more than a year ago, I determined that about 20% of my posts could be classified as focused on the F (female) aspect of being an FSP and the rest were either SP (on being a Science Professor), P (on being any kind of professor), or Other (cats, the rest of life etc.). In my previous classification, I used 3 categories, combining the Science Professor and general academic-themed posts.

I was curious: Am I consistent over time, erratic, increasingly dominated by a particular topic?

So I looked through the 2009 archives, and I decided that the categories I used last time were still good ones to use. Assigning posts to categories is in some cases obvious; in others, not so obvious. For example, my very first post of 2009 related to an incident in which a strange man repeatedly hurled himself at the back door of my house late at night when my daughter and I were alone in the house. The police came and took him away before he could get in. I used this post to ask how we, as parents, can teach our daughters to be safe but not terrified as they go through life. Is that a "feminist" topic or a life/misc topic? Well, of course it is both. When you are a woman writing about your life, it is difficult (and pointless) to separate the two.

Another example of what I consider an ambiguous post (in terms of topic classification): a discussion last February of the so-called "two body problem" as applied to grad students. I don't see that as a feminist issue, but I am sure that some readers would disagree.

And what about this one: feminist post or not? And discussion of things like family leave policies for graduate students and postdocs? Whether someone has a "Baby Gap" in publication owing to having a child? Whether it's OK to bring your kids to work with you?

In the end, it didn't really matter. The ambiguous ones, by my count, were only ~2% of the total so I decided to classify them all as "feminist".

Here are the data:

Total % posts in 2009: 245
(average of ~ 20/month)

% on general academic issues (research, teaching, service): 76%

% about issues related to being an FSP + other "female' themed posts: 19%

% about non-academic life things: 5%

That's about the same as last time. The most shocking result, for me, was the distressing dearth of cat photos in 2009.

Friday, January 08, 2010

What They Say/What I Hear

Years ago I remember seeing a Far Side cartoon that started with a panel titled "What we say to dogs", in which a man is telling his dog, Ginger, to stay out of the garbage. Then in the next panel, titled "What they hear", the man seems to be saying "blah blah blah blah Ginger blah blah blah Ginger blah blah blah".

I am going to turn that around a bit and warp it to fit my strange little corner of the blogosphere. In this case, we will start with "What they say", in which "they" are some commenters I will single out for special attention. But then, instead of replying with just "blah blah blah Anonymous blah blah blah", I will explain how I interpret these comments. I suppose a subtitle could be "Lost in translation" or "FSP hears only what she wants to hear".


When someone comments, as happens from time to time: You spend so much time whining about sexism, you probably don't have any time to do your research.

I interpret that to mean that the commenter would be unable to manage their time writing a blog and doing their research, so they cannot imagine that I can do it. It is interesting how people project their own abilities and time management skills, or lack thereof, onto others, but I think we all do this now and then in various situations (though in most cases our intentions are not to malign).

When someone comments: You can't conclude anything from your n=1 anecdotal unscientific study that you haven't even discussed thoroughly and which, by the way, involves something you didn't realize/mention and so you have thereby undermined your entire argument and so I conclude that you suck as a scientist. (see entertaining sarcastic version of this by 'a physicist' on Tuesday's post)

I interpret this to mean that the commenter does not have a blog, or, if he/she does, then it might not be a blog that involves writing 5+ times/week or perhaps it has a totally different style. Here at FSP, I sometimes use an anecdote or something in the news as the nucleus for a post. In some cases I don't even give any particular opinion about the post-launching topic, but I use it to discuss related things. This annoys some people, but these people somehow forgot to send me their personalized lists of exactly what topics I should write about each day and what opinion I should have and how much detail I should include so that every post will interest them and fit exactly with their own opinions about the topic o' the day. But aside from that, I don't see what any of this has to do with whether I am a good scientist or not.

When someone comments: FYI, you never actually write about Science. Your blog would be more interesting if you wrote about Science.

My response is: Yes, I know. No, it wouldn't.

When someone comments: I hate reading your blog. I read it every day and it makes me angry.

My response: Please please find a way to identify yourself so that law enforcement officials can be notified that you are bound and shackled somewhere, with your head restrained and your eyes propped open so that you cannot avert your gaze from the horror that is my blog.. every day. Such torture is shocking and I personally am against it.

When someone comments: I hate the blog posts about feminism and how you are so discriminated against. You write about this boring topic so much that it makes an objective, neutral person such as myself realize that you are the main problem and if you would only stop complaining in your blog, everything would get better and you would get a raise so that your salary was equal to that of your male peers and everyone would respect you more.

I hear: blah blah blah blah unobjective Anonymous blah blah blah

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Brain Wave

It's interesting how the policies of funding agencies can have a pervasive effect on our thought processes. I am thinking of a specific example: broader impacts.

When BIs were first introduced as a required component of proposals, they were commonly an afterthought or just a statement of what PIs were already doing (advising grad students). With time, the BI component of some proposals that I reviewed became more interesting and innovative; some involved more outreach, e.g. interaction with K-12 teachers or the public, and some demonstrated a sincere commitment to increasing diversity of various sorts. Not most, or even many, but some did.

Perhaps there have been studies of the impact, if any, of the broader impacts proposal requirement on outreach, education, and so on. The effects might be hard to measure, but it would nevertheless be interesting to know if there has been any observable change in academic culture.

The BI requirement has had one observable effect on me, as demonstrated by the anecdote that motivated this post.

As I've written about before, I (and many of you) often receive invitations from random people to do random things that, in some cases, I can't imagine wanting to do, and, in others, I can't imagine having the time to do. Now and then something worthwhile comes along, but these are rare.

But: I recently got an e-mail with a request for me to do unspecified things involving communicating about some aspects of my research that might somehow inspire a contemporary dance project and/or a project involving children, literature, and culture by someone I don't know. I was about to delete the e-mail, having absolutely no idea what this person was asking me to do, but then I paused and thought "Hmm... broader impacts... might this be considered an interesting and innovative type of outreach?"

Is that thought totally corrupt or creative?

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

This I Do Not Believe

The following are things that I believe to be generally untrue:
  • If an individual has never directly experienced or perpetrated sexism/discrimination/harassment, these things don't exist.
  • Women who experience sexism/discrimination/harassment see sexism everywhere.
  • Women who are angry about sexism/discrimination/harassment hate men.
  • Angry women further promote sexist behavior by being angry.
  • Men who make remarks about the lack of intelligence or competence of women are typically joking.
  • Women who don't think such remarks are funny have no sense of humor.
  • Women who describe sexist experiences in another country are culturally insensitive and xenophobic.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

What is in a Name

Thanks to a reader for sending me a link to an article about a woman who had a lot more success finding work as a writer/editor with a male pseudonym than when using her own name, for the exact same work, which was entirely transacted online.

The comments are interesting too. Most are very supportive, but then there are some others.. there are always those others. Some of those others say that using a male name to conduct business (in this case writing/editing) was deceptive and that people who enter into a business contract have a right to know things about the person with whom they are contracting their business.

But what are these things that one needs to know, other than some obvious things about professional qualifications, and do these things include gender? I see no legal or ethical reason why someone hiring a copy editor or technical writer needs to know the gender of the person being hired. Do we also need to know the race, religion, weight, and hobbies of those with whom we do business, especially if that business involves no in-person contact and these characteristics (and our opinion of them) are irrelevant to the tasks involved in the business transaction?

For some in-person professional relationships, it does matter. For example, some women request female doctors when seeking medical care. I think that is fine and is a different category than, say, having a gender/race preference for an airline pilot (or professor).

In the specific case of working with writers/editors, I often interact (entirely electronically) with editors and technical writers in other countries; in many cases, I do not know whether they are male or female because I am not familiar with the names in those countries. I can't imagine why I would need or want to know their gender, or they mine, as long as we all learn to adopt some non-offensive modes of address in communicating in writing with strangers.

Just last week I got yet another "Dear Sir" e-mail request from a person in another country for some information about my research. The fact that my correspondent did not recognize my name as female is understandable, but the assumption that scientists are male is obnoxious, and hence my advice to avoid gender-specific greetings in letters.

Furthermore, most of us know people with names that are ambiguous as to gender, whether by choice or their parents' choice. I have some female friends whose parents gave them traditionally male names, albeit with somewhat unusual spelling in some cases. Are these women obliged to inform everyone that they are female, no matter how irrelevant it is to their correspondence or business transactions? Perhaps their e-mail can be set with automatic stamps that say "This e-mail was sent by a female person". Is this more/less/just as relevant as knowing that someone sent you an e-mail from their iPhone?

Names give some information about a person, but in many cases names -- first or last -- don't give as much information as we might think. Consider all the women who change their last names when they marry. A cousin of mine recently acquired through marriage a certain ethnic heritage previously entirely absent from our family, and my step-mother-in-law, who is African-American, has a last name (acquired through marriage) that takes people aback when they meet her in person. So what? Are my relatives and others deceiving people by using these names?

In those cases, my answer is no. In the case of this particular blog, however, it is of course essential that someone who calls herself FemaleScienceProfessor be female because it would indeed be deceptive if I were not female. I want my readers to trust that I write from experience (unless otherwise noted), so it is important that I be (1) a professor, (2) a scientist, and (3) female.

But what if I had a blog that was entirely about cats? If I were not writing it specifically from the point of view of what an FSP thinks about cats, I should be free to call myself whatever I want.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Who Are You?

Some colleagues and I recently discussed whether you should agree to write a tenure/promotion letter for someone whose work you don't know particularly well, if at all.

One colleague argued that if you haven't heard of someone and you have never read a paper by them before, you shouldn't write a letter because you will have to say that you don't know the candidate and this will likely be interpreted to mean that they are not visible in their professional community. Also, if you haven't heard of someone in a fairly specialized field, can their research really be any good? And then there's all the work of reading the papers you haven't read before. This colleague refuses to write letters for people whose work is completely unknown to him.

Another argued that if you don't know someone, then you can be objective and your letter might have more weight than that written by the candidate's best friends and collaborators who can write detailed letters from the point of view of people closely involved with the research.

Another agreed, saying that he had recently written a letter for someone whose work he didn't know, and in the process of reading papers by the candidate, realized he should know about this person, whose research he found to be interesting and excellent. Being unaware of someone's work can also be a reflection of the letter writer's level of awareness of the field.

It is important to note that this discussion took place in the context of professors at a research university that values high visibility, international reputation, publication in high impact journals etc. etc. We are expected to be known in our field; hence, our discussion, which may not be relevant to other types of institutions.

The discussion took place among colleagues from a wide variety of STEM fields. I suspect that some of my colleagues' opinions relate in part to how likely it is that you have encountered most others who are working in your specific field of interest, at the very least reading a paper or seeing a conference presentation by the people active in your field. In some fields this is expected, in others perhaps it is less common.

I think it is also important to note that I am not talking about whether a letter writer knows someone personally or not. I am talking about whether you know of someone's work, e.g. through publications, proposal reviews, or conference presentation.

I don't have a strong opinion about the issue based on personal experience because so far I haven't been asked to write a letter for anyone whose work I didn't know at all, though in a few cases I had to delve into the literature quite a bit so that I could write a substantive letter.

There was one case in which I was asked to write a letter for a promotion to professor, and I said no, I didn't have time. In fact, I wasn't familiar with anything this person had written in the past 6+ years. I assumed the candidate had been publishing in another field and I did not have time at that point to do a good job reading an unfamiliar body of literature. In that case, I was only given a few weeks to write the letter, which is not enough time in general and was impossible in that case owing to the coincidence in time with a grant proposal deadline and some travel, so I did not feel too bad about saying no. It turns out that this person hadn't been publishing much, so I am very glad that I said no, especially if I had to answer that pesky question of "Would the candidate be promoted at your institution?" (which is only a fair question if the institutions are truly comparable in academic environment , resources, and expectations).

In general, I think that if I were asked to write a letter for someone whose work I didn't know, I would spend a bit of time poking around to see if my lack of awareness was my own fault or reflected a true lack of visibility by the candidate. In the latter case, I would then have to see if I had time to do justice to a letter by delving into publications etc., and then I would decide whether to accept or decline. I guess you can say that, unlike some of my colleagues, I don't have a philosophy of definitely agreeing or declining based only on the fact of not being aware of the candidate's work.

So, if you are at a major research university and are asked to write a tenure/promotion letter for someone whose work you don't know -- perhaps even someone you have never heard of -- would you write the letter or not?

Friday, January 01, 2010

LoR: What I Think

Writing letters of reference (or recommendation) is part of the job of being a professor. We write them for undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, professors, and other academic people applying for various things (school, jobs, promotion, awards).

It can be a major point of stress for all concerned. The subjects of the letters wonder what we will write. The writers of the letters wonder (in some cases) what to write. Some applicants worry that some letter writers won't submit letters of recommendation on time (if ever); some applicants are justified in this worry. Some professors get annoyed when students ask them to write letters of reference on very short notice and/or provide disorganized, incomplete information.

And has any professor, during the year in which they were being considered for tenure and/or promotion, wandered around a conference feeling paranoid about who was writing their external letters and wondering what they were writing?

And so on. But write them (and read them) we must, in great profusion.

If I had to rank my preference in writing letters of reference, from don't-mind-writing-them (= best case) to don't-like-writing-them (= worst case), my list would look something like this:

top = best (in this relative scale); also: list assumes that I have agreed to write a letter so it does not include the worst case scenarios in which I would not/could not write a letter
  • grads/postdocs applying for jobs such as faculty positions
  • undergrads who are applying for something (grad school, internship, job) and who worked closely with me on a research project
  • tenure and promotion letters for people who are great and whose work I know well
  • colleagues being nominated for awards they deserve
  • undergrads who are applying to something and who only took 1 class from me and about whom I know almost nothing except what their grade and maybe where they say in class but I feel obligated to write a letter in cases in which the student has no better options for letter-writers
  • tenure and promotion letters for people whose work I don't know very well* (this is at the bottom only because of the vast amount of time it involves; if we factor out time, the previous one in the list is my least favorite).

But let's not focus on the negative. Why do I "like" (relative term) writing letters for students (whom I know) or postdocs applying for things? I like it because in most cases writing such letters is a very positive thing to do. If you have worked closely with someone for a year (some undergrads) or more (grads, postdocs, some undergrads), you probably have a lot of things to say, and, if you have agreed to write a letter, presumably you have some positive things to say.

Despite the time commitment, it can be a very positive experience for the letter writer to think back on someone's research/education experience, pick out the essential points and examples, and write a well-crafted letter geared towards the specific job/institution to which the candidate is applying. In this case, writing the letter ends up being an affirmative experience, as long as you don't think about the cynical committee members reading 100s of these awesomely positive letters and as long as you don't have to write many many of these letters at any one time, in which case the personal hand-crafted letter thing falls by the wayside.

* Some colleagues and I recently had an argument about this topic: Should you agree to write a tenure/promotion letter for someone whose work you don't know well? A post will follow at some point with elaborations.