Monday, February 28, 2011

Attrition Rate

In addition to publicizing the post-graduation employment data of a department's or research group's graduate students, should the attrition data -- the % who start but do not finish a degree -- also be made available to those interested in seeing such data? (Instead of calling it attrition rate, perhaps we should call it graduation rate, to put a more positive spin on it.)

I mentioned last week that graduates of my research group have been successful obtaining PhD-relevant employment, but of course there is something missing from those data: the students who left without getting a degree. I can see how someone might want to know what the ratio of completed to never-completed degrees is for a particular advisor, research group, or department.

But what would such data indicate? Would these data indicate anything useful for those seeking to make an informed choice about graduate programs or a particular advisor?

These data might indicate something about the level and duration of financial support available. A high attrition rate could be a signal of low level of financial support for students, but such data could probably be obtained more directly by looking at student funding levels and duration.

So let's assume that a department/advisor is fortunate to have sufficient resources to support students for the duration of a typical graduate research program. Would comparison of graduation rates (among advisors, departments, or universities) give a sense for some other essential aspect of the graduate programs, such as quality of advising?

Maybe, but the data would really only be useful if we had a good baseline estimate of the "background" attrition rate for graduate students. Students may leave a particular graduate school for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the program. For example, some students realize they are interested in something else and move to another department/institution, some move when their significant other has to move elsewhere, and some decide to take a job outside academia before finishing their degree (for a wide variety of reasons).

Presumably, if graduation data were known for a large number of advisors, programs, or departments, a pattern would emerge so that outliers (very high or very low rates) could be detected. Such data are unlikely to be available anytime soon, however, and not necessarily because an institution or individual advisor is ashamed of such data; in fact, some might be proud of having high attrition rates.

I have no idea what this rate is for my department as a whole, and even if I knew how many students left without a degree, I wouldn't know the reasons for most of the departures. And even if I had such information, I wouldn't have any other data for comparison.

Perhaps we can make a small dent in that last issue. Some questions:
  • Does anyone know what the average graduation rate is in their department, research group, or other relevant unit? (let's keep it positive and use graduation rate instead of attrition rate)
  • Is anyone willing to share their personal graduation rate of advisees? (my research group's is ~90%*)
  • Are there graduation rate trends for particular advisors: e.g. a high rate in the early-career years and a lower rate later on?
My own answer to the last question is yes. Early in my career (particularly at University 1), I had a lower graduation rate* than I have had at University 2, but the reasons why students have left without a degree have been extremely varied*, so it's difficult to interpret this trend.

* Note that 'attrition' includes students who left for personal reasons (e.g., a significant other's career move) and then got a PhD elsewhere and then obtained a tenure-track faculty position, so not all 'drop-outs' actually drop out of Science or academia. Also, it is important to note that those who leave Science/academia are not failures**. Many go on to have interesting careers in industry, business, government, or K-12 education.

** OK, a few of them are, but only a few.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Old & Scary

Every so often, when my husband's hair is at a certain length that makes him look like a mad scientist, he gets it cut. He refuses to let me cut it, despite repeated offers -- perhaps because I have no skills or experience with cutting hair -- so he seeks the services of a professional hair-cutter. He typically just stops in at a cheap hair-cutting place near campus.

Recently, he had this conversation with the person cutting his hair:

HC (hair-cutter): Do you want me to trim your eyebrows as well?

Spouse: No.

HC: It will take 10 years off! You'd be surprised!

Spouse: No, I like my eyebrows old and scary.

HC: Oh, you must be a professor.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Review Well or Die

In the course of some recent discussions about Journal Editing, the question arose as to whether someone's reviewing skills should be a factor in tenure and promotion decisions. In particular, should a tenure-track professor's failure to be a good (reviewing) citizen of their academic discipline be a major, minor, or no factor in a tenure decision?

Some commenters said that it should be a major factor, but I think that some of these arguments are based on the assumption that a lousy reviewer will also be a substandard researcher and a bad advisor, in which case, their failure as a reviewer is the least of their problems.

Being a good reviewer is important. Our current system of peer review depends on there being many reviewers willing to spend the time to provide thorough, thoughtful, critical reviews, and to return these reviews in a reasonably timely way. I am not, however, convinced that someone who is a bad and/or disorganized reviewer (turning in reviews late, if at all, for example) is also likely to be a lousy researcher or teacher or advisor. In fact, as an editor, I have had many experiences to the contrary with delinquent reviewers who do outstanding research and who are excellent mentors to their graduate and undergraduate students and postdocs. Some are also excellent teachers, although I don't have this information about most reviewers.

Different institutions have different ratios of expected research : teaching : service by faculty. At my university, reviewing manuscripts and proposals is "service". Service is by far the smallest of the three components, and reviewing is just one part of "service". Perhaps being an excellent (or, at least, not terrible) reviewer is more important at other types of institutions.

Typically, faculty and committees reviewing the files of tenure and promotion candidates at a research institution have a list of journals and funding agencies for which the candidate did reviews, but no indication of the quality of the reviewing efforts. I suppose quality issues could come up in an external letter, but I can't recall having seen any examples of that.

Therefore, at institutions like mine, the quality of someone's work as a reviewer is a non-issue in tenure and promotion decisions unless it is symptomatic of their approach to research and advising, in which case the fact that they are a lousy reviewer is swamped by their deficiencies in these other aspects.

Let's assume that we somehow know whether a tenure candidate is a good or bad reviewer. Should it be a factor in employment decisions? I say no: if an individual excels at research and teaching but is a lousy reviewer, I think they should get tenure and/or be promoted based on the fact that they are doing well at the most important aspects of their job.

Being a reviewer shows a commitment to professional service and is also an indication of how well respected and visible someone is in their field. Visibility and respect are important at all career stages, but can be particularly important in promotion to professor at a research university. Even so, there are other indicators of this.

But let's say we still want to know if someone is a good or bad reviewer. One possible indirect indicator of reviewer quality might be the number of reviews someone is asked to do. Those who are lousy reviewers may not get asked to do m/any reviews, and this fact may show up in the numbers, although there are other explanations for minimal reviewing activity.

Can reviewing activity over time be an indicator? Not necessarily. For example, if someone's CV shows that they used to do a lot of reviews and now do not, there are several possible explanations:

- They did such bad or late reviews, or never returned promised reviews, that editors stopped inviting them.

- The topics in which they are most expert used to be well represented in the literature, but now are not.

- Their field of research got more crowded with time, so there is a larger pool of possible reviewers.

- They got too busy with other things and stopped accepting most requests to review.

It may be impossible to tell which of these, if any, is the relevant explanation, so I would hesitate to make inferences from a CV or other document that records a decrease in reviewing activity over time.

Bad reviewers and review-shirkers are annoying, especially since they rely on the reviewing work of others to get their own papers published, but I don't think there should be any major overt punishment of bad reviewers. Although it may seem that review-shirkers are getting away with something, they are losing the opportunity to play a role in the peer review process, to be a constructive influence in their field, and to be respected by editors and others for their reviewing wisdom and efforts. That's their loss, and an appropriate consequence for being a bad reviewer.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Job Info

Another aspect of a recent Careers Discussion with my research group involved talking about the elements of a Professorial Trading Card from PhD comics. The "trading card" was very useful for illustrating important topics that most of us somehow learn at some point, typically on a need-to-know basis at different stages of an academic career.

I thought it would be good to discuss these issues head-on with the group, even though the card is focused on statistics mostly relevant to a research-focused career at a university. For those not interested in this career path, the "trading card" can at least help demystify some of the aspects of the professional lives of grad advisors. The card shows:

Prof. X (photo of bearded guy, but you can download a template and put in your own photo)

professorial rank

team: "His own." (the only part of the professorial trading card I didn't like, maybe because I am in a field that is highly collaborative)

T (= tenured)

Academic stats:

Research buck$ in: Grad students, do you have any idea how much grant $ your advisor has? Do you want to know? If you do and you don't want to ask, you can look it up on many major funding agency websites.

Papers written: Although of course quality is more important than quantity blah blah blah, we do count these. Many (most?) academics can tell you exactly how many papers they have published. If you want to know someone else's paper count, this is easy to find via Web of Science, Google Scholar etc., keeping in mind that the total is not typically exactly correct.

h-index: This glorious concept was news to some in my research group, but now they all know what it is. Important?!

PhD students graduated: Our group maintains a director of alumni/ae, so this information is accessible.

PhD students dropped out: This information is not accessible in any systematic way, but I suppose a grad student could ask around and at least get a sense for whether the "drop out" rate was high for a particular advisor or research group.

Awards: Who cares? Professors and administrators do!

Invited lectures: a measure of the level of interest of a professor's research and/or the level of interest of a professor in traveling around and giving talks when invited.

Then there are some miscellaneous statistics on the "trading card", mostly to maintain the analogy with a baseball trading card: doubles = two papers on same topic; triples = three papers using the same dataset; stolen postdocs (?).

Despite some odd aspects of the Professorial Trading Card, I found it a useful focus for discussing some key issues of academic jobs, at least at a big research university: the focus on grants, papers, citation index, PhD students graduated, and so on. These seem obvious to those of us who have been living in this world for a long time, but it can be interesting and useful (and perhaps alarming) to discuss them with students and postdocs.

Although the trading card lists many key aspects of the professorial job at a university, is there anything important missing from the trading card? How about:

Number of postdocs?
Number of grants (not just the $ amount)?
Number of graduate students and postdocs employed in PhD-relevant jobs?
Number of courses taught? (at different levels?)

What else?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Why We Are Awesome

Today in Scientopia, I attempt to answer a question posed in the comments yesterday: Why are graduates of my research group so successful at getting PhD-relevant jobs, including tenure-track faculty positions?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Job Data

The actual, real-life purpose of The Grad School Experience image that I posted on Friday was an attempt-at-humor introduction to a discussion with my research group.

As part of this discussion about academia, careers, life etc., I presented some histograms that showed how many graduates from our research group were doing different types of jobs after obtaining a PhD or (graphed separately) MS. The categories for PhD graduates were Academia, Industry/Business, and Government; those 3 categories accounted for all PhD graduate students from this research group from the past 20 years. I then compared these data with those reported for PhDs in our general field of science, compiled from the NSF survey that tracks the careers of doctoral recipients.

The database for my research group represents the advisees of 4 faculty members in related fields from 1990 to 2010, and therefore consists of quite a few individuals. These data are not secret. My research group maintains an active, easily accessible directory of current and former graduate students and postdocs, including a listing of current employment. I don't think anyone had recently compiled it, though, so it was interesting to see and discuss the graphs.

There has been a lot of talk in the media/blogosphere about how graduate programs should show the current employment data of their alumni/ae so that prospective (and current) students will have a better idea of their chances for PhD-relevant employment, especially for academic jobs. The general idea has been that these statistics are grim, and therefore some potential grad students may be convinced to pursue a different education and/or career path.

But what if the data for a particular program show that 98% of graduates who wanted an academic job, no matter whether the PhD was obtained in 1990, 1999, or 2009, got an academic job? The danger there, of course, is that you will appear to be promising something that you (as an advisor or as a department) can't promise: that if a PhD graduate of that group wants an academic job, they will definitely get one.

Nevertheless, these data are real, the dataset includes a large number of individuals, and the results show that our graduates have been successful at obtaining academic jobs if they wanted that type of job. Perhaps owing to the nature of this particular research subfield, the % of graduates in academia is higher than the average for our general field of science. I have not yet broken out the data into finer-grained categories -- e.g., how many graduates from our group are at different types of academic institutions -- but that would be interesting to do as well.

It was also interesting to see that all of our former PhD students who are in non-academic employment sectors have careers that are relevant to their PhD training.

I think the data were useful to show, at least as a launching point for more in-depth discussions of career paths (academic or not) that have been taken by graduates of our research group. And I would go even further and say that these data were important to show because they indicate that getting a PhD in our research group/department/institution is worthwhile and is likely to lead to interesting and PhD-relevant career opportunities.

It is quite possible that not everyone will agree with me on that, so my question to readers is: Do you think that employment data such as these:

- should be shown whether or not they paint a grim or rosy picture of PhD-relevant employment opportunities: individuals can make their own interpretation and choices;

- should be shown if they indicate a slim chance of graduate degree-related employment, but not shown if they seem to give reason for optimism about employment (because that might be misleading and give false hopes and make the few who don't get their preferred job feel even worse?);

- should not be shown at all. Students and postdocs are responsible for educating themselves about career opportunities and/or it is irrelevant what other graduates of the same program have done in the past;

- other?

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Graduate School Experience

As an introductory image to show my research group as part of a general discussion about grad school, careers etc., I decided to see if I could graphically depict the essence of The Graduate School Experience using only the standard menu of clip art and shapes available with PowerPoint presentation software. I found that I could get pretty far with the available images, although, for the final product, I added one non-ppt image, and in the version I showed my group (but not shown here), I added some images specific to my field/research group. Nevertheless, here is a PowerPoint Clip Art vision of The Graduate School Experience:

Thursday, February 17, 2011


There has been much blogospheric discussion, here and elsewhere, of (good) ways in which "career interruptions" can be mentioned in grant proposals, so that no one is penalized for a temporary decrease/halt in productivity owing to certain important life experiences (babies, illness, elder-care etc.).

My personal favorite way in which information about Personal Interruptions is requested is in the instructions for writing Australian Research Council grant proposals:

F14.1. Provide and explain:

(iv) Any career interruptions you have had for childbirth, carer’s responsibility, misadventure, or
debilitating illness;

It's great that this is included in the proposal instructions, and I don't mean to make light of an important issue that has only recently been adopted by large federal funding agencies in certain countries, but I must admit that the request for an explanation of any "misadventure" is rather intriguing.

In fact, I don't think I can wait until December for my usual (northern hemisphere) winter break FSP contest on some (strange) text/document related to academic life. So here is the challenge:

Provide and explain any career interruptions that you have had for misadventure, real or (better) imaginary. Your explanation cannot exceed 475 characters (with spaces). For example:

I was unable to submit any articles for publication between 23 August 2007 and 13 November 2008 because I was kidnapped by pirates and, although I was not otherwise mistreated, I was not allowed access to the Internet. I did, however, scratch out some manuscript drafts on spare pieces of sailcloth using a gull feather and an ink mixture that I made from mussel shells soaked in beer, so as soon as I was released and had Internet access, I was able to resume publishing.


Immediately upon receiving tenure in 2005, I was beamed aboard a spaceship on a secret mission I cannot reveal here. At first I was unable to communicate with the life-forms piloting the craft, but over the years I learned their language, customs, and the songs they like to sing on long journeys. Eventually they returned me to my office, and I have subsequently resumed my academic career, no worse for wear but with an unfortunate gap in my CV.

Now it's your turn to describe your career-interrupting misadventures.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


Not so long ago, I co-organized a Science Workshop on a particular topic. At some point after the workshop, I saw - by chance - a link to a webpage that seemed like it was closely related to the workshop topic. In fact, the link was to a blog post by one of the workshop participants who had blogged the workshop. He had described the workshop activities in great detail, and had uploaded photographs of the workshop in progress, including at least one photograph of me (identified by name in the caption). I had no idea he had done any of this.

Fortunately the blogger had enjoyed the workshop and found it worthwhile, so the blog post was positive and was mostly a blow-by-blow account of the workshop activities. In fact, it was kind of boring (unlike the workshop itself).

Nevertheless -- and this might be hypocritical -- it was strange reading a blog post that was at least in part about me. I blog about academic incidents and people all the time, including anecdotes about people I meet at conferences, but the difference is that I don't name names -- or include photographs of actual people.

I had no idea anyone was blogging the workshop, although I know that syn- and post-conference blogging is a common phenomenon now for meetings of all sorts and sizes. Should we all just expect that we might be the topic of a blog post or a tweet or whatever mode our fellow conferees might be using to describe their experiences to the rest of the world? And at any time, should we expect that someone might take a photograph of me or you or our students or postdocs and post it, captioned with names, on the internet?

I was a little weirded out by it at first, but -- perhaps because the blog post was unexceptional and positive -- I found that I didn't really mind. I think it would have been nice if the blogger had asked if he could post a photograph of me, and it would have been even nicer if it were a better photograph. But he certainly didn't need my permission to write about the workshop; this was not the type of workshop or meeting at which such things are specifically prohibited.

Is everyone OK with being blogged about in a professional context like this? With having a photograph taken without your knowledge, labeled with your name, and posted without your knowledge? With having the content of what you thought was an informal conversation described (accurately) in a blog post and attributed to you, without your knowledge? Or does anyone think there should be Rules about this?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Editorial Soul Searching

A post last week dealt with a topic related to my work as an editor of a journal. Some commenters raised issues about editors and reviewers, and I decided to discuss at least one more editor-related topic this week.

But first, here are some links to previous posts about editors and reviewers:

Musings on the topic of rejecting manuscripts without review (2009, 2010 posts)

What do I look for in a review? (a post for those lacking confidence in their reviews)

What do editors do? (an introduction to different types of editorial work for journals, and musing about the role of editors in the peer review and publication process)

If you click on the "editor" tag in the frame to the right (you have to scroll down a bit), you can find other assorted editor-related posts, some of them stranger than others.

Now on to the new topics:

From the comments in last week's editor-themed post:

When I review papers for journals where I usually publish, I always wonder if the fact that I'm a good reviewer (on time and constructive) helps me with the editors whenever I make my own submissions. I am not implying I am expecting a freebie, but I always wonder if editors are more patient with authors that are good reviewers for the journal and less patient with people like the one you described in your comment.

In the comments last week, I described more specifically a case involving a delinquent reviewer who strung me along with promises for turning in his review, and then never did the review. In the situation involving the delinquent reviewer (with whom I communicated mostly by e-mail but also by phone, at least until he stopped communicating with me), I was (and am) so annoyed by this person's behavior that I would not be able to be objective about any manuscript he submitted to the journal; someone else would have to deal with his manuscripts. This does not place him at any disadvantage relative to any other author; his work would be evaluated on its own merits by other qualified editors. Even if he is a jerk (says me), he and his co-authors (some of whom are likely to be students) have a right to a fair evaluation of their work.

Do constructive and punctual reviewers have any advantage? Sort of, but maybe not directly. I do try to provide speedy and useful editorial assistance with the submitted manuscripts of hard-working reviewers, but there is of course no preference in terms of the decision about publication. However, even if conscientious reviewers don't derive any obvious direct benefit from being diligent, I think that there is some cosmic credit and long-term benefit from being respected for their work and professionalism. Many journals are edited by people who write a lot of external letters from tenure and promotion and who organize sessions at conferences (and therefore make decisions about invited speakers and so on). You can't build a career on being a diligent reviewer, but it is a good thing overall be considered a respected colleague who provides insightful comments in reviews.

Other examples of possible long-term consequences:

I can think of at least one person whose annoying behavior as a reviewer has meant that I have been unreceptive when he has expressed interest in working with me on various projects. If I think someone is uncommunicative and unprofessional in their work as reviewer, why would I want to work with them in any other capacity?

Furthermore, the delinquent reviewer described in the anecdote mentioned above (and in more details in the comments in last week's post) is an assistant professor. If asked to write an external letter for his tenure and promotion, I could probably set aside my annoyance with him and focus on his research record, but I hope I am not asked to do so. No one should be denied tenure (or receive tenure) because they are a bad (or excellent) reviewer, but it one small but important aspect of professional service.

Question for my readers, especially those who have served in some editorial capacity: Do you let your opinion of someone as a reviewer affect your interactions (direct or indirect) and opinions of them as a researcher?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Dropping the h-Bomb

Perhaps it was inevitable. Throughout our daughter's childhood, the teenage years loomed ever larger. We heard the stories, we knew what might happen. And then we got there and.. it was fine. In fact, everything has been great. Until a few days ago.

A few nights ago, during dinner, our daughter wanted to know the h-index of each of her parents.

What to do? She has asked us some difficult questions in the past, like when she wondered which parent is more famous (short answer: neither), but this question was somehow more.. personal.

We told her. My husband's h-index is higher than mine.

Will this affect how she views us? Should we have told her?

Is revealing our h-index a gateway to future nerdy questions? Will she now wonder how much grant money we each bring in? Will she start begging for chemical safety training, and then demand the keys to the lab?

I guess we will just have to keep doing what we've been doing: wing it. Despite a shocking lack of preparation for being parents in the first place, we will try to navigate the eddies and shoals of the teen years. Perhaps it is even time for us to start talking to our daughter about the importance of having an updated CV, but I'm not sure I'm ready to have that conversation yet.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Wearing Two Hats: Editor & Reviewer

A few times since I have been a journal editor or guest editor, authors of rejected manuscripts have written angry e-mails railing against the injustice of the negative decision by me or by one of my fellow editors. I have written about various aspects of this before, but today I was thinking about one of the reasons that some rejected authors focus on as evidence that their article was misjudged/mishandled: the editor also acted as a reviewer.

In most cases, this particular reason should not be a cause for anger. In fact, in some cases, you may be lucky that an editor also acted as a reviewer.

Common reasons why an editor would also act as reviewer are: (1) it was impossible to get enough reviewers to commit to a review owing to (a) random bad luck/timing, (b) the topic of the paper was so highly specialized that the reviewer pool was small; or (2) one or more agreed reviewers didn't return a review and an editor decided not to hold the review process up any longer. In the case of having an insufficient number of reviews, an editor can make a decision based on the review(s) in hand, but can also decide to act as an additional reviewer.

How does this work? What are the implications of having a review by someone who acts as reviewer and editor?

I can only speak about my own experiences, but from what I've seen and done, this means that the editor provides more detailed and substantive comments on the article, rather than mostly providing context and guidance based on the reviews provided by others. Of course, some editors routinely act as a reviewer in this way as well, no matter how many reviews were received.

When my editor-colleagues and I act as reviewers in addition to our editorial roles, we inform the author that we are doing this and sign the review that is ours. It would make no sense to provide an anonymous review and then agree with it as editor. We also inform the author as to the reason for our "reviewing" the manuscript -- again, this is typically because we couldn't get a sufficient number of reviews in a reasonable amount of time.

Understandably, some authors may blame an editor for a rejection, so the fact that the editor was reviewer and ultimate decider makes it seem like the deck was stacked. In fact, from what I've seen in journals with which I have been associated, manuscripts that are reviewed by editors are not rejected at a higher rate than those in which there are multiple reviews by non-editors.

I doubt if editors act as reviewers to make sure that a particular paper is rejected. If an editor wanted to sink a paper, there are much more efficient ways to do this than to spend the extra time required to expand editorial comments into a review.

Speaking again from my own experience, editor-reviewers are likely to provide useful reviews because we know what constitutes a constructive review. And if you don't get a detailed, substantive review from an editor/reviewer, the manuscript probably didn't have much of a chance to be accepted anyway.

The most recent incident involving an angry almost-author was not directed at me, but at one of my hardest-working, most diligent, and most thorough fellow editors. If this particular editor takes the time to act as a reviewer and editor, the author is actually lucky to get the extra attention. The author is assured of a fair and thoughtful review from this editor.

The fact that it didn't turn out well for the author in this case is unfortunate, but I would advise authors to wait a little while and calm down before firing off a rude e-mail accusing an editor of incompetence because s/he was unable to find enough reviewers for a manuscript. It would be better to consider carefully other possible reasons for the rejection of the manuscript (and difficulty in finding reviewers) before focusing on the dual editor/reviewer role as the favored explanation for the rejection.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Orders of Magnitude

Thanks to all who sent me links to the recent PNAS article by Ceci & Williams on "Understanding current causes of women's underrepresentation in science". I had read reports of the results, and now have read the article itself.

The authors of the article focused on some of the most commonly cited reasons for the underrepresentation of women in "math-intensive fields of science": discrimination in reviewing of proposals and manuscripts; being selected for interviews in faculty positions; and in hiring. They propose that current data do not support these as primary causes for the underrepresentation of women today.

Their main conclusion is that "differential gendered outcomes in the real world result from differences in resources attributable to choices, whether free or constrained", and that underrepresentation would be best alleviated through changes that take into account "differing biological realities of the sexes."

I think they make some important points with their study, and I believe that the current situation for women being evaluated for jobs, grants, and publications is better than it has ever been. However, I continue to see and hear examples of discrimination in reviews and hiring committees -- faculty who doubt that women have their own ideas (but have no trouble believing this about male candidates), or who don't like "aggressive" women (but think this is a fine trait in a man), are alive and well. These issues are not as obvious and widespread as in the past, but neither are they isolated, rare incidents that can safely be ignored as irrelevant to current practices.

I was surprised that the study focused so much on databases related to the life sciences, a realm of science in which, as the authors note, women now make up the majority of PhD recipients. I realize that some biological sciences are quite "math-intensive", but the authors seem to use this term to refer specifically to the non-biological sciences. It would therefore make sense to base conclusions primarily on studies other than those involving the life sciences.

(A quibble: In the sentence about how the number of PhDs awarded to women in the life sciences has increased, 13% is described as "orders of magnitude less" than 52%. It is not.)

In the section on Discrimination Against Women in Journal Reviewing, the authors rely in part on a study of acceptance rates for the journals Behavioral Ecology, the Journal of Biogeography, and Nature Neuroscience. Those all seem kind of life sciencey to me.

Similarly, in the section on Discrimination Against Women in Grant Funding, the authors rely on studies of databases of Medical Research Councils and similar organizations of various countries, including the NIH. There is also mention of NSF and the Australian Research Council, both of which cover a wide range of fields in science, engineering, education, and beyond. If possible, it would have been interesting to see a separate analysis of recent data for the "math-intensive" sciences.

Having seen such data for my own field, I believe that NSF works -- with some success -- to provide a "gender-fair grant review process", but I don't think the authors of this particular study have demonstrated that with their chosen databases. [I chose the phrase "works to provide" rather than a simple "provides" based on experiences such as this (which referred to, but did not specify, that the problem was offensive sexist comments by a program officer) and this and this and this, all of which the excellent and enlightened staff at NSF can and do filter so that there are no deleterious effects on female PIs].

The authors note that there are "more women in teaching-intensive, part-time posts where research resources are scarce", and attribute this to life-style choices or constraints. When discussing the situation at major research universities, the authors cite an NRC task force report that concluded that women were not at a disadvantage for interviews and offers (and may have a slight advantage) in a study of 6 fields of "natural science". That's great, but I think it is premature to propose, based on these data, that universities should discontinue efforts to train hiring committees to avoid bias (explicit or implicit).

Although ultimately not as convincing as it could be (owing to the datasets used), this is a useful study in that the authors try to focus our collective attention on additional factors that affect the underrepresentation of women in math-intensive fields of science, and suggest that universities explore new options for career tracks ("The linear career path of the modal [sic?] male scientist of the past may not be the only route to success.."). I agree; just don't throw out the methods that seem to be working so far. That would make the situation orders of magnitude worse than it already is for women in math-intensive fields of science.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011


Today in Scientopia:

Perhaps the most common theme of questions/laments that I get from readers concerns advisor-student interactions: grad students send me (long) sad tales of dysfunctional working relationships with remote and neglectful advisors, and advisors send me tales of woe about students who are not working hard (if at all). If only the neglectful advisors could be paired with the students who don't work hard (if at all), and the caring, responsive advisors could have hard-working, productive students..

(continued over at Scientopia)

Monday, February 07, 2011

Challenging Professors

Friday's post about students "challenging" professors about ideas reminded me of an incident from my academic youth.

When I was an undergraduate on a study-abroad program, I took a class that was supposed to be at the intersection of science and social science. I was well aware that I was a mere undergrad with very incomplete knowledge of my chosen field of science, but I felt that the balance between science and non-science in this course was disturbingly skewed towards the non-science part. I felt that this undermined the professor's main themes. The one book we read for the class was written by the professor, so there was no escaping his ideas.

I thought the professor was pompous and boring, but mostly I was too shy to ask him any questions, challenging or otherwise. I did, however, have some interesting arguments and discussions with some of my fellow students outside of class, and I enjoyed that very much.

One day, near the end of the term, professor said he wanted to talk to the American students in the class as a group after class; there were just a few of us. We met him after class and he told us that we, as American students, were likely to fail his final exam, so, out of the kindness of his heart, he wanted us to write papers instead. He told each of us to pick a relevant topic and then come to his office at an appointed time and inform him of our topic.

I was very happy to write a paper instead of taking an exam, even if it was odd to single out the American students for this option, and I thought long and hard about a topic. I selected something, and went to the professor's office at the specified time. I knew from talking to another American student that the topic-approval conversation was likely to be very brief: 1 minute max, maybe even less. Yet when I showed up, the professor seemed in no rush. He offered me a glass of wine, sat back, and asked me about my topic. I told him my idea for a topic, and he said "No."

I had some back-up topics, so I presented those. He said "No" to all of them. I quickly thought of some others. Again: no, no, no. Then he said "I have chosen your topic for you." He sipped his wine and said "I want you to critique my book. Your paper will be a discussion of my book. That is all. You may go now. Send the next student in."

I went, but I was stunned. Why did he want me to do this? Why did he want me to do this? Had he somehow heard that I thought his class (and book) were stupid? Did I somehow betray this opinion by my expression during class, despite the fact that it was a large class in a big room? I had never spoken to him before. It's possible he knew that I was a Science student, but was that sufficient reason to compel me to critique his book?

And I wondered: What should I do? Commit academic suicide and criticize his ideas and his ghastly book? Or write an obsequious essay about his brilliant ideas? Or something in between, just to attempt to get a passing grade? This paper was the only graded work for the entire term; my entire grade rested on this one assignment. I definitely experienced a decline in my well-being at the thought of challenging this professor's ideas.

I decided to write an honest essay, with my real opinions. I did not attack his ideas in an aggressive way, but I marshaled my arguments, presented my evidence, and explained my opinions in what I hoped was a convincing but polite way. When I wasn't freaking out about the consequences, I enjoyed writing the essay, which I felt accurately expressed my objections to the professor's ideas. I was pleased with what I wrote, even as I doubted my decision to be so critical. It was a very tense few weeks between terms, after I turned in the paper and waited to find out the result.

I got an A-.

The professor said he liked some of my ideas, but not others; fair enough. He said he was going to incorporate some of these ideas (about how science was important) in his new book, but that he had already been thinking of doing this anyway.

He never explained why he asked me to critique his book, and, even though he clearly was able to handle criticism, I still think it was a very strange and not very fair thing to ask of an undergraduate, especially for an assignment that was the sole basis for the grade in the class.

Only in retrospect was it a positive experience for me.

Years later, I met a professor in the same field as that of the professor described in my anecdote. She had read his books and had met him at conferences. I told her my story, and she was shocked that I had survived the experience with a good grade, based on what she knew of him and his lack of interest in other people's ideas. She wondered if he had been drinking heavily during the time I was his student, and that could account for his bizarre behavior.

Although this incident did not make me more confident about communicating with (certain) professors and it did not make me more likely to challenge a professor's ideas in class, I think it did have a positive effect because I learned a lot while writing the essay. In writing, I focused intensely on making my arguments as clear as possible and backing them up with evidence -- something I had little experience with at the time. I don't think I could have made the same arguments well in a conversation with the professor -- I remained as quiet and inarticulate as ever in speaking with professors -- but I learned something about challenging a professor's ideas (in writing).

Friday, February 04, 2011

Confident Distress

Media interpretations of the recent report on The American Freshman: National Norms 2010 are, perhaps not surprisingly, incoherent. Depending on which headline you read, 1st year students are either experiencing A RECORD LEVEL OF STRESS (The New York Times, among others) or are confident and ambitious (The Chronicle of Higher Education: "Economy Changed Freshmen's Plans but Didn't Shake Their Confidence").

Of course, you don't have to choose which one to believe; I believe them both. Anyone can have confidence in their knowledge and abilities and yet be anxious about various things (the future being only one of many possibilities). You could find similar results whether polling 1st year students or nth year doctoral students.

But that's not what interested me about this report and its media interpretations. I was intrigued by this, as reported in the NYT article:

In addition, Professor Sax has explored the role of the faculty in college students’ emotional health, and found that interactions with faculty members were particularly salient for women. Negative interactions had a greater impact on their mental health.

“Women’s sense of emotional well-being was more closely tied to how they felt the faculty treated them,” she said. “It wasn’t so much the level of contact as whether they felt they were being taken seriously by the professor. If not, it was more detrimental to women than to men.”

She added: “And while men who challenged their professor’s ideas in class had a decline in stress, for women it was associated with a decline in well-being.”

The article ends there, leaving me with quite a few questions. Alas, I have only read the official press release and the report summary, and gazed at the 43-slide presentation, but I did not purchase the report to read in full. The summary materials don't enlighten me more about the topic raised by the excerpt above, so I can only blog-muse about it.

My main question is: What is meant by "challenged their professor's ideas in class"? This sounds like it involves more than just asking a critical question or even pointing out an error. Does it involve more than just disagreeing?

Is being "challenged" by a student in class about ideas more likely to be a humanities or social sciences kind of thing than a science thing? I can think of ways in which students could "challenge" a professor's ideas in a science class -- e.g., if a student's religious beliefs about (against) evolution contradicted what was taught in a biology class -- but it's harder to think of examples for many science classes (the ones I teach, anyway). Even in upper level classes where I can expect students to have a pretty good base of knowledge, students are more likely to ask questions out of confusion or curiosity than to disagree with me (and my ideas) about a Science topic.

According to the vague excerpt above, our response to students is the key to having a positive interaction with a student, male or female. It seems obvious to say that we should all try to be respectful, even when our ideas are being challenged in class, but I suspect there are some gray areas in terms of whether a student would perceive that they are being taken seriously or shot down.

As a professor, I have, of course, been challenged by students about their grades, but rarely about "ideas in class", so I'd be interested to hear about the experiences of readers (professors or students).

Writing about this has dislodged an incident from my memory about when a (non-science) professor forced me to challenge him, causing a temporary decline in my well-being. More on that another time..

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Target of Resentment?

A reader wonders whether accepting a faculty position that was specifically identified as a "target of opportunity" for hiring a person from an underrepresented group is a bad idea. Would a targeted hire be forever treated differently?

I wondered about just this issue a few years ago.

This reader is particularly concerned about finding herself in a toxic environment of resentment and disrespect if she is hired based on characteristics unrelated to her qualifications.

I don't know exactly what it would be like to be in a targeted hire situation, but in some ways, faculty in these targeted positions are similar those of a "trailing spouse" who is hired for reasons other than (or in addition to) her or his academic qualificiations. So, to the extent that I can extrapolate from the point of view of having been hired as a "trailer" and from having seen departments make (or fail to make) targeted hires.. I will give my current opinion on this issue.

In the best-case scenario, when a new hire is made, the rest of the faculty will be happy from Day 1 to have a new colleague. They will have enough experience with searches to know that you are as qualified for the job as any other candidate, even if an additional criterion was used to make the hire. They will know that decades of disqualification of women and minorities from serious consideration for faculty positions has been part of the reason for the underrepresentation of certain groups in science and engineering departments, and are glad to be doing something proactive about fostering the career of a highly qualified person who also brings diversity to the faculty. They will wonder why they overlooked talented people like you in the 17 previous searches owing to concerns about "fit" with the rest of the department.

OK, so that is unlikely, but a scenario that is possible is that some faculty will initially wonder if you are good enough, and will not think of you as their peer based on the fact that you didn't go through the rigorous selection process that resulted in their being hired based entirely on their awesome intellectual prowess. But then, eventually, once they get used to having you around and once they see that you are a serious, productive scientist/engineer, they will forget that they ever thought of you that way.

This is what happened to me, so I know it does occur. I have written before about how I left my first tenure-track position at University 1 to move to University 2 when U2 created a tenure-track position for me as part of their attempt to hire my husband. They came up with an offer for me once U1 offered my husband a tenure-track position, so hiring me was the only way that U2 was going to get my husband.

Although I was essentially a "trailing spouse" at U2, I thought of myself as a reasonably good catch because of my research and teaching record (I had a CAREER award etc.). Nevertheless, this optimistic view was not held by most of my new colleagues when I first arrived. Some of them ignored me entirely (the thought of my contributing a valued opinion at a faculty meeting was in the realm of the absurd), and others thought it appropriate that I do more teaching and service than just about anyone else in the department (because I was lucky to be there in the first place and should make myself useful?). I felt respected by my colleagues outside my department, but longed for the days when I was respected by colleagues within my department.

This grim situation did not last. I built a research program, I got grants, I got awards, I advised some excellent students, and I established my reputation as a serious scientist and a valued colleague. Some of the oldest faculty retired. Other universities started sniffing around, making moves to recruit me from U2. I am by no means a superstar in my field, but I am definitely good enough to be a productive and respected faculty member at U2.

Academia is constantly being resurfaced: faculty leave and are replaced, students graduate and are replaced, postdocs move on after a year or three and are replaced, and there is turnover in the staff. Maybe there are some older faculty who can never forget that I was hired in an unconventional way, without having gone through the traditional search and interview process (although of course I did that successfully at U1), but this has no effect whatsoever on my daily life in my department today. The way in which I was hired is ancient history.

Some of my older female colleagues in other male-dominated science and engineering departments did not have such a positive experience. They have always felt as if they are relegated to an inferior class of faculty. There are surely going to be some departments in which this occurs, even today. Perhaps you will be able to get a sense for this type of issue during an interview. What is the general departmental view of doing a targeted hire?

If a department has to make a targeted hire owing to a problem with extreme underrepresentation, there are likely to be challenges related to being the targeted hire in that department. Nevertheless, to anyone considering applying for (or accepting an offer of) such a position, I say: go for it anyway. If you are at all interested in being at that institution and in that department, don't let some potentially difficult aspects of the position discourage you. It's a job, and you will likely be given a fair chance at building your research and teaching program. And it might turn out to be a great place. And if it's not, maybe you can leave for a better place later.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Get It In Writing

As we progress through our academic careers, there are various documents and other items that need saving and organizing. Back in the Paper Epoch, my organization method typically involved sticking all important or potentially important documents into a single file drawer, to be further organized if the need arose. This was not a great system.

Now I do the electronic equivalent and put assorted important documents in a folder or three. This is not a great system either, but it is better than the method of one of my colleagues (says me) -- he keeps everything on his desktop until his desktop his full of overlapping icons, then he makes a folder called "Desktop DATE" and puts it somewhere (probably on his desktop), and then hopes that he can find what he needs by searching on key words.

I suppose we each find a method that balances our like/dislike of the effort of organization with the inconvenience of not being organized.

Nevertheless, there are essential documents that need to be located when needed. For example, early- to mid-career faculty need to keep track of any documents that might one day be included in a tenure or promotion dossier. It is good to find out in advance what those documents might be and whether you or your department are responsible for these documents.

That sounds like an obvious statement, and I can't believe I am even writing about this, but I am writing about this because of an egregious example of disorganization by a certain academic department (not mine), with negative consequences for a tenure-track faculty member. Here's a cautionary tale:

In some departments, every faculty member teaches the same number of courses every year -- in theory. In reality, faculty may be given "course releases", reducing the number of courses taught. Course releases can be given for a variety of reasons, including the need for faculty to have sufficient time for:

- course development or curriculum revision if these activities require a substantial amount of time (i.e., more than could normally be considered an acceptable level of department service);

- administrative duties: some administrators are part-time administrators, part-time faculty;

- research: for example, early-career faculty may teach less so that they have time to establish their research program, or faculty with a grant may "buy out" a course (or two) if time is needed for research activities (including supervising students, writing papers, traveling to conferences or research labs/sites etc.).

My department doesn't do course buy-outs, but faculty may be granted a term leave or some other decrease in teaching for a specific purpose. When this happens, the chair writes a short letter outlining the purpose and timing of the leave. The professor gets a copy, and a copy goes in a file somewhere. (note: I am not talking about sabbaticals, which involve a different level of administrative involvement and paperwork.)

An early-career professor in a different department was given a number of "course releases" during the probationary (pre-tenure) period. Most of these were for curriculum development and other teaching/service activities. The timing and purpose of the course releases were worked out informally with the department chair.

Fast forward a few years: The tenure-track professor (TTP) is criticized by some colleagues for not getting more research done despite having some course releases. TTP replied that most of these course releases were for the specific purpose of curriculum redesign or for organization of a new cross-disciplinary teaching initiative etc. There was a clear record of accomplishment of these things.

Hmm, maybe, but where is the documentation of the purpose of the course releases? Without that, who knows how the time was supposed to have been spent? Maybe this professor volunteered to do all this extra service in an effort to avoid doing more research? Without a letter, we just have the word of the TTP. Apparently, for some people, that was not enough.

Surely the chair hastened to step in an clarify the situation? No, not in this case. The chair said "I don't know" when asked to explain the purposes of the course releases. Perhaps they were for the specific purpose of research? Yes, probably, one could assume that.

This is corrupt. This is what Bad Academics do when they want to blame someone else for their incompetence (in the case of the chair) or find a reason to criticize someone (in the case of the zealous colleagues).

It would never have occurred to me, as a TTP, to ask for documentation of the purpose of a decrease in the number of courses I taught in a particular term. I was lucky to be in departments that routinely provided this documentation or that would not have used the lack of such as a criticism of me. Unfortunately, the TTP in question is in the worst of all departmental worlds -- one without course release agreements, but one with colleagues who place the burden of proof on the TTP, not the department chair.

How many of you faculty out there reading this have a formal vs. informal arrangement for course releases, term leaves, and such? (again -- not talking about sabbaticals).

In this case, I would define a "formal" arrangement as one accompanied by documentation of the timing and purpose of the course releases, and "informal" as one without documentation, perhaps worked out in a conversation with the chair. Documentation need not be an actual letter on letterhead. Even an e-mail from the chair would suffice (especially if you save the e-mail).

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Half Time

Today in Scientopia, I discuss a reader's question about whether science professors (and others) would be receptive to the idea of a half-time postdoc.