Tuesday, May 31, 2011


The occasion for this and other recent FSP-centric metablogging solipsistic me me me posts is the 5th anniversary of this blog. At such temporal milestones, it seems to be typical to note the event, ponder the past, and evaluate the possible future of a blog.

What I wrote in May 2009 still serves well for a summary of the first few years of this blog (see also August 2008 for a non-anniversary, summertime metablogging post). Below I reprint an excerpt from the anniversary post, and then update it to 2011 (and beyond).

Why & Me (May 2009)
A common request is for me to answer questions (for various purposes) about Why I Blog. I think I've touched on this before in various milestone-type posts, but here is an FSP Timeline detailing the evolution of my motivation and thoughts on blogging:


I blog because I am angry. I spend a lot of time being treated as an inferior species of Science Professor. Even when it shouldn't matter, I am reminded that I am a Female Science Professor (hence the blog name). When I achieve something, it must be because someone had to give that grant/award/position to a woman. I am constantly asked if I am a 'real' professor, and only recently have I gotten senior enough that people stop assuming I am my male co-authors' student or postdoc. I am constantly given administrative tasks that require a lot of time for committees that are led by less competent men, but I am never given any responsibility. When the issue of my being given responsibility arises, I am told that I don't balance research and administrative work as well as men, despite the fact that I excel at balancing these things and more, and that I am "too young", despite my being the same age or older than men who are apparently not too young. One of my favorite colleagues takes another job, and I no longer have as many friends and allies in the department. Blogging is a useful outlet for some of my anger, and I realize that there aren't many senior women scientists blogging. Perhaps I can be a niche-blogger? Does anyone want to hear the rantings of a senior FSP?


Yes, it seems that some people do. I keep blogging because I find that I have a lot to say and more and more people keep reading and making interesting comments. Can anonymous bloggers be role models? Does it help early career scientists to know that you can have a family and a fun and successful career as a science professor, even at a research university? This is my hope. There are still very few senior women scientists blogging, and I think that maybe my perspective, however strange, might be useful to early career scientists and students. Perhaps my writing about the workings of academia can also help bridge the communication/information gap among the various academic groups and generations.

I am still angry but my career is going well in terms of research and teaching and professional service. Many of my colleagues in my department still think of me as a "junior senior professor", but I find ways to enjoy the rest of my professional life and not be quite so angry about my immediate environment. Other universities start to recruit me as a senior hire and this gives me a chance to think about my career and my future and where I want to be scientifically and geographically. I write about all of these issues and this helps me get perspective, and, since the number of readers keeps increasing, this encourages me to continue.


I am much less angry. My department environment changes for the better. I often blog about academic topics that aren't typically discussed, and I have a lot of fun thinking and writing about these. I like writing about the weird things that happen during the day (I had no idea there were quite so many), and to my surprise, I still have a lot to say. I compile the FSP Book, and it surprises me even more that people read it (and review it!). Blogging becomes more of a creative outlet in a positive way than an anger-outlet.


I keep blogging because it is fun.

And as for the rest..


I didn't continue this history in 2010, perhaps because I didn't have much new to add. In 2010, things continued to go well with my career (research, teaching, advising, service), both within and beyond my university. I got older. The biggest blog-event for me in 2010 was that I also started blogging on Scientopia, typically once/week, after finally giving in to blog-peer-pressure to join a Blogging Collective.

When I joined Scientopia, I decided not to be FSP in the new blog, just SP. I also decided that I would not avoid women-in-science topics in my Science Professor blog just because I was dropping the first adjective. That is, I wasn't going relegate femalecentric posts to FSP and write exclusively about general science/academia issues as SP because that would undermine my entire philosophy.

When introducing myself as Science Professor in my new blog on Scientopia in October 2010, I wrote: "I am actually quite comfortable being FSP, but only if I get to define myself that way rather than having this designation be somehow relevant to my qualifications as a scientist."

So, whether writing as FSP or SP, I am the same person with the same values, priorities, and interests. And in fact, a quick classification of the topics of my SP blog posts, from October 2010 through May 2011, shows approximately the same proportion of "general academia" (80-85%), "femalecentric" (10-15%), and "miscellaneous" topics as in FSP 2010.

2011 and beyond

In some ways I've become a bit scattered, with various outlets for my online writing. Although I didn't mention it in 2009, that year I also started writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education, approximately 10 times/year, as Female Science Professor, which The CHE refers to as my "moniker". I've now been doing that for two years, and enjoy it very much. My CHE topics are similar to my blog-topics, and I get a similar mix of positive and hateful comments, just like on the blogs.

Even so, overall I think I present a consistent voice as F/SP. I said above that I am quite comfortable as FSP, but I must admit that I think it is a stupid name. I originally adopted it for ironic reasons, and then it just sort of stuck. I prefer the abbreviation "FSP" to writing out the words. Could I become simply "FSP", just as some corporate entities become their abbreviations or nicknames?

Year ago when I searched on "FSP", this blog was not prominently listed, but now, depending on the search engine/searcher, I show up as high as second after Franklin Street Properties. Elsewhere, I am still listed far below the top global supplier of power supply and power conversion technology and Freight Solution Providers, but ahead of Folsom State Prison.

So that's pretty exciting. But what of the future?

The future is looking pretty complicated, actually. I've got a lot of traveling to do in the next year -- including this summer -- and lots of other new and exciting adventures happening in real life. Also, quite a few people now know my True Identity, and although this is fine with me, it does somewhat affect the range of topics that are in/appropriate to discuss in the blog.

Resolved questions:

- Is blogging still interesting and fun for me? Yes, it is.

- Are there important topics still to discuss? Are there unimportant (but interesting) topics still to explore? Are there strange polls still to do? Yes, I am sure there must be.

Less resolved questions:

- Keep blogging? Probably, to some extent, but maybe not as often as I have been.

- Blog where? FSP and SP or just one of those? I am reluctant to abandon FSP, even though I know Blogger/Blogspot is annoying for commenters. As a blog author, I much prefer the Blogger (FSP) interface to that of Wordpress (SP/Scientopia). But it would be simpler to just have one blog, especially if I blog less.. ponder ponder ponder.

So that's where we're at this last day of May, 2011, after 5 years of blogging. Thanks for reading.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Well Behaved Women

What do the following two situations involving different women in different jobs in different countries have in common?:

1. A quotation by Christine Lagarde, French minister of finance and a contender to be the next head of the IMF, in Maureen Dowd's column in the NYT on Sunday:

.."people were not particularly nice to me and the media was very keen to point at mistakes or being too blunt or not using the politically correct phrases. I did what I always do. I just gritted my teeth and smiled and got on with it.”

2. From an article in the NYT on Saturday, about men having crises while grilling meat and calling the Weber Grill Hotline for help:

“Quick, I need to talk to a man,” he says curtly.

For Ms. Olsen, 67, it was yet another caller insisting that no woman could possibly grasp a grilling issue.

With 14 years on the job, she calmly but firmly explains that she will be able to handle the problem. If the man is especially upset, she suggests, “You might want to grab a beer — and just listen for a while.”


Ms. Olsen, who was widowed at 51 and has pictures of her grandchildren on her cubicle walls, does not rattle easily. “I’m good at what I do,” she said. “I don’t cry” — unlike some of her male callers — “though I have thrown a headset.”

Both women are confident in their expertise, remain (mostly) calm even when men are hysterical and behaving badly, and do their jobs. At least one of them might even make history.

I have never particularly liked the bumper sticker quotation: Well behaved women rarely make history (Laurel Thatcher Ulrich). I appreciate the essential point -- women shouldn't just go along to get along, be quiet, not make waves etc. You have to get out there and stir things up to effect real change. The suffragettes made history by not behaving well according to the norms of their time. Etc. But there are different ways to interpret what is meant by "behaving" and what it means to "make history".

Many women collectively make history by doing everyday jobs, like serving in the military (as it is appropriate to remember on this Memorial Day in the US). The hope, of course, is that if enough women routinely demonstrate their expertise and skill, even in jobs that are historically the exclusive domain of men, there will be more career opportunities for more women and less discrimination and harassment for all.

That's the general idea, anyway, and I like to think that women like Ms. Olsen, by calmly and professionally displaying their awesome knowledge of grilling technique and technology (for example), are changing the minds of the men, one by one. Perhaps with time, those who say "I need a man" (a sentence I briefly considered for the title of this post) when calling for help, won't say or even think this. And then isn't it possible that this change of view could extend to attitudes towards women in other aspects of life?

Friday, May 27, 2011

Phantom of the Office

Today I listened to a podcast about "phantom vibrations" -- sensory hallucinations that people experience when they think their cell phone is vibrating, but it is not. If the limited data are to be believed, 70% of cell phone users experience these (but only 2% are bothered by them).

Apparently, we feel these phantom vibrations because our brains are processing so much information all the time and can't deal with it all and because many of us are always on the alert for incoming calls, so we anticipate them all the time.

I commonly feel phantom phone vibrations, but I always thought they were related to the fact that my office is located near some very big machines that have a very big cooling system that generates continuous vibrations that make my entire office vibrate and, because I am constantly exposed to this when in my office, I imagine vibrations even when I am out of my office.

When visitors come to my office and comment on the fact that the room seems to be moving, some ask if I will suffer any long-term neurological effects of having a vibrating office. I don't know, but maybe I will eventually find out. Or maybe the phantom phone vibrations are an early sign? Imagine my relief to find that 70% of cell phone users, most of whom presumably do not have vibrating offices, also feel these sensory hallucinations.

I still wonder, though, if my office is a cause of at least some of the phantom vibrations. I have phantom phone experiences even when I definitely don't have my phone with me (e.g., in the shower), and I do not have them when I have been out of my office for more than a day or so (even if I have my phone with me). I have always thought that the phantom was of my office.

Now I'm not so sure.

Over the years, I have made efforts to improve the working environment of my office. I requested that the peeling lead-based paint be covered with new paint. I tried a series of chairs until I found one that I could comfortably spend a lot of time in. I adjusted various things about desk-chair-keyboard positioning. I have assorted wrist-rests. I have even worked with the research scientist who oversees the big machines and cooling systems that make my office vibrate to see if we could lessen the vibrations, both in the lab and in my office, although these efforts have thus far had only minor results. So, unless I move my office, I think I am stuck with the vibrations, which are very real, and possible other vibrations, which are not. Or maybe I'd sense the latter anyway.

At least now I have some doubt as to whether my office is the culprit.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Responsible Conduct of Reality

Today in Scientopia, I discuss views of research time and money in the context of grants:

Do you stick to your plan as closely as possible, or do you take a more flexible approach depending on how the research evolves? I tend toward the latter, but am working with some people who prefer the former. Can this collaboration be saved?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Answer Is 45

During a recent conversation that involved some review and contemplation of the various twists and turns and trajectories of my career, I came up with a number to answer the question:

When did most people start taking you seriously? (as a science professor)

That is: At what age did the number of incidents of being ignored/disrespected become significantly less frequent than incidents of being taken seriously/respected in a professional context? When did it become routine to be (or feel) respected?

Or, as a male colleague recently put it in a more direct way: You have won. (And then we mused about when I officially "won", although I would not have phrased it that way.)

The answer is 45 (± 0.5).

This is of course a very personal number because it is influenced by a wide range of specific factors such as details of education and employment history and personal characteristics. This number will vary considerably from person to person, and for some people, the question is not even worth asking because they have always been taken seriously in their profession.

At some point in this blog, I wrote that the last time I felt routinely respected as a woman involved in science was when I was an undergraduate in a very supportive science program with excellent mentors, but I realized recently that I had mostly re-attained this level in the past few years (Figure 1). It took nearly 25 years.

This is not a fair comparison in some ways (i.e., comparing now vs. then) because then my professional universe was so much smaller than it is now and the challenge of being respected was in many ways much less, but, as you may have surmised, this is not a rigorous quantitative analysis. Note also I am not talking about professional fame, or even success (although success and respect in a professional context do tend to go together). This is about perceptions and interpersonal interactions.

I think the key factors contributing to my delta-t of ~25 years were:
  • gender (F),
  • specific field (physical sciences),
  • specific decade of PhD (i.e., my PhD 'generation'),
  • personality (mostly nice, rather quiet, totally lacking in charisma);
  • appearance (not tall; very to somewhat 'youthful' until.. ~ age 45).
Nevertheless, despite some early-career blips and some shallow-slope professorial segments of the trend (Figure 1), it is important to note that I have mostly felt that I have been on an upward trajectory. I have not plotted the actual data points (because of course there aren't any), but if I did, there would be some major outliers on either side of the red line, with more below the line than above, but with this number of low outliers decreasing with time to some critical 'tipping point' at age ~ 45.

Developing a respected reputation as a scientist is of course essential to reaching the tipping point in terms of being respected most of the time by most people in most professional contexts, and there are many factors in one's professional evolution: e.g., publication record, funding history, prestige of university/department/associates. This all adds to the complexity and fun. In addition, some subsets of the academic ecosystem will 'tip' before others, and there will be some hold-outs no matter how respectable a professional record you amass over the years.

It is possible that my perception of having surpassed some sort of tipping point at 45(ish) is an illusion, as I have not had nearly as much time collecting data at t > 45 as I have at t < 45, but that is not a nice thought. I prefer instead to feel some contentment at having apparently won (something), at least much of the time, at least for now.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Data They Are a'Changin'

It recently dawned on me that a lot of time had passed since I had surveyed the general categories of my blog posts. I last did this in January 2010, using data from all 2009 blog posts. So, even though 2011 is well underway, last weekend I decided to go back and categorize the 2010 posts and see if there had been any changes from 2008 or 2009.

As before, I used very general bins for classifying post topics. I first went through this exercise a few years ago because I kept getting comments to the effect of "You only talk about sexism/feminism/women". Well, even if I did, so what? But I knew that "only" was an exaggeration, and I was curious what the data were.

It turns out that in each of the years 2008 and 2009, about 20% of my posts were on the broad topic of women-in-science, sexism, feminism etc. The majority of posts were about general academic issues, and a small number were about cats or miscellaneous subjects.

As in my previous attempts at categorizing posts, I encountered some posts that were difficult to classify. Examples from 2010: Are posts about two-career couples 'general academia' or 'women/feminism'? I would say 'general academia', but what if I focused mostly on the issue of women as 'trailing spouses'? And what about a post in which I criticized tenure-track professors who blame their lack of productivity on their male grad students or postdocs whose wives have babies and therefore imperil the career of the advisor/mentor? Was that a femalecentric post? Not really.. but even so, as I have did in my previous surveys, I classified all of these under 'women/feminism/etc.'

Even with that felxible definition of femalecentric posts, my 2010 data are:

general academia: 83%
women: 10%
cats/misc: 7%

I was surprised by this. I thought the proportion of posts about women-in-science, sexism etc. would be higher. Perhaps I overestimated because the femalecentric posts tend to attract the most vicious and bizarre comments, so they loom larger in my mind? Or perhaps the last few years are all a blur to me, and, since I don't remember what I wrote about last week, why should I expect that I'd have a good idea for what I wrote about in 2010?

I don't know. I obviously don't have any particular Plan when it comes to topics. I write about whatever I feel like at a particular time/place, heeding some requests from readers. Part of the explanation may relate to the fact that I write about once/week as Science Professor in the Scientopia blog collective, but at least some of these posts are femalecentric (and I included all the SciProf/Scientopia posts in my accounting), so I don't think that is a sufficient explanation. Perhaps there is no meaningful explanation.

Or: Perhaps the decline in femalecentric posts is related to my advancing age?

Tune in tomorrow, when I answer the question: At what age did most people start taking you seriously (as a science professor)?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Would You Hire Her?

Below is a slightly edited excerpt from a recent e-mail from a reader. Some details have been generalized to make the scenario a bit more.. general.

I'm a 30-something Physical Science PhD. I finished my PhD a few years ago, just before my middle child was born. Since then I have been primarily a stay-at-home mom, but I have remained involved with my collaboration in a low-level way - I've worked with my collaborators to finalize our analysis and to write and publish the associated paper, given some seminars, and traveled to give talks at conferences. Last year, my former advisor noticed that I had been doing quite a bit of work for free and offered to pay me by the hour, so I am currently working 0-10 hours per week. Recently, I have been writing a paper and looking into the possibility of a new analysis.

My third (and final) child is now over a year old and I am applying for postdoc positions. My CV doesn't exactly have a "gap" - I have papers and/or talks for every year since my PhD -- but my unusual situation obviously requires some explanation. I have added
"stay-at-home mother, no employer" to my CV and I explain in more detail in the cover letter.

I'm wondering how all this is going to be viewed by the professors with whom I'm applying to work. I was a good student in a high-ranking department, my thesis was a high-profile analysis, and my advisor tells me that his letter of recommendation is quite enthusiastic, so I should be a strong candidate unless people see the time with my kids as a deal breaker. I'm curious how you would feel about an application like mine and if you have any thoughts on how I am handling the topic in my applications. It would be very helpful to hear any concerns you might have about hiring someone in my situation - especially things that you wouldn't actually bring up with a candidate.

I would hire her, and I would have no hesitations or concerns about doing so.

Her record or accomplishments and research potential is strong, the letter of recommendation from the PhD advisor is apparently strong, and the evidence for an ability to get things done is impressive. I have had single, childless postdocs who got less research done while employed (by me) full-time than what this woman has done while being a "stay-at-home" mom with three kids.

Of course the final decision (relative to other candidates) would rest on the quality of the work etc. etc., but my answer to the hypothetical question of whether I would hire this person or whether the stay-at-home mom episode was a deal-breaker is an empathic yes, I would hire her.

In terms of the mechanics of the application, I don't think she should dwell much on the "unusual" situation. It's fine to account for a gap in employment in the CV, but additional explanation need not be lengthy and certainly should not be defensive or be the first thing in the cover letter.

The recommendation letter from the advisor could be worded to turn this situation into an example of the impressive abilities of his former student; what might seem like a liability could be a strength. This woman apparently has superpowers when it comes to being focused and productive.

Would you hire her? Why or why not?

And: What (if anything) would you like to see in the application materials in terms of an explanation for the stay-at-home mom "gap" in employment?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Be Quiet

The other day, I heard a professor say about a student:
"She is so quiet, I didn't think she was smart until she aced the first test in my class."
Here is what I would like people to say instead in these situations:
"She is so quiet, I didn't know she was smart until she aced the first test in my class."
quietnot smart

I don't mean to get all victim-y here about being quiet, but quiet people have historically been viewed with suspicion because it may not be obvious what we are thinking (plotting) and/or because we make loquacious people uncomfortable and/or because we may appear unfriendly or strange. Also, with more talkative people, you have a better idea of what's on their mind, and you can be reasonably confident that they are not about to go shoot up a shopping mall [1].

Just the other day, I was thinking about the (for me) related issues of being quiet and being really bad at random social chit-chat and, in fact, I had just told someone that I had great difficulty making coherent, normal, pleasant conversation about the weather. Very soon after that, I was on the phone with a Funding Agency Program Director who wanted to talk about the weather. I started to panic. I looked out the window: what was the weather and what could I possibly say about it? I made stuff up. I was very relieved when we moved on to talk about Science and Money.

I wrote about Being Quiet in 2008 (Does She Have Teeth?) and won't repeat the main points here. I just want to say, briefly and softly, the following:

- However difficult it is to make idle chit-chat about weather and sports, it is important to speak up when you have something to say. If you Google 'quiet people', you will easily find references to the fact that Clarence Thomas hasn't spoken in oral arguments in the Supreme Court in many years. I don't recommend that approach unless you are on a panel/committee that has no real purpose and with no real consequences for anyone.

- I was recently talking to an extremely quiet person, and I must admit (somewhat hypocritically) that I found it a chore. I kept asking myself "Was I ever that quiet?" Maybe I was. And if I was, what would I have liked the person talking to me to do about it? Just keep talking to fill the time allotted for our 'conversation', lapse into silence also, ask direct questions? I tried a combination of monologue and questions.

- My quietness was recently a pseudo-issue in a particular professional context, but it was swatted down when a colleague used my favorite pro-quiet defense: "Yes, she's quiet, but when she has something to say, she says it, and people listen." I would amend that to say that some people listen, sometimes, but I like this statement anyway because it makes quietness seem like an empowering characteristic.

[1] Wisdom, Conventional

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Citation Surge

At some point, in one of my old blog-posts, I asked how often authors check their citation data: every week? every month? every once in a while when the mood strikes? never? I was in the 'every once in a while' category.. until recently.

In a flash of self-realization, I determined that the reason I didn't obsessively check my citations was not because I am above doing such things, have better things to do, and/or know that it is unhealthy to fixate on citations. No, it turns out that I was not obsessively checking my citation numbers because doing so would be even less exciting than watching grass grow. From week to week, there might be a few citations clicking up a notch or two, but this wasn't thrilling enough to inspire me to check back frequently.

But now, there is one particular paper that is surging in citations! It is very exciting! And so I check my citation numbers much more often than I used to.

It would be even more exciting if the paper in question represented a major brilliant cosmic advance in Science, but, alas, it's a utilitarian piece of work. It's just something that is useful. Apparently (and lucky for me), it seems to be very useful, and I have been enjoying watching the citations go up every week.

This is sad, I know. First, there was the fleeting thrill when the citations of this paper upped my h-index, and now there is the lame entertainment of seeing that the number of citations has changed by a number >> 1 compared to the last time I checked.

Will the thrill fade with time? Or am I now addicted to checking my numbers every week (or so)? Is there any cure for this particular obsession? Should I seek help?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Waiting for the Final Word

At many universities, the tenure evaluation year may actually take most of a year, starting with the soliciting of external evaluation letters (perhaps in the summer, with due dates in the fall), and then proceeding through all the various stages of votes and decisions, from the department on up to the overlords. Although there are exceptions, most of which are terrifying, it's typically the first few decision stages that matter. If you've got positive votes all the way past the dean, the grand vizier, and up to the czar and/or the ruling junta, you're probably going to get some good news in the spring or early summer.

Even so, many tenure candidates are anxious all the way through to the final stages and don't feel comfortable counting on tenure until the final official step. By that point, though, celebrating seems somewhat anti-climactic because of the protracted process and because others considered tenure a done-deal at some earlier stage of the process, so it might be hard to get anyone but your mother and maybe your dog excited about the final final decision.

I remember wanting to know the results on the day of the final final decision, but all those who could actually tell me the result thought I was being weird and in fact had no plans to find out the result. According to them, the results, which would surely be positive, would be announced eventually, so why worry about it? Why?: because it was really really important to me and I wanted to know. I wanted the whole process to be over, officially over.

If you have been through the tenure process (successfully), when did you celebrate (if ever)? Did you celebrate after each intermediate step, did you celebrate only after the decision stage(s) that you considered to be most crucial, or did you wait until the very end? By the very end, did anyone else but you even care?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Normal Advisor

Are you a normal advisor? See today's post over in Scientopia to read about one aspect of the profile of A Normal Advisor.

Monday, May 16, 2011

ProfSpace: The Poll

There were some interesting comments on a recent post about professorial office space, and it seems that professors who commented are pretty evenly divided between like/love and dislike/hate of their offices. That conclusion is based on the small dataset of those who were moved to write a comment, but is it representative? Reviewers who have read the post are skeptical of these results and have asked me to do more experiments and acquire more data.

Anyone can answer the poll of course, but my intention is to gauge the feeling of professors about their offices, as this population has at least a decent chance of having an office with real walls, doors, and/or windows, unlike office space commonly assigned to students, postdocs, adjuncts etc. (with important exceptions, of course).

I have provided only yes/no as possible answers to the question "Do you like/love your office?", so if you like some things about your office and don't like other things, I'm asking you to weigh these likes/dislikes and choose which one tends to dominate your feelings about your office. You can provide the nuances in the comments if you wish, and elaborate on the depth of your affection or hatred for your office.

The profspace poll:

Do you like/love your office?
pollcode.com free polls

Friday, May 13, 2011

My Good Fortune

From time to time, when a "fortune" in a fortune cookie entertains me, I keep the little slip of paper, although I don't always keep track of it after that. Years ago, I was in the habit of taping strange or funny fortunes to postcards and mailing them to friends, but that was back when I sent real mail and had stamps lying around on a regular basis.

Recently, I was looking for something and sort of tidying my office at the same time -- not in a particularly effectual way, but it does look a bit better when the piles of desk-stuff are neater, if not fewer or smaller -- and I found a cache of fortunes that had somehow collected in an office-eddy. I am not entirely sure I meant to keep each of these, but together they represent some important advice about Life and Other Things. If I followed the advice on these little slips of paper, I would be a better person, and I would have more fun.

The fortunes can be divided into categories:


Your message must focus on the receiver. Ignore yourself.

I remember getting this fortune while I was working on a grant proposal; I think that is why I kept it. Substitute "reviewer" for "receiver".

Slaying the dragon of delay is no sport for the short-winded.

In fact, I regularly slay the dragon of delay, but some people I work with are really really good friends with this dragon and keep it as sort of a pet (you know who you are).

Your wit is sharp and quick. Avoid using sarcasm on an unsuspecting victim.
..... [<-- note that I am taking this fortune to heart right here, right now]


Ancient sites beckon you to hit the road soon. You will soon be crossing great ocean waters for an incredibly rewarding experience.

I love to travel, I love ancient sites. They beckon.


Your original ideas will get you well-deserved recognition.

I was writing a grant proposal when I got that fortune as well. I just don't remember if I got that particular grant. I should be more scientific about this. Do I get more grants after getting fortunes like that one, or do I eat more Chinese food when I am working on a proposal?


Your sparkling eyes shed a healing light on those you meet.

You will advance socially without effort on your part.

ha ha ha ha ha ha

Happy Friday the 13th.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Building Committees

Sorry.. Blogger ate this post, along with all of your comments.. but here is the restored post (without the comments).

There have been many interesting comments on yesterday's FSP post and Tuesday's Scientopia/SP post that touched on the topic of how graduate committees are formed. In particular, I am intrigued by the relative role of the student and advisor in choosing and inviting committee members. This leads me directly to my questions for the day (I have been asking a lot of questions lately, I know, but there is a good reason):

- When you were forming your graduate committee (for your final defense and/or prelims), how did you do it and who made the decisions: you, your advisor, or the two of you after some discussion?

- Did you know all of your committee members reasonably well, or were there some virtual or complete strangers (e.g., from other departments, serving as external examiners or providing some needed expertise not represented by faculty you know well)? If you had some unknown committee members, how did that go?

- What were your primary criteria for selecting committee members to invite? For example, was field of expertise your major or only criterion or did you also consider the sanity level and/or reputation of a faculty member in terms of their behavior in exams? Did you deliberately invite any faculty members known to ask tough (but fair) questions, or did you try to stack the deck so you could just get the exam(s) over with and get through that particular hoop as easily as possible?

- If your advisor suggested someone you did not want on your committee, did you object or did you go along with the suggestion?

- Did everyone you first invited to be on your committee say yes to this wondrous opportunity or did you have to search around a bit to get enough people? Some faculty are asked to be on more committees than is practical in terms of time and ability to do justice to the student/exam, so there are benign reasons for faculty members to decline a request to serve on a student committee.

- For faculty: Even if you are on board with the general philosophy of graduate committees, do you find it to be a good use of your time?

Here are my answers:

I made the choices of faculty I wanted on my committee, although I asked my advisor's advice about good candidates for an external examiner.

I had never met the external examiner before I asked him to be on my committee, but when I met with him to explain my research, he was immediately interested, so it ended up being a good experience. Many years later, I saw him at a conference, and he remembered my PhD research. I was very impressed by that, and I think I got lucky in having him on my committee.

My primary criterion was research expertise. Everyone in my graduate department was insane, so there wasn't much diversity in that respect.

I was reasonably happy with my committee, and everyone I asked agreed to be on my committee. That doesn't mean they all read my thesis when I wanted/needed or that all provided thoughtful, timely, and constructive feedback on my research or manuscripts, but each one brought something interesting to the experience, and I learned something from each one.

As a professor, my main deciding factor in whether I accept or decline to be on a committee is whether I have time. However, I have had colleagues who did not want to be on the committee of students advised by particular other colleagues, in some cases because of animosity, but more commonly because of a perception that some committees are a waste of time. I have experienced the latter, but fortunately not many times.

For example, I once served on a committee involving a particular advisor who was very controlling and who interpreted feedback on his student's research as criticism of himself. It was very unpleasant being on that committee, and it was a huge waste of time because the student ignored all committee input. Our only real purpose was to sign some documents. I suppose we can hope that some of the committee comments registered at some level with the student, who might have benefited from our input in some invisible way, but mostly the rest of us felt that the student had acquired the advisor's habit of being patronizing and impervious to the ideas of others. Would I serve on another committee of a student advised by that same advisor? The opportunity has not presented itself, but if it did, I'd have to think about it carefully before deciding.

For me, whether being on a committee is a good use of time varies vastly from committee to committee, in part owing to factors related to the student and in part owing to factors related to the advisor. Overall, though, I think these committees serve a useful purpose, even if that purpose may in some cases be a theoretical concept rather than a reality.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Nothing to Prove: The Poll

Yesterday's post in Scientopia resulted in a wide range of responses in answer to the question of whether a female professor should agree to be on the committee of a doctoral student who had openly stated that women should not be scientists (or that women in general are not good scientists).

I want to try to get a bit more data on this question with a poll. Also, it's just a blog-poll kind of week.

I realize that the response of some would be a qualified "agree" or "refuse", depending on certain circumstances, but just go with your gut feeling of what you would do in this situation.

If asked to be on the committee in question, would you:
Agree to be on the committee
Refuse to be on the committee
pollcode.com free polls

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Nothing to Prove

Today in Scientopia, I discuss a question from a reader -- a female science professor -- who wonders whether to serve on the PhD committee of a grad student who has openly expressed skepticism that women can/should be scientists.

Monday, May 09, 2011

21st Century Non-Sexist

As I was reading various essays and editorials about Motherhood and Moms last weekend, I was reminded of a conversation I had earlier this year at a meeting.

At a meeting, as happens from time to time, I met someone I had not previously met before. In fact, we had never heard of each other, as we are in quite different fields and employment sectors. In any case, we were chatting about Science Things, and then (somewhat randomly, I thought) this man, who looked to be in his mid/late-30s said:

Fortunately I get paid enough in my job so that my wife doesn't have to work. It is so much better for kids when one parent is home all the time taking care of the house and the kids and the shopping.

So I said:

It's great that that works well for you and your family, but I don't agree with it as a general statement for all kids and all parents. For other families, like mine, everyone is happier with both parents working.

He said:

What I said isn't sexist because it doesn't matter whether it is the mom or the dad who stays home. It just happens to be the mom in our case.

I said, ignoring his bizarre defensive reply that implied I had accused him of sexism, when I had not:

That's fine, but my point is that you can't extend your preference to every family, just like I can't say that it is best for all families, including the kids, if both parents work, even though that is what is best for my family.

He went on to explain how much nicer it is for him to return home to a clean house with dinner ready and to have a relaxing evening instead of coming home to a wife who was stressed out and exhausted from her day of work, back when she had a job outside the home.

I am sure it is nicer for him, and I hope his wife is truly happy with this as well. From what I've seen and what I've read, the key factor in whether mom-staying-at-home is a good choice for a family that can financially manage that arrangement is whether the woman really wants to do this or whether she feels she should do it or has no choice.

In any case, I did not ask this man how much he contributed to housework and childcare even when his wife also had a "real" job and was exhausted and stressed out all the time, as I really didn't want to delve into the details of his life; I just wanted to refute his generalizations.

But he wasn't done with his generalizations. He went on to state that places with lots of stay-at-home parents (typically the mom, but again, it doesn't have to be the mom) have better schools than places with lots of two-job families because the parents are more involved in the schools and it's great when the moms (or dads) can stop by and read stories and be lunch monitors or whatever. Schools that don't have lots of moms (or dads) involved can be pretty bad.

I said that many working parents participate in their kid's school activities, and the schools and kids benefit from interacting with moms and dads representing a wide range of career and life experiences.

Mostly, I think that this man was doing what so many people do -- trying to justify or feel good about his own personal decisions by trying to convince others that this is the best way to be. Why not just be happy with your choices? Perhaps he has issues, and these issues came to his mind when he found himself in conversation with a Female Scientist.

Even so, if he and his wife made this choice together, if both are happy with their decision and the kids are happy and mom-at-home really is the best thing for their family, that's great. But don't tell me that kids are harmed by working moms (and dads) and local schools are bad if lots of moms (and dads) work. That is a very unscientific conclusion, in addition to being quite bizarre to inject into a conversation with a Female Scientist at a meeting.

Friday, May 06, 2011


Whenever I visit another university or another department at my university and spend some time in faculty offices, I always look around at the physical space of the office. Ignoring ancillary features such as neatness and the presence of disturbing pictures of large snakes, I consider whether it seems like a nice place to work or whether it is a grim little cement cell.

I am sorry to ignore grads, postdocs, and others in my query, but offices for these colleagues and students tend to be smaller and more crowded/modular, on the assumption that the occupants won't occupy them for long and/or can be ignored if they complain. There are exceptions, of course -- I had a nice office as a postdoc -- but my focus today is on the offices of tenured and tenure-track faculty.

My fellow professors: How do you feel about your office?

Of course there are lots of things that factor into our feelings about our offices, not just details of the physical space. For example, if you hate all your colleagues and most particularly the person with the office next door or across the hall, or if your institution schedules chainsaw woodcarving classes in the room next to your office (true story), you may hate your office no matter how beautiful the wainscoting and/or the view.

I am not sure if the opposite is true: Can one love a windowless basement hole with decaying rodent corpses in the ducts (true story) no matter how much you adore your colleagues and students and research? Maybe some people can, but probably many could not.

Another factor in office-affection-level might be whether there are better office prospects when you gain some seniority. For example, if you hate your office, do you hate it more or less if you know that other people have better offices and/or if you know that you can move to a better office at some point in your academic career?

I am not asking you to separate out the intangibles entirely, but to the extent that you can focus on the size, shape, ceiling height, windows/lighting, flooring, office furniture, door features, wall color and texture (± peeling paint that exposes a layer of lead paint below), and anything else you can think of, what is your overall feeling about your office?

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Possibly Well Written

How important is writing quality for the success of a grant proposal? I don't think you can get a grant proposal funded just because it is well written, but of course it helps if you can explain clearly what you want to do, why you want to do it, and how you are going to do it.

For reviewers, it's good if a proposal is written well enough that it isn't annoying to read. A proposal filled with typos and 2-page long paragraphs consisting of a multitude of unrelated points is a chore to read and makes you wonder whether the poor writing reflects something significant about how the research would be done, even if you know that there may or may not be any correlation.

I have found that it is fairly common for reviewers of my proposals to comment on the writing of the proposal. When I am reviewing a proposal, however, I tend to comment only if the proposal is extraordinarily difficult to read owing to writing problems; that is, the writing is so bad that I am not really sure what the PIs are trying to propose.

If a proposal is well written or moderately well written or not especially well written but I can still figure out what is going on, I don't tend to comment on the writing unless I can think of some specific constructive comment that might be helpful (e.g., for a new investigator). I comment on the writing of manuscripts submitted to journals, but what is relevant in a proposal review is different from what is relevant in a manuscript review.

I was thinking about this because I recently read the reviews of one of my proposals, and I noticed that 3 of 6 reviewers commented on the writing of the proposal:

The proposal is well written..

This is a well written and prepared proposal..

The proposal is not particularly well written..

Since neither of the positive comments about the writing said that the proposal was very well written, and the negative comment used the somewhat feeble description "not particularly", I am going to conclude that the writing was OK -- not great, but good enough. From the rest of the comments in those reviews, it seems that the first two liked the overall proposal anyway, and the third one found lots of little things to criticize -- nothing fatal (the grant was funded), but the reviewer clearly had some other ideas about how the research should be done. In that case, "not particularly well written" might mean "I would have written this proposal in a different way".

In another recent proposal that also led to a grant, two reviewers commented on the writing:

This proposal is very well written..

This proposal is well written..

OK, that's nice, but not relevant unless the reviewers took this into account in their overall ranking. There's no way to know if they did; see below for question about this.

But first, in the interests of bloggy pseudo-research, I need to do something unpleasant and re-read the reviews of a proposal that did not lead to a grant.. a rejected proposal. What, if anything, did reviewers say about the writing in my failed proposal?

Only one out of 6 reviewers mentioned anything about writing:

The proposal is well organized and well written..

Of course it is not possible to conclude anything from these few examples. The reviewers were likely different for each proposal, and who knows whether these reviewers make a habit of commenting on the writing.

I nevertheless stand by my rather obvious hypothesis, expressed in the first sentence of this post, that good writing won't get you a grant (if the proposed research isn't Excellent).

This leads me to some questions for readers who review proposals:

Do you factor how well written a proposal is (or isn't) into your overall proposal rating?

Do you typically mention the writing in your review? (always, never, only if the writing is notably good/bad?)

Do you think that good/bad writing could tip the scale for a proposal to be funded/not funded if the proposal is right on the very edge of the funding zone?

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Abstract Rules

Today in Scientopia I discuss how to deal with students who break some of the "unwritten rules" of academic culture.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

He Said/She Crowed

Earlier this year, I went to a talk that mostly consisted of text slides. When I realized that the verbal parts of the talk didn't add any more information than what was shown on the text slides, I fell into the habit of quickly reading the slides and then doing some brain multi-tasking (day-dreaming, plotting etc.) until it was time to read the next text slide.

At some point, though, the speaker captured my attention. Part of the talk involved the speaker's opining about the work of others; e.g., "this person did this" and "that person did that". My attention was caught by the fact that the speaker described a woman as "crowing" about her particular idea.

Crowing? What did that mean? And if a woman was crowing, what were the men doing?

So then I started listening to what he was saying and how he was saying it. It was quite stark, the difference in how the ideas of men and women were portrayed. In the opinion of the speaker, the women "went on and on" in an "unconvincing way" about the topic in question, whereas men made "repeated forceful arguments" and presented "a strong case" for their ideas.

Even when the speaker disagreed with some of the men he mentioned, he said that he "respectfully disagreed" with them. The men "knew what they were doing" (even if they were wrong or misguided), but the women were basically just making things up without having "a complete understanding" of the issues.

It was not an important or interesting talk, but, for me, the speaker's choice of words rather effectively undermined his authority to give an informed or interesting opinion on his chosen topic. Once I realized his opinions broke down perfectly along gender lines in terms of the people he admired and those whom he denigrated, I no longer trusted what he was saying.

Of course, no one is truly "objective" when giving a presentation about ideas and results. We all make choices about what to present vs. what not to present, and we choose our words and tone and emphasis. We also commonly inject our opinions when discussing the work of others, either overtly or in more subtle ways.

Many professional talks include references to the work of others, typically listed on a slide as "Schmo et al. (2010)" or similar. In some cases the speaker may elaborate on the people involved, e.g. "this paper by my excellent former student, Bob Schmo". This is a normal part of many talks.

And of course discussion of the work of others can be critical, e.g. "Although Schmo et al. (2010) proposed X, in fact our data are more consistent with an interpretation of Z", perhaps with some details about how the disagreement or discrepancy arose. This can be useful for understanding the context of the evolution of research and thought on a particular topic.

It is possible to humanize Science (and even Scientists..) and to give some of the personal back-story of a body of work and even to criticize work (and workers) we don't like, but it is also possible to be professional and equal-opportunity-respectful about it. It doesn't seem possible for some individuals, but it is possible in general.

So, do I want speakers to "censor" themselves and "walk on coals" in professional talks so as not to alienate sensitive and borderline hysterical women who will then "crow" about perceived sexism, thereby perpetuating sexism, which would magically go away if women didn't talk about it (or whatever)? Yes, I do want this, or, at least, the first part.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Evaluation Apathy

Perhaps the most dramatic result of the switch from teaching evaluations done on paper forms distributed in class to online forms accessible during a particular period of time at the end of an academic term has been the significant decline in student participation in the evaluations.

Some institutions/units/departments don't use online forms for this very reason, although online forms are certainly logistically preferable both during and after the evaluation process.

Using online forms in many cases reduces completion of the evaluations from > 80% (in-class forms) to < 40% (online forms).

I suppose you could argue that if students don't want to provide input, they shouldn't have to, but the concern is that teaching evaluations will lose what (debatable) value they have if < 40% of a class is providing comments. As long as teaching evaluations are used by administrators to judge teaching ability, the consequences for the instructor -- especially assistant professors and adjuncts -- can be dire if only those students who are unhappy are motivated to fill out the online forms (analogous to what happens to some professors on ratemyprofessors.com and similar sites).

From what I've seen, if a course has an online evaluation and the instructor does nothing to remind or encourage the students to fill out the online form, the participation is typically exceedingly low (<< 40%), even if there are reminders sent by whatever administrative office oversees the evaluation process.

There are things an instructor can do to increase participation, listed here in order of increasing evaluation completion rates (in my personal experience), from top to bottom of the list:

- make some announcements in class;

- make some announcements in class and send reminder e-mails;

- make some announcements in class, send reminder e-mails, and talk in class about why the evaluations are important (even for a senior professor) and why you care about getting their input -- you can even provide some examples of specific topics on which you would like input;

and the most effective method of the list:

- bribes and rewards.

Bribes work, but there are issues.

Some professors give extra credit if students do the online evaluations. According to some students I've talked to, some professors even say (or imply) that they can see which students fill out the evaluations and which do not, and promise extra credit only to those who complete the evaluations. In fact, correct me if I am wrong, but professors can't actually see individual names of who has and who has not filled out evaluations; we can see the number of completed evaluations and/or the % completion rate.

I think targeted bribes are unethical (i.e., saying that an individual student will get extra credit), but what about group bribes? Is it wrong to tell the entire class that they will all get a bit of extra credit if more than a certain (high) % of the class does the evaluations? Of course, giving the entire class extra credit is meaningless in some grading schemes, but let's ignore that for now and just consider whether the lure of extra credit for all is a good (and appropriate) way to encourage participation in teaching evaluations.

Pro: It takes time to fill out the evaluations, particularly if there are multiple instructors and TAs for each class. It's not a lot of time, but it's still a lot of clicking around to boring forms. Extra credit rewards a student's time and effort in an activity that the institution has deemed important. In this context, the extra credit is an incentive or a reward, not a bribe.

Con: Filling out an evaluation form isn't part of the academic work of the course, so extra credit for this activity isn't appropriate, even if it isn't a lot of extra credit. In general, it's not a good idea to bribe students to give their objective, thoughtful opinion about a course and its instructor.

Perhaps the best method is to offer a reward of some sort, but separate it from academic credit; e.g., the offering of prizes by some institutions (not instructors) to randomly selected students who complete evaluation forms. In the instructor-based scheme, every student in the class gets something (extra credit) if the target participation % is reached, whereas in the institution-based scheme, only some students get a reward. I don't think that is too discouraging to students, though -- low odds don't seem to discourage people from buying lottery tickets, for example.

If you use online evaluation forms, how do you (or your institution) encourage students to complete them?