Thursday, September 30, 2010

Raising the Bar

Does anyone else feel that the standards for achieving something -- a position, an award etc. -- change when you accomplish that thing? That is, something that is considered prestigious becomes less so if you achieve it?

From my correspondence and other experiences, I think this may be a common situation for women, and possibly also for minorities: that somehow, by achieving something, that something can't possibly be as significant or special as it used to be.

The question is: How much of this is self-inflicted impostor syndrome at work, and how much of it is a systematic redefining of what is prestigious? -- i.e., by those who really do think that a particular award no longer means what it used to when it was only given to (white) men.

Either answer is troubling, in part because impostor syndrome may stem from the second scenario.

I am going to have an extremely busy day today, although I can't prove it to you by posting my schedule online, but I'd be interested to read anecdotes and other examples of the Continually Raised Bar Effect, and will moderate comments when I can.

These stories can be something from your professional life, or from the rest of your life.

For example: I once went on an extremely strenuous hike, and told someone about it later. That someone (an older man) said "That's strange. I used to think that was a really difficult hike, but it must not be anymore."

Yeah.. right.. maybe they paved a gentle trail and put in escalators and lots of cushioned benches with lemonade stands at strategic places? Or maybe, despite my frail femaleness, I somehow managed to haul myself up and down that mountain anyway?

That's the kind of thing I mean. Does anyone have similar stories?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Don't Take It Personally

So, how's everyone feeling after the release of the NRC rankings? Did you sit by your computer, waiting for the magic moment when the results appeared on the internet? Or did you torture your department chair (and/or dean) to tell you the results last week, when most of them got a preview of the results? Did you get any gossipy emails before or after from colleagues in programs that were ranked higher (or lower)? Or are you wondering what the NRC is (Nuclear Regulatory Commission? National Ranking Committee?) and why you should care?

My answers: No, I was busy for much of the day until late afternoon; when I had a chance, I read an un-illuminating e-mail from the chair. I knew that he knew the results last week, but I also knew that he would not break under torture, and so I did not try. I did get gossipy emails, mostly before, including from a department chair at another university, but these emails were quite vague so all I knew was that my department would be/should be pleased. National Research Council. I don't know why you should care; I actually don't care if you care, but I'm going to write about the NRC rankings anyway because it was an Event in Academe that happened today.

And in fact my department seems to be reasonably pleased with the results, even though our department has changed in some important ways in the 5 years since the data were collected.

I joined my current department after 1995, so this was the first time the department has been NRC-ranked since I've been here. Of course, other faculty have come and gone since 1995 as well, and these rankings aren't about any particular individual. Nevertheless, to the extent that we semi-care about rankings and to the extent that we can even interpret the new NRC rankings, it's hard not to take such things a little bit personally and hope that our illustrious presence will help our program in some quantifiable way.

As I was thinking about how I feel about rankings as an individual in a program being ranked, I remembered an incident involving a report written by a visiting committee just before I arrived in one of my tenure-track positions. I was hired after the retirement of a professor who had never published much but who was much loved by students and colleagues. I also liked this man very much; he was extremely kind to me as a newly arrived assistant professor, and went out of his way to help me get started.

From my (egotistical) point of view, I believed I was going to be an asset to the department because I was an active researcher and I cared about teaching. Maybe I wouldn't ever be as beloved as Professor X, but I hoped I could contribute to the department and university in some important ways.

I was therefore kind of hurt when the report said that hiring me didn't result in any net gain to the department because I was in the same field as distinguished Professor X, whose retirement was a great loss to the department, and it was too soon to tell if I would amount to anything. Considering that I had already published more than Professor X and was arriving with a grant, I thought they could have been a bit more optimistic about me. Indeed, I kept hearing the phrase "big shoes to fill" whenever someone commented on the fact that I had "replaced" Professor X. It was depressing.

General rankings are less personal, but the publications and scholarly reputation of each of us contribute to the rankings, so it's hard not to take the results somewhat personally, for good or bad.

Of course, there are different ways you can view the results, depending on the results and on your perception of your role in your department relative to your colleagues; for example:

- If the results of the NRC or other ranking of your program are good, you may feel quite good about your contributions to this ranking.

- If the results are not so good, then you have at least two options, assuming that you care enough to have an opinion: (1) You can be annoyed at the flawed methods that resulted in the underestimation of your program; or (2) You can be annoyed that your under-performing colleagues are dragging you down with them.

So which is it? Who is happy/unhappy with the NRC results for their program? (And would you rather have A Specific Number, or do you like the way these new results are presented?)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Woman of Mystery

Some people are happy to have their daily/weekly schedule posted where it can be seen by everyone or by a particular group, and this can be very useful for organizing meetings and such. For some people, having a viewable schedule is even required as part of their job.

I recognize the practicality of a viewable schedule, but I would never voluntarily and routinely post my schedule other than for the short-term purpose of scheduling a meeting or exam within some specified time frame.

Why not? Some of my reasons are somewhat rational, and some are not. The semi-rational reasons relate to the fact that my schedule is a moving target, with meetings, appointments, and urgent tasks appearing daily. I can set aside time for essential commitments as needed, but the apparent blank spaces on my schedule are not really blank and I don't want any more of them filled in than necessary.

My students can find me when they need to -- my door is almost always open when I am in my office -- and students know they can stop by whenever they have questions or topics to discuss. They don't need to see my schedule.

I can't really explain the irrational reasons (by definition?), but I did have a rather formative, early-career experience that may explain some of it.

One day when I was looking for one of my grad students in his office, which was at one end of a lab room, I saw something that looked like this on a chalkboard near his desk:


8:27 AM: FSP arrives in office, checks email
8:42 AM: FSP on phone with colleague X
8:55 AM: FSP at computer/typing
9:00-10:00 AM: FSP teaching (SCI123, room 10)
10:00-10:06 AM: FSP outside classroom, answers question from students
10:06-10:09 AM: FSP talks to Z in office, checks mailbox
10:10 AM: back in office, checks email
10:20 AM: FSP goes to library
10:55 AM: FSP returns (not carrying any books)

My first thought was: OK... so maybe he was trying to find a time when we could meet (????). As far as I knew, we never had trouble finding a time to chat, so I wasn't sure why the detailed accounting was necessary. I asked him about it, and he said he just liked to keep track of things. I decided not to worry about it. I was more worried about the fact that he was making no progress on his research.

I got more worried when a colleague asked me if I knew that this student spent a lot of time just standing outside my office door, out of my sight, apparently listening to my phone conversations and taking notes.

And then this student, some others, and I visited another research lab for a few days. When we were done and I was checking over the car, I saw an unfamiliar notebook and I opened it to see whose it was. It was my student's, and, on the first page, I saw that he had itemized the things in my suitcase. At some point, he had opened my suitcase while we were traveling, and he had written down what was in it.

When I asked him about this, he said that he was very interested in what it was like to be a professor, and he was accumulating as much information as he could, including what I brought on research trips. He also said that I wasn't doing a good job of being a mentor. A good mentor would tell him these things so he didn't have to get the information himself. He did not think he should have to ask. He saw absolutely nothing wrong with going through my suitcase (secretly).

Our adviser-student relationship went downhill fast, and it was all very unpleasant, especially since I was an assistant professor and had not yet established a track record of successfully advising students, sane or otherwise.

This student wanted to know what it was like being a professor: how much time I spent on certain tasks, how I organized my files, what was I doing when I was in my office, how many socks did I bring on research trips etc. He was much less interested in doing research, although being a professor at a university happens to involve quite a lot of research.

You can wear the same pair of socks every day on a research trip if you want, but more important is why you are making that trip, what you do on the trip, and what you take away from the trip. He was not so interested in those aspects of being a professor, and that may explain in part why he never became a professor.

My ex-student wondered: What do professors do with all that time when they weren't in a classroom teaching or in a faculty meeting seething? Although his methods of finding out the answer were disturbing, it's a fair question, and one that lots of people ask.

Yet I think my student realized that carefully documenting my activities still didn't give a complete picture, and thus his methods escalated. I had some suspicions that he was also rummaging around in my computer when I wasn't in the office, probably just to find out what I was doing (and not to steal anything or destroy anything), but even then I think there were still gaps in his knowledge of What Professors Do All Day.

I value the fact that, on at least some days, I have a bit of flexibility in my working hours. I like that I can decide whether to spend a certain 'free' hour preparing for class, meeting with a graduate student, talking with colleagues, or working on a paper.

Perhaps I would be more OK about routinely posting my schedule if (1) none of the people viewing my schedule were bizarre intrusive sneaks; and (2) there were a way to label time in which I am extremely busy, but just not with any particular thing.

Mostly, though, I'd rather just reveal my schedule as necessary to find a time for a meeting or other event. Other than that, I'd prefer to be mysterious, leaving everyone wondering what I'm really doing while I'm glaring at my computer, talking with a colleague in a cafe, or wandering around campus.

By producing papers, proposals/grants, and students, I think I show well what I am doing overall, and that seems like more important information than what I am doing at 3:00 on Wednesday.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Quilts, Cowgirls & Lilacs

Attempts to get a National Women’s History Museum bill passed in the Senate are stalled because two Republican Senators have put a hold on the bill, which would allow plans to go forward to build the museum, at no cost to taxpayers. In the NY Times on Saturday (9/24/10), Gail Collins describes the bizarre situation in which two conservative Senators have (for now) put a stop to the bill, which is sponsored by a Republican, because.. well, that's where things get kind of strange.

Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, says that he objects to the museum because “.. it duplicates more than 100 existing entities that have a similar mission.” There are more than 100 museums devoted to women's history? Yes, indeed, and these apparently include:

.. the Quilters Hall of Fame in Indiana, the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Texas and the Hulda Klager Lilac Gardens in Washington.

Wake up and smell the lilacs, Senator Coburn. By that reasoning, perhaps it makes sense to dismantle the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History because there is a Pro Football Hall of Fame in Ohio and it is possible to take a tour of Nathaniel Hawthorne's birthplace. Oh yes, and you can also go to the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, see the very bed in which Nixon was born, and then buy commemorative golf balls in the gift shop. What else do we need to know about men and their role in American history? That sounds like more than enough to me, speaking as a concerned taxpaying female.

What are these senators really worried about? That supporting a women's history museum will be seen as supporting a liberal cause because "women's history museum" might be secret code for "feminism"? It's hard to say, but it's too bad these guys feel the need to protect their hard-core conservative reputations by being against a history museum. And it's too bad if they really think that quilts, cowgirls, and lilacs are sufficient to tell what Gail Collins calls "the whole, big amazing story."

I don't feel rabidly enraged about a lack of a national women's history museum, but I also can't see any sane reason why anyone would object to one. If such a museum existed, I would definitely visit it, especially if they had Susan B. Anthony golf balls and Ida B. Wells snow globes in the gift shop.

Friday, September 24, 2010


There has been much angsty press in recent years about how kids don't have much free time to kick around and just be kids anymore. Those of us who grew up in an era when our parents sent us out the door to walk 3 miles in a blizzard to school or let us run around outside with our friends for hours are surely more creative and independent than those of you who (mis)spent your youth being shuttled in a mini-van from violin lessons to soccer to Mandarin class every day.

But what about today's overscheduled professors? If we have absolutely no 'free' time to think and muse and contemplate and play pretend games, will we lose our ability to be creative and independent?

That's actually not what I want to talk about today. A more practical consideration that is related to the issue of overscheduled professors is that it is very difficult to get more than 2 (or even 1?) professor together in a particular room at a particular time for a graduate student's preliminary exam or thesis defense. Anyone who has been involved in the scheduling of one of these events, either as a student or as one of the professors, surely knows how complicated this can be.

These exams are mandatory for the student and the professors, but they have to be squeezed into the interstices of our days, and finding a 3+ hour block of time when everyone is available is exceedingly difficult, as dramatically illustrated by this e-mail from a graduate student:

I am a graduate student at the stage of writing my thesis and planning my defense. Right now I am having a very difficult time scheduling my thesis defense. Some of my committee members have additional responsibilities at other universities or significant administrative duties. While it is possible for a committee member to Skype the defense if attending in person will be too hard, it's still been very hard to find a date and time that works for everyone (and for which a seminar room is still available). And some of my committee members are reluctant to commit to any dates at all, because they are worried that some of their other obligations will come up. (And at the same time, the other members who are able to be flexible are getting mad at me for not scheduling something already.) I have had similar difficulties with every committee meeting I've had. This time it is especially frustrating because I would like to defend before the university-wide deadlines for this graduation cycle. I am not alone in this situation -- nearly every other graduate student at my university has had similar experiences with difficulty scheduling committee meetings.

I know that faculty have a lot of other responsibilities and often find serving on thesis committees to be burdensome and a low priority. However, I am only asking for at most 2-3 hours of their time, and this will be the last time I need to do so. I also feel that once a faculty member has agreed to serve on a student's committee (which they are not obligated to do), they should accept the responsibility of making time for the requisite committee meetings, qualifying exams, and thesis defense to the best of their abilities. What do you think is the best way to alleviate this situation? How can I politely convey to my committee that while I understand the difficulties they face in attending/Skyping my defense, I really do need to schedule a date as soon as possible? Also, what policies do you think universities could adopt to make this process simpler and less burdensome for both faculty and students? Personally, I wonder if limiting the number of committees (possibly all committee not just thesis ones) a single faculty member could be on would help lower the burden. Also, perhaps it would be worthwhile for the university calender to build in meeting/defense times -- i.e. no departmental seminars/meetings/classes/etc during 1-2 weeks each semester to allow for committee meetings, qualifying exams, and defenses? This would also benefit students because it would give them a set schedule at which milestones need to be met, and it would make things easier for the registrar's office and university administration because it would ensure that defense dates are properly tied to graduation deadlines.

What are your thoughts?

My thoughts involve sympathy for your situation. My own PhD completion was delayed by months, resulting in my degree having the next year's date on it, because one professor was unable to find time to read my thesis, much less agree to a defense date.

I also appreciate that you realize professors are very busy. However, it isn't necessarily the case that the inability of some professors to find time for your defense means that you are a low priority or a burden. That doesn't help you get your defense scheduled, but I think it's important to realize that, for some professors, particularly just before the end of a term, finding ~3 free hours during the work day is simply not possible.

In general, the times that work best for me are: (1) final exam week, unless there is a conference, although, even if there isn't a conference, sometimes during finals week I have all-day meetings that are scheduled at this time specifically because classes are over; and (2) the time slot reserved for faculty meetings in a week when there is no faculty meeting (although if you have professors from other departments that have faculty meetings on different days/at different times, this window of opportunity doesn't exist).

I can also sometimes squeeze in an exam or defense by canceling (rescheduling) an office hour, research group meeting, or committee meeting. If that's the only option, I am willing to rearrange my schedule. Also, now that my daughter is older, I have more flexibility in the very early morning and the very late afternoon, but these times used to be more difficult for me for scheduling early/late exams, especially if my husband was out of town.

I'm not implying that the grad student who wrote to me does this, but some students will write to professors and say "Please tell me what days/times will work for you so I can schedule my defense." Clearly that is too open-ended. Other grad students will write and say "I'd like to have my defense on Tuesday, May 19 at 3 PM." Clearly that is too restrictive (although maybe it's worth a try in the unlikely event that one particular day/time will be open for all), and tends to result in a cascade of subsequent e-mails, each one specifying a different day/time.

Only once in my career has a grad student scheduled an exam first and then told me when he expected me to show up for the event. He checked in advance with the other (male) professors, but not with me. He was also on record as having stated that he didn't think women should be Scientists, so I quit his committee, as I didn't think I could be objective in the face of his lack of respect. He didn't want me on his committee anyway, so if his strategy to get me off his committee was to be rude, this strategy worked.

A reasonable first-try method for scheduling an exam/defense is for the student to send everyone an e-mail listing a few (3-4) possible days/times and asking everyone one which, if any, will work, and specifying that you need a reply by a certain day. If you don't get an e-mail reply by your stated deadline, go find the person(s), call them, e-mail them again, haunt them until they reply. Be aggressive but polite.

You can also be manipulative (but polite); for example, telling one person "Tuesday, May 19 at 3 PM is fine with all the other committee members. Does this time work for you as well?" (Don't ask if it is convenient -- no time is convenient -- ask if it is possible). If they have another commitment that cannot be changed, so be it, but at least you will have this specific information and can then work on another day/time.

If you are trying to finish before an urgent deadline, you can mention that, but only if you have left plenty of time between your scheduling attempts and the proposed exam date. Otherwise, if you suddenly have a crisis and need to finish soon and you ask your committee to rearrange their schedules for you, some of the crankier committee members might get a bit hissy.

I don't like being constantly badgered about scheduling, especially if I have already provided information about the possible times when I can/cannot meet, but there is a difference between a polite, organized, assertive effort to get an exam scheduled and a disorganized, obnoxious campaign by a student who assumes we professors should drop everything to help them defend at exactly the time they want.

There is probably a magic time in advance when scheduling is optimal. If you ask me in October about a May defense, I cannot commit to a day/time. If you ask me 2 weeks in advance, my schedule will likely be totally full. I can, however, figure out something 1, maybe 2, months in advance. There may be some graduate program policy on how far in advance an exam must be scheduled, but I have found that any such policy is routinely ignored owing to the wide availability of waivers and exceptions.

I have not found the advent of Skype etc. to help much with exam/defense scheduling. If I don't have three hours to spare, I don't have three hours to Skype either. Skype does help if I am at my home university and need to be at an event at another university (saving me travel days), but when I am traveling, the need to be in a quiet place with an excellent internet connection for several hours, taking into account time zones and unforeseen travel glitches, can be very stressful.

I like the idea of having some designated days when there are no classes or other meetings; I can't imagine that a week or two would be possible, but 2-3 days might be doable. If those times also coincided with a time when I had no proposals due, no conferences, and no other major deadlines, I wouldn't mind a few concentrated days of examining, with maybe 2 exams/day.

Another way that universities could help would be to extend the possible time in which a student can defend and still get their degree in that academic term or year. That won't help some people who need to leave and start a new job right away, but it might help some.

Maybe being over-committed on committees is a problem for some faculty, but I don't think that problem can be solved with a new rule limiting committee participation. A committee-max policy might actually create more complications -- what if everyone you wanted/needed on your committee was at their committee limit? And I don't think overscheduled professors are overscheduled because of student committees. It's all the other stuff that fills the days completely.

Somehow everyone gets their exams scheduled, even if it takes a while to accomplish and even if the process is highly non-linear. The process could be simplified if there were exam slots set aside, reducing the problems for at least a few people, but there are always going to be schedule collisions and moving-target schedules and professors who aren't organized enough to know what they are supposed to be doing a month or two from now.

Even if it makes you crazy, please try to be patient with us, continue to be very proactive in getting your defense scheduled, consider removing any extraneous committee members who are unresponsive (after documenting the history of uncooperativeness and discussing the situation with your adviser and/or the graduate program director), and.. good luck. You're almost done!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Listen Up

Imagine that you have been making one particular not-very-complicated point for many years in various faculty meetings, individual discussions, memos, and e-mails. This point is about an administrative matter, not something related to your research; say, something involving the undergraduate curriculum (for example).

In recent years, you have made this point many times because your department has been discussing the curriculum a lot. When relevant and necessary, you say something like "Science 201 is an important class because it lays the foundation for every other Science class. It is the only one that involves concepts related to the dynamics of kangaroos, the moons of Saturn, and the novels of Willa Cather."

Most of your colleagues are convinced, but for some reason, the issue keeps coming up again and again: Is Science 201 still an important class, or is it a relic to which some of us are clinging because we hate change? Does this class integrate different aspects of Science? Is it broad or narrow? Is it fundamental?

These are important issues to discuss for any class. It is worthwhile to reexamine the curriculum from time to time and make sure that it meets the needs of the students. You don't mind in general having to justify this course and its continued place in the curriculum, but you do find it frustrating to make the same point again and again because certain people either don't believe you or aren't paying attention.

Furthermore, it isn't actually your own *special class* you are defending, although you have taught the class, so no one should discount your opinion on the grounds that you are just defending turf.

Now imagine that one of the colleagues who has most often brought up the issue of whether Science 201 is important (or not), and who is one of the primary reasons why you have to repeat yourself so often about the importance of this class, stops you in the hall and enthuses about an interesting talk he heard by a brilliant senior scientist at a conference. This brilliant man said that Science 201 is an important class because it is the only one that involves concepts related to the dynamics of kangaroos, the moons of Saturn, and the novels of Willa Cather! Did you know this? Maybe you could incorporate some elements of this idea into the class when you teach it?!

And maybe, if you use some of Brilliant Man's ideas and methods, the course could become as interesting and relevant as your colleague's courses are.


Does this mean that you have finally won because your colleague seems convinced that the course is relevant and important?

Or have you lost because your colleague, to this day, does not recognize that you have been making this same point to no apparent effect until it was said by a Brilliant Man?

The answer is: both. You may now have less trouble justifying a course that you feel is essential to the undergraduate program, thereby benefiting students (if you are right about the importance of the course), but you are still just a yapping female (in this case) with nothing of significance to say, even about topics with which you have some expertise.

Too bad that Science 201 is likely to be somehow flawed whenever you teach it because how could you do it right when you are not a Brilliant Man?

Of course one must consider the possibility that the Brilliant Man made a more compelling, eloquent case than you were ever capable of doing, but, after careful consideration, you find this explanation insufficient.

And perhaps the most depressing thing of all is that the Colleague Who Doesn't Listen To You is a junior colleague.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Those Happy Golden Postdoctoral Days


Happy Postdocs : Not An Oxymoron

Disclaimer: I have no direct experience with postdocs in biomedical or other life sciences fields. My point of view derives entirely from experiences in the physical sciences.

Context: In the physical science academic niche with which I am familiar, postdoctoral fellowships are desirable, respected positions. Doing a (successful) postdoc gives the additional experience needed to make the transition from being a student to being a professor at a research university.

My experience: Aside from a few harassment issues I could have done without, I was happy as a postdoc. I enjoyed the responsibility, respect, and higher salary, and, although I had a lot of freedom in my research as a grad student, I felt even freer as a postdoc because I finally had the time and ability to develop some of my own research ideas at a more intellectually satisfying level.

Nevertheless, being a postdoc is not 24/7 good times. To help examine some of the pros and cons, let's compare the professional lives of postdocs and assistant professors:

Job security: Although some postdocs (or equivalent positions) have a contract of a similar duration as that of an assistant professor before tenure evaluation, postdocs live with more uncertainty about whether all these years of training will lead to the career they want. Although most postdocs who do well in my field ultimately get a faculty position if they want one, you never know. And, more typically, postdoc contracts are only for 1-2 years. Assistant professors may have some anxious years before tenure evaluation time, but they can achieve job security with tenure. Assistant professors clearly have the advantage in this respect.

Salary: Assistant professors typically make more than postdocs, although the difference narrows for more senior postdocs. In addition, assistant professors with significant postdoctoral experience can typically negotiate a higher starting salary, so the postdoctoral years 'count' in determination of future salary.

In what might be a rare situation, a former postdoc of mine recently took a pay cut (to $48k) when moving to a teaching position at a small university. He wanted a teaching-focused job, but was worried that the lower salary would make life more difficult for his family of four (his is the only income), but, when he asked me for advice, I said that I hoped he would take the job anyway because of the career opportunity and potential future job security. He did, and so far he is doing fine and is very happy in his new job.

Assistant professors in general have an advantage over postdocs with respect to salary, but not in all cases.

Benefits: In my field, health insurance benefits are typically similar for both postdocs and professors, but situations vary from institution to institution regarding whether the institution/PI contribute to retirement benefits. Some institutions make no retirement contributions for postdocs or assistant professors in the first year or two; some contribute to the retirement funds of assistant professors but not of postdocs; and others contribute to both. I am currently contributing to the retirement fund of a postdoc, as are many of my colleagues for their postdocs, so it certainly does happen. This factor works out about equally for postdocs and assistant professors in the institutions/departments with which I am familiar.

Independence: This one varies a lot. Many of us had a lot of independence as postdocs to pursue the research we wanted, but others are mostly/entirely confined to doing a project conceived and directed by a PI. Assistant professors have freedom to take the lead on research projects, although with that freedom comes a lot more responsibility (and management tasks) than postdocs typically have to deal with.

I think this factor is comparable for postdocs and assistant professors. There are certainly very controlling PIs who restrict the independence of postdocs, but there are also assistant professors whose research topics are constrained by various factors.

Time: Many of us think back on our postdoctoral experiences as the time in our academic careers when we had the most uninterrupted time to focus on research. One colleague of mine says that, for him, being a postdoc was even better than having a sabbatical (without the career anxiety, I suppose) because the professional service expectations and time spent managing grants and people was so much less.

According to that postdoc world view, postdocs are fortunate because they are not afflicted with the stresses of being a student (exams, classes) and typically doesn't have to do the same kind of professorial time management feat of balancing research, teaching, advising, managing, service etc. As a postdoc, you may help mentor grad students or undergrads in a research group, and you may also manage your own grant and start to be asked to review manuscripts and reviews, but all of this ramps up to a higher level when you become a professor. That's part of why spending time as a postdoc is a good transitional experience between being a student and a professor.

As a postdoc, I definitely felt anxious about the future. There were very few academic jobs in my field at that time, and I was very aware that I might not get one of those few.

Nevertheless, I was doing what I wanted to be doing. I enjoyed the intellectual freedom and the unrestricted time to think and write and do research. I was relieved to be taken (a bit) more seriously as a scientist than I had been as a grad student, and I enjoyed starting to gain visibility and build connections in my field. I was not ready to start a faculty position at a research university directly after finishing my PhD, but my postdoc time, followed by a teaching position, gave me the experience I needed once I was fortunate enough to get a tenure-track job.

Postdocs win in the 'time' category.

Summary: Being a postdoc has its stresses, even in the best of systems, but there are also very positive aspects of being a postdoc. Many faculty take seriously their jobs as mentors of postdocs, and many postdocs use well their year (or two or three) of research experience to launch their subsequent careers.

Happy postdocs exist. That fact doesn't help those who are in a postdoctoral form of hell; some fields clearly need to reform their postdoctoral systems. Nevertheless, I think it is important to present a positive case for postdocs, at least in some of the physical sciences, and to stop equating all postdoctoral fellowships with all the worst aspects of academia.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Spelling it Out

As I have been writing letters as part of the tenure and promotion evaluation of assistant professors at other institutions, I have been struck by the great variation in the "tenure code" documents I have been sent to help me write my letters. Typically, these documents outline an institution's or a department's criteria for tenure and promotion, but the level of specificity of these documents varies a lot.

At the vague end of the spectrum are documents that state that the candidate must show evidence for "scholarly achievement" (or words to that effect). This is useless for my purposes, and I just write my evaluation however I think best. In my experience, these documents are the most common type.

At the definitive end of the spectrum are documents that state that the candidate must have x papers every n years in "respected journals" and at least y grants from external funding agencies. In these cases, which I rarely encounter, I don't really understand the point of an external letter. If the candidate met the criteria and is going to get tenure, why ask for anyone's opinion? Does it matter if I think the x papers were flawed and uninteresting? If not, then don't waste my time. If it matters, then rewrite the document to include some vague statement about "scholarly achievement".

The definitive tenure criteria likely result in fewer tenure appeals than the vague tenure "criteria", and the vague ones surely result in higher levels of anxiety and uncertainty for tenure-track faculty, but the definitive ones have problems as well. For example, unless there is a way to specify the quality of the "respected journals" (probably by impact factor, for lack of a better measure) and the contribution of the candidate to a multi-author paper and whether it is good or bad to have lots of co-authors (including students), there is little point in specifying the number of papers that must be published in n years unless that really is all that matters.

In that case, these documents might as well just say: To obtain tenure, a candidate must have their name somewhere in the author list of a paper published in some journal that someone respects.

I am actually ambivalent about these documents, speaking from the point of view of a letter writer. I know they must exist, but there really is no good way to construct them to be useful to the letter writer (or the candidate): too vague is useless, and too specific is strange and leads to more questions (most of which can't be answered).

As a candidate, you have to find out the 'unwritten' information by figuring out the norms of your department and institution. This is typically accomplished by having an effective mentor, by talking to other assistant professors, and by having a candid talk with your department chair and mentor at various stages along the road to the tenure evaluation. You can also attend informational talks given by deans or deanlets, although, as an assistant professor, I found such workshops disturbing because the information in them conflicted with what my department chair had told me about some issues (e.g., the selection of letter writers). Even so, I identified these conflicts of information, talked to the chair about them, he talked to the dean, and all was eventually sorted out.

As a letter writer, I don't know the 'unwritten' information, and I'd rather not guess. All I can do is try to write a fair letter based on what is in the record and on my perception of the quality of the candidate's research. The people at the candidate's institution will have to sort the rest out for themselves, depending on what they think my criteria/standards for tenure are likely to be; i.e., they can discount my letter (if my criteria seem too harsh), take it seriously (if they think my opinion is well supported), or pick out the parts that agree with their own opinion.

Mostly, I just need to finish these letters so I can stop obsessing over them (one in particular is much more difficult to write than I expected), and then I can move on to my next adventure in Professional Service Activities.

Monday, September 20, 2010

(Un)appealing Option

A few weeks ago, I discussed writing letters as part of the tenure evaluation of assistant professors at other universities. Another tenure-related topic is what happens when tenure is denied.

My understanding of how tenure-denial appeals work is limited, but growing by the day, unfortunately. Perhaps the process varies (a lot?) from institution to institution, but here are some things I have learned so far:

The basis for a realistic appeal can be (1) discrimination, or (2) violation of procedure. An appeal based on an "I was misjudged" is less likely to be successful, although I know of some cases in which an appeal of this sort was successful, typically based on the issue of the relative weights given to teaching and research excellence.

Even if there has been blatant discrimination or a violation of procedure, the various stops along the tenure trail designed to catch such things may not catch them, or may even be the source of the problem. Hence the appeal process.

Things can get complicated at large institutions in which there are many intermediate steps along the road to tenure during the evaluation and voting process. At each stage, there is the possibility of a decision that is different from preceding ones, although this gets less likely as the process moves up the administrative food chain.

Nevertheless, voting and decision-making bodies/people at a university can include
  • a departmental promotion & tenure committee,
  • tenured faculty in the department (perhaps in more than one department for interdisciplinary faculty with multiple tenure homes),
  • the department head,
  • a committee at the college level (e.g., College of Arts & Sciences, School of Engineering),
  • the Dean (± an Associate/Assistant Dean),
  • various Provostial Beings ± Vice-Presidents for Whatever,
  • the President/Chancellor, and, in some cases,
  • a Board of Trustees.
Many of these steps are necessary to provide checks-and-balances. For example, departments might be "too close" to a candidate, using criteria that are not objective or fair. This can work for or against a candidate; e.g., a well-liked mediocre candidate might get a yes vote. It's not supposed to work that way, of course, but since the evaluation metrics are typically not spelled out (more on that tomorrow), variability is inevitable.

If all of these people/committees vote overwhelmingly no, that's not good (and makes an appeal very unlikely to succeed), but what if some say yes and some say no, or what if there are mixed votes in certain committees?

According to legend, once you get past the department and college/school committee with a positive vote, you're fine, but there are rumors of candidates who had positive votes up to the Dean or Provost or President and then.. zap. There are also sad stories of people with majority positive votes at various stages but not a supermajority of positive votes, leading to cascades of negative votes at later stages of the process.

The appeal process appears to be highly structured (= bureaucratic), with lots of steps and lawyers and invocation of an institution's "tenure code" or criteria by both sides.

If the process leading up to the tenure evaluation works as it should, the results of the tenure evaluation itself should not be a big surprise. There can be a discrepancy between what a department/institution thinks of a candidate vs. what is expressed in the external letters, but even this should be evident in advance if the pre-tenure evaluation process works as it should.

Whether evaluation of probationary faculty is at one intermediate time (e.g., 3rd year) or every year, there should (ideally) be a paper trail that documents how an assistant professor is doing in terms of the various job components, with specific suggestions for improvement if there is a problem, and additional assistance/mentoring given where needed.

Having a well-functioning, fair, and informative system is essential to the tenure-track faculty member and to the rest of the institution. When that system breaks down, owing to incompetence, indifference, or malevolence, and the tenure decision is negative, the grounds for an appeal are laid.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Dodging a Postdoctoral Bullet

In general, I am not a particularly sadistic person; at least, no more than the average professor. Every once in a while, though, as I am mulling over a potential blog post topic, I think to myself "This one is going to freak out the [select one or more: undergrads, grads, postdocs, assistant professors, associate professors, professors, administrators, adjuncts, social scientists, reptiles]", and then I do the post anyway. With a few exceptions, I don't deliberately try to upset anyone, but there are certain topics (letters of reference, tenure, interviews) that lend themselves to freak-outs among certain segments of the academic population.

Today's target topic: postdocs, as told from the point of view of a supervisor of postdocs.

First, some context: In my field, postdoctoral researchers are well respected, are paid a decent salary with benefits, have a lot of independence, and typically spend 1-3 years in this position before moving on to another job: a faculty position, a job in industry, a researcher position at a national lab or a government agency, or something else entirely.

Postdocs can be hired in a number of different ways. In my case, I can either acquire funding and then seek a postdoc, or I can identify a postdoc candidate (possibly when one contacts me) and then one or both of us can seek funding for a project.

Sometimes I get e-mail from postdoc candidates or I meet one at a conference. Some of these possibilities are interesting enough to pursue further.

You would think that it is easy to identify excellent postdoc candidates -- or, at least, easier than trying to guess which applicants to graduate school will succeed and which will not -- but it is surprisingly difficult. For example, I have supervised apparently promising postdocs who never published anything, or did so only under torture (or if I wrote most of the paper). How did they get a PhD in the first place? Did their advisers write their thesis and/or papers and not happen to mention this in the recommendation letter? One wonders.

I have been thinking about this recently because a few times in the past year I have had semi-close calls with postdoctoral aspirants who seemed quite promising, but on further inspection turned out to be much less so. If I hadn't happened to find out some information that is not typically included in a reference letter, I might have ended up with a(nother) disaster postdoc.

Some of you may be thinking: What if this so-called "information" about these prospects was wrong? What if these were really talented people and you denied them a career opportunity for no good reason? These are valid points, but be assured that I wouldn't dismiss a person based only on a vague rumor from someone I didn't know.

Example 1: A postdoc candidate e-mailed me, I wrote back asking some questions to get a better sense for what his ideas and interests were, and he responded a while later.

There were some possible red flags in his e-mails. For example, when writing to a potential postdoctoral supervisor, it's probably not a good idea to complain about how much work you have to do and how busy you are and why you took so long to respond. Why would I want to work with someone who easily whines and may already be having difficulty managing their time?

But these were little, ambiguous red flags, not big, obvious, glow-in-the-dark ones. Perhaps he was just trying to convey how industrious he is, and it didn't occur to him that he would seem to be complaining and incompetent. Maybe he thrives on being extraordinarily busy and is actually intensely intellectually engaged in his thesis research but just didn't express this clearly. I was willing to overlook the apparent whining and not over-interpret at this stage.

There was enough that seemed possibly promising in his academic background, so I wanted to know more about him. I asked a longtime, trusted colleague (and supremely nice person) who knows this student well, and, after a bit of reluctance and vague hmmming, he sighed and told me about this PhD student's bad attitude, laziness, apathy, poor quantitative skills, and marginal qualifications even to be a graduate student. There were also apparently some ethics issues. If I just went by my correspondence with the postdoctoral candidate and his CV and even the reference of his main adviser, I would never have known he was such a (potential) disaster.

Perhaps in the course of getting more than one letter of reference, some of this information would have come to light anyway, but I decided not to pursue this opportunity any further.

Example 2: A finishing PhD at Prestigious University with exactly the right background and interests for someone who could be a happy and productive member of my research group introduced himself to me at a conference. We had a brief chat that established that we had some mutual research ideas that might be the nucleus of a future proposal, and agreed to talk more. In the meantime, I casually mentioned this person to some people I know well at his current and past academic institutions, and every single one said "Hmm.... well.... there are some things you should know..." (there followed long -- but consistent -- lists of strange, unpleasant, disturbing behavior that resulted in great disruptions of research efforts by the student and everyone else in his immediate surroundings). Another dead end.

I know there are excellent postdocs out there -- I have even worked with some -- but it is not safe to assume that anyone who makes it through a PhD program and who wants to pursue an academic career is automatically well suited for postdoctoral research. And it can be very difficult to predict this just based on a written application or even a conversation or exchange of e-mail with the candidate.

I have brought postdoc candidates to campus for interviews in the past, but the applicant pool is typically international, and therefore some of the interviews are by phone or Skype, which is convenient, but not the same as spending a day or two with someone.

Letters of references are also not as candid as they should be. I know that various candidates for various positions spend a lot of time worried about their letters of reference, but 99.76% of such letters are positive. It is rare to find one containing the information that my colleagues divulged to me in person in the examples above.

Certainly we have to be careful not to ask the opinion of someone who is unobjective, uninformed, and/or vindictive, and we need to filter information for bias or personal views on issues or characteristics unrelated to a candidate's qualifications for a job (e.g., being female, having young children etc.), but candid, accurate information can be a life-saver for me and the rest of my research group, so that we don't spend large amounts of time and money on someone who cannot or will not be a productive member of the group.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


My daughter is involved in a particular extra-curricular activity that has an incredible number of special terms, abbreviations, acronyms, and other words and phrases that are incomprehensible to the uninitiated. Just like Science! I have learned some of the terms, but there always seem to be more that I don't know. And no, this extra-curricular activity has nothing to do with athletics of any sort, so my ignorance is not related to my lack of interest in sports.

I will never learn all of this new activity-specific language, and that's fine. This is my daughter's activity, and it would actually be quite weird if I started hurling around the relevant acronyms in conversation.

When we were en route to visiting some relatives this summer, I said to my daughter "You know, you're going to get asked about Activity, and you should try as much as possible to avoid jargon and describe it using words that they will understand."

She was silent for a few moments, thinking about this, then said "You're right, but I'm not sure I know what is jargon and what isn't anymore. I should practice."

So we pretended that I was Great Aunt Milly and I asked her about her recent Activity activities, and my daughter started talking about this, trying but failing to avoid jargon. I listed the incomprehensible words she had just used, and she tried again. This time I made an obnoxious beeping sound whenever she jargonized, and then we both started laughing too much to continue for a while.

Later, we tried again, and she did much better, and by the time we were surrounded by Great Aunts and Not-Great Uncles, she did an excellent job of talking about her Activity, and our relatives were able to ask her questions instead of lapsing into stunned silence, which is what some people have done when she's gone into full-jargon mode in other conversations.

It occurred to me that I could use some help de-jargonizing my own descriptions of my work. I can easily give a 101-level description of my research, but in some cases (e.g., elderly family members) that doesn't work very well, probably because even the most science-phobic undergraduate has recently had some science in high school, whereas some of my relatives have not thought about even basic science concepts since Eisenhower was president.

So I started thinking about all the different 'levels' at which we need to talk about our general or specific fields of expertise; in this example, I will use Science:

- Great Aunt Millies: total non-scientists who don't know even the most basic words that we don't really consider jargon because they aren't particularly specialized are incomprehensible in this context.

- Non-scientists/non-students who can handle the basic vocabulary of science, either from K-12 classes or from watching shows on TV (or reading science fiction?) or maybe from some technical experiences related to their job of hobbies.

- Non-science faculty and administrators who read our internal grant proposals, award nominations, or other documents that are supposed to be jargon-free.

- Students in introductory-level Science classes (if not at the beginning of the term, by the end..).

- Students in more specific classes in Science.

- Science faculty or administrators who are in our department or our institution but who aren't in our specific field of research AND science faculty, students, and others who attend our invited talks at other universities (if the talks are supposed to be oriented to a general Science audience)

In grant proposals to programs in our field and certainly in articles in journals, we can typically go wild with the jargon because the people reading our text will understand these terms, although even here it is possible to go too far and use complex terms where a simpler one would suffice.

What about talking to the media? For those who aren't science journalists, I think it's best to go with the Great Aunt Milly level of simplicity, and for science journalists.. it varies.

My last experience with the media was with a science journalist who seemed to know the basic jargon of my field. Nevertheless, I kept having to decrease the Science level of the conversation because, although he knew vocabulary, he didn't really seem to know what these words actually meant in terms of processes or interrelated concepts. Although we talked for a long time and I asked him to repeat back some of the essential points (a suggestion that seemed to annoy him, perhaps understandably), the result was kind of bizarre. In fact, as I was trolling around the science news headlines, I overlooked the article about my research because the headline had absolutely nothing to do with my research. Only once I started getting e-mail about the article did I realize which headline referred to my work.

Clearly I need more practice de-jargonizing my Science speech. Fortunately, I know exactly the right person who will help me with this, most likely by making obnoxious beeping sounds when I use jargon, but that's OK.. that technique actually seems to help a bit.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Conference Tourists

Some conferences are so highly selective that a small fraction of conference-goers give presentations, but other conferences are less selective and the majority of attendees give presentations of some sort (talk or poster). These less selective conferences are excellent opportunities for students to present their research, but many senior researchers also give presentation.

If you have ever attended the type of conference at which most participants give a talk or poster, have you ever decided to just attend without giving a presentation, even though you easily could have submitted an abstract for review (with you as presenting author)? If so, why did you decide to be a Conference Tourist (CT)? Was it one of these reasons, or something else?:

A1. Fatigue. You have given so many presentations at so many conferences, you just wanted to go to the conference without having to prepare anything to present. Skipping one (or tw0?) conferences doesn't mean you are totally burned out; you just want a break and will enjoy the conference as a CT.

A2. Stress. This is similar to Fatigue, but in this case you decided against trying to give a presentation because doing so always stresses you out so much that you spend all the days and nights before your presentation feeling anxious, and you can only begin to enjoy the conference once your presentation is done.

A3. Lack of anything new to say (not that that reason stops some people from giving presentations). Somehow, a year has gone by and you don't have any new results. You will soon, of course, but you didn't have anything to write up in time for the abstract deadline and you didn't want to present old or recycled research. This is not the best of reasons to be a CT, but it might be fine to do once in a while. Not everyone's research projects fit exactly with conference submission schedules.

A4. Been there/done that.You are happy to let your students and postdocs present all the results from your group. Let the youngsters have all the glory (and stress). You can sit back and be the big cheese research group leader.

A5. None of the above.

And then, just to turn the question around: If you could easily go to a conference as a non-presenter but you never (or almost never do), why do you so often submit an abstract or conference paper for review?:

B1. You love giving talks. You are addicted to the thrill of presenting your research to a large audience. It would be painful for you to attend a conference and not give a presentation and be part of the action.

B2. You like giving talks. That is, you don't love giving talks, but you like it well enough that, if you have some interesting new research to present, you want to present it at the conference.

B3. You may or may not like or mind giving talks, but you feel compelled to give a presentation if at all possible because you want to show funding agency program officers and others that you are being productive.

B4. You have some great new research results and you want the world to know this now, not n months from now when (you hope) the paper is published.

B9+ Some of the above/none of the above..?

My answer for the latter set of questions would be one involving parts of B2-B4.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Affirmative Action for Dead People

Someone wrote a letter of complaint to The New York Times, noting that there were typically about 8 times as many obituaries for men as for women.

The Times' obituaries editor responded that the newspaper only publishes obituaries for people whose former existence was of national or international interest. Most obituaries today are for people born in the 1920's and 1930's, when most important jobs were done by men. Ergo, most of the noteworthy people dying are men. The Times cannot right this historic wrong by publishing more obituaries for women and non-white men because there are fewer recently deceased women and minorities who did things of national or international interest. The number of obituaries for women is about 10-20%.

Apparently, there aren't enough qualified women dying.

The "public editor" (ombudsman) for The New York Times added his own comment, saying that he thought the Times could do a better job of finding information about remarkable women and non-white men; the Times researchers should try to find "a greater variety of subjects".

Is this situation analogous to arguments about the relative numbers of Great (white) Men vs. Women in literature, history, art etc., such as arguments related to why reading lists for classes on the Great Works of Literature are dominated by white male authors? That is, white men wrote the Great Works; that's just the way it is.

Some universities have addressed this issue by doing something similar to what the Times' public editor suggests: if you broaden your search, open up your definition of what is interesting and worthy of attention, you will find greatness.

Looking beyond the traditional definition of noteworthy for selecting candidates for obituaries in the Times is not affirmative action for dead people.

You can't right a historic wrong, but you can stop participating in the perpetuation of bias by focusing attention only only those who have succeeded in traditional ways in business, academia, government, journalism etc. Don't wait for the day when women and minorities succeed like white men in positions that were formerly the exclusive province of white men. Death to inequality!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Not For Sale

A reader sent me this link to a blog post by someone who thinks that every employee on a state university campus should be well trained in sales and hospitality services. With such training, when unexpectedly encountering a person who may or may not be the parent of a potential applicant to the university, state university employees can go into recruitment mode, using tried-and-true methods that any competent salesperson would know.

In fact, according to the blog post, everyone the blogger in question met on the campus of Iowa State University was polite and tried to help him in some way. They just didn't help him in exactly the way he wanted to be helped, using the specific language a real salesperson would use.

According to the blog post, here are some of the things that campus workers are supposed to do when encountering someone who might be the parent of a potential applicant to the university, including those people who are lying about being such a parent, like the blogger in question:

1. Say hi! Smile! You are an employee of a state university, and therefore part of your job is to recruit students. Oh sure, you can spend your time on teaching, research, or whatever else you think your job entails blah blah blah, but that's no substitute for a big smile and a hello. It's even better if your smile and greeting appear reasonably sincere, something best accomplished if you can somehow banish from your mind the phrase "helicopter parent".

2. After the friendly hello/smile, ask an open-ended question. Do not ask: Can I help you? or Can I help you find something? when you see an unknown adult who might be the parent of a potential applicant wandering around your campus building. Those are unfriendly questions that demonstrate your ignorance of sales techniques.

OMG, I am so glad to know this now. Sometimes when I am working in my office or walking the halls of my campus building, doing some task that fills the gaps in time between when I can go into sales/recruitment mode for my university, a person unknown to me will walk into my office or appear lost and confused in the hall, and I will say something like "Can I help you?" or "Are you looking for something (or someone)?" Out of total ignorance, I have definitely asked questions like that before. Of course, most of the time the person is looking for something specific, but apparently there is a huge huge difference between "Can I help you?" (an unfriendly yes/no question) and "What can I help you with today?" (a sales-friendly question that is more open-ended).

3. Engage these strangers in conversation. Ask them questions about themselves, their children, where they live, why they are here on campus. Never mind that you probably have 57 things that need doing right now. This is not about you. Knock down walls between you and them.

4. Thank the person you just met. I am so glad that I learned about this one because this, also, would not have occurred to me. Now I am revealed to myself and others as a selfish, self-absorbed lout. I would have expected that the person asking me for information and interrupting my day would thank me, but no, this is not about me me me.

5. Get the hypothetical parent's contact information. Once again, ask them for information about themselves. Do I really need to say this again? This is not about you or even, apparently, about your university.

At this point, I feel the need to make an abject confession about an example of a personal sales FAIL. A few years ago, a man and his son looked into my office, I asked if I could help them (FAIL!), and the man said that his son was interested in Science, so they were just looking around. I asked them if they had any questions (FAIL!), and they both had some. They were pretty good questions, and I spent a few minutes answering them. The father asked me about my research, so I told them a bit about that. I gave the kid a geeky little science gizmo thing that I had lying around my office in great abundance, and this seemed to thrill him. They thanked me for my time, the information, and the gift (FAIL for them!), and went away without my asking them for their names (FAIL!) or contact information (FAIL!).

Now, despite the great effort and perhaps physical pain this will cause me, I am going to attempt to make some sarcasm-free comments about the general issue of the role of university employees in interacting with non-academic citizens who wander onto campus for real or mendacious purposes. I shall address these comments to people who might share the views of the blogger who visited Iowa State, if there are any:

It is bizarre to expect that all campus employees should follow the same rules for sales that might be used by, say, a car salesman. We are not selling cars. Try not to be so judgmental and oversensitive. Give people a break if they don't conform to your strange ideas about exactly how they should be asking you if they can help you.

Employees at a state university work for you in the same indirect way that public school teachers or police officers or garbage collectors work for you and everyone in the community; all of us collectively benefit the community by doing our jobs, but you do not get to take up our time whenever and however you want, especially if you don't really understand the purpose of our jobs.

Example: Administrative assistants who sit at the front lines of department offices are extremely busy people. Part of their job is to help visitors who wander by the office, and there are an extraordinary number who do wander by. Not all of these visitors are polite or able to explain what they want.

If you do happen to drop by a department office with a question, you can expect a polite response, but you cannot expect that a lot of time and energy will suddenly be diverted to helping you. Administrative assistants can direct you to a source of information that will answer your question; it is bizarre to be offended if this source of information is a website, and no, you don't get to use a computer in a department office even if you are pretending to be the parent of a potential applicant.

Here's a thought exercise: Imagine that you wander into a department office, posing as the parent of a potential applicant to the university, and you walk up to the administrative assistant's desk. In the last half hour, this person has had their work interrupted by 3 or 8 other people stopping by with requests for information or to ask for help with tasks that need to be done right away. There have also been a few phone calls in between these visits, as well as e-mails that need immediate responses. In addition, an undergraduate student just stopped by to drop off his late homework at his professor's office or mailbox, but he doesn't know the name of the professor. The phone rings again. Then you walk in and mention that your son might be interested in applying to the university. When the administrative assistant doesn't respond in exactly the way that you want (with questions about your name and your life and your interests, and an offer to use a computer or talk to a professor), you decide to send your fictitious son to another university. Who is the unreasonable person in this scenario?

If you want to come to campus and walk around, you are most welcome. The campuses of state universities are public places, and there are many interesting things to see and do. You can even wander around department buildings, looking at hall displays or admiring the architecture. If you want to talk to someone, you can call or e-mail and make an appointment.

Learn about universities and how they work. They are amazing places. And think, what do you really want in a university: a campus filled with employees who greet you insincerely and ask you to talk about yourself, or a university that is busy with professors, staff, and students who are working hard at the jobs they are supposed to be doing?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Group Highlights

One weird thing about reading books on an e-reader is that you can see what other people have chosen to underline when they were reading the same book on other e-readers. You can even see how many people have underlined a particular sentence.

I have found that I can easily guess which sentences will be underlined by following this one simple rule:

The underlined sentences will be the most general, trite, "philosophical" statements.

Here is an active learning exercise for my readers. Which sentence(s) below would you predict will/should be underlined?

The old man stared at the lobster on his plate, wondering what the lobster was thinking when he (she?) clambered into the slatted wooden trap. Did all lobsters eventually end up in a trap? Did any lobster ever die a natural death? And he wondered: Was death somehow more natural than life? Even as we lose our grip on the tissue of life, like the sunset, the inevitable, beautiful, tragic sunset loses its grip on the horizon, we are all lobsters. How strange that the sunset today was the color of the dead lobster on his plate.

Did you guess the "Even as we lose our grip.." sentence ± the question before it? A+++++ for you! Any other sentence: underline FAIL.

I have never been a very diligent or systematic underliner, or even a highlighter, and I seem to have missed out on some important lesson about What To Highlight.

When I was in college, I took a literature course that surveyed the Great Works, from the dawn of time to the recent past. I had read many of these Great Works before I got to college, but I had read them in isolation. I took the class because I wanted to learn about these books from Great Scholars. What I mostly learned was that there was symbolism lurking in the prose, unbeknownst to me when I read these works on my own.

I also noticed that my classmates arrived in class each day with heavily highlighted and annotated books, and they further annotated the books as the professor pointed out key passages. I tried to do this, but I was never very good at it. I tended to underline sentences that I liked for aesthetic reasons, missing profound statements about life and death and war and peace and lobsters.

Armed with a new realization about the utility of highlighting, a friend and I decided to annotate the paperback collection of used and abandoned Great Books that resided in a study room in our college residence. Hoping that some future undergraduate who took this same course would read these particular books, we decided to make up strange and unlikely annotations, in the further hope that these hypothetical future readers would be entertained, or, I admit, confused.

For example, we would underline a sentence like this one from War and Peace -- "Prince Vassily always spoke languidly, like an actor repeating his part in an old play." -- and write something in the margin like "IMPORTANT seagull imagery!"

I was reminded of this juvenile impulse recently as I was reading yet another e-book that had yet another trite phrase underlined. I felt the urge to do some subversive underlining of text that apparently had no particular significance, just on the off chance that it would make someone wonder what they were missing.

So far I have suppressed that urge, and I may yet become a sincere underliner, as I sometimes find marking text useful for later reference if I am going to use a snippet in a blog post.

For example, I was recently struck by two things on one page of the novel The Perfect Reader by Maggie Pouncey (Note: This is most definitely not a recommendation that anyone read this book).

One, not (yet) underlined bit of text -- but a possible candidate for underlining were I to keep track of the Stupidest Sentences In This Book -- is: "Manu-script. Funny the feminists hadn't had their way with that one yet."

Another, underlined by someone (not me): "How one knew and recognized handwriting, as one knew and recognized a voice in the distance, or on the other end of the phone. These details of person-hood we learned and memorized, as if access to that information meant we knew and understood one another. We felt a sense of ownership of such things."

Too bad the author doesn't have a sense of ownership of complete sentences. Or feminism.

And this: "But the death of a parent is a loss of self. A loss of history. Who else really remembers your childhood but your parents?"


In the book, My Hollywood by Mona Simpson, were I to underline text, I would go for this bit, when the woman narrator muses about her struggles to have a career as a composer/musician and a wife/mother: "You can be both! my mother had said. But my mother was mentally ill."

For some reason that I can't begin to understand, 23 people have underlined this text in Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart: "And that's what immortality means to me, Joshie. It means selfishness. My generation's belief that each one of us matters more than you or anyone else would think." Am I missing something?

But, just as my cynicism was deepening about all these anonymous highlighting people, I found some text that has been highlighted by 23 people (the same ones??), perhaps just because it is beautiful text: "The love I felt for her on that train ride had a capital and provinces, parishes and a Vatican, an orange planet and many sullen moons -- it was systemic and it was complete."


Thursday, September 09, 2010

ABCs of Job Satisfaction

Today let's revisit the topic of From Whence We Derive Our Job Satisfaction, assuming that there is job satisfaction being derived.

So, for those of you who enjoy your jobs (academic or otherwise), is the source of your feeling of job-enjoyment related at least in part to:

A. your department (or non-academic equivalent)?; i.e., a unit larger than your immediate research/work group, but within your institution);

B. your more distant professional environment? In the academic example, this would be people in your research field who are not in your department.

C. your own work and/or that of your immediate research group?

There are other possibilities than those listed (e.g., I am, for once, not mentioning cats), but for these options, typical answers might be:

A-B-C (for people quite content with their professional environment)

A ± C but not B; or B ± C but not A.

c would be unfortunate if it were not combined with A or B, but that would at least be better than deriving no job satisfaction at all.

I wonder what the most common situation is. From scattered comments to blog posts over the years, there has been a persistent mention of B-but-not-A.

My answers to this question have varied with time. I was in a C-only situation very early in my career (grad school/postdoc), and was briefly in an A-C situation in my first tenure-track job when I was happy in my department but had yet to establish a reputation in my field and was finding it difficult to get the respect of a certain close network of older (male) professors in my field (solution: publish a lot, get grants, find a research niche).

Then there were some B-C times in which I wasn't particularly happy in my department, but I was otherwise doing well professionally and enjoying my research and research group.

Now I'd say A-B-C, but it took a while to get there.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Label Update

At various times in the past month or so, I have been adding labels to old posts to make searching for particular topics easier. Yes, I should have been labeling posts all along, but I did not, except for a brief phase in 2007 when I inexplicably added rather strange labels to some posts.

In an earlier post, some of you gave me advice on how to choose labels, and on what some useful labels would be, and this advice was very useful during my latest labeling efforts.

When I started my retroactive labeling, I had to confront the issue of how fine to divide related categories: e.g., Should there be separate categories for 'grants' and 'grant proposals' or just one combined category? I went with a combined category, but created a separate 'broader impacts' label (I don't know why; I just did).

And what about the various stages involved in publishing: writing, submitting a manuscript, reading and responding to reviews (and doing some reviews of other manuscripts), interacting with an editor, and so on. Is that one category, two, more..? I broke that one up a bit.

I don't think I have done the best job with career-related labels (yet). For example, some posts labeled 'tenure' actually involve a range of early-career issues, and I didn't deal very well with all the various stages of getting a job. At the moment, there is a 'CV' label and an 'interview' label.

And what about women-in-science, women, feminism/feminists, sexism etc.? Not all posts about women are about sexism, not all posts about women are about women scientists, and so on. That was a tricky one, and I ended up with multiple labels for that one because I thought the nuances were more important than they are for, say, grants and grant proposals.

And then are some posts for which obvious labels eluded me. I ended up using one category called 'bizarre', and another just called 'life'. Some don't really fit either (like this one).

There is a rather lame category called 'academia', which could be applied to most of my posts but that I (somewhat inconsistently) used for posts that had something to do with the academic life and that collectively give a picture of (my) academic experiences.

A particularly tricky issue was what to do with the 'cat' label. Cats are mentioned in passing in quite a few posts, but that doesn't mean that the posts are about cats (although, on some level, they are). Would someone searching for cat-themed posts be crushed if they found instead a post that used a brief and sarcastic mention of cats? I wanted to avoid that, but not entirely.

When I told a colleague about my labeling efforts, he remarked, in a sarcastic-but-not-unkind way, "I bet the titles of your posts are a lot of help."

Yeah, well.. no kidding. Maybe I should title things in such a way that the content of the post is a bit more obvious, like the title of this post, or yesterday's. Boooooring, but efficient.

Anyway, the labels with links now appear in the frame on the right, below the archive, and I've added a better search function (Google search box below my profile). If anyone finds strange or inappropriate labels or obvious missing ones or has suggestions for ways to make this better and more useful and is inclined to share this information/opinion, please send an e-mail or leave a comment. At the moment, I have label fatigue, but at some point I could revisit the labels.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Trailing Spouse

A reader writes with a description of her situation as a tenure-track professor whose department hired her husband and then created a position for her as part of a hiring package. At the end of her description, she has some questions:

I am writing with a question regarding the issues of the two-body problem and trailing spouses. When scientists talk about the "two-body problem", they are usually referring to the challenges associated with finding two academic jobs in the same department/university/city. My husband and I were fortunate in that we were able to overcome this challenge: we both have tenure-track jobs in the same department. After several years together in this department, I am realizing that there is another component to the two-body problem that I had not anticipated: although we have equal jobs, we are not treated as equals. I am not sure if this is the result of 1) difference in job performance; 2) gender; or 3) trailing vs. non-trailing spouse. Our job performances are relatively comparable, we each have our strengths and weaknesses, but overall each of us is achieving the goals that were set by our department and both of us on track for tenure. Regarding gender, there are some female tenured or tenure-track faculty in our department; however, there is a bit of a boys network in our department (important things are often discussed behind closed doors and in the men's room - seriously, I can hear the conversations from the hallway - not that I linger but occasionally pick it up in passing...). I am writing to see if you or your readers have any insight into inequities arising as a result of the trailing/non-trailing spouse issue.

In our situation, my husband was offered a position first. Our negotiations led to a second position (mine) in which I was provided similar resources in terms of space, start-up, salary etc. Based on our negotiations, which were extremely fair, we assumed that we would be treated as equals in our department.

I am very disappointed to report that the traditional two-body problem has morphed into something much subtler but more troubling. Despite starting on nearly equal footing, several inequities have developed since we started our jobs. For example, despite equal teaching components of our job, our teaching loads are far from equal. Since we joined this department, my teaching assignments have involved more (different) courses, with more students per course, with courses that meet more often during the week. My husband has taught fewer courses with fewer students, which meet less often during the week. Is this the result of savvy planning by my husband? I don't think so, these were the assignments handed down by the chair.

A second example comes from service assignments. I have been asked to serve on numerous, sometimes time-consuming but largely inconsequential committees where as my husband has been asked and has served on every major decision-making committee we have (e.g., graduate admissions, finances). I am disappointed to report that these inequities have been consistent across time, and at this point the situation appears to be worsening as he is benefiting from lower teaching loads (more productive research program) and leadership positions within the department (e.g., he is regularly consulted about space and equipment needs). I am in the extremely demoralizing position of having to communicate my professional needs through my husband, as he is in a position with some leverage and I am not.

Is it common that the trailing spouse, although equal in job description, is not on equal footing?

Have your readers observed inequities between trailer and non-trailer persisting and in some cases expanding over time?

How frequently is the trailing spouse female relative to a man being the trailing spouse?

If the man is the trailing spouse, are the same inequities encountered?


I don't know the answer to the general questions, but I can mention my experience relevant to the second question. In my case, the initial offer was to my husband, and I was hired as part of the deal. Longtime readers know the background, but, briefly: I was already a tenure-track professor at another university and we could have both stayed there with TT positions rather than going to the new university, so the only way the new university was going to get my husband was to hire me as a TT professor as well.

In that sense, I was a trailing spouse. Some colleagues were very happy that I had joined the department and in fact were more interested in my research field than my husband's; they treated me as a valued member of the department from the beginning. To others, I was less visible and was mostly just a useful person to have on committees because I was good at getting things done. To some, I was completely invisible despite the fact that my research was going well and I arrived with a CAREER award.

Inequity was built into our positions from the start. My husband was given more start-up and better lab space. I took a pay cut from my previous position, and I was given more service work than my husband, in part because some committees had to have a woman, and there weren't (and still aren't) many of us. I was appreciated, but not seen as a leader. I was never put in charge of anything important.

Things changed with time, so I can report, in answer to the second question, that inequities don't need to persist and magnify with time. A very key element to eliminating the problem for me was that I had a very supportive senior colleague.

Also important for me were some awards that I received that were of the sort that my faculty colleagues respected and that gave me some visibility. These were awards for which I was nominated, so it was again very important to have an effective mentor who was proactive about helping me. I never had an official mentor, but my kind senior colleague served this role better than any officially designated mentor. Is there anyone who can be your advocate in this way?

Have you talked to your chair about the situation? Is he/she someone who would be willing to look at the data (your teaching/service load relative to others at a similar career stage) and work out a constructive solution? If you've been a diligent department citizen, a sane administrator would not think you are whining but instead would see that there is a problem to be solved.

Perhaps I would have reached this point anyway -- the point at which the early trailing/inequity experiences seem very far away and almost absurd to remember -- without a mentor of sorts, but it's easier if you have some help.

Also, as your career progresses and you get tenure and younger faculty are hired, they will not think of you as "trailing", and may not even know this history, so what is foremost in the minds of some older colleagues will not even occur to your new colleagues. Eventually, if things work out, you will forget about it too, as I do unless I have reason to think back on days of yore. I hope that's how things go for you as well.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Division of Labor

In September 2008, I wrote a Labor-themed post (well, sort of) in honor of the US holiday, Labor Day. Last year I seem to have ignored Labor Day, so I figured that it was time to return to the relevant topic of Work, in today's case focusing on who can teach what when and why.

Some colleagues and I were recently chatting about who could teach which course in the place of particular faculty who will be on research leaves in the coming year or two. In less economically difficult times, an option is to hire a visiting instructor, thereby injecting some new energy into the department and giving a boost to an early-career scientist who wants the teaching experience. Being a visiting assistant professor was very important to my career in its early days, although there are pros and cons to such positions for the individual in question.

In times of austerity, existing faculty can cover for others. Many of us can teach a variety of courses and some of us like having this variety, as long as it is not excessive and doesn't involve teaching new courses too often (other than graduate seminars of course). As long as our teaching loads are only varying and not increasing in a particular year, adjusting the teaching assignments of existing faculty can be a good option for a department. This option doesn't necessarily work, however, for highly specialized classes.

Another option is to cancel the classes. My department wouldn't cancel a class that was essential to a degree program, but it might cancel an elective. That would be too bad for the students who really wanted to take these courses.

Yet another option is to have research scientists, postdocs, or senior grad students to teach some courses. My department has used this option in the past as well, and it has worked out well for all concerned.

My colleagues and I were mostly discussing this last option for a couple of specialized courses that are aimed at the advanced undergraduate to graduate level. Apparently a senior and highly qualified research scientist may teach one of them, and the name of another highly qualified research scientist was mentioned for a similar course in another topic.

In one case, the people with the most knowledge about these scientists said that they would both be excellent and diligent teachers and the students would certainly benefit from having these people as instructors, but the concern is that the research scientists would be unable to do anything else and their research would come to a screeching halt during the months they are teaching.

Well, in a way that would be understandable. Whenever I create and teach a new course, my research productivity definitely decreases. It does not go to zero, but that's partly because I've been doing this research-teaching-service balance thing for a long time and am pretty good at multi-tasking in general.

I wondered briefly if there might be an element of "We professors can balance teaching and research but you research scientists cannot" to the opinions of some of my colleagues. I decided, however, that, given that these colleagues have years-long close knowledge of the working habits of the research scientists, they probably do have a pretty good idea about work habits and multi-tasking abilities of the individuals in question.

So, if it is indeed true that their research efforts would go to nearly zero during the teaching term, would it be in the best interests of the research scientists to teach these courses? Would the benefits of a teaching experience offset the loss of research productivity for a few months, or would the harm of that loss be greater than the benefit?

Of course the answer varies with the individual, their career goals, the source(s) and stability of their funding, and the ability of the PI's research group to function without the research scientists performing their usual roles.

In general, though, if the choice is between canceling a class and asking a (willing) research scientist to teach, the latter is the better option. If the research scientist is paid by grants for which they are not a PI, they would have to work out an agreement with the PI about some level of activity involving essential research activities. If that is possible, the situation could work out for everyone: students, researchers, and PIs.