Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Contest Entries: Rejection Letters, 2

Here are two more beautiful examples of the genre, each crazy-making in their own special way. 

(By the way, I am not sure if those submitting these want their names attached to their entries; without specific information I am erring on leaving names off but am happy to include names if so instructed -- and I can add names to entries already posted.)

Dear Candidate,

Thank you so, so much for your application to our Department. We were overwhelmed with the enthusiasm with which the scientific community rallied around our job posting, and to date with have received 1,217 applications (and counting!!!) from kindhearted individuals across the country. I'm sure you will agree that this is a very special achievement, which we could never have managed without your contribution. 

As I am sure you will appreciate, it was very difficult for us - after we had read through the documents of all the incredibly talented hotshot Ivy League academics (each with their own truly inspiring pedigrees and publication record) - to narrow the selection down to just one eventual winner. We wanted to award all of you a tenure-track position in our department! But in the end we had to make just one choice, and I am sorry to say that your application didn't quite make the cut. 

But you were really close, though! 

Thank you once again for applying to our Department - it was really sweet of you to consider us. Keep your eyes peeled for details about our next academic opening! 

Warm regards and gratitude,

Department Search Committee 


Dear Applicant,

Thank you very much for your application for a position in our department.  Due to the large number of applications we receive, if you are not on the short list for the position then this will be the last you'll hear from us.  On the other hand, we request that you take the time to let us know if you accept a position elsewhere.


Search Committee Secretary

Top-10 Science Department

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Contest Entries: Rejection Letters, 1

Here are two entries in the Rejection Letter writing contest, including one (the first one) that is based on a real letter that may (or may not?) be needlessly a bit cruel.

We wish you well

On behalf of Dr. Marty Bloom, Chair, Dept. of Many Words for Science and the MWFS Search Committee at Badly Located State School  we greatly appreciate your applying for a faculty position in our department.   We regret that your name was not on the short list.  We wish you well in your search for a position appropriate to your accomplishments and interests.


Mary Sue LogginsSearch Committee Secretary



Dear Applicant,

Thank you for applying for Job [ID code 87340000001]. 

Your application passed audit.

You have not been selected for this job.

(end text)


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Write This 2014

For the past couple of weeks I have been feeling occasionally distressed that I had not yet announced the theme of the annual Academic Writing Contest, and then I noticed the date on last year's announcement -- December 22. So now I feel better, though only if I don't think too much about what that means about the past two years.

A summary of the themes of the last six (6) contests:

And now, to celebrate the end of 2014 and get everyone in a festive mood for 2015, the theme for this year's writing contest is: The Rejection Letter.

The rules are simple:

- Write a brief rejection letter that exemplifies whatever interests you most about this type of communication -- how awful they can be, how insincere, how kind, how bizarre, how cryptic, or whatever.

- Entries can be made up or can be (anonymized) real ones that are somehow noteworthy for their awfulness, awesomeness, bizarreness etc.

- Email entries to femalescienceprofessor@gmail.com, and as usual I will arbitrarily post some or all of them whilst the FSP family makes its annual expedition to somewhere interesting.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Jekyll-Hyde Q&A

During the question-and-answer time associated with talks at conferences or in department seminars, have you noticed any difference in how questions are addressed to male vs. female speakers? By "how", I mean things like tone of voice and level of politeness/aggression.

This difference is one of those things that I keep expecting to go away with time as a result of the increase in numbers of women as speakers and audience members. It has definitely decreased in frequency but it has not gone away.

Something I noticed at a conference earlier this year was that audience members were commonly quite polite and encouraging of student presenters (of any gender). The fangs mostly seemed to appear when there was a non-student early-career female speaker: postdocs/research scientists, assistant professors, and even in one case an associate professor.

This is of course a completely unscientific anecdotal subjective observation. Nevertheless, over the years I have observed some mid-career and older male colleagues who consistently go through a sort of Jekyll-Hyde transformation when a younger woman gives a presentation. They are rude, aggressive, patronizing, and make it clear that the answers given to their questions are inadequate and probably wrong. They do not do this with male speakers. Ever.

I know that some male colleagues who also noticed this phenomenon and were uncomfortable about it tried to talk to at least one of these colleagues. I am curious to see if this criticism will somehow sink in and modify behavior.

A concern is that whatever subconscious impressions are triggering these negative reactions to female speakers also seep into reviews of papers and proposals, decisions on hiring and promotion, or any other circumstance involving evaluation of a less public sort. Or perhaps (total musing alert) it is the public nature of the rude questioning of a female speaker that is the (subconscious) goal, and private reviewing of a paper or proposal does not trigger such a reaction. I am just making this up; I have no insights into the psychology of this behavior. I have just seen it in action too many times.

I do not mean to imply that there is an epidemic of disrespect at conferences and seminars; in my academic world, there is not. In fact (silver lining alert) the examples I describe here are perhaps particularly evident today because they have become relatively rare. I am also encouraged by the existence of male allies who notice and speak up.

So: During the question-and-answer time associated with talks at conferences etc., have you noticed any difference in how questions are addressed to male vs. female speakers?

Saturday, November 08, 2014

This is Your Brain on Administration

Certainly I am not the first to realize that a proliferation of administrators at certain levels of academic institutions results in an increasing number of tasks passed down to lower levels. This year, it is like a fire hose spraying a deluge of new administrative tasks directly at my head (and at department staff, without whom I would collapse into an inert heap). It is causing me to face one of my greatest anxieties about being a part-time administrator: losing my research brain (not to mention my blogging brain).

There are many things in life that can encroach on our creative-thinking time and abilities -- babies and illness (to name just two) -- and over time can make it difficult to sustain an energetic research program. I have experienced those; now my major distraction is of a more mundane sort: administrative thoughts are taking over my brain.

It is not just that I have less time for research. Realizing this was a bit of a surprise. I guess I always assumed that administrators who complained about the negative effect of administrative duties on their research were talking about how little time they had for research. The lack of time for research is of course a factor. But now I think that a more insidious factor is what spending so much time on administration can do to your brain.

Administrative work (in my experience) can be broadly classified into two general (admittedly imperfect categories): Stupid Tasks and Other Tasks.

Stupid Tasks are classified as such by me because they are unnecessarily time-sucking. These tasks include things that:

- a robot zombie computer could do;
- are the result of shiny new policies that are meant to change but not necessarily improve anything for anyone;
- are the result of someone else doing something stupid, unnecessary, immature, or unwise;
- are involved in documenting that we are not spending federal, state, or any money on illegal drugs, yachts, massages or alcohol, and -- just as bad -- are not spending this research money on that research project instead of on this research project, and we can prove it by documenting how everyone spends all their time, 24/7, whilst working on this or that research project; oh, and by the way, the system by which we monitor all that is going to change every year or so and in between you will spend a lot of time figuring out the new system, which will have bugs, but there is training you can attend to learn the new system before it is superceded by the next one, which will cost the university a lot of money and will be bewildering;
- require lots of meetings but don't need to;
- involve people who work for the University Facilities unit.

Some Stupid Tasks are actually important, many are urgent, and all are annoying.

Other Tasks are ones that require some higher level of thought or decision-making than the Stupid Tasks. Some of these are stressful and some of them are the only reason why being a department/unit head is at all rewarding (examples: hiring, supporting faculty/researchers/staff/students in various ways, solving problems that are worth solving, being an advocate for the department in the university and the broader Science community, connecting with alumni, and just generally being helpful so that bright and hard-working colleagues and students can do their great work as well as possible).

Being an administrator requires some creativity, and that may help keep the research part of the brain from atrophying too much. But I have found that it is easy to let a focus on Stupid Tasks take over, narrowing my vision and withering my imagination (I fear). And again, it isn't just about time. I can make time for research (most weeks). It's just that during random times when I might previously have been thinking about research -- such as when walking on campus, exercising, or sitting quietly with a friendly cat -- instead of thinking about Science, I find myself thinking about all the Stupid Tasks I have to do that day/week and how to solve a certain short-term problem and so on. Not good.

I recently talked with some colleagues who are or were department heads for a substantial amount of time (>5 years) and whose research careers came to a crashing halt as a result. Talking to them was dispiriting. It helps to think of examples to the contrary (and I know some good ones), so this is what I try to do. Perhaps some day it won't be important to me to have a strong research component to my work and life and I will happily spend my days thinking about parking, plumbing, provosts, policies, and printers. For now, though, I will try to stop thinking so much about Stupid Tasks that don't really require as much brain-space as I have been giving them.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Rejection Rules

Telling people (by letter, e-mail, or voice) that they are not getting a position for which they applied, or are not even being considered (at all/any more), is difficult. Do I even need to bother to say that I understand that it is not as difficult as being the one getting that information? (Probably, so I just did.)

I have written about rejection letters before, and have a blog label for posts on "criticism, rejection, or failure" (22 posts, including this one). I still stand by the approach I described two years ago regarding how to go about rejecting applicants:

(1) just do it -- once a decision has been made, it's better to let an unselected applicant know where they stand than to leave them unnecessarily uninformed and wondering;

(2) be respectful and professional; the rejectee likely does not care to hear that rejecting them is painful for you;

(3) if possible, be informative with relevant data (number of applicants, where the applicant ended up in the process etc.); this is also part of being professional and respectful, even if there are a very large number of applicants to reject.

I am sure that there is a lot of variation in how and when different departments/units inform unselected applicants of their status. For much of the process in my department, I leave communication with unselected candidates to the search committee chair and/or the department administrator, depending on the situation. My personal role as the bearer of good or bad news comes near the end of the process and involves only the candidates who made it to the very-last stages of consideration.

When a search is still underway, my only contribution to the rejection process is to make sure that  someone is informing applicants of their status in a timely way.

Rejection may occur at any one of many points in the process:

First: rejection of those who reflexively submit applications for positions for which they are not qualified -- for example, those who are in a completely different field with zero experience in the research/teaching topics of the open position. I wonder why these applicants even bother. These applications typically arrive soon after an ad is posted, even if this is months before the deadline or target date for submitting applications (not a good sign if you are applying to a research university with expectations of continuing research activity).

Then: those applicants who meet the basic qualifications for the position but, owing to something about their record or field of expertise, are not selected for further consideration.

Then: those applicants who make it to the long-list but not the medium- or short/est-lists. The reasons for non-selection at these points range widely.

Then: those who interviewed but who are not offered a position -- there may be various subdivisions of these depending on how many are interviewed and what goes on in terms of discussions among faculty, administrators etc., so the timing and mode of rejection may vary.

That's a lot of rejecting. In my experience, departments are encouraged to conduct at least some very broad searches rather than narrow searches in the hopes that broader searches will increase diversity. Broader searchers result in larger numbers of applicants and therefore larger numbers of rejections. If the ultimate goal is noble, I think it is preferable to have a larger number of applicants (and therefore rejections) than to have fewer applicants/fewer rejections.

Agree or disagree?

Monday, September 08, 2014

Why Being An Administrator Is (Sometimes) Super Cool

Why can it be very great to be an administrator, at least certain kinds of administrator, such as department heads or program directors or maybe even some dean-like people?

Because, from time to time, you get to offer people excellent jobs, like tenure-track sorts of jobs. Such jobs do indeed still exist. Some people are getting them and that means that other people are making the official offers to those people. I have found that I very much enjoy being one of those other people.

That is: It is of course very thrilling to get an offer of a tenure-track position. It is also super cool to be the one making the offer/s.

I like to think about this when the relentlessly trivial and soul-destroying aspects of being an administrator start to gain on the positive aspects.

Below is a highly schematic graph that I hope I can eventually replace with a graph based on actual data (with a Time axis that has real units). This example graph is just to show in a relative sense how super cool making a job offer is compared to routine administrative tasks and the occasional unpleasant (but not catastrophic) financial or personnel crisis. 

+ = supercoolness; - = suckiness; 0 = neutral; time has no units...

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

3G Women's Colleges

When I started this blog in 2006, my daughter was in elementary school. Now she is starting to think about college -- what type of institution in what part of the country/world and so on. So far the reality/stress of actual applications and decisions has not yet arrived and it is interesting to discuss the options.

One thing that interests me is that my daughter is very serious about applying to women's colleges.

When I was in college-search mode decades ago, I was interested in women's colleges -- for different reasons than the ones motivating my daughter. I was interested in women's colleges in large part because I felt that I would be taken seriously as a scholar in such an environment. I did not want college to be a repeat of high school, where boys were the ones 'most likely to succeed' (no matter that the top 11 students in my graduating class were female). In that sense, my motivation was somewhat negative in that I was seeking a place that was very different from what I had experienced before.

My daughter's high school takes her very seriously as an intelligent, motivated, articulate person and she has every expectation of being taken seriously in college as well. So her interest in women's colleges is more of a positive one: she thinks of women's colleges as places where she would be surrounded by many interesting and ambitious women. She knows that she could also find such communities at other types of institutions but has a particularly positive impression of this aspect of women's colleges. This impression comes from a few visits to women's colleges and also from meeting graduates of women's colleges at various times over the years.

Her interest in women's colleges is also intriguing to me because my mother went to a women's college. In my mother's case she went to a women's college because her parents made her go to one, not because she wanted to. This was in the 1950's. My mother had been a bit wild in high school -- lots of boyfriends, smoking, parties.. mediocre grades -- and her parents didn't want her to go to a big state university (as her calmer younger sisters later did). So she went to a very small, somewhat obscure and quite isolated women's college. She has always spoken fondly of her college and has remained life-long friends with some of the women she met there, so it was a good experience for her despite her lack of interest in women's colleges. [She also met my father on a train during her sophomore year, got married soon after (allowed by her parents on the condition that she finish school), and had two babies within two years of graduating.]

Three very different women from three different generations with three different reasons for attending (or possibly attending) a women's college. Three decades ago I wondered if such places would still be around and relevant in the 2010's. I am pleased that they are and I am particularly pleased that strong and confident young women such as my daughter can have such positive motivation for being interested in them.

Monday, August 11, 2014

"In Science, It Matters That Women Come Last"

Emma Pierson has written a very interesting article titled In Science, It Matters That Women Come Last. The article is filled with data and analysis (and graphs!) about gender trends in publishing in some subfields of the physical sciences and math. She examined numbers of papers and authorship order for male and female authors using 23 years of papers from arXiv.

If you read the article, I recommend that you read it all the way through, including footnotes. As I read it I had some questions such as, "What about fields in which authorship is alphabetical?". These questions are answered. You may or may not agree with the methods but these issues were anticipated and the analysis considers the effects of different authorship-order practices in different fields.

There are many fascinating aspects of this dataset and Pierson's discussion of the data. One that particularly interested me is this:
.. I found evidence that women tend to work together. If a paper has one female author, the other authors on the paper are 35 percent more likely to be female given the share of female authors in the field overall.
It is possible that this is largely the result of female PIs tending to advise/hire more female students and postdocs (Pierson mentions a study that seems to show this). I wonder also about the tendency of women scientists to collaborate as peers and how data/trends related to such collaborations will change with time.

I see changes in my peer-collaborations with time in my own career. For the first 2+ decades, my female coauthors were my students and postdocs, with a few isolated exceptions of female-peer coauthors. More recently (the last few years in particular), I have had many female-peer coauthors. It has become routine. I thought this was because there were simply more women in my field now -- in fact, I am sure that is part of the explanation -- but now I wonder if there is more to it. I guess we'd need to know more about how the authorship dataset breaks down by advisee vs. peer coauthors to understand what it means.

What do you think this particular result (that 'women tend to work together') means, either for you or in your particular sub/field?

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Maybe Definitely Give This Person Tenure

By request, this is a follow-up post on last week's musing about being the external letter-writer for someone's tenure/promotion evaluation. Today I will compare the wording of positive letters vs. not-so-positive (but not killer negative) letters (in the US academic system) to demonstrate the differences; some differences are obvious and some are less so. Although some external letter writers evaluating candidates for tenure/promotion write unambiguously negative letters, most letters are either positive or positive-ish.

I don't think the opening sentence is necessarily very indicative, although letters that start by saying that it is a "pleasure" to write the letter (perhaps even a "strong letter of support") of course tend to be very positive. Letters that start with a basic statement and perhaps a description of how the letter-writer has interacted (or not) with the candidate could go either way.

Positive letters tend to start positive and stay that way, with any quibbles buried deep within them. In my experience, lukewarm letters tend to start positive or positive-ish and then decay in magnitude of positiveness for the rest of the letter. I am not sure that I have seen a letter start negative or lukewarm and end up highly positive, although I have seen letters that I thought were quite negative end with a statement that the candidate would get tenure at the letter-writer's (in some cases elite) institution; that can be confusing.

Unambiguous positive statements that might appear in a very positive letter:

Dr. (or Professor) X is a world leader/pioneer/internationally known and respected specialist in [research field].

Dr. X and his/her students/postdocs have published (many) excellent papers on [topic/s].

Faint-praise statements that might appear in a lukewarm letter:

Dr. X is a specialist in [research field].

Dr. X has made contributions to the field of [topic].

Dr. X's research appears to be quite solid. 

Note: To make those statements even more negative, the research field could be described as narrowly as possible.

Examples of very positive words and phrases:

strong (inter)national reputation, novel, creative, major/significant/signal/tremendous/impressive/insightful/brilliant contributions, rigorous, breadth and depth, breakthroughs, widely respected, widely sought as an invited speaker, key player, true scholar, fundamental/leadership role, taking the lead (etc.), groundbreaking, rising star, international star, exceptional, exceptionally strong case for tenure, original/originality, elegant (referring to research, not the person), high profile, swimming at the top of the talent pool, the world beats a path to X's door, having X on your faculty brings renown to your institution.

Note that the hyper-positive adjective-laden letters tend to come from US academics or those very familiar with the US system. Non-US letters tend to be more restrained (the same is true for proposal reviews) and readers of such letters need to calibrate for this. The statement "Dr. X's research is quite good" might translate into Americanish to "Dr. X is the world leader and pioneer in creative and insightful investigation of a wide range of significant research topics."

Lukewarm (US) letters are characterized by fewer adjectives and of course few/no strong-positive adjectives. They may instead have faint-praise type adjectives such as 'solid', 'good' (with or without some other mild adjectives). The mild equivalent of the very-positive description 'has been extraordinarily/very productive' might be something like, 'has apparently been quite busy'; the positive 'focused' and talk of depth/breadth could translate as a negative-ish description of someone's 'varied interests'. Other not-awesome words are 'reasonably' and 'rather'.

Positive letters may actively propose explanations for some perceived weaknesses in the file:

Dr. X's h-index is a bit low even for someone at this early career stage but [sentences about how the h-index is a meaningless indicator of anything useful].

Dr. X does not have as many publications as one might like to see for a tenure candidate but there is too much emphasis these days on number of publications. Dr X's publications are all of very high quality and are all in high-impact and very selective journals. [This may be accompanied by an anti-shingling rant or opining about how Dr. X is a true scholar who waits to publish high-quality results that will stand the test of time.]

Dr. X has worked on a wide variety of topics rather than focusing on any particular thing but this is remarkable confirmation of her/his versatility, breadth, and boundless intellectual curiosity.

Dr. X has mostly been a middle-of-the-pack coauthor on his/her papers rather than the obvious lead author but I happen to know that Dr. X's senior collaborators are very aggressive about promoting their own work and tend to do this to younger coauthors.

Any of the above can of course be turned into a criticism if the reviewer is so inclined.

Or, lukewarm letters might mention some of the same things listed above but the rebuttal would not be as strong:

Dr. X's h-index is a bit low even for someone at this early career stage but it may increase somewhat in the future. (etc.)

Strong positive letters typically end on an emphatic note:

I highly recommend with no reservations whatsoever that Dr. X be awarded tenure.

I have no doubt that Dr. X would be awarded tenure at my institution.

Lukewarm letters tend to end on an ambiguous note:

I hope that my comments on Dr. X will be helpful to your evaluation of Dr. X for tenure and promotion.

I hope that these comments on tenure and promotion letters are helpful to FSP readers who are curious/anxious about this even if they are rising stars swimming at the top of the talent pool buoyed by their towering intellects.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

CV Gap Years

Every year I get asked to write letters for the evaluation of faculty at other institutions for tenure and/or promotion. My typical thought process on being asked to write a letter for someone I don't know well is: "OK, I've heard of that person/read their papers/seen them at conferences. Sure, I'll write a letter." Then I note the due date and send off a quick e-mail agreeing to write the letter. Most often the request arrives in the summer and I write the letters in summer or early fall. [If you click on the 'tenure' label in the frame on the right -- perhaps after scrolling down a bit -- you will see my previous comments on writing tenure letters.]

When it gets to be time to study in detail the materials relevant to the evaluation -- for example: CV, selected publications -- in many recent cases I have dealt with (recent = past 5 years) -- there have been complications. Example complications: unexplained gaps in the publication record (at least, unexplained to outside reviewers), lack of advisees and lack of publications with advisees, and/or few to no grants (and no research proposals pending with the individual as PI). In a recent example, I was asked to comment specifically on publication quality and quantity, grants, and other research aspects, but I found this difficult owing to some of these complications.

I can think of 'good' explanations for all of those complications. A gap in publications could be related to a massive time commitment setting up a lab and preparing new classes; it could also be related to personal issues that would not trigger an official extension of the probationary period and that would not be explained in a cover letter to external letter writers. Lack of advisees could be caused by unsuccessful attempts at advising students who quit or failed for reasons completely unrelated to the advising ability or practices of the faculty member. And we all know that it is difficult to get grants these days (although we still have to try, so a lack of pending research proposals is troubling).

The host institution is of course aware of all these issues, knows the context, and will likely do what it wants about them -- ignore them completely and focus on the individual's potential or treat them as fatal flaws that justify denial of tenure/promotion -- no matter what my letter says. And there are other significant factors (teaching ability) that are typically not known by outside letter-writers who are asked to comment on scholarship.

Sometimes I think that these letters are just a necessary formality and there is nothing useful that I can say in my letter. It's not constructive to think about that while working on one of these letters, so I try to think about how -- as a faculty member reading other people's letters for colleagues -- I find some letters to be quite useful. These letters can be useful not so much for whether the individual thinks the candidate should or should not be tenured and/or promoted but for the perspective they provide about the person's body of work.

So I try to focus on that aspect of my letters. After (re)reading some of the candidate's publications and thinking about their ideas and work and trajectory, I try to express what I think about that person's scholarship and their impact on the field. (I have written before about how I do not like to do comparisons with others in the field and I do not like to answer the question of whether someone would get tenure at my institution.) Writing in detail about the candidate's research may or may not be of interest to faculty and administrators but I think it's the best contribution I can make to the process, more so than any detailed comments about the data in the CV.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Room for Improvement

Student comments on my teaching of a particular course:

Great professor!
I have enjoyed this class!
I liked the readings.
This course required too much previous knowledge.
Professor very helpful with homework.
Homework very useful for class.
Well-constructed lectures.
Very organized lectures.
She speaks very clearly.
She answered my homework questions.
She provided images and charts to supplement the subject matter.
The in-class exercises were helpful.
I liked the practice exercises we did in groups during lecture.
I liked that she asked questions during class and this helped deepen my understanding of concepts.
Useful supplementary material to help us understand lecture material.
She explained the topics completely in class. Didn't use a textbook as a crutch.
It was great that lecture and lab material were well coordinated.
She was always ready to answer questions.
She was always willing to help with any questions.
She provided the subject matter very clearly.
The last project was too much work for this level of class.
Lecture presentations very clear.
I liked the in-class exercises.
You should improve your teaching methods.

Note that almost all of the comments are in the 3rd person (except for the last one), as if the students were writing to someone else about me, rather than writing to me with feedback. I don't know if it matters in terms of type and level of feedback whether the student is imaging an unknown audience or speaking directly to me (?). At evaluation time, I give a little talk to the class about the importance of this feedback and how it is used by instructors and the department/college/university, but I think there is still general confusion among students about what exactly the purpose of these evaluations is and who reads them and whether anyone cares what they think.

These are overall nice comments, and unfortunately also rather classic in that the criticisms are too vague to help me understand what the specific complaints are.

The last comment, despite being too vague to be useful in any specific way, is absolutely right. Despite being deep into my mid-career years, I don't want my teaching to fossilize. I want to improve. In recent years I have attended teaching workshops and gotten some ideas from those. When I team-teach, a faculty colleague is in the classroom with me, so I get some peer feedback. And last term, I jettisoned the too-long and too-detailed textbook and provided focused readings, including some that I wrote myself. That seems to have worked quite well (or at least no one said they missed having a textbook), so perhaps that counts as an improvement. I would also like to do some new things involving e-learning and have been to some workshops and meetings about that.

I am thinking about teaching because I was just looking at my evaluations, though mostly I am enjoying having lots of uninterrupted time for research. This week I even managed to submit a manuscript on which I am primary author. It's been about two years since I've been able to do that (and I don't mean to imply that I did it alone -- an excellent colleague was essential to the completion of this paper).

As I was finishing the paper (and a related grant proposal) recently, it occurred to me that I could create a new teaching module based on this work and incorporate it into the class for which I just received teaching evaluations (not, of course, as extra work but replacing some older material). Probably more than any major change in teaching style, a realistic way that I can improve my teaching is to find good ways to incorporate new material -- specifically, integrating New Science with Classic Science, so that students learn the fundamental stuff without which they are incomplete as scientists and people and yet are also exposed to new things that help them see where the field is at (including being exposed to unresolved questions that might inspire them).

Anyway, it's been a busy summer so far. My father recently asked me if my husband "also has the summer off" and I was actually quite calm about it this time. Have you had a similar conversation with anyone yet this summer? Parents? Neighbors? Friends? Students? Assuming that you do in fact work in the summer even if you are not teaching, did you (1) smile serenely and let them continue to exist in ignorance; (2) correct them (a) calmly, (b) not calmly; or (3) lapse into stony silence (if having a conversation) or send a glaring emoticon (if in e-contact)? (or other..).

Monday, June 23, 2014

Men are from Pluto

A colleague and I were talking about this and that recently and he said that at some point he needs to find a new research topic, as the one that he has been working on (very successfully, and in fact sort-of pioneered) is getting very crowded. It's not as much fun (says him) to be in a crowd instead of way out ahead.

So then he said that it was difficult to start working on a very-different topic because it can be difficult to get funding if you lack a track-record and expertise in that new thing. True enough. So I said, "Collaborate" (unsaid but well known: That's what I do).

He said, "No, you can't project authority if you collaborate."


Context: We are both full professors and therefore getting adequate credit for our work is not a career life-or-death issue as it is for early-career scientists. For the early-careerers, this can be important (depending on your particular context). Collaboration can still be a significant research component -- enjoyable and rewarding in many cases* -- as long as you also stand out from the crowd in some way for your ideas and expertise.

But other than that, who cares about projecting authority? OK, some people do. My colleague clearly does, and he is very good at it (projecting authority). I don't really care. Well, I do a bit (I don't like being overlooked), but I don't think collaborating has lessened my "authority". If anything, it has increased it.

I reject as a general philosophy the idea that collaborating de-authoritizes you (I just made that word up), although if that's what floats your boat, go ahead and enjoy your authority (alone).

* if your colleagues are not jerks, and if they don't hold up manuscripts and proposals.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Measure for Measure of Success

Something that I have been seeing more and more in grant proposal reviews (my own and those of colleagues who have shared theirs with me) is the idea that it's not enough to have a record of success advising grad students, undergrads, and postdocs in research -- you have to understand and explain your advising techniques and you have to have a plan for assessing and improving.

OK, I get that, but even when I attempt to do those things, it isn't good enough for some reviewers. They think that I (and my colleagues) are relying too much on past success and traditional measures of success (degrees, publications, conference presentations, post-graduation employment). They are not convinced that that is sufficient. They want something different. Apparently, unless you change something, you are not improving and therefore are not being transformative, or something.

Example reviews (comments condensed/reworded to remove any identifying vocabulary):

A highly qualified PhD student has already been identified for this research but the mentoring of this student and an undergraduate is largely assumed based on prior experience of the PIs. The PIs have records of successful advising but should include in the proposal a more intentional discussion of how they plan to train the next generation of scientists. The mechanism for success is not explained and there is no plan for assessing success of their mentoring. How will successful training of the graduate student be determined other than by the record of publications, presentations, and completion of the thesis? Although the research is potentially transformative and this is an excellent team of researchers, because of these shortcomings in the broader impacts I have given the proposal a lower rating.

That makes no sense to me. I am definitely not saying that we all deserve to have all of our grants awarded just because we have had past success. However, I think that if the proposed research is deemed excellent by a reviewer and the PI has a demonstrated record of success with advising, it does not make sense to downgrade a proposal rating for the reasons given in the example review above, contributing to the rejection of the proposal and therefore a lack of funding for the graduate student.

Here's another:

[From a review of a proposal that included one week of salary for a soft-money research scientist who runs a lab in which students would do some analyses for a proposed project]: Description of the mentoring of the postdoc is not well developed. There is no mention of career counseling. Mentoring in professional activities such as writing proposals and papers is confined to discussions and support for participation in conferences and workshops. There is no mention of how the postdoc will be mentored to collaborate with diverse groups of researchers and students. There is no description of the postdoc's career path in the context of developing an effective mentoring plan for him.

And this:

[From a review of a proposal that included a substantial component of support for undergraduate research]: These PIs have a long record of success in advising undergraduate students in research but no evidence is presented for how the field of research on undergraduate research will be advanced. 

These are just anecdotes, of course, plucked from reviews of different proposals by different PIs. At least one of the proposals even involved a colleague who does research on teaching and learning. It wasn't enough. Some of us PIs have attended national and local workshops on teaching and learning, read some of the relevant literature, even co-authored papers (some with education specialists) in science ed journals. It's not enough.

I think that giving attention to effective advising is an important component of research (and therefore grant proposals), but I also think these and similar reviews show that certain reviewers have run amok and are harming the very people (students, postdocs) they think they are helping.

Friday, May 16, 2014


A colleague recently shared a review of his (rejected) proposal. The most negative review contained this statement:
There were a number of editorial errors found throughout the proposal. Some were missing commas and the like,
The mind, like, boggles.

Now I need to know: have you ever
  • commented on punctuation in a review? (minor errors, egregious errors, pet peeves?) -- did it affect your overall rating of the proposal, as far as you know?
  • received a comment on punctuation in a review? (minor errors, egregious errors, pet peeves?)
And if there were punctuation, grammar, and/or spelling errors in a review that criticized you for real or perceived punctuation errors, how did you feel about that?

Did you think, "Oh well, the reviewer is just bashing out a review on a webform and of course shouldn't be held to their own high standards for punctuation in proposals. Perhaps that missing comma on page 10 of the proposal indicates that I am a sloppy and untransformative scientist and therefore didn't deserve a grant that would have supported student research."

Or did you think something a bit more negative about the reviewer's punctuated hypocrisy?

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Liveblogging the Exam

Although taking an exam is most certainly more stressful than giving an exam, giving an exam can be quite stressful. I am not asking for sympathy, I am just stating a fact.

The most stressful exams to administer are those in large classes in which students are packed into every available seat and there may be (alas, too often) issues with cheating. You can devote considerable time and effort to anti-cheating activities such as giving multiple versions of exams, you can have students sign an honor statement, you can patrol classroom non-stop during the exam, or you can just hope for the best.

Giving an exam to a small or medium-sized class is less stressful because the logistics are easier, but that is not to say that giving an exam even in these circumstances is lacking in stress. Or, at least, that is my opinion. Is there anyone who would rather give an exam than have a regular class? I would much rather have non-exam class time. [I am deliberately not addressing the possibility of not having exams at all. In some courses I do not give exams, in others I do, depending on the course.]

OK, so I am about to give an exam in a medium-sized class. I am not dexterous enough to blog while handing out the exam (and the TA does not seem to be in evidence), but I can combine semi-live and liveblogging to try to capture the essence of the experience from the front of the room.

I enter the room. They are all here, in their seats, staring at their notes. This has been a very punctual class so I am not surprised they are all here on time. In a more typical class, students would appear throughout the first 10+ minutes of the class, even on an exam day, making a lot of noise as they rush in, grab an exam, find a seat, deal with the logistics of finding a writing utensil and putting their water bottle in a suitable place

Put your notes away! This takes a moment. I try not to let it eat into exam time (there is another class in this room right after ours), so I start handing out the exam to the nearest row of students who are note-free.

Can we start now? I should remember to say that they can start as soon as they get the exam but sometimes I forget and then someone always asks. It is not a large class, so the time difference between those who get the exam paper first and those who get it last is about a minute. If anyone in the back needs that extra minute, they can have it at the end. In a large class, I need a fleet of assistants to help hand out exam forms so that no student has to wait too long to get the exam or to get their question answered if they have one during the exam.

The room is never totally quiet. Someone is always turning a page, even if the exam has.. one page. And certainly if the exam paper has 2 pages: rustle rustle rustle. The second-most common noise is erasing. There is a lot of erasing going on at this very moment. Some students have very impressive erasers.

Two students just had questions about different exam questions. Both were answered easily by my pointing to a key word or words in the exam question. In both cases the student immediately saw that the answer to their question was right in front of them and thanked me.

The first student is done with the exam, halfway through the allotted time.

The second student just finished, with 20 minutes left to go. Make that three students.

Are the ones who finish very early the ones who are doing well in the course so far? In fact, there does not seem to be a strong correlation between those who are doing very well or very not-well in the course (to date) and those who finish the exam early, just as I predict that there will be a random collection of students (with respect to course performance) at the very last second of the exam.

At various times in my teaching past, I have timed myself taking an exam that I wrote. The purpose of this was to see how much time it took just for the physical act of writing (correct) answers, in the ideal case in which the answer is immediately known. The amount of time available for students to take the exam should of course be greater than this, but greater by how much? For certain courses, I developed a simple formula and adjusted the number and type of test questions accordingly.

I haven't done that in a while. Perhaps I am in that dangerous stage of my teaching career when I assume that I 'just know' how to do things like create an exam that is fair in length and level. I like to think there would be some warning signs (in my teaching evaluations? in other student comments?) if I have gone astray (or were to do so in the future).

I have started grading the exams turned in early. Students in previous classes have told me that it stresses them out if I start grading while some of them are still taking the test but it's not as if I am chortling in an evil way as I slash giant red X's through incorrect answers. I am not even sighing. I suppose it could be disconcerting if I also made happy sounds while grading. So I try to be subtle and quiet, serious and respectful as I make my first forays into grading amidst continued test-taking by the remaining students. Do you start grading turned-in exams whilst other students are still taking the test?

.. with a few minutes left to go, ~50% of the class remains. Some are just staring at the exam paper, some are writing rapidly. Some are obsessively clicking their writing utensils.

The deluge of exam-turning-in is about to begin. Some students acknowledge my presence as they turn in the exam and some do not make eye contact. I don't try to read anything into this. Some of the no-eye-contact students may have done quite well and are still feeling the residual effects of exam-stress. My general (delusional?) impression is that the students found the exam to be reasonable. I do not sense major unhappiness or anxiety.

We are in the final minute; 20% of the class remains.

Has anyone ever studied what % of students stay until the very end of an exam time, even if they are finished? Is there a universal value? Or is there a characteristic value for each professor, and/or for particular types of classes, institutions, etc.? The next time you give an exam, please record (and post in a comment) the % of students who stay until the very last possible moment (and was this in a large, medium, or small class)? Do you think the % who cling onto every second avalable is a function of your exam-philosophy or something else?

In this case, 8% of the class needed the exam extracted from them with some effort on my part. I do not like that. What do you do when you have to pry an exam away from a student when time is up? Do you just take it? Do you loom over them? Do you try increasingly forceful statements? Do you beg them to turn it in? Tell them you will not accept the exam if it is not turned in now? Do you walk out of the room?

The exam is done. I was interested in doing some grading while the exam was going on (efficient use of time! good way to see how some students did on the exam!), but now I am not.

Only one student has asked when I would have the exam graded (answer: "in a few days if possible"). I did not mention that cats are an essential part of my grading ritual (TMI).

Thursday, April 24, 2014


This is a poll I have done before (4 years ago), and I am interested to see if the results will be different now. I am curious about how often you check your citation statistics -- number of citations, h-index, who is citing you etc. You can sign up to get alerts about this, or you can go and check yourself at one of the citation-counting sites. How often do you get information about your citations?

Whether or not you answered the poll 4 years ago (in April! is there something about April that makes me think about citations?), do you think your citation-checking habits have changed in the last few years? 


How often do you check your citation statistics?
pollcode.com free polls 

Tuesday, April 08, 2014


More than 3 years ago, I wrote a post about hiring postdocs. This post seems to have been linked to a site that diverts some traffic to my ancient postdoc-post and keeps the comments coming (intermittently). The most recent comments are all negative: I am an insensitive jerk etc.

OK, maybe so. The point of the original post was to give a PI's-eye-view of the topic of hiring postdocs, and any topic related to the selection of a few and the rejection of most has a high probability of making some readers angry. Nevertheless, given limited funds for hiring postdocs, PIs must make hiring decisions. How do we do that in a situation that is not as structured as the admission of graduate students or the hiring of faculty?

Different fields have different cultures regarding postdocs: for example, regarding bread-and-butter issues such as salary and fringe benefits, the rate of success of postdocs seeking post-postdoc employment relevant to their training, and more cosmic issues related to respect and independence in their work. And even in the best of circumstances, the postdoctoral years can still be ones of anxiety and uncertainty about the future.

Anyway, here are some recent comments on that semi-ancient post, with my further thoughts on the topic:
I think you are a cheap employer that is complaining about the workforce, when the workforce is getting minimum wages to do the most likely irrelevant work that you do. You should consider yourself lucky for having a position, so don't whine about postdocs, you would be nothing without them.
Fact: A typical starting (just-out-of-PhD) postdoc funded by an NSF grant in my field and at my institution makes anywhere from about $42k to $62k per year (salary). At my institution, postdocs paid from a grant also get fringe benefits, calculated as a % of salary and paid by the PI (with indirect costs to the institution). I am not making any judgement about whether that salary is decent or abysmal; that opinion will no doubt vary considerably. I will say that this all adds up to a lot in the context of a typical (for me) grant budget.

Opinion: It is quite true that my work is irrelevant. Conveniently, the work of my postdocs is therefore also irrelevant. Nevertheless, we manage to do some interesting basic science.

Fact: I consider myself very lucky to have a position.

Opinion: I still get to whine.

Fact: Over the years, I have wasted a lot of money on unproductive postdocs. I would like to avoid that experience if at all possible (hence the original post).

Opinion: I have worked with (and am working with) some great postdocs. I consider our working relationships to be mutually beneficial.

(Excerpt) Yet many PI's .. think they're "sorting through the good and hard working postdocs". This is of course false. They are sorting through the leftovers after everyone else jumped to industry. Thus finding bad apples is more common...and really the problem with "lazy" postdocs is that you don't have enough funding to support them...not necessarily that they're crap scientists.
This opinion about "leftovers" does not apply to my field. I don't understand the point about not having enough funding to support postdocs and so that explains why some postdocs are unproductive(?). If someone accept a postdoc and the salary is not as high as the postdoc thinks it should be, does this give them license to be unproductive? Isn't that self-destructive, among other things?

You come across as a completely obnoxious, self-righteous professor. Just remember that hiring a post-doc is a two-way street. You may be judging the post-doc, but the post-doc is also judging you based on the quality of your research and your scientific acumen. Unless you are perfect in those areas, how can your expect your post-doc candidate to be perfect as well?
Of course the applicants are also judging whether they want to work with me; this is as it should be. Nevertheless, with a few exceptions (such as NSF Postdoctoral Fellows), I hire postdocs using funds that I obtained, so I do get to choose which postdoctoral aspirants I think will do well with the project, do well working in my research group, and do well developing their career.

In the time since I wrote my original post about trying to avoid unproductive postdocs, I have had similar experiences to the ones I described. For example, there was the time when an aspiring postdoc who wanted to work on an ongoing project for which I am PI assumed that one of my colleagues was the PI and explained the project to me (in person, at a conference) as if I knew little about it. Did he not even look at the project webpage? Perhaps I would have been more sympathetic if he had at least explained the research well and described an interesting way that he would contribute expertise or ideas. Alas, he did none of those things. This is not about expecting perfection; this is about expecting a certain level of knowledge, initiative, and drive.

I may be an obnoxious jerk but I do want to state here that I think it is important to be respectful, supportive (financially and otherwise), and appreciative of excellent, hard-working postdocs. I hope to be so lucky to be able to continue to do so.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Stress Test

Among the 17* surveys that I had the opportunity to take this week, there was one that involved questions apparently designed to examine how respondents deal with stress: how and whether stress affects one's life and well-being, and so on.

This particular survey was totally flawed in that the assumption of the stress-related questions was that stress is always bad. If you have stress (in your job, in this case), you are going to score low in wellbeingness.

I get that. I think, however, that there should be the possibility of considering a situation in which stress is a normal part of your job, and this is OK. Could we even entertain the possibility that it is more than OK?

Here is an example of a stress-is-always-only-bad survey question:

Select the response(s) that are relevant to how you respond to job-related stress (check all that apply):

o I have trouble sleeping
o I do not want to go to work in the morning
o I am unable to eat a healthy diet
o I am unable to get sufficient exercise
o My personal relationships are negatively affected
o I am frequently ill
o I cannot quit smoking, I binge drink, and I watch bad TV shows

I think that there should at least be an option of 'none of the above', and even better would be

o I thrive on most types of job-stress. Bring it on.

* Note: I did not take all 17 opportunities, and there weren't actually 17, it just seemed like there were a lot. That was stressful.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Ask Not?

The tale of a rescinded-offer of a faculty position, owing to an email from the woman offered the job to the department re. the terms of her offer, has been widely strewn about the internet. I will reprint the email and department/college response below in case anyone hasn't seen these, and then will give my take on the matter (joining the thousands who have already commented online elsewhere).

The apparently dangerous email:
As you know, I am very enthusiastic about the possibility of coming to Nazareth. Granting some of the following provisions would make my decision easier.

1) An increase of my starting salary to $65,000, which is more in line with what assistant professors in philosophy have been getting in the last few years.
2) An official semester of maternity leave.
3) A pre-tenure sabbatical at some point during the bottom half of my tenure clock.
4) No more than three new class preps per year for the first three years.
5) A start date of academic year 2015 so I can complete my postdoc.

I know that some of these might be easier to grant than others. Let me know what you think.
And the harsh reply:
Thank you for your email. The search committee discussed your provisions. They were also reviewed by the Dean and the VPAA. It was determined that on the whole these provisions indicate an interest in teaching at a research university and not at a college, like ours, that is both teaching and student centered. Thus, the institution has decided to withdraw its offer of employment to you.
Thank you very much for your interest in Nazareth College. We wish you the best in finding a suitable position.
This unfortunate event has been seen by some as a cautionary tale for what can happen when a woman tries to negotiate for better pay and working conditions. She is seen as asking for 'too much'. In this case, a woman attempted to "lean in" and was severely punished for it.

I don't know if there is a gender angle to this incident or not, but speaking as someone at a research university, there is nothing in the candidate's email that surprises or offends me. I have been asked for many of the same or similar things by candidates; some of these requests are routine, some of them require discussion. I say 'yes' when I can, and 'no' when that is the appropriate response for my department/university. Negotiations can be constructive and interesting discussions.

I know nothing about Nazareth College's research expectations for faculty and why the email apparently revealed an inappropriate level of research focus that was not detected during the interview. Maybe the moderate number of requests, none of which the college was going to accommodate, was the problem. Whatever the case, it is puzzling why the college didn't simply say no to some or all of those requests and let the offer/decision process proceed. If there were concerns, the department head or other faculty could have had a serious talk with the candidate about teaching expectations and criteria for tenure, so that as much as possible was clear during the candidate's decision-making process. Maybe there is more to the story than just these emails.

I don't want to speculate more about that particular case. My main point is that it would be very unfortunate if well publicized situations like that one made faculty candidates reluctant to ask for what they realistically feel that they need to succeed in the challenging job for which they are potentially being hired.

Even though I don't think anything in the polite list of requests is unreasonable, perhaps a bit more asking around of faculty in the department or institution, or other general digging around, could reveal important information that would avert an 'unreasonable' request before it is asked. Some strategic questions such as "So, is it possible/typical to get a term (or two) off prior to the tenure evaluation year?" or "How many new classes did you prepare in your first few years here? Is that typical?" (etc.) could indicate how requests about leaves and new class preps might be viewed by administrators.

It might also be possible to find out how firm the start date is, and whether the department has a track record of pushing back the start date to accommodate postdocs or other commitments. In my experience at a research university, the asking and granting of delayed start dates is routine. At a smaller institution, however, it might be more difficult for a department to cover essential courses for an extra year; they may want their new hire to show up in time for the next academic year. They might expect a candidate to understand this.

I think the request about salary is entirely reasonable. Candidates for faculty positions should be well informed about salary averages and ranges and should be able to discuss salary with the department head.

In summary:

- I would not have sent that particular list of requests pertaining to a job at a teaching-focused college, but
- I think that anyone (male or female) should be able to do just that as a starting point for discussions (even if the answers are no, no, no, no, no), and
- I would not blink if I saw that same list submitted by a candidate for a faculty position at my institution, and
- in fact, I am interested to know what a candidate thinks is important for succeeding in the job. This is a good basis for discussion and negotiation.

Depending on what your situation is, what, if anything, do you think the 'take home' message of this saga is, in particular regarding the question of whether/how to negotiate after receiving an offer of a faculty position?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

I Was Away From My Desk

A recent post over here reminded me that I have been meaning to write about the sabbatical I took a few years ago. I blogged the entire time I was on sabbatical, although I did not blog about my sabbatical.

When I was just starting to think about going on sabbatical, I mused in a post about the possible differences between going on a sabbatical with an elementary-school child (as I did for my first sabbatical, to an international location) and going on a sabbatical with a teenager (as I was planning for my second sabbatical, to a different international location). There were many comments about positive sabbatical-with-teen experiences, and so it turned out for us. We are very fortunate to have an adventurous and healthy teenager who was willing to leave her school and friends for a while and hurl herself into a strange environment. She loved our sabbatical, and her parents enjoyed it as well.

I know that not everyone can go away for their sabbatical and that not everyone wants to do that even if they can. And for those who can spend some or all of their sabbatical at another institution, there are of course many possible choices in terms of location and type of institution to visit. For me, sabbatical = international location, or at least it has so far (n = 2). At one point in our pre-sabbatical planning discussions, my husband suggested that we spend all or part of our sabbatical at a Certain Domestic University and I thought he was joking. He wasn't, but he was happy to go to an international university that had excellent colleagues for both of us.

For the type of sabbatical arrangement at my institution (50% salary while on sabbatical), it takes a lot of planning and effort to attempt to raise the rest (not to mention the usual summer salary). The reasoning behind the 50% salary is that we aren't teaching while on sabbatical, so we are paid only for the research-component of our job (on the not-so-accurate but what-the-heck assumption that the research-teaching ratio is approximately 50:50). I know that some institutions have better arrangements for sabbatical pay, but so far I have been able to manage with the 50% system.

And what of those left behind -- our students, postdocs, research scientists, others? (see older post here) I was quite unperturbed by my advisor's sabbatical when I was a grad student. Even though he went to an international university for the year, I felt that in some ways I had more of his attention than when he was just down the hall. When he was away, I emailed him and he emailed me back. Sometimes I just sent him an update by email (he told me later that he appreciated this). Sometimes I emailed him a question, and he sent useful replies. I had seldom had his attention like that before. He had many grad students, many grants, many projects, and lots of professional and institutional service activities, and I was not very assertive (in person) about getting his attention.

During my advisor's sabbatical, I also got help and advice as needed from more senior grad students, from research scientists, and from other faculty. The various labs kept running in his absence, and all was well.

I think/hope it was much the same during my own sabbaticals. And of course now, in addition to email, there is Skype, so one can participate in various meetings and other discussions with students, postdocs, and colleagues at the home institution.

Whether you go halfway across the world or stay at home, sabbaticals are great for the very reason they exist -- you have time to think, read, write, start new projects, meet new colleagues, and learn new things relevant to research and teaching. On my last sabbatical, I wrote a long paper that I probably would not have been able to write in non-sabbatical life and I developed a collaboration with some excellent new colleagues. My new colleagues and I are now working on plans to send our grad students to visit each other's institutions -- kind of like a mini-sabbatical for students(?).

If your department gets to keep the half of your salary that you are not getting while on sabbatical, your department head (or chair) might even be very happy that you want to take a sabbatical. He/she might complain about the problem of dealing with your classes while you are away but you need not be sympathetic to this. I know of some cases of people delaying or foregoing sabbaticals because of grumbling department heads. That should be the least of your concerns.

It might sound obvious to say "sabbaticals are great", but sabbatical planning can be very daunting and stressful for a wide range of complex reasons involving family, money, advisees, and research facilities, to name just a few key issues. Nevertheless, it's worth it if you can get all your ducks in a row, even if your ducks are mostly going to paddle around in a local pond.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Time is of the Essence

Some recent e-mails from grad-student readers have concerned the issue of time management and being a teaching assistant (TA) vs. a research assistant (RA). If you are aiming for an academic career, particularly at a teaching-focused institution, is it better to be a TA and get teaching experience or is better to be an RA and get a solid research/publication record so you are more likely to get interviews?

My best answer is 'both', if you have that option -- some TA and some RA/fellowship mix seems ideal so that you have a good balance of teaching experience and focused research time.

In real life, there if of course no one answer, not even a wishy-washy one like 'both'.

Over the decades, starting when I was a grad student, I have seen many people who are overall more productive when they are teaching assistants and therefore theoretically have less time for research. For some, the 'structure' that being a TA imposes on the day/week makes it easier to be motivated to do research in the interstices, whereas being an RA -- with endless time to devote to research -- can be intimidating, resulting in not-much getting done.

Others only get work done when they are an RA. They don't focus on anything but teaching when they are a TA, even if technically the TA is a 'half time' position. You might not know if you fit one of these descriptions until you have been been a TA and an RA for a term or three.

Many people are somewhere between these extremes, of course, and I suppose someone could morph from one to the other (and back?) with time and circumstance.

Some of my grad-readers wonder: Do these traits persist post-graduation or can they be restricted to the grad-school environment for an individual? For example, if you have trouble balancing teaching and research (and other things) as a grad student, are you doomed, or will you figure it out later in a different environment if given the opportunity?

I think overall I would be guardedly optimistic about the chance for learning time management skills with time, as need and life situations (career, family, cats) require.

There is no point generalizing, though; specific experiences (please leave a comment) would be much more relevant and interesting.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Toxic Avoidance

A reader e-mailed with an interesting question: If you are on the job market and interviewing for jobs, how can you find out whether a particular work environment would likely be toxic for you? Can you ask about this during a visit or interview? Can such environments be avoided?

My experiences as an interviewee may be too ancient to be relevant, although I will mention anyway that I accepted a job offer from a place that I had been warned was hostile to women (they had a terrible record of hiring, retaining, tenuring women); it turned out to be a great place for me. I think it is important to have up-to-date information about a department's work environment and to realize that how certain longtime faculty members interact with each other may or may not be relevant to the experiences of a new colleague. (It could be very relevant if everyone in a department hates each other and/or if the last n women faculty members quit or no one has gotten tenure there since 1989.)

Otherwise, if you feel that the department head is supportive and there are some likely faculty allies, that may be a good indication that you will do well in that department/unit. Or not, but maybe it is worth a try. If you do well and want to leave, you may have options.

Perhaps some of you have experiences to share about whether you had any inkling in advance about a hostile work environment or whether it was a complete surprise to find yourself in this predicament.

If you had information in advance, how did you learn this? Did you ask or was the information volunteered? If you did ask, how/whom/when did you ask?

Have any of you turned down a job offer because you learned in advance that the department (or company or whatever) would be a difficult place for you?

Probably it is better to ask some general leading questions such as "So, what's it like to work in this department?" than to ask "Hey, is this place totally toxic?"

Tuesday, February 18, 2014


Several times in the past year or so I have had to combat the suggestion that faculty, postdocs, and grad students "of today", not to mention "of the future", don't want or need their own desks. Of course we all need a "space" to sit down now and then, and maybe we even need a place to put our laptop (or mobile device) for a while. However, we apparently don't want or need our own assigned space. Walls and doors are isolating (and cost money). Cubicles are depressing (no argument from me about that), so let's have open-plan spaces with unassigned desks, "soft seating", and collaborative spaces (a.k.a. tables). I say: Let's not.

Studies apparently show that people are not in their offices 100% of the time, so maybe not everyone needs a designated space to call their own. If the people-to-desk ratio is calculated correctly, most people should be able to find a place to sit (assuming they even want to do that) when they need to. Anyone who happens to have stuff they don't want to carry around can have a locker.

I asked one of the planners for the project in question how I would find my students and others if no one has an assigned space (finding people is not actually my main concern, but I was curious). The answer: when someone temporarily alights in a space, they log in and their location will be registered on a website or monitor that I can check. Or maybe I could just put locator-devices on everyone and keep track that way? I have long wanted to do that for my most adventurous cat (Fig. 1).
Figure 1. Cat without an assigned office.
Need to have a private conversation with a student/advisor/anyone? Go to a "huddle room". Need to work with a group without disturbing others? That probably won't be possible, but at least there will be lots of "collaborative space". Anyone nearby can just put on headphones. Or leave. In fact, maybe everyone will just stay home (because it might be quieter there). It seems to me that an increase in collaborative space might just drive people into isolation because they can't get any work done when at "work".

And yet I am told that this type of office space works well in "the corporate world" because it is "creative" and "flexible". I am told that academics associate the size and location of their offices with status and that is why I am clinging to the antiquated idea of everyone having an assigned office.

I think I shall continue to cling to this idea and argue that everyone -- faculty, staff, researchers, grad students, adjunct/contingent faculty, technicians, lab managers -- needs their own, assigned space, even if it is shared space (and ideally not a cubicle farm).

I think there should also be collaborative, flexible space that people can go to as needed. This can be scattered about: shared within or among research groups and in other spaces generally available to students and visitors etc. I like that idea. I just don't like the idea of not having any other place to go to when someone wants to be (semi)alone and quiet, or have a private conversation without having to check if a huddle room is available.

I am quite sure that eventually this unassigned-space idea will disappear from the project in question, although it has persisted longer than I expected.

Am I being a dinosaur about space?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Review Or Else

In a correspondence published in Nature not long ago, the associate editor of a journal grappled with the fact that some prolific authors are apparently not doing their share of reviewing. Let's assume that the review-slackers are not doing major reviewing for other journals. Let's also assume that the associate editor is not sending these authors review requests for papers quite far outside their expertise (I got one of these requests just the other day; I can't even imagine what combination of keywords and/or hallucinogens might have resulted in my name turning up as a likely reviewer on a topic so far from anything on which I have ever worked, much less published).

With those assumptions in mind, we are left to consider a person who accepts that others spend time reviewing their manuscripts but who is not willing to take the time to review the work of others. What, if anything, to do about this imbalance?

I have touched on this and related topics before without proposing a solution. In the Nature correspondence, the associate editor of a journal wonders whether a solution to the problem (described as: "the biggest consumers of peer review seem to contribute the least to the process") could be that "journals should ask senior authors to provide evidence of their contribution to peer review as a condition for considering their manuscripts."

There is much that is appealing about that idea, although in practice there are some likely complications (perhaps these could be dealt with in a flexible system). My preference, however, would be for a system that involved carrots but no sticks. I don't think we want to force people to review manuscripts just so they can accumulate enough reviewer points to get their own manuscripts into the system. That does not sound like a good recipe for thoughtful, thorough peer review.

Another reason for avoiding a system that would automatically reject the submissions of slacker-reviewers is that some of the slacker's co-authors would likely be innocent victims in such a scheme.

Is it possible to create an incentive system that is fair to all, is consistent with the philosophy of peer-review, and encourages more authors to contribute their time (thoughtfully and objectively) reviewing the work of others?

[I am ignoring in this discussion the fact that some people resent volunteering their time to feed the bank accounts of certain big publishing companies that profit from the federally-funded results of uncompensated authors and suck dry the meager budgets of university libraries, though I know some people have strong feelings about that.]

In my previous post on the topic of slacker-reviewers, I explained that I try to be as efficient as possible with the contributions of authors who are diligent reviewers. They don't get any sort of preferential treatment in terms of likelihood of acceptance of their manuscripts, but I do try to move things along for them as best I can, at least for the parts of the process I control (for example, how quickly I get to the manuscript once it is returned by reviewers). I don't know if that is enough of a "perk", but I hope it helps a bit.

I don't like slacker-reviewers, but I always try to remind myself that I don't know what their reviewing history is with other journals, I don't know what else is going on in their life, and I certainly don't want to do anything to harm their co-authors. It is not fair that some people are consumers of and not contributors to the peer-review system, but maybe we don't really want such people reviewing our papers(?).