Friday, January 20, 2012

I Break For Ducks

The apparent typo in the title is intentional, in case you are wondering. Also, no ducks are involved. I just felt like writing that.

Anyway, the 'break' in the title refers to the fact that I have a rather intense schedule of travel and other professional activities in the nearish future, so blogging and comment moderation will be sporadic. I may need to take a bit of a blog-break until things settle down a bit.

In the meantime, I will leave you with this, which is not a duck:

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Because I'm a Woman

A reader writes:

Dear Female Science Professor,

Maybe you had this topic before on your Blog but I was wondering if you do also frequently receive offers to occupy leading positions "because you are a woman". I am a female science professor at an institution with few female professors - in fact I think we are far less than 10%. This is a big political issue, because our institute may get a cut in the annual budget if the situation is not improving soon. I received already several offers to become a committee leader, a department head etc.. I was always asked by males and they were not hiding the fact that they asked me, because "we" need more women in leading positions. I really wished one day I would be asked, because someone thinks I am the best match for this job... I also wonder if it is sometimes a satisfaction for the males to let us women know that we were chosen just to balance the genders. Honestly, sometimes I start taking it as a discrimination to be asked for these jobs, because it means extra time that I have to spend with these duties and sometimes it is impossible to step out, because I would risk to imbalance the male-female ratio, which would fall back negatively on our institution. I am not at all a feminist - never was. I was always the girl who preferred to play with boys as a child and I always saw myself simply for what I am - free of gender thoughts. I was never feeling treated diffently, because I am a women. But this new situation is really starting to annoy me. Don't get me wrong, its better to get these jobs offered than to be left out, but I just wished I could think I "earned" them....


You very likely have earned these opportunities, but it is common to feel otherwise. I have discussed this topic before in the blog, but it's one of those topics that never goes away because many of us experience this situation throughout our careers* and have mixed feelings about it, as expressed well in the e-mail above. This is a situation that would presumably go away if there were more women in our fields.

One reason the 'we need a woman' situation makes some of us uncomfortable is that we want to be given opportunities based on our expertise and talents, but sometimes this isn't going to happen unless there is a concerted effort to try to include women in certain administrative positions, committees and so on. I have served on many committees that needed a woman (and there weren't many women to ask), resented those cases in which it was made clear to me that my token status made my participation less valuable than those of the men, and been convinced many a time that my presence was important, even if I had to put up with some unpleasant behavior on the part of my so-called peers. It bothers me less in cases in which I am aware that the committee (or whatever) 'needed' a woman, but once there, I am treated with respect, just like everyone else.

Our mixed-feelings can result in the unfair accusation that 'we don't know what we want'; that is, we think women should be represented but we don't want it to be overt that we are asked because we are women. We resent having to do more service than our male peers (and not get credit for it, or even get criticized for it), but we are disturbed when important committees (etc.) are composed entirely of men. What do we want? It's simple: We want to be treated with respect.

Note that being "free of gender thoughts" does not disqualify you from being a feminist. The fact that you think women should be treated in a fair way, based on our qualifications, does in fact make you a feminist. This is a compliment. A feminist is a person who thinks that women should have fair and equal rights and opportunities. If you think that your male peers should be paid more than you for the same job, then OK, you are not a feminist.

* In fact, just a few weeks ago, I received an invitation to serve on the board of the Zombie Research Society. The invitation explained "We are actively looking for qualified women to join the Board." Despite my intense fascination with all things zombie (= sarcasm/lie), I was struck by the 'we are only asking you because you are a woman' line. I was not offended at all, but I noted the up-front statement. Alas, only qualified women are being considered, and I am definitely not qualified for this role because I am more interested in dryer lint than I am in zombies.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Look Up?

If you are in a job that involves the perusal of applications -- such as applications for graduate admission, for postdocs, for faculty positions etc. -- do you use Google (or similar) to try to find out more about applicants in whom you have a particular interest?

For example, if you are a professor who advises graduate students, do you Google (or whatever) some or all of the applicants who mention an interest in working with you? If you are on a search committee, do you Google (or whatever) applicants, or, at least, those on the short list? And so on.

I have never done this, but I know that some people do it routinely. So I wonder: Does such searching ever turn up information that is relevant to the decision-making process?

This same question can of course be turned around to ask applicants if they have Googled potential advisors etc. as part of their decision-making process about their education and careers. In fact, I have encouraged something similar in a post a few months ago: that prospective graduate students should look up our advising records, publication records, grant records etc. In that case, however, I was proposing using citation databases, department webpages etc. That's a bit different from encouraging a broader search, although I have nothing against such searching; I just wonder if it is useful.

Hence my question to readers today: Has anyone found out anything via a Google-like search that influenced a decision about an applicant (or potential advisor, colleague etc.), for or against? Can you give examples? Can anyone explain why it might be good to do these searches on a routine basis, other than just out of curiosity to see what someone's time was in a 10k fun-run or to see a photo of someone amidst a drunken revel in college?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Ask

In Scientopia, I discuss (and, as always, invite comments, hoping for a wide variety of them) a reader's question about whether/how to ask a search committee chair why you were not interviewed for a position for which you applied.

Monday, January 16, 2012

On A Related Topic

The topic of Letters of Reference seems to pop up rather often in the e-mails I get from readers, no matter how much I have already written about this topic. I get questions about writing them, reading them, asking people to write them for you.. The number of ways that this topic is fraught with anxiety and pitfalls is truly impressive.

I seem to have written 29 (now 30) posts on the topic in the past 5+ years. Or, at least, I have labeled 30 posts as such. Previous reference-letter-centric topics have included:

- How (whether) to compare the individual in question with others: peers, people with the same gender, the most brilliant people on the planet in a particular field..

- The most difficult types of letters (for me) to write, and the ones I most enjoy writing;

- The strangest (and most inappropriate things) I have read in letters of reference (I hope I have not written anything that would show up in someone else's list of such things);

- How to assemble a good list of people to ask to write letters of reference for a tenure case;

- How much I hate filling out the forms for grad applications that involve my comparing the applicant with the top 1%, 2.5%, 8%, 25%, 50%.. of students I have ever taught, or that have applied to grad school, or that I can remember, or something, not to mention also having to 'grade' the applicant on a host of Important Skills, from writing to ethics to working well with others. And yet, as much as I hate the ones with 57 categories, I also hate the ones with too few; e.g., I saw a recent one that lumped writing/speaking ability and wanted a single rating for this category.

- Writing letters (as a student) for an advisor, past or present;

- A plea for those who ask professors and others to write (many) letters of reference to send a brief e-mail telling them how things turned out, what you decided etc. Maybe the letter-writer doesn't care, maybe they do, but if someone took the time to help you out, even if you consider it "part of their job", at least have some brief communication with them later.

- What to do if a letter-writer asks you to write a first draft of the letter? (do it, it's just a draft);

- A classification of Letter Writer Types, from most obnoxious to most helpful;

- and let's not forget the Letter of Reference writing contest of December 2009.

That's a lot, and is just a partial list. Is there anything else? In fact, there is. Has anyone else encountered this situation that recently came to my attention?:

You are looking at the application (doesn't matter for what) from someone who worked in industry for a few years. The applicant worked for a small, specialized company in or near their hometown, and has a very positive letter from a top executive in that company. The applicant and the executive share the same last name; it is not an unusual name, but it is also not one of the most common ones. There is no mention in the letter or anywhere in the application that the applicant and the letter writer are related. What would (did) you do?

(1) Assume they are not related and take the reference letter at face value.

(2) Strongly suspect that they are relatives and dismiss the letter as possibly more unobjective than most such letters.

(3) Not care either way; letters are mostly filled with partial truths anyway.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Wrong and Stupid

In Scientopia today, I present and discuss a reader's question about what a search committee can and can't consider in deciding which candidates to interview, with a particular focus on a common issue..

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

One More

This late entry delves into an academic niche that was not explored in the recent Cover Letter Contest. It did not make it into yesterday's poll, but the letter makes the important point that some CLs are written by people who already have a faculty position but would like a different one. 

In real life, of course, you could just send in your application; there is no need to explain the CL why you are thinking of leaving your current job, unless you want to explain it.

Dear FSP,

Sorry for the late application.  I am currently, in my 4th year of tenure-track at University X (have to submit my tenure app at the beginning of my 5th year here), and I was working on journal papers and proposals all through the break that I didn't realize it was Christmas or even 2012 yet.  I am interested in applying to your University Y, preferably to obtain a tenured position, but in reality, I'll take anything you have.

To make a long story short, I am DESPERATE.... did you hear me -- DESPERATE to get out of this male-dominated, chauvinist ****hole department at University X.  I am decently funded.  I have slews of low-quality journal papers because my university emphasizes quantity for tenure, and I can't focus.  Please... get me out-of-here.  I specially chose your university because it's near me, and we can't move because of my husband's job and our underwater mortgage.  I'll work for pennies if you just treat me with some respect.

Yours truly,
burned-out neurotic prof

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Cover Letter Contest: The Vote

Thanks to all who submitted entries to The Cover Letter contest. Some of these were very memorable examples of the CL genre. I apologize if I didn't post yours; I read and appreciated all entries, but think I've probably posted enough (for now). I feel that it is time to VOTE.

Before you vote, however, I think it is important to mention that at least 99.42% of real cover letters that accompany applications for tenure-track positions* are professional, inoffensive letters; it is the others that are much more memorable**, and it is these we celebrate in this 'contest'.

Those who look at entitled, patronizing, and/or obnoxious cover letters as a symptom of all that is corrupt about academia should not focus on these outliers. It is a bit of a leap to assume that someone writing an egomaniacal (or whatever) CL will be offered a job just because they say they are so awesome. Also, I believe that at least some of the apparently obnoxious letters were actually written by well-meaning people who just didn't know how to write a letter; maybe they were told to "sell" themselves in the letter, and didn't know how to do this in a non-obnoxious way.

* but, alas, many more cover letters sent to potential postdoc supervisors are strange and/or obnoxious.

** I still remember one from >15 years ago that stated that the applicant had given "countless" presentations at conferences; we all counted, of course. He had given 16. Impressive, perhaps, but a number that could be easily counted by most hiring committee members. I remember almost nothing else about that search.

In any case, it is time now to vote for your favorite. A key is provided below, with numbers keyed to entries. Vote for your favorite cover letter, using the number associated with the relevant entry. (I have not included the last entry because it was just a copy of something that has appeared elsewhere.)

1: Dec 23, 2011: letter from a nanoherpetologist, containing the phrase "A copy of my press releases.." (is available on request)

2: Dec 26, 2011: Dear Search Committee Chair. This one sparked a useful discussion of whether it is OK to address such a letter in a generic way.

3: Dec 27, 2011: "Herewith I submit to you my application materials thereof.."

4: Dec 28, 2011: Clueless Cover Letter.

5: Dec 29, 2011: I Plan To Collaborate With You

6: Dec 30, 2011: I Would Consider Being a Postdoc in Your Lab

7: Jan 02, 2012: I Am Exactly What You Are Looking For

8: Jan 03, 2012: I Can Tell You About My Vision

9: Jan 04, 2012: Sent From My iPhone

10: Jan 05, 2012: Your Research is Systematic and Penetrating

11: Jan 09, 2012: I Really Really Want To Work For You Now

(There seems to be a problem with the voting for CL #11. The html code looks fine, so instead of fixing the main poll, I have added separate poll for 11. If you want to vote for #11, vote in the green poll in the lower box.)

Which was your favorite Cover Letter entry?
11 free polls 

Vote here for Cover Letter 11
none of the above free polls 

Monday, January 09, 2012

I Really Really Want To Work For You Now

One more Cover Letter entry (I think), and then the voting will commence, tomorrowish. Apparently this is a slightly modified version of a real letter.

I do not understand why you did not reply to my email yesterday.
You interviewed me last spring for a postdoc position.  Before you could offer me a position I told you that I did not want to work for you because I wanted to work with BigNameProf  instead and he had offered me an interview too.  It turns out that BigNameProf did not hire me.  I do not understand this either.
Anyway, I really, really want to work for you now. I promise to be an amazing postdoc.  I attached my CV in case you do not remember how amazing I am.
I do good research but have no idea how to communicate grad student

Friday, January 06, 2012

The Time Is Now Ripe For Me To Ascend

Submitted by longtime reader Eli, with a link to a blog that posted this before:

This one was "sent"

December 16, 2008
Jerry MacArthur Hultin
President, Polytechnic Institute of New York

Dear Pres. Hultin:

I am writing to inform you that I have decided to offer myself for consideration for the Chaired Professorship in Physics and Chemistry at your distinguished institution. As you are no doubt aware, my father, Benjamin Post (1911-1994), held this position for many years (when the institution was known as "Brooklyn Polytechnic," or more familiarly, "Brooklyn Poly") and was an important part of the x-ray crystallography unit that helped establish Poly's pre-eminence in that field. Though I have chosen a different career path up to this point, I believe that, for many reasons I would be happy to discuss with you in person, the time is now ripe for me to ascend to the position that has been waiting for me, and I for it, all these years. I look forward to working with you and your colleagues as we embark down this new road together.

Sincerely yours,
David G. Post

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Your Research is Systematic and Penetrating

The strange thing is, I think I got this same e-mail, or one very much like it, and I think I am in a different field from Mark P, the person who submitted this to the Cover Letter contest as a slightly modified version of an actual e-mail.

Dear Mark P,

You must be enjoying your Merry Christmas at the moment. My best wishes to you and your family, and Happy New Year!
I am an international student applying for Ph. D program in your department, and I am very interested in your area of study [fill in two sentences from my website, with the grammar connecting them in error]. Besides I have read your paper entitled [Title of a recent paper from our lab], the research is systemic and penetrating. You can't imagine how I crave for being a member of your group and do further research under your guide. Could I be one of your potential students next year? Archimedes once said, Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world. But I say that given the opportunity, I will perform miracles.
The following is my resume which may be helpful for your consideration.I would be grateful if early reply is given.

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!

Mr. cut and paste

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Sent from my iPhone

My favorite part of this Cover Letter entry is the very last line, below the signature, but there are other gems in here.

Dear Ms. Female S. Professor,

Sorry my cover letter is arriving so late.  I would have gotten it in earlier, but you know, I just couldn't get to it because my schedule was really booked the last two weeks.  I've been working on my work/life balance lately and my therapist encouraged me to prioritize work less, which I decided meant focusing my energy for all of December on decorating my apartment for a raging holiday party.

I'd really like to do a postdoc at your university, and you seem like you'd be pretty cool to work with (BTW, I heard about your blog!  Don't worry, your real identity is on the DL).  I haven't seen any announcements that you have any interest in hiring postdocs, and I know your research isn't really in my area, so I figured since you're a professor and all you could probably just write a grant for me.  I can just hang out at my PhD institution leeching my advisor's funding until your grant gets accepted.  I don't really know how to write grants yet so I don't think I should help.  Plus, I know from your blog that you're a really great writer!  So I'll leave the writing to you. 

So anyway, attached are my application materials.  I'm sure you'll gather from this that I have a promising academic career ahead of me.  I have enough teaching experience that I'm sure I'll get a faculty job as soon as I apply, which I intend to start working on full time as soon as I get settled in at your university.  Also, I have a ton of publications and research skills that will also look good on those applications. I won't bore you with the details since you aren't in my subfield anyway. Be sure not to overlook the Science paper that I'm third author on.  The first author is a labmate of mine who is way more ambitious than I am.  The only thing that's really missing from my CV is a postdoc position at your university, so I can't wait for you to round that out for me.

Getting back to my work/life balance, I'd definitely take a postdoc at your university because I'm really excited about all the opportunities to get outside in your area.  I can't wait to spend all my winters skiing only a multiple hour drive away and my summers in the nice warm water that's a few hours drive in a different direction!  I should be able to stop by the university at least once a week in order to do laundry and check my mail for those faculty job offers.

Millennium generation grad student

*Sent from my iPhone*

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

I Can Tell You About My Vision

The competition continues to be fierce for the Most Obnoxious Cover Letter possible. Here is another contender:

Dear Search Committee,

I am pleased to inform you that I am hereby applying for the Faculty Position in the Department of Chemistry which I saw listed in the latest issue of Science.  My work is centered on the role of physiogenomic and synchochrotomic control of heritable patterning.  Mostly I do computer modeling but I also know a lot of Chemistry.  I am currently a PhD candidate at ReallyFamous School, and I plan to defend this Spring (although I haven’t told my advisor and my committee yet, so I’d appreciate your discretion on this point).  Recently I read that the NIH has started a new award called the “Pathway to Independence” award where you can skip your postdoc, so I decided that I’ll do that since I’m very talented and I don’t really need to do a postdoc.   I will apply for this award next month and expect that I will receive the Notice of Award by the time I begin my new position at your University. 

Furthermore, I’m glad to tell you that I will be in YourCity on the second weekend in February for my cousin’s wedding!  Therefore, I would be glad to extend my trip and stay in the city for an extra day or two so that we can meet and I can tell you about my vision for my Research Team and we can begin to negotiate.  I have planned my schedule so that I can stay in your city on Monday and Tuesday of that week to meet with you (please find the receipt for my plane tickets attached; I’d appreciate being reimbursed at your earliest convince).

I look forward to meeting you in person in February!

PhD Candidate

Monday, January 02, 2012

I Am Exactly What You Are Looking For

How many different ways are there to write an obnoxious Cover Letter? There are an infinite variety of ways, but some themes are becoming apparent. Here is another entry in the CL letter contest.

Dear Mrs. Wrong Name:

I saw the ad for computational science postdoctoral research associate, and immediately realized that I was exactly what you are looking for: a physicist with the right mix of computing and science expertise.

I've had a lot of experience answering fundamental questions of the universe with Visual Basic and Excel.  My mom always asks me to fix her computer when something goes wrong with it.  Although I have never used a supercomputer, I've skimmed some of the slides from your supercomputing course, and it looks to be foundational.  I am sure that I will catch on quickly.

The atomic nucleus consists of protons and neutrons.  The proton has a positive charge, and the neutron has no charge.  I've solved Schrodinger's equation on nuclear configurations all the way up to Uranium, using my spreadsheet model, but I'll probably need a supercomputer to get more digits of accuracy.

I am applying for your postdoc position because I am currently unemployed and living with my sister. I did have a postdoc before, but I had to resign because the winters were too cold and I hated all the deadlines.  There's also a guy I met once, a fellow alum of my undergraduate institution (admittedly, 10 years my senior) who works at your institution in a different department and should be able to provide a good recommendation.

I've heard that you pay really well, especially compared to other institutions, but I hope you'll be able to afford to reward someone with my level of experience.  I can't wait to hear from you.

E. Gomaniac