Friday, May 30, 2008

Annual Report/2

My Blogosophy, such as it is.

When I first started writing, I did so because I wanted to write about issues that were not being addressed in the science blogosphere and/or that were not being addressed from the perspective of a (somewhat angry) senior female science professor. I knew little of blog culture except what I had picked up by reading other blogs, and had no idea whether anyone would read what I wrote. And if anyone did read what I wrote, I had no idea whether what I wrote would resonate with anyone, be helpful, be infuriating, be entertaining, be reviled, or be met with a loud thud of indifference.

I am pleased and surprised by the number of daily readers of this blog. In fact, I am blown away at how many people read this, not because the numbers are so huge but because the number is > 2 or 3.

Not surprisingly then, given that more than 2 people read this blog, the response is mixed, especially when I use the s-word (sexism).

So, my philosophy at the moment:

- I accept all comments except the obscene, the irrelevant advertisements, and the random attempts to guess who I am in real life.

- I try to respond to comments that have questions or requests in them, but I don't always succeed, mostly because I don't have a lot of time for that, but also because I sometimes forget. I apologize for this, but am unlikely to become significantly more diligent at responding to comments/questions.

- There is no obvious email address attached to this blog because I can't think of a reason why I would want to get off-blog email. I am willing to listen to suggestions/reasons, though. Since I moderate comments, some people who want to write to me privately send a comment and include the statement "Please don't post this", and in some cases this has led to further correspondence. This system seems to work pretty well.

- I don't do memes, don't respond if tagged, and generally have not participated in the reindeer games of the blogosphere. Perhaps I am too old, curmudgeonly, and anti-social for such things.

- Blog roll: Mine is relatively short, and I know I should increase it out of courtesy and because there are other blogs that I read intermittently. I have resolved to work on this sometime this summer.

- Comments.. how do I feel about comments..? I have mixed feelings, of course, though not because some comments are positive and some are negative. The mixed feelings relate more to the fact that past comments or the anticipation of future comments affect how and what I write.

In some ways, this is good. Anticipating comments helps me to write more clearly and to think carefully about what details are necessary to include so as to avoid misinterpretation of what I write. Anticipating comments can also affect what and how I write in negative ways; e.g., for some topics I struggle with an urge to include proactive defensive statements. I try not to do that (too much), as I prefer that my anecdotes and musings speak for themselves, and not end up all twisted around by what I think people are going to think.

Although this blog can at times be 'preachy', the comments I dislike the most are the ones that give forceful but useless or irrelevant advice about what I should do about a particular situation. But then some other comments contain useful and thoughtful advice and/or interesting perspectives I had not previously considered, so it all balances out.

How long will I keep writing this blog? Will I always post 5 days/week? Should I write so much or try a more limited writing schedule? Will I run out of things to say about being an FSP? Will I always be anonymous? I don't know the answers to any of these questions, so at least for now, I will keep writing as I have.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Annual Report/1

This is not about the annual reports we have to write for grants -- though I did just write the last of several that I had to do this spring and I have some strong but uninteresting opinions about the categories of things about which we have to report to NSF. I will say that my favorite part is that when there is a box to fill in with some prose about how one's research has transformed society, infrastructure, and some other stuff, there is an option to click that says "Nothing to Report (Yet)". That "Yet" is very kind.

Should blogs have annual reports? It might not be the most interesting or controversial topic, but in looking over posts from two years ago, when I first started writing as FSP, I see some significant changes in my situation compared to now. Also, my philosophy of blogging has evolved over time, perhaps because initially I didn't have one.

Should I use an NSF annual report template for my blog annual report? No, been there/done that. I am going to adopt a more random format.

Today I will write about: What has changed in two years?

Tomorrow I will write about: My Blogosophy, such as it is.

So: What has changed in the past two years?

(1) Two years ago I had trouble being taken seriously as a professor and a scientist because I didn't "look the part". Now that I am deeper into my 40's, I think that I now look my age, though I still have a problem with not looking like the stereotypical professor/scientist owing to my gender and perhaps also to second-order characteristics -- e.g., lack of eyeglasses, general appearance (color/style of hair, style of clothes etc.).

Even so, the fact that I have been active in my profession and field for so long has given me increasing stature, and the incidences in which I am not taken seriously or in which I am specifically discriminated against owing to my gender have decreased noticeably in the space of 2 years. Unfortunately, the decrease is from a relatively high frequency and has not diminished to the extent of being rare.

(2) I was angrier two years ago. Some of the things that made me angry have been resolved by a change in academic administration; by having other options for professor-jobs at other universities; and by the positive resolution of some situations that were beyond my control but that significantly impacted my work/life. I dealt with other things that used to make me quite angry by deciding to focus more on the parts of my job that I really enjoy -- research, teaching -- and not let obnoxious colleagues and administrative issues dominate my emotional state so much.

This blog has definitely helped with how I feel about negative interactions with obnoxious colleagues. When they do something particularly obnoxious, instead of just feeling angry and thwarted, I write about it and this gives me a more positive perspective on the situation.

Deciding to focus on research and teaching might not sound like a difficult decision, and in the end it wasn't, but it meant giving up on caring about having a leadership role in my department/university, something no/few women have achieved and something that I used to think was an important goal. After thinking about it a lot, and writing about it some, I reached my current state of mind about this issue because I realized that I can have more of an impact by being a successful scientist and educator, and that this is what I am best at and enjoy the most.

I am glad that there are some women who are interested in administrative leadership positions and who excel at such important work, but I think it is also important for some women to be active and visible scientists, and that is the route I am taking with my career. This doesn't rule out my changing my mind later, but for now, I am pleased with the directions my career has taken in recent years.

Those are the Big Two in terms of changes in the past two years: I've aged (in years and appearance) and I'm less angry. There are probably others, but I have written nearly 500 posts (this is 496, to be exact) and an exhaustive reading of the archives would be .. exhausting.

To anyone who has read any (or all) of this blog, thanks for reading.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Pre-Postdoc Planning

My international travels in recent years have given me the opportunity to talk with many Ph.D. students about their research and their plans for the future, and I have noticed that there is a rather dramatic difference between U.S.-based and international students in their approach to finding postdocs.

European Ph.D. students in my field of science, for example, are much more likely to wait until they finish their degree, or are extremely close to finishing, before looking for a postdoc. In the U.S., the hunt for postdocs typically starts earlier -- sometimes a year before the expected Ph.D. completion date. I am generalizing, of course, and there are many exceptions, but I have encountered this situation enough to believe there is a difference. This difference is likely related to the different funding structures and academic cultures than to anything more profound.

Nevertheless, despite my having spent significant time abroad and despite having a high level of interaction with international colleagues, the U.S. system is so ingrained in me that I am always taken aback when I hear a Ph.D. student say that they are going to finish their degree and then starting looking around for a postdoc. I had this experience today, so I have been thinking about it and about why my instinctive reaction was to feel anxious for this person.

I don't know which system is more effective at matching Ph.D.'s with postdoctoral positions, and I don't know which system involves less stress -- it could well be a tie. It seems that it might be initially less stressful to be in a place where you don't have to do so much pre-postdoctoral planning, and may have some expectation that someone somewhere will have funding for you and will hire you when you get your Ph.D. But, as time goes by and Ph.D. completion nears, perhaps the respective stress levels switch and it becomes more stressful to be in a place where you don't know what you will be doing after your Ph.D. as compared to a place where you've known for months what you'll be doing after your Ph.D. (see Figure, which illustrates this hypothesis based on the assumption that the U.S. Ph.D. student finds a postdoc in advance of Ph.D. completion, as is typical in my field).

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Summer Salary Season

When reviewing proposals, I don't spend much time looking at the budget unless there is some particular reason to do so, such as: comments on the budget are requested/encouraged because a proposal concerns equipment or some other large-ticket item; the proposal budget total is surprisingly high or low; and/or I am curious about some aspect of the budget, e.g. how funds for a particular aspect of the research are allocated or justified. The part I care about least is what people request for summer salary. I figure that that part is between the program director and the PI's to work out, and I don't really care whether someone requests 2 weeks or 4 weeks of summer salary.

The amount of summer salary I request typically has no relationship to the actual time I spend on the research -- I always spend much more time on the project than what I can reasonably budget in terms of salary. Similarly, the random (but low) number that my university assigns as my '% effort' on a project never has any relationship to my actual 'effort', which would be nearly impossible to calculate anyway.

When constructing proposal budgets, most of my colleagues and I try to pick a 'reasonable' number that is neither too high (causing sticker shock and making one seem greedy, even if it is theoretically reasonable to request funds to make up for at least part of the 3 summer months many professors are not paid by their university) nor too low (causing people to doubt the PI's commitment to the project).

If the overall budget starts to get out of control owing to the high cost of grad/postdoc salary, fringe benefits etc., my salary request is typically the first thing to go. And even if I do keep some amount in the budget for my summer salary, if the grant is awarded and funds get tight owing to unexpected costs -- e.g. when my department mandated a raise for grad students, including for RA salaries paid from existing grants that didn't budget for this because the raise was announced without warning -- my summer salary gets whittled away because it wouldn't make sense to take the money from the amount budgeted for the actual research. It is the same for many of my colleagues as well.

It's of course nice to get paid something in the summer. I work hard in the summer, and there are various expenses involving the offspring, house, car, travel that are easier to deal with if one is paid in the summer, if only for 1 month out of the three. Or three weeks. Or two.

One of my senior colleagues refuses to tie summer salary amount to base salary. He calculates summer salary as a fixed amount that is the same no matter what the base salary of the senior personnel. That is, if he writes a proposal with a junior colleague, they both get the same summer salary. His philosophy is that they both work as hard, so why should he get paid more, at least in terms of grant-generated funds? From what I've seen, this approach is rather rare, and most people prorate summer salary requests to their 9-month base salary.

As my salary has increased over the years, I find that I ask for less summer salary, mostly for the reasons mentioned above re. priorities in a limited budget and a wish to avoid budget sticker-shock. And some years, I don't request any summer salary, even though I don't do any less research. As long as the cost of everything keeps going up and funding agency budgets don't increase, summer salary erosion will likely continue, and some of us will be able to add "volunteer" to our list of titles.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Sexism-Driven Science

There are surely untold numbers of excellent scientists who are sexist, but I know of at least one example in which sexism is resulting in Bad Science. I should say at the outset that I am not enraged, outraged, or even upset about this. I am rather entertained because the sexism-driven science is becoming absurdly bad, to the detriment of the scientific reputation of the Sexist Scientists, and I think that is a fair outcome of their behavior and actions.

The (vague) details:

A particular international group of scientists do not like a certain part of my research. I have maintained outwardly cordial relationships with them, but there have been some rough patches over the years. For example, one of them is the notorious pay-per-reviewer I wrote about last year at about this time. They have engaged in some sneaky behavior to find out what my recent research activities are -- they could just ask me and I would tell them, but I suppose that wouldn't be as much fun. They have written some 'attack' papers, mostly in low-impact journals. And I have heard some rather unambiguous rumors from more than one colleague to the effect of "International Professors X, Y, and/or Z hate you", even though I have not even met some of them in person.

Well, if they don't want to be my friends, then I don't want to be their friend either. Oh wait! We aren't in first grade anymore! I forgot for a moment.

I am reasonably sure that they hate me and my work because I am female. Circumstantial evidence: They do not similarly hate my male colleagues/coauthors who work closely with me on this research and similar topics, nor do they hate other male scientists with whom they disagree on various scientific topics. They focus their hate and anger on me specifically.

I have not done anything personally to attract such negative feelings. I have, however, published research that perhaps they wish they had thought of first. Or maybe my publications offend them for some other reasons. I really don't know. I just know they hate me and my work, and the best explanation is that it offends them that I am female and have published a lot on a certain topic.

Oh well, so I can't be universally loved and respected by all. Lucky for me these guys are not very influential or even particularly good scientists, although they are not non-entities either. And they are very busy in their dislike of me.

I was thinking about this situation recently because a colleague emailed me after attending a small international meeting at which my name "came up quite a bit" in discussions. My colleague did not provide many other details, except to say that he got upset by some of these discussions and attempted to leave the room. He had to be convinced to stay. It would have been nice if he had challenged the rude people to a duel, but perhaps the fact that he expressed his severe discontent with the tone and content of the discussion somehow registered with these guys.

I can afford to be bemused rather than upset about the situation because it has very little effect on me. I am enjoying this part of my research immensely (for scientific reasons) and have continued to receive funding and publish my work. I suppose that sounds smug, but a more accurate word would be "contented". I love my work and am happy with how it has been going so far.

I can also afford to be bemused because the work they have done in response to my research has become increasingly bizarre and desperate over the years. It's as if they are willing to propose anything as long as it is different from my ideas and observations, even if what they propose is not based on data and/or violates the laws of physics, thermodynamics, and reason.

For example, if I say that there are purple kangaroos hopping around on Jupiter, they will say that there are green kangaroos hopping around on Jupiter; or that there are purple kangaroos, but not on Jupiter, they are on an extra-solar planet that has yet to be discovered; or that there are purple creatures on Jupiter, but they are definitely not kangaroos, they are bandicoots. If I provide absolutely solid and reproducible documentation of the purple Jovian kangaroos, they say that in fact they knew there were purple kangaroos and knew it before I did even though they didn't get around to publishing this fact, but I am still wrong about the mechanism by which the kangaroos hop, the average height of the hops, and the shade of purple of at least a few of the kangaroos. And furthermore, even though I didn't say anything about the effect of kangaroo hopping on Jupiter's orbit, if I had said something about this topic, I would have been wrong.

I therefore conclude that sexism is driving them mad and that this is dramatically decreasing the quality of their research and that, in this case, sexism is the cause of bad science. If only it were so in more cases.

Note: Comment moderation will be sporadic this week, but I will get to all comments as time permits.

Friday, May 23, 2008

On Leaning On

Recently a person who is somewhat prominent in a certain scientific/technical field asked me to "lean on" a young professor who showed great promise in this field a few years ago as a grad student, but who has since found being a new faculty member rather overwhelming and so hasn't progressed with this work.

My first reaction was that it would be highly inappropriate and no doubt stress-inducing for a senior professor (me) to "lean on" a younger colleague about this. I happen to know that he is well aware that he needs to make progress on this particular research.

Upon reflection, though, I wondered if there was a constructive way to "lean". Mentoring can be a constructive form of leaning, although mentoring is most effective if it involves conversations over time, not just a random "leaning" now and then.

And even if I did "lean" on my colleague, what would I say? For example, the following statements are all in the spirit of "leaning" on someone, but are not particularly nice or constructive:

"Some prominent people in your field think that you have failed to live up to your early promise and are wondering if you are ever going to publish anything. They asked me to push you a bit on this issue." [cruel, with ominous subtext re. the consequences of this failure]

"What's the latest with that fascinating research you gave a talk on a year or two ago? Did you write that work up yet?" [not obviously cruel, but might be interpreted as such in a passive-aggressive work-harder-if-you-want-tenure kind of way]

I think I will I forgo the colleague-leaning for now and provide instead some longer-term friendly support and conversation.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Flesh Wound

Request to my fellow pale scientists and others: If you are giving a talk and you want to refer to an object in an image and that object is sort of a pale pinkish-orangeish color, please please please do not refer to it as "flesh-colored". Yes, I know there was a crayon with that color and that name way back when (until 1962, in fact), but now that color is officially known as "peach".

I don't get worked up about some science terms that could be considered offensive. I know some people who are offended when research or publications are described as "seminal", but that term just makes me laugh.

But "flesh-colored" is offensive, and it amazes me that I still hear people use the term in talks. It doesn't matter whether everyone in the audience is peach-colored or not, the term should be expunged from everyday use.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

No Thanks

Thanks to commenter Laura (last week) for reminding me that I've been meaning to muse about the "thank you" part of a thesis / thesis defense.

When I was in grad school, a prominent faculty member (who was department chair near the end of my grad years) made it known that he hated the "thank you" part of the thesis defense and strongly discouraged students from including any sort of personal thank you in their talk. If someone really wanted to, they could have a very brief and professional acknowledgment at the end of their talk (not the beginning). His reasoning was that the defense is an exam, and it is not the place for a long acknowledgment of the emotional and other support provided by significant others, relatives, pets, or faculty. Most students respected his wishes and confined their acknowledgments to the thesis document or to giving a speech at a party or other social occasion to celebrate a successful defense.

More typically, the thesis defenses I have seen involve acknowledgments -- some at the beginning, but more commonly at the end. I am not as extreme as my former professor, but I am glad when this part of the talk is short. It's always weird to listen to a long emotional thank you to the spouse and dog, and then go straight from that into exam mode.

I certainly don't mean to dismiss or underestimate the importance of friends and family in a graduate student's life and career, and yes I know there are uncaring, uninvolved advisors. That imbalance will lead to a student's wanting to thank the people they like, and not thanking the person who inflicted stress, pain, and suffering on them (or who neglected them) for an extended period of time.

Even so, students who feel that they were poorly advised and who therefore don't want to thank their advisor for providing a research opportunity and funding that led to a graduate degree nor for reading manuscripts and thesis chapters and writing letters of reference, should at least not be rude to their advisor in front of the rest of the department. I personally think that would be rather childish and unprofessional, though of course those traits are not necessarily obstacles to success in life.

I have seen cases in which an advisor did care a lot, spent a lot of time (years) helping a student, provided lots of valuable research experiences (and funding), wrote a lot of letters of reference, and helped the student launch their career, and yet, during the defense-acknowledgment the student just quickly listed the names of committee members, including the advisor, and then spoke at length about how wonderful their spouse and fellow grad students are. Well, that's special, of course, and it is more fun to thank your friends than your professors, but it makes me think that even successful, reasonably non-paranoid students have no idea how much time their advisors spend on activities that directly benefit the student, and how much support they have gotten from their advisors over the years.

My other hypothesis is that because the final throes of thesis completion can be stressful -- perhaps the advisor's comments on the final drafts of the thesis document/manuscripts were unwelcome for being either insufficient or too sufficient (or whatever) -- the student isn't feeling particularly positive about their advisor at the time of the defense. At the time of the defense, however, the defending student is feeling positive about the fact that they have made it this far, and are feeling grateful for how much help they got from their family and friends along the way, and so it is natural to focus on that.

I am not advocating that students get all sloppy-thankful at their defense about how much their advisors have done for them. In fact, a brief acknowledgment is sufficient and anything more would be inappropriate at the final exam/defense. However, unless an advisor is certifiably evil and depraved, it would be best to avoid sentiments such as "I thank Professor X and my committee. And now I want to thank those who really helped me." That is rude. [FSP's Guide to Academic Etiquette, Rule #342]

So, although many of us advisors might be willing to be understanding about not rating as high as our students' pets, especially cats, and do not begrudge Rover for being thanked more profusely than we are, it would be nice if students realized that their advisor probably had a fairly significant role in getting them to the point of standing in front of the room defending their graduate research.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Five Stages of Proposal Writing

This week, various ideas for future proposals have been circling around in my brain. Despite the fact that the issue of proposals and grants can be stressful, and despite the fact that there are some aspects of proposal assembly that I truly loathe (budgets), and despite the fact that I am not always successful at forgetting some of the more obnoxious comments that I received in past proposal reviews as I write new proposals, I really like writing proposals.

One of my grad students asked me recently "Why are you thinking about proposals again already?". So I explained some of the basics of what is involved in terms of timing of proposal submission, decisions, and (if necessary) resubmissions, and typical grant durations and so on. I think it's good for graduate students to have an understanding and appreciation for where their funding comes from, especially if they are going to participate in proposal-writing at some point.

I have a few ideas for proposals I want to write in the next year or so, and although my ideas may change over the course of the year, I like to have a general plan. For me, the construction of a proposal commonly involves various stages:

1 - Some possibly interesting (and of course transformative) ideas buzz around my brain until they settle into distinct ideas that can be packaged into focused and compelling proposal-units.

2 - The beginning of proposal writing is not a linear process. I don't start at the beginning and work my way through to the end. I write various pieces of it as best suits my mood, move bits of text around, create or assemble figures, talk to colleagues, edit what I've written, write new sections, and so on. This is my favorite part, and it can be exhilarating.

3 - The reality of having to fill out forms starts to reach the outer fringes of my consciousness, and I start to think about budget items, obtaining support letters, and other technical matters. I acquire budget numbers from various sources and I put files in a folder, but I don't yet feel like dealing with them. I still feel like writing, and so I focus on that.

4 - I force myself to do the forms. I check the boxes that say I will not be experimenting on humans or animals (other than students). I do the budget. I come up with some synergistic activities to list on my CV. The Chair and the Dean and some other people give me permission to submit the proposal even though they haven't read it. The deadline looms and the exhilaration has faded, though even the Oppression o' the Forms cannot ruin my overall fondness for writing proposals.

5 - Everything is assembled. The forms are uploaded. The text is uploaded. I hope that the grants office won't submit the proposal until the last minute in case I want to change something. And then.. someone in the grants office pushes a button and the proposal is gone. I get an automated email. I am relieved, but there is also a melancholy feeling of emptiness at the departure of the proposal out of my intellectual grasp. What will I do next? I contemplate cleaning my office, but I don't actually do it.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Twisted Sister

This is about balancing career and family, but in this case family does not refer to one's offspring or spouse, but to the rest of one's family. This is a complex topic that includes difficult issues such as caring for aging/ailing parents or siblings, but today I will mention two other issues that have thus far impacted me more directly:

1. Collision of important Career Activities and important Family Activities. Recent example: A month or so ago, I wrote about how I had agreed last fall to give an invited talk at a conference in the summer. In fact, I also made plans for students, postdocs, and me to visit international colleagues to do Research directly after this conference. Months after making these plans, my brother got an awesome new job involving being in charge of some major military stuff. There will be a party. The party will be exactly during my conference and international travel.

My family thinks I should go to my brother's party/ceremony, but to do so would require backing out of several commitments involving the conference, not to mention research travel and activities that require my presence and active participation. If I had known about the ceremony/party thing last fall, I would have made different plans, but by the time the party was announced, I felt it was too late to change plans. Because I refuse to cancel or change my plans, my family thinks I am making a statement that my family is less important than my career.

None of the women of my mother's generation or older ever had a career, so I suppose they can't imagine making this choice, nor can they imagine that for me it isn't as simple as Career > Brother. Even if I say that's not the case, actions speak louder blah blah blah.

I tried to convince a friend to go to the party and impersonate me. All she would have to do is stand around and make the occasional sarcastic comment, and no one would notice she wasn't me. Alas, the opportunity to go to a party with my family on a military base was not alluring.

Earlier this spring, my travels brought me to my brother's city of residence, but he was out of town on business so I didn't see him. No one (including me) suggested that he change his plans, but one relative remarked at my poor planning to schedule my visit while my brother was away, as if I had a choice. In my family, men have Careers and women work if they want to, but it's kind of an optional activity that somehow isn't as serious as what the Men do. The fact that I do this bizarre professor/science job makes it even harder for my family to understand what I do.

I know that my relatives are proud of me for having a Ph.D. and being a professor, but then something like this recent event happens and these feelings of pride are overridden by more fundamental feelings about how things should work in a Family.

So, I am not going to my brother's party, though I will think of some appropriate way to congratulate him. For his last promotion, I got him a chainsaw woodcarving, so I have set the bar pretty high for myself in terms of gifts. In contrast, my brother, who has not similarly acknowledged my advancement in my career, has set the bar pretty low in terms of his gifts to me, so I am not too stressed about this. (though I will accept suggestions, as long as they are bizarre yet tasteful)

2. My so-called career has taken me away from the region of the country where the rest of my family lives, so I really must not care about them all that much. I suppose there are many places in the country/world like this, but few people move away from the place where I am from. I am sure more young people leave it now than 20-30 years ago, but most of my friends from high school still live in or near our town. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but the part I don't like is that people who do choose to leave are seen as turning their backs on their home. When I decided to go to college in a different state, more than one person said to me, more as a statement than a question "So we aren't good enough for you?".

I left home long ago (by choice) and have not returned to live there (by the vagaries of the academic job market), and this fact has repercussions to this day. For example, a few years ago I tried to talk to my mother's doctor about my concerns about her deteriorating memory and cognitive abilities, and instead got a lecture about how, because I have chosen to live elsewhere, I can't possibly really care about my mother and so it was a waste of his time for this doctor to talk to me because I was probably just trying to ease my conscience about living so far away. [note: 'far away' in this context means anything more than a 45 minute drive]

There are a lot of great things about growing up in a fairly small place, but people there can be a bit unforgiving if you leave.

I am doing pretty well at being a professor and a mom, but perhaps not so well at being a daughter and a sister. I don't think I am a terrible daughter/sister, though, despite some drops in my approval rating in recent family opinion polls. I visit my relatives*, keep in touch by phone/email, enjoy sending gifts and cards for various occasions and non-occasions, and feel reasonably well connected to the rest of the family**. Right now, my approval rating is probably as low as it has ever been, but I am going to hang in there until not even one relative is willing to vote for me. I seem to be channeling Hillary Clinton and that is not good. It must be the stress of having 82% of my family annoyed with me right now.

* Way more often than my brother does, though I realize it is neither constructive nor mature to point this out.

** With the exception of a cousin who carries a concealed weapon and has read nothing but golfing magazines for the past 15 years, and another cousin who was living in a shed and found God ("In the shed?" I asked, causing a further drop in my family approval rating) and who now wants to travel the world distributing Bibles to desperately poor people in violence-torn countries.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Good Old Bad Old Days

Do grad students and postdocs have a more difficult time these days than their professors did?

There's no one correct answer to that question, of course: some do and some don't. The general answer depends on the specific discipline; the decade in which the professors were students/postdocs; and the gender of the people being compared.

When I was a grad student, my fellow grad students spent a lot of time bemoaning how unlucky we were (compared to our professors) to be getting Ph.D.s at the worst time in history. I didn't participate much in those conversations because I wasn't as convinced as the other (male) students that I would get a faculty position if only there were the opportunities.

My impression is that there are more opportunities today in many fields of the physical sciences than there were in the 1980's and 1990's -- not in every sub-field, of course, but in many. Also, there are many new opportunities in new sub-fields, including those involving interdisciplinary research between basic science and engineering and between the physical sciences and life sciences.

If I consider my field of science in the most general way, there are more career opportunities, including academic positions, now than there were > 10 years ago. If I consider my particular sub-field in its most narrow definition, however, things were better back in the day, though unfortunately for many of my grad school friends, "the day" was already over by the time we were in the job market.

In some fields in the 80's and 90's, academic jobs were few. There was much written, particularly in the 1990's, about grad school being "a road to nowhere". Many dropped out or many spent years doing postdoc after postdoc (± adjunct teaching positions). I know several people from that time who did at least 6 short-term positions at different institutions in different parts of the country/world (I think the record was 8). Some professors stopped advising Ph.D. students, though the ones I know have all resumed owing to the improved opportunities for Ph.D.'s.

My students have more opportunities than my generation did when we were students, so from my perspective, things are better now. But again, this depends on how you define the sub-disciplines being considered. The field I was originally trained in, in its strictest sense, is heading for extinction, and you would be committing career suicide to focus Ph.D. research on it today. However, it's alive and well in a new incarnation. My students' training reflects the interesting new directions this field is taking, so they have more opportunities.

In some ways, female grad students today have it 'easier' than my generation did as students, and we had it easier than the generations that came before us. Some of the things I dealt with in graduate school as a matter of course would be unimaginable to the female students in my department today. There are more women students, there are more women faculty, and there is a greater awareness that it might be a good thing if more women were encouraged to become scientists. All is not wonderful, of course, but if you ask me to compare the situation for women grad students today vs. 30 years ago, there's no question whatsoever that the academic environment -- in a general, comparative sense -- is better today.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Grading Hazard

You are surely thinking: Oh no, she is going to complain about the feeling of brain damage you get after grading many many many many exams or papers and how you think that you will never recover your cognitive abilities and will go through the rest of your life in a dismal stupor.

Or you are thinking: She is going to mention how amazing it is that you can say to a class "X is an extremely important concept. I am going to ask you about it on the final exam. I have put a sample question about X, which we have talked about in 57% of the classes this term, on the course webpage, and this sample question is very similar to what I will put on the final exam." and then some students don't seem to ever have heard of this concept.

Or maybe you are thinking: She is going to rant about multiple-choice exams again, and it wasn't even that interesting the first time.

But you would all be wrong unless someone happened to wonder if I were going to mention this:

This evening when I arrived home, my most gigantic cat came running to greet me, as is his wont, and, as is also his wont, he hurled himself to the ground to roll in the dirt and request a belly rub (it may well be that during his time at the animal shelter in his Youth, he was seriously influenced by the dogs). I nearly screamed, shocked at the sight of large red splotches on his belly. I ran to him, convinced that he was bleeding profusely from numerous wounds. But no, it was red ink.

As I soon found out, he had fallen asleep on the uncapped red pen that my husband had been using for grading.

Now I am wondering whether the cat deliberately lay on the pen -- all my students (and some postdocs and colleagues) have tattoos, why not my cats?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

On Paranoia

Today I want to discuss academic paranoia. Why? you ask, no doubt behind my back in a cruel way. If a particular type of behavior is observed (by me) at least 3 times within an arbitrary time frame defined by the limits of my memory and is perpetrated by at least 3 different people, I declare it a (possible) trend. And even if it's not, I'm going to discuss it anyway.

Note that in this discussion, I am talking about student behavior, though of course professors can -- on occasion -- behave in irrational and unpleasant ways as well.

Event 1: A student wanted to leave some information out of his thesis because he feared that others would use it "for their own purposes". Leaving aside for the moment the fact that most of us want others to use our research results (as long as they cite us appropriately), it is important to note that in this case I am not talking about research results with any monetary value -- this is basic research at its most basic.

Some publications had already resulted from the thesis research, but the advisor insisted that the remaining unpublished work be put in the thesis. The student proposed instead that he leave the unpublished material out and if anyone ever wanted to know more or get specific information, they could write to him and he would tell them what they needed to know and then he would give them permission to cite his thesis, even though the information wouldn't be in the thesis. Weird. If the info is in the thesis, the thesis can be cited if no further publications result. If the info is not in the thesis, it can't be cited. The student is not a control freak; he is seriously concerned that people -- maybe even his advisor -- will use his research results in super-secret ways without telling him.

Note: Results obtained using funds from certain types of grants are not owned by the individual who obtained them; there are specific stipulations about data recording, management, and archiving that supersede the individual's paranoia level.

Event 2:
As a joke, a student left an unsigned note on the office door of his friend, Stressed Out Student (SOS). The letter strongly implied that SOS would never finish his Ph.D. if he didn't work harder. SOS's first thought was that his advisor had left him this note. He sent his advisor a long email message about how hurt he was by this note, he emailed other professors about the cruel note that he thought was written by his advisor, and he no doubt freaked out his advisor's other students.

Even once the joker was revealed and expressed great surprise that his letter was not instantly recognized as a joke, the SOS had difficulty apologizing to his advisor, who was upset and offended by the incident. They had a discussion that went something like this:

Advisor: I would
never write a note like that, even as a joke. It is just not something I would ever do or would ever consider doing.

SOS: I hoped it wasn't you, but I needed to know for sure.

Advisor: But it was not even possible that that note was from me, so you shouldn't have needed to "make sure". It's really important that you know that I would never write a note like that.

SOS: I know, but I needed to know for sure.

Advisor: So you think it was possible that I would write a note like that.

SOS: No, but I needed to know for sure.

[advisor changed subject to Science Topic]

What was the source of this paranoia? The obvious answer is stress, but the student was well supported by grants throughout his graduate career, had some peer-reviewed publications, and had a postdoc lined up for when he finished his Ph.D. Unknown to his advisor, there might have been stressful things going on in his non-academic life, but that didn't make it any easier for the advisor to accept that the student was/is so deeply distrustful.

Event 3: A recent comment to this blog referred to a department that "hates" its students. The evidence: only a few professors showed up for a student awards ceremony and they didn't congratulate the students. I can see why students would be hurt by this, and ideally that department will take steps to find a way to increase faculty participation and acknowledgment of student achievement. However, I can also think of lots of non-evil reasons why professors might not attend such a ceremony, why they might not have the social skills to congratulate the students, and why they might not actually hate the students. I might even reveal some of these reasons, but I fear that students might read this and then the secret would be out.

I of course know nothing of the aforementioned department or its professors and it is entirely possible the professors pretend to have other engagements (e.g. lame reasons like child care, meetings, teaching/grading, travel, illness, proposal or other deadlines) but they actually secretly congregate in a local wine bar, the location of which is not known to students, and make disparaging comments about their students, whom they hate.

Stressed out students can behave in erratic, paranoid, and/or unpleasant ways
that can severely damage their relationship with their advisor and impact the working environment of a research group. I think most advisors are willing to accept some amount of freaked-out student behavior. Behavior that could be defined as within the realm of acceptable includes being a bit cranky or moody, expressing anxiety verbally in a non-abusive way, or even crying at particularly difficult times.

But then there is paranoid behavior, which, if expressed in certain ways, can be very damaging to advisor-student working relationships. It is surely unpleasant for the paranoid person as well and few people choose to be paranoid*, but it's too bad there isn't some way for a paranoid person to get a bit of perspective before making bizarre decisions, going nuclear on their advisor, or deciding that professors hate students.

Alas, there is probably no avoiding a moderate level of paranoia in the academic environment. Some of it might even be justified.**

* An exception is my mother-in-law.

** I know what you're thinking.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Trick Question

Some of my professor colleagues and I were recently chatting about end-of-semester type issues, including the excellent exams we were creating to provide our students with challenging and intellectually stimulating experiences that would perfectly and fairly test their understanding of the course material. And that would be easy to grade but that would not involve going over to the dark side of multiple choice exams, except in classes with > 200 students.

We found ourselves focusing on one particular perplexing issue that we had all recently encountered -- that students seem to be having more trouble understanding what a test question is asking for. Let me restate that, in case what I wrote is ambiguous and/or makes no sense: Some students are confused about what some sentences, phrases, or words mean. They may understand the concept the question is trying to test, but they don't know what the question is asking.

It is entirely possible that some of us write poorly worded test questions, but, for the sake of discussion, let's ignore that possibility.

Example: One professor who was teaching a geometrically oriented topic said that some students in a class couldn't deal with the phrase "not all of the angles [of a particular geometric object that was shown in an image on the quiz] are at 90 degrees". They had no idea if this meant that none of the angles were at 90° or if possibly some or all of the angles were at 90° but didn't have to be or if the statement required that some be at 90° and some not be at 90°. In fact, no students asked a question about the ambiguous phrase ("not all of") during the test, which is ideally when such issues are resolved, but that's another issue.

Students in another class had trouble with the concept of at least. In fact, I noticed that many (but not all) of the examples we were discussing involved phrases such as some of, all of, or at least. My hypothesis, which I proposed to my colleagues, is that long experience with multiple-choice type tests leads some students to try to psych out answers that involve quantities or time (never, always, sometimes, often) and to look for the 'trick' of a question rather than taking the question at face value. Even when a test is not multiple-choice, but instead requires the writing of words or sentences, some students may still treat a question as if there is some trick to it.

Every once in a while, a student will ask me "Is this a trick question?" about something on a test; or, retroactively "Was that a trick question?". I do not ask trick questions on tests.

Many multiple choice tests, however, do involve tricklike questions. By definition, you have to provide several wrong answers along with the correct answer, and one way to make this challenging is to make some of the answers similar, or to ask the question in a 'tricky' way (e.g., using those ambiguous time/quantity words or phrases).

The first time my daughter took a multiple choice test at her elementary school, she came home incredulous. She told me that she had just taken an extremely stupid test. She said "They gave us the answer right there in a list and we just had to show them which one it was."

This isn't a rant against multiple choice tests. Sometimes they are the only practical choice in large classes, but I think the multiple choice test culture might be creating a generation of skeptical and suspicious students who are always (or often) looking for the trick in a question. Or maybe there are legions of professors out there who do ask trick questions. I suppose that is possible, but at least I know that not all of them are me.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Meeting the Family

When I was an undergraduate at a small liberal arts college, on various occasions my parents met some of my professors. This was fine with me. My mother still has a plant in her backyard that she grew from a cutting given to her by a former professor of mine. I have no idea how or why they ever had a conversation about plants, much less exchanged plant material, but the evidence exists in the backyard of my ancestral home.

When I was in graduate school, I don't think my parents ever met any of my professors, nor did I want them to meet. Similarly, my mother never met my postdoc supervisor, nor did I want them to meet.

When I was briefly a professor at a small liberal arts college, I met the parents of many of my students. I met some at the beginning of the year, I met some on a Parents Weekend type event during which I was expected to be in my department on a Saturday for various festivities and informal conversations, and I met even more of them at graduation in the spring. This was mostly OK with me, and even kind of fascinating. What were the parents like of the student who cried all the time? What were the parents like of the student whom I had enjoyed supervising in a research project? What were the parents like of the student who spoke openly of her relationship with her drug dealer?

Perhaps my memory is failing me, but I don't recall meeting (m)any parents at my previous research university. At my current university, however, there are graduation events in the department, and these are attended by graduating students and their families. Professors are expected to attend. We are reminded about this expectation repeatedly in the weeks leading up to the main social event, and we are lectured on proper behavior: We should not attend the event and talk only to each other or show up only to graze at the buffet. We should mingle with the parents and say nice things about their kids. We should not throw food, disconnect grandma from her oxygen tank, or mention that cheating incident.

A few years ago I had a traumatic experience at one of these events. I walked into the room, and was immediately invited to sit with the family of an undergrad who had taken two classes from me and who had spent the entire year whining, complaining, and blaming others (including me) for her poor grades and lack of effort. I found it difficult to think of nice things to say about her, but I managed to say "It's so great that Sara is graduating", which was a completely sincere statement because I was glad to see her go. I met her fiance, who expressed some doubts about the usefulness of a college degree and made disparaging comments about Ph.D.'s and cushy professor jobs (tenure, summers "off", lots of vacations). I met her mother, who asked me if I thought her daughter was too fat. I met her father, although he did not speak, and I met her wheelchair-bound grandmother, who didn't feel well but who, when she complained, was told by her family to "shut up".

Most families are not this ghastly, of course. Most are very nice, and it is great to see so many proud relatives and their happy graduating students. Even so, when I go to these events, I come prepared with excuses to leave early and/or suddenly:

- I left something running in a lab and if I don't get down there in a few minutes, the entire building might explode;

- I forgot that I have a highly contagious disease and should not be at a social gathering; and/or

- I have to go finish calculating and uploading grades so that some of the students in this room can actually graduate.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Sabbatical Dreaming

Sabbaticals can require preparation far in advance if one hopes to visit another institution/country/continent, so even though I am approximately midway between my last sabbatical and what I hope will be my next sabbatical, I have recently started thinking that I need to think about my next sabbatical. Thinking about thinking about something is not always the most effective means of getting something done, but it's a start.

In my department and in my family, sabbaticals take extra planning because my professor-spouse and I need (want? prefer? hope?) to take a sabbatical in the same year. For the last sabbatical, it took much longer than it should have for the previous department chair to agree that my husband and I could both have a sabbatical in the same year. The current chair is much more understanding about the 2-career-couple thing, but he wants at least 3 years advance notice. He has now been notified.

Now all we have to do is (1) agree on a place to go; and (2) get some funding (we are paid 50% of our salary during a sabbatical). I am not sure which one will be easier -- both have their challenges.

For the last sabbatical, my daughter was at a very portable age and was happy to have random adventures that her wise parents organized for her. It was challenging for her to be plunked into a new school in a new country, especially since she didn't know much of the language of that country, but within a few months she was speaking with some fluency in a new language, had made friends, and was very happy.

Our daughter's love of travel and adventure continues to this day, but the second-most-common sabbatical comment (after 'Where do you want to go?') that people make re. sabbaticals is that because my daughter will be a teenager for the next sabbatical, it's going to be difficult to get her to agree to go in the first place and life will be difficult once we get wherever we are going. So far, though, none of these dire predictions about going on sabbatical with a teenager have come from anyone who has done a sabbatical-avec-teen, though some have come from people who are not going to attempt a sabbatical trip because their offspring is/are of the teen species. I may have absolutely no idea what I am in for, but I can't imagine not going away for a sabbatical because my daughter will be a teenager.

As I was typing this, my department chair stopped by my office and said "I want to talk to you about your sabbatical." No, he did not want to talk about the fact that my daughter will be a teenager. He wanted to bring to my attention that it had just occurred to him that he will no longer be department chair that year, and perhaps I will be the next department chair, in which case I can't go on sabbatical.

I said: Do you mean to say that I would have to choose between being Department Chair and going on Sabbatical?

Yes, replied the Current Department Chair.

Hmm, let me think about that choice for a femtosecond, said I. And then: Sabbatical. Yes, I am pretty sure I would rather go on sabbatical than assume onerous administrative duties.

And furthermore, I thought but did not say, according to the way that my department/college does things, I would have to allow myself to be considered for the chair position, with no guarantee of attaining this lofty goal, and therefore my husband and I would have to stop all sabbatical planning in the event that I was selected, which is by no means as certain as the current chair thinks it would be. And then I might find myself with neither sabbatical nor chairpersonship. Yes, I definitely choose sabbatical*. I just don't know where it will be yet.

* As it turns out, today the Current Department Chair had the same conversation with my husband about our possibly forgoing our sabbaticals in the event that I would become Chair. I am glad I was not present for that conversation, although there is a remote possibility that my husband just laughed in a certain way he has when someone is saying something completely insane to him and he just wants them to go away. That is my hope, anyway.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Weird in a Good Way?

In the language class I am taking, my fellow students and I recently gave final oral presentations. We also did presentations in the middle of the semester, so this is the 8th presentation we have given in the past 4 semesters.

In these presentations, we get to talk about anything we want to talk about. I like to tell stories about random Professor Adventures I have had over the years, and many of these end up being about unusual situations that result from my being a FemaleScienceProfessor.

In my most recent presentation, I picked a somewhat complex story that I didn't feel I could adequately describe until now. As I was telling the story, I was very focused on the vocabulary and grammar, though I also enjoyed the storytelling aspects of the anecdote, which was about an incident that took place several years ago in a country that speaks the target language of this class.

The typical procedure is that everyone claps at the end of every presentation and then each student in the audience asks a question of the presenter. Typical questions are "What is your favorite thing to do during your summer vacation?" or "When did your grandmother teach you to sew?".

When I finished my presentation, which I ended in a very clear way by saying (in the appropriate language) "The End", there was only silence. That was unnerving. Had I been
completely incomprehensible?

Then one student said "You have a strange and interesting life." And then everyone clapped.

I liked that comment a lot
, especially since it was said kindly.
If one's life (or the person living that life) must be strange, strange and interesting is vastly preferably to simply strange, or strange and uninteresting.

There are certain adjectives that will never be used to describe me even though it would be professionally advantageous to have these characteristics -- e.g., cool, elegant, tall, distinguished, sane, bearded -- but, given my limitations, I am quite happy with
strange and interesting.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Eternal Question

Can we have class outside?

Does every student have to ask this at some point in their academic career? I am not sure if I ever asked it, but I know that I thought it at various times. There are just some days when being inside is not appealing to students or professors.

When I taught at a small liberal arts college, in some cases I answered this Eternal Question with a "yes", but I always regretted it. I have happy memories of having class outside when I was a student at a SLAC, but in that case there was an ideal space in a garden-like area, with benches curved around a central area where the professor could stand or sit. At the college where I taught, it was more of a free-form, let's-all-sit-on-the-ground in that photo-in-the-college-prospectus kind of way, and I found that I might as well have been talking to the squirrels. It was actually a relief when outdoor classes were strongly discouraged/banned owing to fears of tick-borne diseases.

Even at the Big Research U where I am now, students still ask if we can have class outside. Sometimes it is clear that they are joking -- for example, when the class has more than 100 students. Sometimes they are serious. I don't mind doing a class 'unplugged' -- I don't always project a presentation on a big screen, and am quite happy to spend a class doing an activity or having a discussion -- but there is no place where a class can easily gather outside and focus on the class and not on the nearby students playing Frisbee or whatever. Also, we have amazing squirrels on our campus, and I probably wouldn't be able to focus on the class material either if we went outside into the squirrel zone.

Maybe I am deluded to think that students in the classroom are paying attention more than they would if we were sitting outside with the squirrels, but I think I need to live with some level of delusion about that. And who knows, maybe someday I will say "OK, let's go outside." Maybe both professors and students want or need to hope that some day the stars will align and we will all go outside and sit in a circle and talk about Science, the squirrels will slowly creep closer to listen, no one will get a tick-borne disease or be hit in the head by a Frisbee, and it will be wonderful.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Letter from Europe: Here's Looking at You

In some cases when one of my colleagues feeds me a good FSP topic or anecdote, I am quite comfortable writing about it myself. Recently a colleague told me about an incident that I thought would be best told by the original source. So, today there is a guest writer for FSP:


I am a European Science Professor. Recently I was asked to write letters of recommendation for two aspiring FSPs (FSP1 and FSP2) who both applied to the same tenure-track position at a European university. I know both women well because I have collaborated with both on various research projects. FSP1 just came back from an “informal” seminar she gave at the university, in preparation for the formal interviews that will seal their fate. FSP2 had also visited “informally” a few weeks before.

FSP1 said to me that she felt very good about her visit because there is an excellent academic fit between her field of expertise and where the institution wants to go. Something worried her though. She was told that FSP2, who is also an excellent young scientist, had the preference of a fraction of the (male) faculty because of her looks. FSP1 has never met FSP2 in person and asked me, somewhat nervously, what I think of FSP2’s stunning looks. I am not used to taking these criteria into consideration, and the overall story gave me pause. It is bad enough for these men to make comments on FSP2’s appearance and use this in a hiring decision, but it is quite incredible to tell FSP1 about it.

This is an extreme situation perhaps, although I don’t think it is isolated in our male-dominated fields, but it made me wonder, beyond the fact that the men at this institution are pigs, what is the effect of looks in the hiring process. Here in Europe it is common, and often required, for candidates to include a picture ID in their application file. It is also common, as I did a while ago on a search committee, to hear comments made on the physical appearance of women applicants.

So, here is a simple survey:

Statement: Men are more likely to be hired if they are good-looking
Yes, they are more likely to be hired
No, it doesn't matter for men
Free polls from

Statement: Women are more likely to be hired if they are good-looking
Yes, they are more likely to be hired
No, it doesn't matter for women
Free polls from

Monday, May 05, 2008

Out-Of-Class Experience

For various reasons, I recently spent a lot of time outside regularly scheduled class time with some of the undergrads in the class I've been teaching. Spending time with undergrads in close proximity to major end-of-term activities such as final exams might not sound enjoyable, and in fact in some cases it is not, but this particular time was fun because I have had a great group of students in my class this term. Sometimes these experiences can be one long "Do we have to know X" (for the test) type conversations, but in the best cases, such as this recent one, the students used the opportunity to ask things that went beyond what they learned in class. I was peppered with questions about how the class material relates to other classes and topics and life and the world and everything. It was very cool.

Providing optional outside-of-class time tends to attract students who are most enthusiastic about a class. Of course, some students can't participate because they have other commitments (work, family, sports). I make sure that those students have other options if they want or need to spend some extra review time with me before their exam. Perhaps it is unfair to provide an opportunity in which not everyone can participate, but so many students benefit from it and seem to enjoy it, that I can't imagine not providing this out-of-class time. I schedule the extra end-of-term time far in advance (in fact, it is on the syllabus), so most students have sufficient warning to adjust their schedule to participate if they wish.

During some of these out-of-class experiences, some students want to chat about topics other than the course material. These conversations range from the kind that convince them that I am from the outer solar system owing to my lack of knowledge of Mainstream Culture (TV, music, video games, sports..), to the intense kind about their hopes and dreams for the future.

For example, I ended up having a long conversation with one student who is a bit older than the others -- a student who already has a degree but ended up in an unsatisfying job and is now going to try again with another degree in a different field of science. I asked her how she had come to her decision to change fields and why she had chosen to switch from Science X to Science Y and how she managed to balance all this with raising her kids. It was fascinating.

This student told me that in her previous job, she sort of liked what she was doing, but she didn't love it. She met people who were truly passionate about their work, and she knew that she was missing something. She always wondered what could make her feel that way about her work, and eventually decided to go back to school and change careers entirely. She said to me "You obviously have it -- a passion for your work. It is obvious every day in class that you love what you are doing."

I don't know exactly what her antennae are picking up on. It's not as if I bound into the classroom every day and say "Hi Students! Let's talk about Cool Science Stuff again today, and by the way, I love my job!". I also don't slouch into class, sigh in a sad and hopeless way, and say "I guess we have to talk about some more of this Science Stuff again today, so let's just get it over with." I am glad, though, that somewhere in the large middle ground between being an in-your-face happy professor and a going-through-the-motions unhappy professor, I somehow convey to at least some of my students that I am passionate about my work.

This student wanted to know how I figured out exactly what I wanted to do. How did I know that this was the right field of science for me, that being a professor was the right job for me, and that being a professor at a research university was the best place for me to be? The answers are, respectively (1) see below; (2) luck, and (3) trial-and-error and luck.

The first question is the easiest to answer: I still remember flipping through a course listing during the fall term of my first year in college and coming across the listing for a certain Science Department. I was not planning to major in any science in college -- I was more interested, I thought, in ancient things (history, literature, languages, culture) -- and was just looking through the catalog to see what other courses I might take. When I came to the page for this particular Science Department, the mythical light bulb went off over my head. It is hard to explain how looking at the name of an academic department in a course catalog can be an intense experience, but it was for me. I went to the college bookstore and bought a textbook for the introductory course in that Science Department, and sat down and started reading it. There have been a few bumps and detours in the road between that moment and where I am now, but that was the start of it for me.

That's how I discovered that I loved this particular Science, but that light bulb flash did not, however, involve the further thought ".. and I want to be a professor at an R1 university." That came later -- much later -- in part by trial-and-error. My student seems to be on a trial-and-error kind of career path as well, although perhaps with more dramatic turns in the path. She says she thinks she has finally found it, though, and from what I can see, she has indeed. In her case, she is going to teach Science at the K-12 level, and it is quite thrilling for me to think that I have helped her in some way on her route to that goal.

In the day or two before this recent out-of-class experience, I must admit that I was feeling some regret for scheduling this time that I could be spending doing other things, none of which would involve students, but once the students showed up and we started chatting, it was great. Loving your job doesn't mean you love it every second and have a 100% optimistic attitude, but for me it means that I am very often reminded of why I love my job. Sometimes I am reminded by my research and sometimes I am reminded by my students, and that's probably why working at a place that lets me do both research and teaching is the best place for me, however it is that I got here.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Collaborating With Dead People

Have I chosen a great topic for a Friday post, or what? Perhaps I am still recovering from my near-death (or at least, near-maiming) experience last weekend.

Anyway, a manuscript recently crossed my desk and gave me pause. One of the co-authors is deceased. There are certainly many legitimate circumstances in which a deceased person's name should be included on a manuscript to which they substantively contributed, despite their presumed inability to consent to the submission of the manuscript in its final form (and/or participate in revisions).

When I was in graduate school, one of my evil anti-mentor committee members threatened me with failure and ejection from graduate school unless I promised to make him a co-author on every paper that I ever published on a certain topic for the rest of my life, even though he contributed in no substantive way to the research. The department chair was not interested in the unethical nature of this demand/threat, and merely said "I don't envy you" [for being in that position]. I said to the evil professor "But we clearly disagree about some important aspects of my work. Why would you want to be a co-author on papers with me?" and he responded by pinching me. I was not impressed by this inarticulate and immature display, though by that point I did not envy me either.

Long story short: the evil professor died before I finished my Ph.D. Is he a co-author on any of my papers? Over his dead body.. No, he is not a co-author on any of my papers. He did manage to co-author some other papers after his demise, though, including one that was submitted years after his death. It is quite possible that the authors decided to include him as a co-author to honor their former professor and his contributions to the work, but I cannot help but wonder if he made a similar threat/demand to others.

Perhaps my somewhat traumatic and, I think, unusual history with deceased co-authors makes me cynical about them, but it would be interesting to know the motivations of including dead people as authors on papers: that is, what % of these cases involved major contributions of the now-deceased person, what % are motivated by a desire to 'honor' a famous or well-liked person who may have had something to do with the work at some point, and what % have a more bizarre and/or unsavory reason? I presume the latter is a very small number, but I don't know about the other two.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Helicopter Advisor

Not so long ago, I mused about the so-called helicopter parent phenomenon, at least from the point of view of one professor at a large research university. This started me thinking about whether it is possible to be a helicopter advisor.

Parents never stop being parents, even when their kids have left home for college. We don't call parents of adult children ex-parents or former parents, but advisors typically become ex-advisors or former advisors once their academic children graduate and leave their academic homes to start their own careers. Certainly, advisors need to play some role in the lives of their former or soon-to-be-former students by writing letters of recommendation, but, ideally, our former students will become our colleagues and peers, even if we continue to provide some advice or other support as needed.

While pondering the concept of helicopter advisors, I thought of some possible scenarios based on real examples, all of which relate to Ph.D. students who are/were about to graduate or who have/had recently graduated. This is a time when the ground starts to shift, and the advisor-student relationship is (or should be?) different from when the Ph.D. project is incipient or in mid-stream.

Example 1: What if a near-completion Ph.D. student isn't being as assertive or proactive about seeking career opportunities as he/she 'should' be? Can/should the advisor step in, make some calls, and/or do some aggressive prodding of the student in order to help them get a postdoc or faculty position (or whatever their career goal is)? Or should the advisor step back? I am not talking about withholding advice or other support; I am talking about whether an advisor should take extraordinary measures to try to help a student find career opportunities. Does this situation call for some helicopter advising or is it time for a sink-or-swim advising mode?

Pro helicopter: Advisors care about their students, and have a lot of time and money invested in them. Why not continue to help the students in whatever way possible to get them started on an independent career? Some students may be hesitant to be aggressive about applications and schmoozing owing to a lack of confidence, fear of rejection, or other insecurity, rather than to a lack of initiative or knowledge of what it takes to get a job. Why not help them?

Con helicopter: Enough is enough. You provide years (and years) of graduate training for someone, and if they can't even send out their own applications and enquiries, that's their problem.

Example 2: A recent Ph.D. wants his/her advisor to help with something that the advisor readily assisted with when the (former) student was still a student. It would be easy for the advisor to continue to provide this assistance, but should she/he? The answer will of course depend on the situation, but in one recent case with which I am familiar, the (ex)-advisor refused to help a former student specifically because providing such help would perpetuate the ex-student's dependence on the advisor rather than promoting the ex-student's efforts to establish an independent reputation and career.

Pro helicopter: Maybe the ex-student isn't ready. His asking for help may indicate that more than anything else (laziness, insecurity). Just because the advisor navigated this same research activity just fine as an assistant professor starting a research program, doesn't mean it wouldn't have been nice to get a bit of help. Assistant professors have a lot to deal with as it is. Is the advisor's refusal to help like kicking a kitten off a life raft and expecting the kitten to swim to shore in a raging torrent?

Con helicopter: The ex-student will feel good about his capabilities and independence once he does this research activity all on his own. The advisor did the ex-student a service, especially since the refusal to help was accompanied by a "I know you can do this" show of confidence and some friendly advice. Some cats, and even kittens, do swim. (Google 'swimming cats' if you need visuals for this point).

My opinion: In these and other situations, advisors need to try to find ways to be supportive without turning into the advisorial equivalent of a helicopter parent. That's not to say that we can't continue to be a source of advice and support in some ways, including continuing to help/nudge the less-than-confident, but once our academic children leave home (or are about to move out), it's time for them to do their own laundry, develop their own working relationships (even if we don't approve of their partners), and get their own credit cards.