Friday, April 29, 2011

Gentle Woman

At some point in the unspecified past, some colleagues and I were profiled in a University publication. This has happened at various times my academic career; I suspect that most us professors show up at some point in some University propaganda magazine, brochure, newsletter etc.

It is always strange for me to read about myself, but some of these articles are better than others (in my opinion) in capturing what (I think) is important about my research and my work as a professor in general. That's not surprising, but what surprised me recently was the dramatic difference between how I was portrayed and how a colleague in Another Science Department was portrayed.

We are both about the same age, both in physical science departments, and have other similarities in our career paths (hence the juxtaposition of these profiles).

And yet, the profile of me talked about my gentle personality (my soft smile, my quiet way of talking about my research passions), an important childhood experience, and how I came to be a professor of Science. The profile of the other professor mentioned millions in grant $ and buckets of publications. The person who interviewed us (separately) never even asked me about grants or publications.

The other professor, who is male, comes across as dynamic, assertive, and awesome in his funding and publishing. I come across as quiet and pleased to be doing some cool science.

This is not just a complaint about the discrepancy in how an MSP and an FSP were portrayed in these profiles, although it is partly that. This is also a musing about how I could have conducted the interview in a different way.

I was quite passive in the interview -- I answered the questions posed, and was only proactive a few times when I felt the interviewer was spending too much time on topics that weren't very interesting or relevant. But I didn't volunteer anything about my grants and publications or any other "metric" of my academic productivity and success. The interviewer had my CV, and clearly knew a lot about my background and career. My grants and publications are listed on my CV, so she had this information. And yet, these things weren't considered interesting or relevant to write about me, but they were for the MSP.

During my interview, which lasted over an hour, the interviewer talked a lot about herself -- her childhood, her life, her travels, her family, her career. I would say that at least 62.5% of the time was consumed by the interviewer telling me about herself. Perhaps this was her strategy to make our interview more of a conversation instead of a list of boring facts about me, but it got to be a little strange when a brief answer from me kept turning into a longer answer from her about her own experiences, some of which were only remotely related to her original question.

I told some colleagues about this later, and all wondered whether the interviewer did the same thing with the MSP and whether, unlike what I did, he took charge of his interview and basically told her what to write. Perhaps because I didn't do this, the interviewer accurately portrayed me as gentle and passive, but I think it was an incomplete, and therefore somewhat unfair, depiction. I think it should be possible to describe me as a soft-spoken person who nevertheless brings in millions in grant $ and who has swarms of publications.

Gentle women can be very busy and productive scientists, although you might not know it to read about some of us.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Too Cool For Me

Although the word textbook tends to conjure images of heavy, overpriced, boring paper bricks filled with too many facts for any one person to learn in a reasonable amount of time, textbooks are actually quite varied in their style, tone, content, and even price.

Writers, assigners, and readers of textbooks will always disagree about what should go in a textbook, and some people will argue that textbooks are irrelevant and should not be used, much less required. I am not going to get into the textbook cost-benefit argument here, or the issue of whether/how professors assign textbooks and then (apparently) don't even use them. Those are topics of other posts, past and possibly future.

Today my specific subject is related to the content of textbooks for introductory classes. In the drive to make difficult and (apparently) boring subjects more user-friendly and accessible, some textbooks adopt a rather casual tone and format. Some textbooks I have seen recently reminded me of picture books my daughter liked when she was a lot younger -- those books with pictures of animals or construction equipment or whatever and bits of text scattered about to explain each picture.

So I wonder: Is there such thing as too casual in the context of textbooks, or is a 'fun' textbook a good thing if it helps engage the student in the subject?

There are various stages of casual style in textbooks:

- textbooks written in an entirely formal, classic style, with a casual quotient of zero;

- textbooks that are overall serious and classic in style, but with a few attempts at a lighter tone in text or illustrations. For some books, this lighter tone might be signaled only by a parenthetical expression with a "!" as a further clue that whimsy is being attempted;

- mostly serious, classic textbooks that have some references to popular culture and/or that use casual phrasing or images (such as in an analogy) to explain a concept;

- textbooks in which the casual style is a persistent features; e.g., books with cute chapter titles or section subheadings or some attempts at humor in illustrations;

- and so on, along the spectrum to intensely casual textbooks. It would be interesting to hear of examples of the most casual (interpret the term however you want) college-level textbooks in various fields, and what you think of them.

I am not a big fan of textbooks in which the casual aspects are distracting rather than helpful pedagogical tools. I also think that, in some cases, textbook authors might believe they are being cool by coming up with (apparently) clever chapter titles that read like blog post titles, but I wonder if the intended audience of the textbooks (undergrads in an intro-level course) thinks these are cool.. or pathetic?

And I also wonder: Is it condescending to 'dumb down' a textbook because the assumption is that most students can't (or won't) engage with serious topics, or is it a pedagogical best-practice to reduce jargon and try to capture the attention of as many students as possible?

Surely there is a good balance in there somewhere, such that a textbook is not primarily an impenetrable list of arcane terminology, and yet is not so informal that the pictures and words are an incoherent muddle.

I like textbooks that explain things and that don't focus on vocabulary (jargon) so much that the book seems to exist only to leap from term to term (that students memorize). I am fine with lots of pretty pictures and clever analogies. I am trying to overcome an aversion to 'cute' chapter titles in textbooks.

Part of what is difficult for me is that I know what I would have liked as a student, and I am pretty sure that that is not what most of my students today would like. Those of us become professors and essentially never leave school are not necessarily the best judges of what most of our students will find useful and interesting in a book. And yet.. we teach, and many of us do make decisions about textbooks.

I don't want to use a textbook that I dislike and that I think does a bad job of explaining important topics (who does?), but I also don't want to require a textbook that many of my students will hate and perhaps not read or understand no matter how much I try to integrate textbook-reading into the class. That's what can make the Textbook Decision a challenging one for me.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Read All About It

Today in Scientopia, I ask the burning questions:
  • Do you read your campus newspaper?
  • Is it any good?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


Several times in recent months, academic persons at different institutions have described completely unrelated problems with different graduate students who failed to secure a substitute to teach their labs/recitations/discussion sections/etc. when they had be away for anticipated travel.

I have written before about when professors need to miss class (e.g., owing to conference travel) and what we typically do to deal with anticipated absences. My focus today is on graduate students. Some of the issues are similar (the general need to balance teaching and research responsibilities), but some are unique to teaching assistants.

Example: If a grad student needs a substitute for a lab, which may be 2-3 hours in duration, the stakes are a bit higher and the options more limited than when a professor needs a substitute for a 50-minute lecture. The professor could show a highly relevant and entertaining movie, give an exam, or even cancel one class, but these options would not be feasible or advisable for a lab.

Grad students for centuries have routinely traded lab-substituting duties to help each other. It's the obvious thing to do, and if you plan enough in advance, you can work something out.

However, problems arise when a to-be-absent TA doesn't plan in advance and then expects someone to help them out with their self-inflicted emergency. Most grad students are responsible about these situations, and problems are rare. Nevertheless, I have seen the best-if-avoided following scenarios:

- The absent TA makes a last-minute plea to other TAs for help. Some TAs seem to think that it is better if this desperate plea is made afar (e.g., from the conference site) so that their friends can't kill them immediately, but this method will likely result in much anger from peers and professors.

- The absent TA expects the instructor of the class to find a substitute for them. The instructor may be interested in being part of the substitute-finding process (to ensure that the lab will be well taught) and ultimately is the person responsible for the class as a whole, but it's a bad idea for a TA to assume that the instructor will find a substitute for them.

- The absent TA does not find a substitute and the course instructor is reluctant to take this responsibility, so the job of finding a substitute falls to the TA's grad advisor, who does not think it is their responsibility, and passes it back to the TA. That results in a protracted process involving lots of cranky people.

Not long ago, I was thinking about an ancient incident involving TA-substitution issues when I was a grad student. I was reminded of this because I was invited to give a talk at another university -- a university where a fellow TA from my grad school days is now an esteemed senior professor. One term when we were TAs for the same class, we each planned to go to a (different) conference, so we arranged to substitute for each other.

Or so I thought. I taught his lab for him, and he then refused to teach my lab, although he had no schedule or other conflict with the lab time. His reason for not teaching my lab: "I may have implied that I would teach your lab for you but I never promised I would teach your lab for you." Me: "Then why did you think I taught your lab for you?" Shrug. It was my problem, not his.

More than twenty years later, I examined my soul. Had I forgiven him? No, not really.

I don't mean that, decades later, I obsess over his refusing to teach a lab for me after I had taught his lab for him, and it is important to note that this event was not an isolated example of his jerkiness. That is, I am not overlooking abundant examples in which he was actually a thoughtful and pleasant person. He was consistently a jerk. To everyone.

So now, eons later, I was curious to see what his grad students think of him. Are they psychologically damaged by their interactions with him, or did he somehow mature when in a position of responsibility and learn to treat people with respect? What happens to someone who routinely shirked their responsibility as a grad student? Do they become a shirker professor?

Well, in this case, I'd reluctantly say that the results are rather more positive than negative. People (including his students) don't hate him; most even seem to like him. Some of the characteristics that annoyed his peer grad students are seen by his students and others as harmless eccentricities of a professor. He is clearly a jerk in some ways - he still has a tendency to patronize and condescend to colleagues and students alike, for example -- but overall he functions well as a teacher and advisor, and has even won awards.

That's nice. Although I will never like this individual, I like knowing that there is a possibility for personal growth after grad school.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Different Worlds

By chance, one of my cousins and I have ended up living in the same general area, although we have no other relatives (other than our spouses and kids) within about a million miles. Her husband and I work at the same university.

He has a low-level tech job, and he and I have never intersected in our professional lives. By "low-level", I mean the kind of job that you can get without a college degree. His lack of a degree limits his career options, but he seems to be valued in his job and is increasingly being given more responsibility.

I don't see my cousin and her family very much (according to our mothers, who are sisters), but when I do see my cousin-in-law, it's always interesting talking to him. In our daily working lives, we experience very different sides of the same university.

He frequently encounters administrators who talk about how great [something] is, and then he (infrequently) talks to professors like us and hears The Other Side. For [something], you can imagine a wide range of academic topics, from Big Sports to the latest/greatest 'improvement' to the accounting system. To his credit (says me), he is skeptical when he hears administrators talking about how great [something] is. Our professorial complaints about life in the trenches dealing with the consequences of [something] seem to confirm his cynicism.

I like knowing that someone like him is in the system somewhere. When he sees something wrong or stupid or inefficient about the system, he fixes it if he can. Of course he can't fix the big things and fire the administrators who are big supporters of [something], but he can make some parts of the system work more efficiently.

My cousin-in-law and I inhabit very different parts of the university, but in some ways, the world of the administrators (whom we mock when we get together) is even more distant from our respective planets, at least in terms of views of priorities and functioning of the university. Why would that be?

Friday, April 22, 2011

An Open Letter to the Math Guy

Following on a recent post about annoying ancillary things we wouldn't miss while on sabbatical, I propose that today we each think about the most trivial annoying thing that routinely afflicts our working lives. Something so small that we might not think it is worth trying to fix. We might even be embarrassed to mention it to anyone but a very close friend or the blogosphere. It might not even make our list of Small Things We Would Not Miss while on sabbatical. And yet, if this annoying small thing went away, life would be better.

Then it would be good to think of a way to eliminate this little annoyance. Maybe we can't solve the tera-problems, but maybe we can eliminate a nano-problem or two. This is what I recently tried to do with a nano-problem.

There was one small thing that was annoying me every single week before a certain class. Instead of dealing with the problem right away, I wrote the following letter in my head each week for many weeks, but never sent it. Eventually, when an opportunity finally arose, I talked to the intended recipient of the letter in person and temporarily fixed the problem that way. Life was definitely nano-better when the nano-problem was temporarily solved, but now I'm back to square one, so I was thinking about these types of little annoyances again today.

Here is the letter I wrote in my head:

Dear Math Guy,

We teach in the same classroom on the same days. There are no other classes in that room between your class and my class, and that is how I know that YOU are responsible for leaving the boards covered (covered!) from top to bottom, left to right, with Math Writing.

The problem (for me) is that you don't erase what you write. Ever. Who do you think erases the board of your equations and annotations?
You may not know or care, but I will tell you anyway: I erase the board of your writing. I erase the board at the beginning of my class because I have no choice if I want to write on the board during my class as well.

Oh sure, the students would probably love it if I did not erase the board and instead just projected a series of text slides that they could copy into their notes -- who doesn't love a class consisting entirely of text slides? And if they were bored, they could look at your Math Writing. I could show text slides, but every once in a while, I like to mix it up a bit and write and sketch things out.

Clearly you like to do the same thing when you teach. Maybe we have a lot in common in our approach to teaching. Maybe we would even like each other if we met in person. But we have not met yet, and therefore, at the beginning of every class, I loathe you for a few minutes in absentia.

Perhaps you think I am unreasonable for being annoyed, and that instructors should just be prepared to erase the board at the beginning of class. What's the big deal anyway? Well, for one thing, we have the awesome luck to teach in one of the few classrooms that still has a chalkboard and chalk. Perhaps I wouldn't be so annoyed if it were just a matter of erasing dry-erase marker on a white board. Instead, I end up sneezing and covered in chalk dust at the beginning of my class rather than at the end, and I find that unpleasant.

You may be surprised to know how much you are annoying the person who teaches in that classroom after you. I am sure you don't even think about the effect your non-erasing habit has on the next instructor. You finish your class and you leave, exhilarated or depressed, and probably quite tired after all of that writing and talking.

Even so, I am writing to ask you to take a few minutes to erase the board of your own writing before you exit the classroom. And then I will no longer loathe you for those few minutes each week, and that will surely be a relief to us both.

Thanks in advance for erasing,


During the brief time when this nano-problem seemed to be solved, I was in a much better mood when I started my class. I could start the class with the key points I wanted to make at the beginning, rather than spending the first few minutes with my back to the class while I erased the board and got covered in chalk dust. Life was definitely better.

Now Math Guy has returned to his evil ways, and I am back to writing this letter in my head (and in this post) until I get a chance to talk to him again. Either that, or the academic year will just end, as it surely must eventually, I will quickly forget about being annoyed about such a small but pernicious thing.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Let Me Down

At this time of year, some of my colleagues and I like to show each other our favorite "rejection letters" from the recent crop of grad applicants -- that is, the letters that we get from prospective graduate students who decide to accept an offer other than the one from our own department.

I am sure that these letters are difficult for students to write, and it already shows a degree of thoughtfulness to send one. A personalized rejection-of-offer is of course not required; students can just click 'decline' on a webpage and be done with it.

Even so, it's nice that some students send a note of some sort. Some students send a lot of e-mail to potential advisors during the application process, request individual meetings at conferences, come for visits, and basically need a lot of time and care from faculty as they (the students) collect information to make their big decisions. It's polite to thank someone for their time, whether or not you decide to work with them.

The mutual-sharing of entertaining rejection letters is therefore not a mocking of sincere students, but just a weird professorial habit of laughing about some of the stranger aspects of advising (or not advising) graduate students. In particular, some of these letters are interesting for the contortions the students go through in an attempt to let us down easily as they explain that we will, unfortunately, not have the opportunity to work with them -- at least.. not directly. Some students comfort us with the possibility that they will stay in touch, we will see them at meetings, and we will get to see how it all turns out for them in the end.

I have written about this before..

In short, my preference is for a brief and sincere thank you. It's also nice if there's a mention of where the student has decided to go, but there is no need to explain why that was the decision.

In particular, there is no need to reassure a professor that the applicant really does respect them and their work. We do not need to be told that we do interesting research, but.. These 'I actually think you do really good work' e-mails from students annoy at least one of my colleagues, but I think most of us recognize them as classic examples of an academic- letter genre and appreciate the thought, if not the awkward language.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Dollar Thrills

We interrupt our regularly scheduled post to exult in what I hope is only a mildly obnoxious way about a new grant.

It's not as if I have grants raining from the sky all the time, but, in the course of my career, I have been fortunate to have had pretty good success/luck getting grants. So, although I certainly would never say that getting grants is routine for me, it's not a rare occurrence.

So this is what I was asked myself: After 15-20 years of getting grants, is it still exciting to get a new one or is it more like "OK, cool, here's another chunk of money to spend for a few more years"? Maybe it's the latter for people who have mega-labs with an endless stream of grants rolling in, but for me:


In fact, when I get the good news about a new grant, I am always reminded of how exciting it was to get my first big grant many many years ago. Of course, the first big grant as an assistant professor came with an element of relief (as in, 'maybe I will actually get tenure' relief), but, even at mid-career, there is still a very similar feeling (as in, 'maybe I can actually support all these grad students and postdocs for a few more years' relief).

But the feeling is much more than just relief. There is also the satisfaction of the effort of proposal-writing coming to a successful result (against the odds). But mostly it's the thrill of being able to do extremely interesting research with an extremely excellent research team.

Then I asked myself: Does the magnitude of the thrill scale with the $ amount of the grant? That is, is it just as exciting to get a $40,000 exploratory grant as it is to get a $4,000,000 mega-grant? Yes.. but not quite as thrilling. I must confess: Really big grants are really thrilling.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Insecurity as Motivator

Today in Scientopia, I consider an ethical dilemma involving a PI and a research scientist who hates to write.

Monday, April 18, 2011


April 15* is the traditional deadline for paying the previous year's taxes in the US, and is also the deadline by which applicants to graduate schools typically need to give their response (accept or decline) to offers of admission. There is a Council of Graduate Schools "resolution" proclaiming April 15 to be the decision date, although I don't know how many graduate institutions adhere to this deadline. Let's assume, for the sake of this discussion, that April 15 or thereabouts is a significant date in the graduate admissions process.

[* or, this year, April 18 for taxes]

Here is what I want to know:

How many of you grad applicants (this year or in previous years) accepted or declined your offers..

- well in advance of the deadline
- long after you got the offer but within a few weeks of the deadline; or
- at the very last minute: within days of, or on, the deadline

If you waited until the last minute: Is this because you really had not decided which offer to accept? Or did you know your decision before the deadline, but waited until the last minute for some reason?

And: Did you do all your accepting and declining at the same time, or did you accept an offer and delay the declinations? If you staggered your accepting and declining: why?

I have written before about how it's unfortunate that some applicants delay sending in their rejections, even when they know they are not going to accept particular offers. This delay ties up the process for admitting highly qualified applicants who are on the waiting list. If someone really doesn't know their decision until the last minute, that's fine; but if a decision is made before the deadline, it would be nice to inform the to-be-rejected programs of this.

This year, I almost asked the admissions committee to consider reaching further down the on-hold list and make a few more offers because I started to doubt that an ideal number of first-admits for my group would accept their offers, and there were some great applicants on hold. I am very glad I did not make this request, however, because it turns out that I was just feeling impatient. Eventually, more than enough acceptances came in. I feel bad that some great applicants on the waiting list didn't get offers, but it wouldn't have been doing anyone any favors to accept more students than can reasonably be given a guarantee of financial support.

Explanatory note: In my field of the physical sciences, there are no 'rotations' in which new students cycle through various labs before acquiring an advisor, and, unlike some engineering departments, we do not admit a group of new students and then work out who will advise them. Although students can later switch advisors, at the admissions stage, there has to be at least one professor who expresses interest in being an applicant's advisor in order for that applicant to receive an offer of admission to the graduate program.

Of course there is a lot of uncertainty and anxiety for applicants throughout the admissions process, but advisors also have their own kind of uncertainty. Trying to construct a group that is the optimal size relative to funding levels and research opportunities and that is composed of a good balance of senior, intermediate, and beginning grad students is challenging. Not knowing who will accept and who will decline their offers until it is too late to pursue other options (i.e., make offers to other students) adds an element of uncertainty to the process for graduate programs and advisors.

This probably can't be helped, though. Different programs have different application deadlines and make offers at different times, but it makes sense to have a universal final-decision deadline so that students have time to weigh their all their options, compare offers in terms of financial support and research opportunities, and work out whatever needs to be worked out in their personal lives.

So, unless someone wants to propose a graduate equivalent of the "early decision" option offered by some undergraduate institutions, allowing graduate programs to lock in a core number of new students, we advisors just have to deal with the uncertainty and try to make things work out in terms of numbers of students, grants, and projects.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Mrs. Me

Earlier this year, during a session of an international conference, the convener of the session introduced all the male speakers by their names (Firstname-Lastname or just Lastname) but a female speaker was introduced as "Mrs. X".

She had a PhD just like all the men, so why couldn't he introduce her in the same way as the men? I only sort of know the convener, and know that he meant no disrespect by apparently demoting Dr. X to Mrs. X. He just wasn't comfortable introducing her as Firstname Lastname or Lastname only.

At the same conference, I encountered a research scientist with whom I have had occasional contact over the years. I don't know him well, but we are rather routine scientific acquaintances. When we met to exchange brief greetings at the conference, he called me Mrs. X.

He was not making a strange joke, and I am sure that I have told him to call me by my first name in the past. I am also sure that I sign my e-mail to him with only my first name.

I asked some close colleagues who are from the same countries as the men who used the "Mrs." terminology about this. The conclusion, which I could have guessed anyway, is that "Professor" or "Dr" seemed too formal for the occasion (especially since the men were being referred to by their names without titles) but these men were not comfortable referring to women (particularly older women) by their names. So they settled on the unfortunate "Mrs".

This is not a rant. This is a request. Of course I do not speak for all women, but I'm guessing that most women at a professional conference would prefer to be addressed, formally or informally, in the same way that the men are addressed.

My preferred options for being addressed (politely) or introduced (respectfully) in a professional setting are, in no particular order:
  • Professor X, or
  • my names without any title.
Dr. X is OK in some contexts, but only if male professors are also called Dr. X, and if the Professor vs. Dr. distinction is not significant.

"Mrs. X" as a title is not as respectful as it might seem, and of course there is also the minefield of the Miss/Mrs/Ms issues, but I will even accept "Mrs. X" if the male professors are referred to as "Mr. X". If it is intended respectfully, particularly by young men who are not familiar with (or not comfortable with) North American customs, then no personal offense is taken (at least not by me). Some women with PhDs will, however, be insulted by being introduced as "Mrs. X", even if they are married and even if they share a last name with their husband, so I recommend avoiding using this term for women with PhDs.

Although I do not feel personally insulted, I do resent the singling out of women for a different mode of address in a professional context. It is yet another small and unnecessary way in which we are specifically designated as FSPs instead of just SPs like the men.

So, here is a friendly suggestion for those who find themselves in a professional situation that may require referring to a woman with a PhD:

Address everyone the same. With or without titles, do not make a distinction between how you refer to men and women. That is the most respectful thing to do.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Written Off

A colleague in another department was recently talking about what they liked most about a sabbatical, other than the obvious things. In this case, a favorite sabbatical benefit was: not having to write letters of recommendation. I was surprised by that choice (and not just because there is no way that this is better than not attending faculty meetings), but the conversation moved on and I didn't get a chance to ask for clarification.

I hope what this colleague meant was that, as a result of being far far away for the year and not teaching, some of the students who need a letter of reference from a professor who taught one of their classes will ask someone else. I doubt that this person refuses to write letters for graduate students or undergrads with whom they have had close interaction (e.g., as research assistants or interns or as students in more than one class). Even while on sabbatical, we still have responsibility for our advisees and other students, past and present, and that includes writing letters when needed.

I can see, however, that it would be nice to have a break from the letters that are really hard to write because you don't know much more about the student than what grade they got in the class, and maybe where they sat -- the latter not typically being interesting or relevant information in a letter of reference, although I've seen desperate faculty get a lame paragraph out of the fact that a student always sat in the front row. Even so, a respite from this type of letter-writing isn't on my list of ancillary-but-great-things-about-sabbaticals.

So, other than not attending faculty meetings, what else is on my list?

There isn't much, actually. It is nice to have the time to recharge and so on and spend time in a different interesting place with different interesting people and get a lot of thinking and writing and new research done, but those are the usual things. In fact, I am not desperate to get away from students or interruptions or my office or other things like that (including writing letters, even though I write a lot of letters). [I should note here that I do not have a killer teaching load; in a typical year, I am able to devote time to teaching and research.]

OK, I just came up with something else for my ancillary-but-great-things list, which now has two items on it. So here is the list:

1. not attending faculty meetings (I may have mentioned that one);
2. exams and grading

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


At some universities, undergraduates are involved in research, are included in research group activities, and interact closely with graduate students; i.e., not just in labs or classes with graduate TAs, but in a research context. At these universities, some undergraduates routinely attend department seminars and may participate in professional conferences. At other universities, the undergraduate and graduate populations are more separate, and mix only in labs or classes in which there is a graduate instructor. At these universities, undergraduates don't tend to be as connected to the research activities of the department.

Of course, even in a department in which the overall culture involves separation of grads and undergrads, individual research groups can adopt their own philosophy, but it is easier to integrate grads and undergrads in research activities if there is a culture of interaction, in part because there may be more opportunities, e.g., internship programs and such.

If, as is the case at most universities (I think), there are talented and motivated graduate and undergraduate students, there can be many opportunities for mutually beneficial interactions. I have been fortunate to be associated with a number of such universities.

If, however, there is a discrepancy between the undergraduate and graduate programs in terms of "quality" (a vague term, I know) or attention and resources focused on one program vs. another, opportunities are missed and there may be tensions between various groups within the department. I was recently thinking of one such example of a place with a discrepancy between grad/undergrad programs; hence, this post.

Comparison of the "rank" of a university and its constituent graduate programs reveals numerous examples in which there is a mismatch between the university's overall reputation and that of individual programs. In my own field, although excellent graduate and undergraduate programs commonly coexist at the same institution, it's not difficult to think of prestigious universities with unimpressive graduate programs, and non-prestigious universities with excellent graduate programs.

When I serve on a committee that evaluates some aspects of one of the engineering departments at my university, I commonly see letters from faculty at a particular university from which it would be unthinkable to solicit a letter in my own field. If you believe that any of the various rating schemes mean anything, I am sure you can find a number of such examples by comparing university-as-a-whole rankings vs. doctoral program rankings for particular fields.

These mismatches can create stressful situations, such as in undergraduate labs taught by graduate TAs or in research groups that have both graduate and undergraduate researchers.

Two mismatch scenarios are:

1. The undergraduate program is much stronger than the graduate program in the same department. During my brief association with one such department, there were occasional problems in mid/upper level undergraduate classes when a graduate TA did not have the intellectual ability or authority to make the undergrads feel they were learning anything worthwhile. This transcended teaching ability (or lack thereof) of the TA. For example, in a number of labs, highly motivated and intelligent undergrads were "taught" by a graduate student who would be unlikely to get an A in the course if they were taking it as a student. This was very frustrating for the undergraduates, and I am sure the grad TAs did not feel good about the situation either.

2. The graduate program is significantly stronger than the undergraduate program in the same department. In such programs, graduate students, when they TA, may be contemptuous of the intellectually inferior beings who populate the undergraduate lab courses, creating an unfortunate climate of mutual dislike that is not conducive for learning. Of course there is always the potential for there to be unmotivated students in any class at any level, but if such students dominate the courses for majors, the collision of unmotivated majors with highly focused graduate students (who are also likely to be inexperienced teachers) can be severely unpleasant for all concerned.

I think that departments can overcome these mismatches by promoting an atmosphere of respect at all levels of teaching and learning, by helping TAs become effective teachers, by emphasizing that good teaching is a priority (no matter how brilliant you are at research), and by finding creative ways to integrate graduate and undergraduate programs so as to maximize constructive interactions.

So, how well matched do you think the graduate and undergraduate programs are at your institution (or at places with which you've been associated in the past)? In addition to your assessment of this, an important piece of information is whether you are an undergrad, grad, postdoc, professor, other.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

To Author or not to Author?

Today in Scientopia, I discuss the question of what to do if you provide information (e.g., data) to a colleague for a publication but you don't agree with the colleague's interpretations and conclusions.

Monday, April 11, 2011

From Proposal To Grant

In the good old days, this was a typical scenario for NSF grants, indicated by time (t) in months:

t = 0: proposal submitted on or before the proposal deadline. (I was just trying to remember if I have ever submitted a proposal before a deadline, and I don't think I have.)

t = 3.5-4: panel met, discussed mail reviews, ranked proposals

t = 4-4.5: program directors made decisions. Those PIs who were definitely funded and those who were definitely not funded got the news right away; those who might be funded waited a bit longer.

t = 5-6: proposals recommended for funding worked their way up through the system, but it didn't take long to get the final award letter and for the funds to be transferred to the university and for the university to assign the grant an ID number, making the grant active.

Back in those glorious days of yore, when filling in the cover page, I would indicate a preferred start date 6 months after the proposal due date, and this was quite reasonable. A new grant was typically good to go after t = 6 from time of proposal submission.

This was an excellent system because you knew that if your grant was funded, you could start paying a graduate student RA in the next academic term. This was very useful for making a quick start with the research, for trying to optimize correspondence of graduate students and grants, and for research planning in general (e.g., if you get/don't get a grant, this affects your plans for the next proposal deadline).

Now the system seems to be more like this:

t = 0: proposal submitted on or before the proposal deadline.

t = 3.5-4: panel meets, discusses mail reviews, ranks proposals

t = 4-8+: program director makes decisions, contacts PIs

t = 6-10+: proposals recommended for funding work their way up through the system, and eventually result in the formal award letter, which will be followed at some point by transfer of funds to the university.

And then.. there is another wait to get the university to assign a magic number to the grant so that it can be used. This delay is beyond the control of NSF, but it is one more delay on top of the other delays, making for a considerable gap in time from proposal submission to effective grant start date. I specify effective grant start date because now the start date indicated by NSF may be a couple of months before the university completes its paper work and recognizes the grant in its grants management system. The grant may technically exist for a while before the PI can use it.

It is sometimes possible to start using a grant that has been promised but that hasn't quite worked its way through the system to the final stage yet, but to do this you have to have a slush fund (not another NSF grant) as back-up.

Why has this all become more complicated and slow? Is it because budgets have been slashed and there are fewer staff handling more responsibilities? I have a hypothesis, but it actually involves the opposite of this explanation.

I know that there are all sorts of considerations involving oversight of every step of the system and oversight of the overseers and so on and this all takes time to make sure no one is doing anything unethical or illegal of unwise, but I wish we could go back to the 6 month proposal-to-grant time gap. Gaps that are considerably longer than that seriously interfere with a PI's ability to assemble an excellent research team and do exciting research in a timely way.

I am of course happy to get grants at all, so it might seem ungrateful to complain about a delay of a few months, but I have found that the delay has rather significantly affected my research program.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Token Help?

Today in Scientopia, I discuss a comment on yesterday's FSP post about tokenism: What can male colleagues do in situations like the one I described?

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Kick Me

What a week.

This week, I participated in a meeting of a working group with which I have been associated for the past 6 years or so. I have devoted a lot of time to this particular service activity, and overall I have enjoyed the work. It can be frustrating when there are lots of deadlines all at once, but mostly I feel good about making a contribution in this particular way.

I am the only woman involved in this working group of Science Professors, and I have known all along that I was asked to join the group in part because I am female. This was (and is) fine with me because I think it is important that there be a woman in this group and because I am highly qualified for the work. It's not as if I am getting a *special award* for being a woman; I am contributing my time and efforts to a service activity, and I think what I am doing is important and worthwhile. The diversity issue is a positive aspect of this work, not something to be ashamed of.

So anyway, The Guys and I got together one day this week. We don't get together as a group all that often, but we had some things to discuss that were more efficient to deal with in a meeting than through endless e-mails or a conference call.

TWICE during the first half hour of the meeting, somewhat out of context, and completely gratuitously, one of The Guys mentioned that I was only part of this group because "they had to have a woman". He hastened to say that he was totally on board with this because he recognized the realities of the world today. Diversity has been deemed to be important -- although he noted that he has seen no evidence of the discrimination that some women in our field claim to experience -- so our group should be diverse.

He's a jerk, but I've been working well in this group for too long to feel humiliated.

I don't know what the younger man added to the working group in recent years (i.e., after me) thought of all this. Did it previously occur to him that I was a Diversity Addition to the group? Does he believe that he (unlike me) was invited to join us owing to his awesome skills? Do I really want to know the answer to that question? Should I re-read my own post from yesterday?

What did I do when my esteemed colleague made his "FSP is a token" comments? I calmly changed the subject to one more relevant to the meeting, made a point that no one else had thought of, got complimented (by someone else) for having noticed something that had long been overlooked by other members of the group, and basically just moved on with the tasks at hand. I am a useful member of this committee, and I will continue to contribute for as long as it is worthwhile for me to do so.

And yet, I did briefly wish that I could do something a bit more dramatic. I don't mean that I wanted to yell or slash my colleague's leather jacket, but something a bit symbolic might have conveyed my dismay at still being considered a Token after all these years of working with this group.

For example, what if I had a special Token Hat with pink ribbons and flowers? I could bring it with me and keep it in my briefcase purse until I needed it. Then, when the occasion arose, I could put my hat on and go sit quietly in the corner, except when one of the guys said something they thought was brilliant, and then I could sigh and say "Oh Bob, you are so smart". And when one of them made a little joke -- like when Professor Not-A-Token made a joke about all the lame people who read and write blogs, which he never reads (good!) -- I could be sure to laugh in an appreciative and admiring way.

But mostly of course I would be very quiet. That way, I could be in the group, the group could get its diversity creds, but the guys wouldn't actually have to listen to me. Wouldn't that be better?

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Overheard in Science

It seems that I have been eavesdropping a lot lately, but here is something I heard today:

"All the speakers were male, so there was no possibility of anyone having been included just for diversity reasons."

That's so good to know. I hate it when there are token women in a session and you have to wonder what they are doing there because there is the added complexity of having to figure out if they were invited because they have interesting things to say or whether the session had to include at least one woman. Everything is much more straightforward when it's just a bunch of deserving guys who were invited because they are all brilliant and articulate.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

A Bit Much

Not long ago, while availing myself of a mode of Public Transportation, I overhead a conversation involving three grad students: two women, one man. They were discussing a recent conference they had been to in their field of Science. When I tuned in, one of them had just mentioned an FSP who had attended the conference with an infant. The FSP had brought the sleeping infant to talks in some sort of snugli carrier. Their conversation went something like this:

The male grad student (MGS) said "I thought that was a bit much, that she had her baby with her at the conference."

One of the female grad students asked him: "Too much for what?"

MGS: Well, she had that baby with her all the time, and it just seemed like a bit much.

Other FGS: You mean, it was a bit much for you? Did it bother you?

MGS: No.. no, of course not. No.. it didn't bother me. I just thought that it was kind of a lot of Science for the baby. It was a lot of Science to take in.

FGS 1: Umm, the baby was not taking in any Science. The baby was asleep during the talks. I think it bothered you to see a baby at the conference. I think we need to figure out why it bothered you. Do you think women with babies should just stay home and not go to conferences?

MGS: No, it's fine with me, really, it was just weird.

FGS 2: Well, get used to it.

Yeah, get used to it. I suppose it can be strange to see a rather personal side of someone in a professional setting, but as long as the infant is sleeping through the talk, just like 34% of the audience is or wants to be doing, it shouldn't punch a hole in anyone's conference experience if someone in the audience is strapped to a sleeping baby.

I was impressed that the two FSGs were very polite and friendly, yet relentless in their effort to convince the MSG that he needed to rethink his views on babies (and their mothers) at conferences. Maybe next time he sees an infant at a conference, he won't think it is so strange. And then some day he may find himself at a conference, with an infant strapped to his chest, trying to figure out which conference sessions will correspond to naps and which will not.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Left With A Masters

Recently, I was rummaging through some databases involving doctoral completion rates in different fields of Science and Engineering. Specifically, I was looking at doctoral completion rates for male and female students. Of course I know that graduate school is part of the "leaky pipeline" for women scientists in academia, but I'd always assumed that women choosing to do an MS and not continuing on for a PhD was a much more significant "leak" than female PhD students leaving a doctoral program with an MS.

It is likely more significant, but I was surprised at some of the data showing the % of women doctoral students who "leave with an MS". In fact, for some programs, most of the women who start a doctoral program leave with an MS. The fact that they started a doctoral program indicates that these women were at some point interested in doing PhD-level research.

The usual explanations for leaks at this stage invoke the fact that graduate studies fall at a critical time for many young women because of the stresses and choices involving work and family. This may well be a good explanation for much of the "leaving with an MS" phenomenon, but it's too general to allow advisors, departments, and institutions to understand the data and determine what, if any, changes should be made.

From these data, we don't know how many of these women:

1. left and did a PhD elsewhere;
2. switched to the MS voluntarily because it was a better fit for their career goals;
3. switched to the MS involuntarily owing to (a) life or work pressures, or (b) an academic problem (exams, classes, advisors).

Explanation #1 does not involve a pipeline leak; it's just appears to be one for any particular institution.

Explanation #2 is technically a leak, but if these MS graduates continue on with a career relevant to their graduate studies (because that's what they want to do), it's not a tragic leak. Overall, it's not good that there are so few women faculty in physical sciences, engineering, and math at research universities, but each individual woman needs to make the best decision for herself in the context of life and career issues.

Explanation #3 is more problematic, but the databases provide no insight into how many women are given an MS "consolation prize" after failing a PhD preliminary exam (and whether more women than men fail these exams) and how many women leave doctoral program with an MS because they can't (or don't think they can) get a PhD and start a family at the same time. A sub-category of the latter is of the "there could only be one PhD in the family, so we decided it should be Robert" sort.

To the extent that the "left with an MS" situation is a problem that needs solving, it's likely that it can only be solved at a very large scale (i.e., by changes in society and academia as a whole). Even so, what I want to know is: What, if anything, can individual faculty and departments and universities do?

At this point, with the tools at hand, we can at least do exit surveys in each department to find out why doctoral students leave with an MS (voluntarily or involuntarily), and, based on results:

- address any issues that relate to a discrepancy in how female graduate students are evaluated and advised, or

- use these data as a basis for instituting family-friendly policies that alleviate some of the problems that disproportionately affect female graduate students (keeping in mind that these policies need to minimize harm to advisors and research groups as well, or the policies are unlikely to be as effective as they could be for all concerned).

I am sure some (many?) departments do this type of evaluation already, and I'd be curious to know if the results have led to any structural changes in graduate programs, and if these changes had any effect on doctoral completion rates.

Friday, April 01, 2011

About Me

As a 53.5-year-old cat-hating Frenchman who used to be a middle school biology teacher but who now mostly stays at home playing violent video games and fantasy golf, it has become increasingly difficult for me to maintain this FSP illusion, so I've decided to take today off from blogging. Also..