Monday, December 20, 2010

Answering the Mail

In an attempt to be less of a slacker at answering my FSP e-mails, today I am going to give quick replies to some that have been lingering in my mailbox for varying lengths of time. That way, I will feel more psychically prepared for 2011. My apologies to those who e-mailed me but did not get a reply, including in this post.

Because I am providing only brief responses here, feel free to leave a comment expressing interest in a future discussion involving a more detailed and thoughtful consideration of topics raised in the e-mails.

(Some of the questions below have been edited for length)

Question: What is your take on giving information about other grad schools one is applying to? Some schools make it mandatory, some make it optional. What is the purpose of that and does it work in the student's favor to list all other schools?

Answer: How can this possibly be mandatory? Perhaps I am showing my ignorance, but I was aware only that some graduate programs request information on the "competition", if applicants are willing to provide it. Others can comment based on greater knowledge of this practice, but I can't see how it would work for or against an applicant to list these (or not). Just because you apply to a place doesn't mean you will be accepted. I think many places just want to look for overall trends in the data of applicant pools, not track where any particular applicant has applied, but others should correct me if their program uses this information in a different way.


Question: Is having an open laptop during a talk disrespectful to a speaker and distracting to an audience, or are laptops a useful way of taking notes during the talk?

Answer: My personal opinion is that laptops or other electronic note-taking devices are acceptable during a talk. It can be distracting sitting next to someone who is type-type-typing throughout a talk, but if the typing is confined to jotting relevant notes or questions, I can deal with it. As a speaker, I assume that the open laptops are being used for a relevant purpose, although this assumption is clearly deeply flawed, as some people keep their eyes glued to their laptop screen throughout a talk, and occasionally laugh or smile at the screen at a time unrelated to anything in my talk that could be considered amusing (I think). That is rude.


Question (aggregate of a number of e-mails with different situations but similar themes): What do you do if you are a tenure-track professor and many of your colleagues, including your department chair, are jerks?

Answer: My advice, which is not that awesome or satisfying but is the best I can suggest for those in this difficult situation, is to do your work as best you can, don't let the jerks get to you or destroy your enjoyment of your job if at all possible, find as many non-jerk colleagues as you can (within or beyond your department and including administrators), protect your students from the jerks, build a strong record of teaching/research/service, and get tenure. Then you can decide what to do: leave or stay. If you stay, you can then decide whether to confront the jerks or just do your own thing, or take the long view and become a leader in your department so you can change things. Just don't become one of them.


Question: What do you do when a student writes to you, begging for a higher grade because [insert desperate reason]?

Answer: I can tell you what I do in these situations: I write back a short, sympathetic e-mail saying that I cannot and will not change the student's grade or give them an extra credit assignment. It is very sad when there is something important at stake for the student (e.g., a scholarship, financial aid, a chance to get into a desired program), but I try to forestall such unhappy events by giving students feedback throughout the course so that they know where they stand. I will help them if I can, before the final grade is determined, not after. The important thing is to be consistent and fair.

Question: I have been told that one should decline to write a letter of recommendation if that letter is going to be really negative, or at least tell the person requesting the letter that the letter will be negative, and give the person a chance to find someone else (or take their chances with your unflattering letter). Actually, I have two questions: (1) Should one decline to write a negative letter (might this not be important information?) or inform the applicant that your letter will be negative, and if so, (2) How negative is negative? What if my letter would have both positive and some negative things in it? How do I decide whether I am being unfair to the letter-requester if I don't tell them how negative my letter will be?

Answer: This is a complex question. For now I will just say that I think it's fine to write a 'balanced' letter (code for 'has some positive and negative things in it'). Ideally, the person requesting the letter has some idea about what you think of him/her, although I know that is really hard to determine because there are all sorts of complex issues and anxieties involved in that. Nevertheless, if you have provided critical input to someone (e.g., about their research abilities, writing skills, productivity), given them a not-so-good grade in a class, or otherwise given them an open assessment of their accomplishments and/or abilities, there is nothing sneaky about writing some critical comments in a reference letter. Those reading the letter will appreciate an honest and frank assessment, and, as long as your negative comments are written in a professional way and you believe the criticisms to be fair, you've done what you were asked to do.


Question: I am a graduate student and I have a 3-month old infant. I am doing fine, keeping up with my research, caring for my baby, and basically managing things as well as I can, although I feel that I am pretty much at the limit of what I can reasonably deal with. One of my office mates keeps complaining to me about how much work it is for him to care for his exotic reptile pet, which he fortunately keeps at home. Can I kill him?

Answer: I think you should seriously consider it and even make elaborate plans (in your head), but this might be something you want to put off until later, given that your plate is already full.


There are some other good topics for discussion in my inbox, and I hope to get to them.. next year.


Anonymous said...

Regarding the first question, I have heard of one instance where reporting this information did seem to have something of an effect.

One of my peers in graduate school mentioned that, during an interview, he asked if there were any weaknesses on his application, and the professor said that there was. He had only applied to schools of a single state (though all great institutions) and the professor mentioned that this could be seen as somehow not as good. The general logic was that, if he cared about science, blah blah blah, he would go wherever it was best. It was trivial, however, and he got in just fine, but it was curious that they actually noticed that about his application.

Anonymous said...

My understanding is that a letter with absolutely no "negative" content will be interpreted as fluff. Here, I construe "negative" very broadly to mean "frank", as in, "This person is as talented as X, who won a MacArthur grant, but not as talented as Y, who won a Nobel prize."

a physicist said...

One question asked about listing other grad schools you're applying to on your application.

Our school specializes in certain physics topics. If you claim that you are applying to other schools that also focus on those topics, that's a plus: it shows you're serious about your interest in those topics. If instead you list a bunch of apparently randomly chosen schools and we don't see how our school fits into that pattern, then we wonder if you'd really be a good fit with us.

Of course, this is a minor detail, hopefully your personal statement makes all of that much clearer (how well you'd fit with our school). If you didn't list any other schools that you're applying to, that would be fine, we'd just focus on your personal statement. So there's no harm in not answering the question (on our application).

As I've said before in comments on this blog, we know you're applying to other schools, that's OK with us. We just want to know that you'll at least consider us if we make you an offer.

Sharon said...

For the first question:
These are the things that we end up discussing with those lists of other programs applied to (in a social science program):
1. Do we look like their safety/back up school? We are a top ranked program in our field, but there is a related field that is harder to get into, so if all the other programs are the other field, that's a red flag.
2. Do they have any focus? If they are applying to programs in 4 different fields, they probably aren't sure what they want.
3. Did they only apply here, or only apply to schools nearby? This makes us think they picked us for geographic, not content, reasons.
4. If they put nothing -- what are they trying to hide?

It's not totally a deciding factor, but we do use this information to some degree.

Anonymous said...

In terms of listing other schools -- I don't know what it's like for regular graduate school applications, but when applying for MD/PhD programs, one school told the premed office at my university that they did not think it was worth accepting me because they were clearly my safety school and odds were good I would not attend if accepted anyway. So bear in mind that some universities/programs may use those statistics to artificially increase their yield rates when deciding whether or not to list other programs applied to.

Female Science Professor said...

OK, I stand corrected on question #1. Even so, this information is not something my program looks at or considers in any way when making admissions decisions. We are interested where applicants decide to go if they turn down our offer.

Anonymous said...

My questions for 2011 as a newly tenured prof: Where do jerks come from? Are they born (but manage to hide it until tenure) or are they made (after enduring six years of abuse from jerk senior faculty)? What are the warning signs that you are become a jerk? Is excessive eye-rolling one of them? And what can you do about it?

MathTT said...

Follow up question to the one about "jerks":

My situation is somewhat different. I like my department quite a lot. But we're in a bit of an exotic locale... one where my husband & I are not sure we want to settle permanently. I had planned to proceed as you suggest: build a solid record, go up for tenure. Then, if they say no, no worries. If they say yes, have the serious "do we really want to stay here" conversation.

But all the advice I've been given is that it is much (MUCH) easier to go on the market pre-tenure rather than post, that departments do not want to hire with tenure and will basically toss my application.

So, I'm confused by your advice to get tenure and then decide if you want to stay. That had been my plan, but all more senior people tell me I'm a fool for thinking I'll be able to leave at that point unless I'm a serious superstar.

Female Science Professor said...

Of course you can apply for other jobs at any time, tenured or not. My advice was about dealing with the situation at hand. For me, it has not been the case that tenure is an impediment to moving to another university.

Female Social Science Student said...

For professors in departments that look at schools, if a school looks like it is a back up for a student, do you at least interview (phone/in-person/email) the person?

I'm currently applying to graduate schools and have one school that clearly looks like a 'safety' on my list. My current MS advisor considers it as such and I have had people ask why in the world I would apply there given all the other great programs I am applying to. The answer is that there is a professor there doing really cool research. Prior to moving to this less-well known place, he has successful mentored a couple of current academics. I don't consider working with him a back-up and if I get in there and at a higher-ranked school it will be a tough choice. (Especially if the other potential advisor does not have any students who have 'made it' in academia - both being serious job prospect risks.) Personally, I think I have managed to convey my specific interest in his work on my application so I'm not worried about being pigeon-holed as someone who isn't going to consider this school should I get an offer but I'm wondering if professors who use the other schools question check out if the school really is a safety or whether the student is enthused regardless of rankings.

Anonymous said...

I'd love to see more discussion about negative letters addressed in more detail in a future blog topic. And by this, I mean REALLY negative letters, not normal criticism. If you really do not think highly of someone, or think they are not qualified for the position(s) to which they are applying, then what are your options for handling this? My first inclination would be to decline to write a letter. But as the author suggested, isn't your information important? I have seen poorly qualified, and even unqualified people, win prestigious awards and positions. Obviously, I did not provide letters for them, and a few people clearly had a very different impression of them. In one case, the person was a former postdoc of mine whose ineptitudes I know all too well. I doubt this person would have received the recognition had my opinion been solicited.

So the questions are: when and how should you say no? And when and how should you say yes, if you really will be writing a pretty negative letter?

Regarding grade grubbing: I rarely have this problem. The way to avoid it is to be clear about how the grade will be calculated and where the approximate grade cutoffs are, so they can see exactly how they're doing as the course progresses. The only requests I get are from people who are right on the edge and want me to round up. I just tell them that if I round for them, then I'll be asked by the new cusp denizens to round for them, and so forth. Someone has to be on the cusp. At least in science, we have it easier because our grade calculations are quantitative and less subjective.

Anonymous said...

Let's be honest about applying for positions post-tenure. The bar IS higher for getting into a peer institution. Obtaining a tenured line is far more difficult than obtaining an untenured line, so the department needs to justify it accordingly. I suppose FSP is a Nobel Prize candidate, but the rest of us chaff have to cope with the real world. Your best bet to move post-tenure is to go to a lower-ranked program. If you're in a small field (applying to small departments), lower-ranked programs may not have the resources or clout to request tenured lines. In fact, I know departments that award early tenure as a specific strategy to keep the faculty, knowing it's harder for them to move afterwards.

Alex said...

Regarding info on other schools you're applying to, I always assumed that things were as FSP describes, that they're mostly interested in the competition. Hearing that departments see if you're "serious" enough to leave the state, or whether you're as serious about a subfield as you claim to be are, well, dismaying.

It goes back to what we discussed last week, where people evaluate potential speakers on whether they'll get academic jobs: Science is not a cult to which we swear a life-long blood oath. And sub-fields certainly aren't cults to which we sign blood oaths. If somebody only applies to schools in one state, so be it. If they are good enough for your department, well, great for them and great for your department. If they aren't good enough for your department and so they don't get into a school in their desired state, that is their problem, not yours. Either way, why should an admissions committee care if they applied out of state? (Unless maybe we're talking about a science that requires extensive field work in other locales.)

And so what if they apply to schools stronger in other subfields? It's OK for a 22 year-old to have multiple interests and be open to multiple areas of inquiry. What's important is that once they pick a school and pick an advisor they stick with what they're doing for the next several years, so they can accomplish something with it. But being open to a variety of possibilities before making that choice is perfectly fine.

I generally consider myself a pretty focused and unbalanced person, and I generally enjoy it. I am usually willing to argue that success in science will, at some point in one's path, require a bit of sacrifice and maybe even some monomania. But nitpicky over-analyzing of people to divine their true motives strikes me as ridiculous. If somebody wants to try approaching it differently than I would, well, let them try.

GMP said...

I don't think my university per se solicits information on where else the candidates have applied and it's not a criterion for admission, but when it comes to the much desired financial aid it becomes an issue. Simply, if you have only a few fellowships to give, you want to give them to the best people who look like they will come here because enrollment is a time-sensitive game: you offer it to someone excellent who waits to weigh all their options and then declines, then you have likely also lost the next best candidate since you waited too long to offer them the fellowship. I don't think anyone is denied admission based on interests and other applications, but there is definitely an aspect of weighing if the candidate is likely to get into a better school when deciding who gets fellowships or other types of deparatment-backed financial support. I don't think this approach is uncommon.

a physicist said...

Subfields -- yes, we know our applicants are 22 years old (typically) and have no real clue what they want to do. I'm fine if they show up and change their minds. But we've admitted some students who didn't really know what they wanted to do, and when they arrived they were unhappy, didn't click with any research advisors, and ultimately left. We have had very few successful students who weren't "targeted", and those who were successful often struggled to find something they found interesting to do for their PhD (despite being good students academically). They were generally not happy their first few years.

I'm fine with people who don't know what they want to do: but they should apply to bigger schools that have broad programs with faculty doing a large variety of things. Those are great places to figure out what you want to do. I went to a school like that for my PhD and loved it. The school I'm teaching at now is simply not that sort of place.

So it's not that we're trying to be picky; but based on our past experience, we don't think students will be happy and successful at our school if they don't already want to do what we're doing. Also, we think such students are less likely to accept our offers of admission, and being a small program we're limited (by our school) on how many offers we can make.

@Alex's specific point that a student may have more than one interest: that is plausible and we judge such cases by personal statements. To be very clear: if a student indicates they're applying to a random mix of schools, but writes a clear personal statement explaining why they are interested in our school, then the personal statement trumps the school list. The list of schools raises a question, the personal statement answers it, and then we're happy to admit that student.

Anonymous said...

1. R.E. programs asking where else you've applied: I agree with FSP - how can this be mandatory (except in med school apps, of course)? If you MUST list something, and you're worried about it, maybe just list the places you're applying that are most similar to this place. Or write a short sentence about why this program is a good fit for your interests (elaborated on this for your personal statement). As admissions chair for our program, we don't ask this question, but I'll admit that I do look at the GRE scores that are sent to see where else the student has sent their GRE scores. This information has no bearing on 99.9% of our admissions decisions, but we did have one candidate who applied to our program (a bioscience PhD program) and a bunch of other random programs (a graduate school of theology, for example). This made me wonder whether this person had any idea of what they wanted to do with their life.

2. R.E. the person stuck working with jerks, like MathTT, I ended up at an institution where I really liked my colleagues, but I wasn't sure I wanted to live in the city long-term. I did as FSP suggested, working hard to establish my lab and get some good publications and funding. Then, a few years in, my "dream" position was advertised - in a city I was interested in, a department with great colleagues, etc. So I made the move. I'd say just keep your eyes out for something that could be a perfect fit. If you're working with jerks, you don't have to stick around forever. Put yourself in a position to be competitive either pre- or post-tenure and find a better situation. Or, make friends with the jerks and make yourself a better situation! I've found that my most difficult colleagues to work with are the ones I learn the most from.

Anonymous said...

We don't ask applicants where else they applied---it would make no difference to our process if we did.

We do ask those who turn down our offers where they are going instead and why. In some cases, they have chosen a program because of a better academic fit, sometimes because of better financial packages, but most often for personal reasons (significant other, family, ...).

We used to have extremely high yield, and we are still the best program in many ways, but the competition for good grad students in our field has gotten fierce in the past few years, and we have started losing some of our top students to better funded programs.

Anonymous said...

Getting tenure does not decrease your job prospects elsewhere, nor does being pretenure. Having tried for tenure and failed to get it, does significantly reduce your chance of being hired elsewhere.

If you think you will get tenure at your current institution in the next 2 years, it is probably worth staying to get the tenure. If you think you will probably fail to get tenure, then it is better to move to a place where tenure is more likely.

Bagelsan said...

I'm curious about the geographic component of picking a grad school... is having an area in mind a negative? I, personally, wound up applying only to coastal schools (mainly the W. coast) -- would that be a red flag for anything, or is that kind of a broad enough region to look legit? :p

Anonymous said...

At my institution, a large state school with very little support from the state, tenured positions are few. I can think of a recent instance where a senior faculty person with a tenured position at a well-known private university was recruited to our dept and did not receive tenure here.
Tenure at one university does not necessarily translate into tenure somewhere else.

Materialist said...

For question 5 - ProfHacker just posted a roundup of recommendation letter writing advice

Anonymous said...

Here's a REAL email from a REAL student explaining why I needed to raise her grade. BTW I never told students in this course I would raise grades for effort

"I can confidently say that I have improved enormously this semester. I have worked extremely hard and never given up, even when giving up after the 3rd Exam seemed the only option. My love and interest for science was what kept me from falling off the band wagon. I remember you saying in class once, that hard work will never go unnoticed by you. Please, I have proven to you that I was fully committed to the class by always being in lecture, asking questions during your office hours, going to the tutoring centers on a daily bases, and my steadfast interest to improve as a student. I understand your policy about rounding but please I beg you to reconsider in my situation. Even though my understanding and hard work was not reflective on the exams, Please, give me the opportunity to realize that all of my hard work did not go unnoticed by you."

Isabel said...

I'm glad to see ProfHacker's summary agrees with my contention that recommendation letters should be positive (that it is their whole point), or the student should be given fair warning so they can find another recommender. I am amazed that people actually write negative letters. They are letters of recommendation. If someone can get influential people to write good ones that should say something - they certainly shouldn't be lies, or fluff.

But they are not work references either. If you are contacted later with specific questions you should answer the questions truthfully. But writing about the persons failings in a letter of recommendation? A lukewarm letter if the person persists after you've warned them maybe, but I just cannot imagine writing something even mildly negative. I'd be curious to see an example if anyone cares to share.