Friday, July 31, 2009

Will August Never Come?

In the fall, I will be teaching a new upper level course, and I decided a while ago that I would do the major preparation work for the course in August. I did some preparation last winter -- enough to get all the required information online so that students could decide whether to register for the course.

I will have plenty of time to get things ready if I start next week (or the week after). I taught a similar course at my previous university, and I have taught pieces of the course material in more recent specialized seminars.

I think it is entirely reasonable that I not spend much time working on course preparation in the summer months, when faculty are not paid a salary by the university and when I need uninterrupted time (and effort) to devote to research. I want the class to be good, so of course I will devote some summer time to working on the material, but not until August.

All summer I have had students coming to my office and sending me email asking me about the course. I can give them basic information (the same information that is available online), but some of them ask me about things that I won't know until August, when I will focus on course preparation.

I tell them that I don't know/have these things yet, but I will in August. Some say "OK, that will be fine." but others say "But I need to know now." One student described his busy August plans and explained that he is getting organized for his fall courses now, in July, so August will be too late for him to get a more detailed version of the syllabus.

Too late? I think not. I suppose I should be pleased with the dedication and organizational skills of some of my students, even if the absence of detailed course materials indicates that I lack these qualities myself.

I give a polite but firm reply that I have not yet had time to finalize the course materials and that I will not have the requested information and materials until August. I am half expecting to get an email on August 1st asking for the course materials. Perhaps during the course I can dispel the preliminary impression that I am a disorganized and uncaring professor, or perhaps this impression is already deeply imprinted.

I know that most undergraduate students and even many graduate students don't know how things work in terms of the teaching : research : service components of faculty jobs (and salary in the summer), leading to some misconceptions and misunderstanding. As a result, I am thinking of starting the course in the fall with a description of the research I did this summer, some of which is highly relevant to the course material. Some students might be interested in the research, and some might be interesting in knowing what their professor did during the summer when not devoting herself to course preparation (in August).

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Third Wave

For me, the first wave of friending via Facebook involved science friends from various post-collegiate stages of my life, the second wave was college friends, and the third wave was high school friends. (I have written before that I have decided not to friend current students.)

Reconnecting with high school friends has been great, but a bit of a culture shock for me. I only kept in vague touch with many of them, so I sort of knew who was where and what they were doing, but not in detail.

I suppose that as we progress through academic careers, we end up being surrounded by people who are quite a lot like ourselves in terms of education level, career goals, lifestyle, and so on. Of course we do occasionally interact with people who don't have PhDs, but for the most part (except when I get my hair cut and my teeth cleaned), I don't hear the details of people's non-academic lives like I do from my high school friends via FB.

All of my female friends from high school have full or part-time jobs (none in academe), and as far as I can tell, all of them also cook the family meals and clean the house and do the laundry and take care of the kids. The husbands mow the lawn and occasionally take charge of grilling food. I am sure they do some other household tasks as well, but it is incredible how much my friends work after they are home from work. They are doing all the things our mothers did in addition to having jobs outside the home.

No, I have not been in a deep cave for decades -- I know that this phenomenon has been documented, and the hours that men and women devote to various household tasks have been tallied and analyzed, but reading about it in a study or a news report is somehow different from having the details of these lives in my face(book) every day, from people I know. People I grew up with.

Stuff like this:

Hubby gets back from his fishing trip today. I can just imagine how much laundry I'm going to have to do!!!!!!!

A friend who lives near her commented: At least you won't have to mow the lawn yourself anymore, but you did a great job with it this week!

There is a FB option to "like" things, but I wish there were also an option to "dislike" things. FSP dislikes that her friend is doing hubby's fishy laundry and wonders why hubby doesn't do it. My friend worked all week and took care of a sick kid and drove another kid to and from soccer camp every day and cooked all the meals and so on. She is superwoman. I would have let the lawn grow for a week.

My wish for my friend is that hubby gets back from his trip and says "You have been working so hard all week while I was out with my buddies, why don't you just relax while I do this big pile of laundry and fix us a nice meal?"

In fact, I never comment on these things my high school friends write in FB. I am sure there are many things about my life that my high school friends find appalling and strange and they are too polite to opine about these. But I will say this: however challenging and time consuming my science professor job is, these high school friends seem significantly more exhausted than I am. And no wonder, they have more jobs than I do.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Stimulating Reports

All federally funded grants have reporting requirements -- e.g., annual reports and final reports -- in which PIs describe major research and educational activities, results, publications, participants and so on. Projects funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, however, have more intense reporting requirements than projects funded by more traditional means:

Article 2. Reporting and Registration Requirements under Section 1512 of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, (Public Law 111-5)

(a) This award requires the recipient to complete projects or activities which are funded
under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (“Recovery Act”) and to report on use of Recovery Act funds provided through this award. Information from these reports will be made available to the public.

The reports are due no later than ten calendar days after each calendar quarter in which the recipient receives the assistance award funded in whole or in part by the Recovery Act.

I understand that the public wants to make sure the money is spent and spent well and that we scientists and others don't go giving ourselves big bonuses and jetting off to luxury resorts to have 'conferences' while playing golf with celebrities. Even so, that's a lot of reporting.

Perhaps the ARRA funds are also stimulating the economy by providing employment for additional report readers? I doubt it. I bet that program officers who fund grants through ARRA just have to do the extra work.

I'm not complaining (really). I think that using ARRA funds for scientific research is part of an overall effort to restore science to its rightful place and recognize that university research and graduate education are vital to the economy. My colleagues and I will in fact spend the money on worthwhile endeavors, including hiring people and paying for goods and services, and then we will happily do our extra reports. And then the public (maybe even my mother!) can read them.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Don't Make Me Be Unethical

Universities and funding agencies have good reasons for developing detailed systems of accountability for how grants are spent and how grant funded researchers spend their grant funded time, not to mention effort. Among physical scientists, it is common to blame the bio scientists for the never-ending ethics training and insane paperwork. (I'll just put that out there, and then drop it.)

As regular FSP readers surely know by now, some of these rules and regulations make me crazy.

Example: I found myself promising recently that I would never ever ever use a software site license that I purchased with one grant for any activity not related to that specific grant.

I suppose that in some ways that makes sense, but it would make more sense if what I had purchased was something that could potentially have non-research related uses: a car (in which I might drive my cats to the beach for ice cream cones), a yacht (in which I might have wild parties, when I wasn't being seasick), even a computer (on which I might blog and upload cat wrestling videos to YouTube).

But consider that this software, which has one and only one highly specialized purpose and which cannot be used for anything unrelated to that one highly specialized purpose, can and will only be used in the pursuit of Scientific Knowledge.

Would it really be unethical if I used my grant-purchased site license for a different project? According to the rules and regulations, it would be unethical to do so, but it would be stupid not to. Furthermore, it would be a waste of money to purchase an expensive site license for every single project that could use that software.

The rules should be rewritten to say that purchases such as this one can only be used in the pursuit of Scientific Knowledge. That way, everyone wins. My research group gets to do lots of interesting science things without losing sleep over the ethics, the funding agency facilitates the interesting science through their generous support and sensible policies, we proclaim our results to the world and thank the funding agency in our papers, and everyone is happy.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Effort Time?

Some people tend to end statements with an upward, question mark type of inflection. There has been much study and discussion about the reasons and consequences of the question mark inflection, particularly for women. I don't tend to speak this way, but recently I did, to my peril.

One day not so long ago I was working on Project 1 when a student working on Project 2 needed some help, so I helped him for a while, and then, after I briefly went back to Project 1, another student came by who had questions about Project 3, so I helped him, and then I got email from a co-author with the reviews of a manuscript related to Project 4 and we discussed the reviews and then I dove briefly back into that manuscript and thought about some things we might change and that reminded me that I need to deal with reviews for Project 5, so I worked on that for a while, and then I got an alert by email about a journal and so I did some journal-grazing and read-skimmed some papers relevant to Project 6 and then I went back to Project 1 for a while before being interrupted again.. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. And then, that same afternoon, I had to talk to the accountant about effort reporting for Project 1 and she asked "What % of your effort -- not time -- will you spend exclusively on this project during the effort reporting period?"

I thought back on my day, which was fairly typical for the summer, randomly guessed a number between 1 and 100, and spoke it as a question: 15?

She said: That's a lot. Are you sure?

I said: 2? 7?

She asked: Which of those is correct?

I said: Neither. The correct answer is "I don't know."

She said: We need to use the correct number. OK, how much time will you spend on this project?

I asked: In hours?

She said: No, in % of your total time of 40 hours.

I said: But what if my total time is more than 40 hours? Can I just give you a % of whatever time I work? How about 4? 12?

And so on. We did not reach a number. I pleaded with her to tell me what number would seem like a good number and she refused because we might be audited and it would be bad if I worked more than what was listed and it would be bad if I worked less than what was listed. Every time I suggested a number, she rejected it because it was either somehow not an acceptable number (too low, too high) for mysterious accounting reasons or she wasn't convinced it was accurate. I said that if she told me a good number, I would promise to work that amount, although I was of course lying because I'm going to work whatever amount is best for the project in the time I have available, and also I still don't get the concept of time and effort being different but the same. She refused.

If I were an accountant, I would hate me.

My fatal error, however, was putting a little question mark inflection at the end of the first number I stated in my conversation with the accountant. My husband says he just gives the accountants a number -- any number, he has no idea what the numbers mean either -- and they never question him. They just accept that number as correct.

Now I will send the accountant a number by email, a medium in which I control the punctuation, and try to recover from my inflection error.

Friday, July 24, 2009


Today I was perusing my department's data on graduate student years-to-degree for students who graduated in the past 5 years. The dataset included both MS and PhD students, and classified PhD students according to whether they arrived with an MS or an undergraduate degree.

There were four things that interested me about this dataset:

1. There was no correlation between years-to-degree and whether a student had an MS (from another institution) or a BS/BA degree at the start of the PhD program.

2. Most students needed more time than was covered by guaranteed financial support, but not much more (many needed ~ 1 year more).

3. When a colleague and I looked at the dataset and applied our qualitative and totally subjective evaluations as to which students were our most 'successful' (as in smart and hard-working, got awards/fellowships in grad school, published, got jobs after graduation etc.), we saw no trend in years-to-degree. Some 'successful' students zipped through the PhD program, finishing in 3-4 years; others took significantly longer.

4. Years-to-degree did not vary as a function of specific advisers. An individual adviser might have students who finished in 3-4 years and students who finished in >7 years.

Years-to-degree depends on a lot of factors, including (in no particular order):
  • the nature of the project;
  • the student's funding situation (TA, RA, no funding, continuous/discontinuous funding);
  • the student's extent of research experience prior to starting the graduate program;
  • the methods involved and access to necessary facilities or other support;
  • whether there are any unforeseen setbacks;
  • the student's work habits;
  • the student's health (physical and mental);
  • the presence or absence of personal crises or other significant events (weddings..), including those involving family, friends, or pets;
  • the work environment (research group or department dynamics);
  • the adviser's accessibility, level of interaction, sanity level;
  • the amount of additional non-research responsibilities required (e.g., departmental service)
  • number of degree requirements (courses, exams);
  • whether preliminary exams are passed on the first try;
  • expectations regarding number of published/submitted papers before graduation;
  • presence/absence of a post-graduation job offer (and amount of time spent job hunting while a student);
  • whether the student has an iPhone.
and likely many more that I have not listed. It is no wonder that years-to-degree varies so much and may not correlate with any obvious factor.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

If A Tree Falls In A Forest

Anonymous comment from yesterday's post:

If the average scientist took three months off nobody would know.


First, I interpret the statement 'nobody would know' loosely - as in, it wouldn't matter in the grand scheme of things.

I suppose also that whether 3 months matters or not depends a lot on what is meant by 'the average scientist'. It's probably more useful to debate this statement within the context of the various scientist ecosystems that we inhabit.

In terms of research activities, my physical sciences ecosystem involves scientists who have one or many research grants, one or many graduate students and other advisees, and for some, big machines of various sorts (computers, analytical equipment and so on) that they supervise or visit.

If this kind of scientist took 3 months off, would anyone notice? Would our students notice?

I think our students would notice, so perhaps the more interesting question is whether they would miss us or be relieved. As a graduate student, I quite enjoyed my adviser's sabbatical, though we stayed in close communication via email during the year he was away. Years later during my own sabbatical, I think some students missed me and others did not. So, at least in my case, there's no one answer to that particular question.

Would my research program come to a grinding halt if I disappeared for 3 months? No, but it would suffer in some ways. If I stopped writing papers and conference abstracts and proposals and making sure everything was on track with my research group and doing my own research (as time permits) and attending meetings and doing editing and reviewing and such, the effect would be noticeable. This is my hypothesis anyway, and it is one hypothesis that I hope I never have to test.

I think that in many ways I am an average research university professor of the physical sciences scientist in terms of my experiences, and as such I will make the sweeping conclusion that if the average scientist took 3 months off, people would know, but the world would not stop spinning.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Paying for It

Some universities offer paid maternity and paternity leave for a few weeks or months for new parents. I don't know the numbers for how many universities offer paid vs. unpaid leave and the various durations involved, but I do know that at some universities that offer paid family leave, the answer to the question Who Pays? may not be entirely clear.

I hope we can all agree that maternity leave is a good and necessary thing, and that it also makes sense to offer paternity leave. Despite creating challenges for employers, family leave is important. Paid family leave is a way of further supporting families of working parents.

Universities have some particular challenges when it comes to paid family leave, especially for 'employees' who are not of the traditional sort (compared to employees at a company), e.g. graduate students and postdocs. If a graduate student or postdoc needs family leave at an institution that guarantees some paid leave, who pays? Central administration? The college or other mid-level academic unit? The department? The graduate adviser or postdoctoral supervisor?

In the case of postdocs funded by grants, in many cases the PI pays, even though this creates some complex ethical and accounting issues regarding paying someone who is not doing certifiable effort on a project during a time for which they are being paid on a grant. I am sure that some large universities or units of universities that have fleets of postdocs have this all worked out, but other universities/units leave it to the department and PIs to work out.

The situation is even more complicated for graduate students because students can be funded by a variety of sources: teaching assistantships from a department, research assistantships from a PI, and/or fellowships from a variety of sources. Does the department pay if the student is a TA (in addition to paying for a substitute) but the PI pays if the student is an RA?

This blog post is clearly not an authoritative presentation of the topic of paid family leave at US universities. It is based on anecdotal information and non-systematic web browsing, from which I have gleaned the following options (some in place, some being considered) for paid leave, in many cases of 4-8 weeks for maternity leave, for grad students:

- The adviser pays no matter what, even if the student is a TA.

- The adviser pays if the student is an RA, but the department pays if the student is a TA and works out an arrangement involving substitutes or team-teaching to accommodate the leave.

- The department or other administrative unit pays some or all of the leave salary as long as the student has guaranteed support of some sort. In this case, the leave may be paid from a fund to which all advisers contribute 'indirectly' from the indirect costs charged on grants. Another option I have heard discussed is targeted fund raising for a fellowship/scholarship fund that pays for family leave for students; this is done at the department or higher level.

Based on what I've learned from discussions with colleagues and by grazing around on webpages, it seems that some places currently work out a plan for each student on a case-by-case basis and others have a more systematic approach to paid leave. It makes sense for departments and various levels of university administration to have a plan in place that creates a more family friendly environment for graduate students and that is also fair to advisers, but given that situations can vary so much, it also makes sense to have a very flexible system.

My specific personal opinion is that I, as an adviser and grant PI, could pay for a student or postdoc to take a family leave of a month or two. Some students are unproductive on that time scale even when they aren't giving birth and/or caring for a newborn.

Twelve weeks -- the amount guaranteed for unpaid leave -- would be more difficult for various reasons (e.g., spending grant funds on someone not doing research). However, it should be possible to work out a situation involving part-time research, working from home, or something like that (depending on the project and the person). It's quite possible that a plan could be devised that worked well for all concerned and allowed a paid leave followed by a flexible work arrangement.

Note that I am discussing only paid leave here. Unpaid leave of various durations may cause some of the same difficulties for advisers/PIs in terms of research progress of their students and postdocs, but that's life (literally).

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Poor Reflection

Several times in the past month I have been told anecdotes about women academics who made carer decisions that annoyed other people. In some cases the annoyance was justified (e.g., women who reneged on a commitment in an unprofessional way), in other cases not (e.g. women who left one university for a better offer at another).

I suppose it is because there are still so few female science professors that each woman's controversial decision is seen as a Poor Reflection on All Women. It would of course be absurd to extrapolate one man's decision to move to another university as somehow indicating anything about the reliability or loyalty of men in general, but somehow a similar move for a woman is seen by some in a different way.

For men, the response might be "He must be really good if that other university hired him away." For women, the responses I heard recently about one woman who changed jobs were: "She really left her (first) university in the lurch", "She's so selfish, all she cares about is making more money", and "That's what happens when you hire women. They leave."

And if a woman makes an apparently 'unprofessional' decision, such as backing out of a commitment at the last minute because she doesn't want to move so far away from her boyfriend, this is seen as a setback for all women, eliciting responses such as "That's the last time that department/unit/professor will try to hire a woman."

This is another reason why we need more women in science -- so that some women can screw up and it isn't seen as a Poor Reflection on All Women. And other women can make career decisions to change universities and have those decisions seen as reflecting excellence, not selfishness.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Editor to Author: Drop Dead

The title is a lame attempt at referring to the famous 1975 New York Daily News headline (Ford to City: etc.) and is my way of introducing the topic of Manuscripts That Are Returned Without Review.

Some (high impact) journals do this more than others, but any journal editor can decide that a particular manuscript should not be reviewed. Typical reasons for the non-review include:
  • The (high impact) journal gets so many submissions that it isn't possible to review them all, even some that are actually quite excellent papers.
  • The manuscript is really bad.
  • The manuscript is not bad at all but some editors lack good judgment and/or are not objective.
  • The manuscript is inappropriate for the general focus area of a journal or a thematic collection within a journal.
It is disappointing when a manuscript is returned without review, but if the decision to return is rapid, the authors can regroup and make a new plan about the best publication venue for the paper. This is much better than a situation in which it takes a long time for an editor to decide that a manuscript won't even be sent out for review.

I was recently thinking about an incident involving an author who was extraordinarily irate that his manuscript was not reviewed. The editors had decided not to send the manuscript for review primarily because the manuscript was quite far outside the focus area of the journal to which it was submitted. An additional consideration was that the manuscript was a long, rambling, poorly written document that wasn't particular interesting.

Within a week of submission of the manuscript, the editors returned it without review, explained that it did not fit the general theme of the journal, and added some polite and constructive suggestions about the manuscript content and organization.

The author was extremely angry and sent a very unpleasant email. The focus of his ire was that the manuscript had not even been reviewed. This to him was a grave insult.

Would he really have been happier if the manuscript had gone through review, adding time (probably months) to the process? I suppose the author believed that reviewers would like the manuscript and therefore he felt deprived of a fair trial. The editors, however, were convinced that the manuscript would be eviscerated in review and it would be a waste of everyone's time to send it for review. And even if reviewers thought the manuscript had some intellectual merit, the manuscript still wasn't suitable for the journal to which it was submitted.

This all happened a year or more ago, but recently the editors got another long, irate email from the Angry Author, informing them that another journal had accepted his paper and, for their information, this other journal, of which he is an editor, has a higher impact factor in its category than the crummy journal that didn't even review his manuscript has in its (different) category. He mentioned again his anger that his manuscript was not even reviewed.

There are several conclusions one can make from the angry author's latest email:

- He has Issues. He has not moved on emotionally. He is bitter about the fact that his paper was not reviewed. Of course, he would also have been upset if the paper had gone out to review and been rejected, but perhaps then his anger would have been more diffuse.

- For some reason, he thought it would impress the editors to tell them that he is an editor of the journal that accepted his paper. I think it is strange that he would call attention to this fact, as it made some people wonder if his role as editor was a factor in the decision of this journal to publish his paper. I hope this was not the case.

- Impact factors are interesting, but perhaps not a good way to compare journals across categories. The journal that published his paper is not particularly prestigious and is not one I read, whereas the one that rejected his paper without review is central to my field. Perhaps this is an indication of the inappropriateness of his paper's topic for the journal to which he first sent it.

The editors decided not to reply to the angry email, but if they did, perhaps they would have written something like this:

Dear Angry Author,

Congratulations on your upcoming article to be published in The Third-Tier Journal. We are glad that you and your fellow editors found a suitable place for your contribution, and are pleased that we at First-Rate Journal were able to assist you in your efforts by our timely handling of your manuscript. How fortunate for you that our decision allowed you to publish in a journal with an impact factor you apparently find impressive.

We wish you the best of luck with your scientific endeavors, as well as your anger management, maturity, and ethics issues.


The Editors

Memo to anyone feeling bitter about a non-review or even a rejection: If you send a hostile email to the editors of the journal that rejected your manuscript, including detailed descriptions of how stupid and short-sighted the editors were and information about the wonderful journal that ultimately published your paper, it is possible that they will not be impressed and will not feel even a speck of regret at their decision to reject your manuscript. I certainly can't speak for all editors, but I'm guessing that this might be a likely response.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Desktop Philosophy

When you give a presentation using our own laptop computer, in some cases you can set up in advance and have your zippy title slide on the screen as the audience wanders in and gets settled and stares randomly at whatever you put in front of them. In other cases, however, you have to set up while everyone stares at you and whatever shows up on the screen as you get started. This is common when you set up to teach a class and can't get into the lecture room until just before the class starts.

Unless you have the presentation open and ready to go as soon as the computer connects to the projector (beamer), the audience is likely to have a few moments to gaze at your desktop and any files that may be on it.

This gives everyone a chance to admire your desktop and to determine if you're the kind of person who has 573 files scattered randomly about your desktop.

It also gives the audience a chance to look at your folder and filenames. The audience might consist of students in a class, people in a department that invited you to give a talk, colleagues and members of your research group, your department chair, and so on. You may or may not want some of these people to see your desktop.

For example, it would probably be a bad idea to have certain folders and files stored on the desktop, e.g. (for me) FSP blog drafts; Bob's ref letters-positive; Bob's ref letters-negative; Hate Letters to Dog Owners; petition_to_fire_the_Dean.doc; bomb-plans.doc; or a file that shows you are doing an (anonymous) review of a manuscript or proposal authored by someone in your audience.

A few years ago while waiting for a student to fire up his laptop to give a talk before his oral preliminary exam, we (the committee) members gazed idly at his desktop when it was projected on the screen. He had a boring background and a few scattered files. Before he was able to click on oral-prelim-talk.ppt, I saw a file titled WhyWomenLive.

I was curious about this, but did not think it appropriate to ask as a question at an oral preliminary exam. After the exam, however, once the student had passed in an emphatic and non-traumatic way and we were chatting as he put his laptop away, I asked him about this file.

He seemed a bit horrified that I might think he had a sexist or otherwise offensive file on his desktop, and he hastened to tell me that the full title was Why Women Live Longer Than Men, and that it was very funny. So we looked at it, and it is in fact very entertaining (you can search on the phrase and find images and videos if you haven't seen these and are curious). In my research group, we still refer to this episode from time to time and laugh about it.

Back in 2006 in an FSP poll, I asked readers what was on their desktop. My hypothesis was that women would be less likely than men to have photos of their kids as their background, but the results came out about the same for men and women (6%) . Most people seem to have a nature scene background, but there were no obvious trends.

I did not ask about desktop files/folders: i.e., whether people take care to keep certain ones off their desktop and whether anyone has had an embarrassing experience with projected desktops. I don't think a poll would be as interesting as hearing stories about such incidents and about Desktop Philosophies.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Conservation of Committee Mass

Lately I have adopted a new practice when it comes to being asked to serve on a committee or do some other service task: I only agree to add a new service responsibility if I can also subtract one.

Of course it is hard to balance things exactly, so there are hazards in this seemingly simple approach. For example, the added committee might be a lot more work than the subtracted one. In some cases it can be difficult to know in advance what the time commitment and degree of satisfaction with a service responsibility will be. So you might actually be dropping a committee that didn't take much time and adding a committee that will consume your life. It's quite possible.

It can also be difficult to balance the administrative species (for lack of a better term) of committees. For example, it might be possible to subtract a department committee if asked to serve on a university committee, but the reverse would be more awkward unless the department committee is really important (e.g., a hiring committee, when there were such things).

And then there are professional service obligations that might be important to continue, even if you get loaded up with service work in your department/university.

But sometimes this system works. I was recently on a committee that wasn't a huge amount of time, but I really didn't like the committee dynamics and some of the things we had to deal with, so that was the one I dropped (with great glee) when asked to be on a different one at the same administrative level of the university.

You don't need an excuse to quit a committee that you find boring, useless, or otherwise abhorrent, but a handy one is that you are taking on another committee responsibility and will no longer have time for the Time-Sucking Boring Committee.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Baby Gap

My husband is fond of noting that you can’t tell from my CV exactly when our daughter was born. That is, there isn’t a gap or a low publication year at or near the time of her birth. I suppose he’s right, though it’s not something that impresses me.

The lack of a baby gap on my CV is more owing to luck than to anything superhuman that I did:
  • I had some projects in the final writing/editing stages during times when I was somewhat to completely incapacitated before and after my daughter’s birth, and it was easy for me to move these along without being too lucid or energetic.
  • Despite a difficult pregnancy, I somehow got a daughter who was healthy at birth and remarkably easy to take care of in terms of eating/sleeping etc.
  • My husband helped a lot. Of course I was never far away from her for the first year, but I found ways to get things done in the few hours here and there when our daughter was sleeping or when my husband was taking care of her. Because we work in the same place, it was easy to bring her to work and share childcare.
  • I was able to work out my teaching schedule so that for most of the first year I was either in a flexible team-teaching arrangement or had a light teaching load. Summer also came at a convenient time relative to my daughter’s zeroeth birthday.
I was looking through a pile of CVs recently and thinking about CV gaps in general. If you do have a gap in your CV, should you explain it, and if so, is there any good way to explain it? This could apply whether the gap resulted from a slowdown in research owing to childbirth/childcare or from taking care of a sick relative or from having health problems yourself.

A gap of a year probably doesn't require an explanation, even at a major research university. If you have buckets of publications in every year except one or two, I doubt if anyone is going to look askance at that.

But what if you don't have a huge publication record before and after a gap to help swamp the gap? I have seen some CVs with footnotes, e.g.:

Scientist, J.X., publication info blah blah blah, 2004.

Scientist, J.X., publication info blah blah blah, 2002.*

* leave of absence for birth of child

I have not seen anything similar for illness or elder care, but I suppose it could be done. Does anyone think that it is inappropriate to include such personal information on a CV? Should gaps remain unexplained? Or would it be appropriate to mention a leave of absence, but not the reason for it? And is there a better way to provide gap-explaining information than the footnote method?

As I was staring at a CV gap recently and wondering about its cause, I must admit that this was my first thought:

Scientist, J.X., publication info blah blah blah, 2008.

Scientist, J.X., publication info blah blah blah, 2002.*

* I burned out in 2002, had a string of insane and unproductive students, got some vicious reviews on grant proposals, and took a break from research to explore a latent interest in surfing and breeding small hairless dogs.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Mentoring & Money

One of the stunning findings of the NRC report on women scientists and engineers at 'critical transitions' in their careers as faculty at research universities is the effect of mentoring on the funding success rate for women:

Female assistant professors who had a mentor had a higher probability of receiving grants than those who did not have a mentor. Chemistry female assistant professors with mentors had a 95% probability of having grant funding versus 77% for those without mentors. For all six fields surveyed female assistant professors with no mentors had a 68% probability of having grant funding versus 93% of women with mentors.

Contrasts with the pattern for male assistant professors; those with no mentor had an 86% probability of having grant funding versus 83% for those with mentors.

Those are impressive and interesting numbers.

I wonder what exactly about being mentored affects funding success rate for women (but not for men).

As an assistant professor, I didn’t have an official mentor at my first university and must admit I didn’t really want one, especially considering the available options. A conversation with the department chair about mentoring went something like this:

Chair: Do you .. um.. want a .. a .. mentor? [looks at shoes]
Me: No.
Chair: OK.

By the time we had that conversation, I already had my first grant and was soon to get my second. I felt like I was doing fine without a mentor, and I wasn’t really sure what a mentor was for. I just knew that no one else in the department had ever had one and it would have felt weird to be the only one with an official mentor.

I hope that most departments now have a systematic approach to mentoring, assigning mentors to all assistant professors, and not singling anyone out.

At University #2, the topic did not arise, perhaps because I arrived with several years of experience (and funding). I had an unofficial mentor and he certainly helped me a lot, but mostly by being a great colleague. We were coPIs on a grant in my early days at University #2, though I also had other grants as sole PI or with other colleagues.

So, in terms of my experiences being mentored, it’s hard for me to think of examples of how being mentored did or might have affected my funding success rate.

As a senior professor in the capacity of a mentor rather than a mentee, I can think of a number of things I would do to help a junior colleague get funded:
  • encourage them to submit a proposal that they might otherwise not write/submit owing to lack of confidence or to uncertainty about how to divide their time between the many and various responsibilities of an assistant professor;
  • bring to their attention some funding opportunities that might not have occurred to them;
  • facilitate collaborations with senior colleagues (including me) because these might lead to new proposals that lead to grants;
  • read proposals before submission and give advice about content, style, budgets, project plans etc.;
  • introduce junior colleagues to influential people at conferences (potential reviewers of proposals; funding agency program directors) or mention their names in conversations/correspondence to help increase their visibility; and
  • suggest junior colleagues as possible panel members at funding agencies, so they can see how things really work at that end of the funding food chain.
Those are all possibilities (please suggest others), but why doesn’t mentoring increase the funding success rate of male assistant professors as much as it does female assistant professors?

I don’t believe that men are being discriminated against at funding agencies. The data do not support such a conclusion.

So let’s consider the issue from the mentoring end of the process, not from the funding decision end of the process:

(1) Are men mentored in a different way? Do mentors assume that the male assistant professors know more than they actually do, so help them less, so the mentoring is less effective?


(2) Are men less responsive to mentoring attempts? That is, do they get advice but tend to ignore it?

I’m not sure if either of those explains the statistics in the NRC report, but I have seen both of those phenomena in action.

My conclusions:

Female assistant professors: Don’t say no to being mentored (but make sure you get a good mentor – someone you can talk to and who is interested in helping you in a non-patronizing way).

Male assistant professors: Listen to your mentors and/or Don’t let them assume that you already know what you need to know about grant writing and funding opportunities; ask questions.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Women Faring Well

Thanks to Hope for reminding me to comment on the NRC report on women in science, engineering, and math: Gender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Faculty (at major research universities). I've had a draft of a post lurking in my inbox for a while, but haven't had time to think about it sufficiently until this weekend. I also haven't read the full report ($43 for the pdf); only the synopsis.

As I'm sure many of you already know, the NRC report presents data on the % of women applying for faculty positions, being invited to interview, receiving job offers, and, once hired, receiving tenure. The key findings were:

Although women are still underrepresented in the applicant pool for faculty positions in math, science, and engineering at major research universities, those who do apply are interviewed and hired at rates equal to or higher than those for men, says a new report from the National Research Council. Similarly, women are underrepresented among those considered for tenure, but those who are considered receive tenure at the same or higher rates than men.

I attribute the equal/higher rates of women being interviewed and receiving job offers in part to the increasing number of women in applicant pools, but also in part to increased
participation (in the US) of women on search committees and an increased awareness of administrators and faculty that highly qualified women applicants were previously not being given full and fair consideration. (relevant anecdote from the FSP archives)

During my travels earlier this summer, I mentioned to a colleague that it didn't surprise me that an all-male hiring committee in a department with no women faculty had recently managed to come up with an all-male interview pool (at a European university). My colleague looked at me strangely and said "But there might not have been any qualified female applicants". (relevant anecdote from the FSP archives)

Maybe, maybe not.. but the presence of women on hiring committees has been shown to be important in giving qualified women applicants fair consideration.

In any case, there are a few things that caught my eye about the NRC study:

The choice of disciplines to survey: biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, civil engineering, electrical engineering. I haven't read the full report, but I wonder if biology had significantly different data than the physical sciences, engineering, and math. The news release hints that biology was different in some ways:

..women made up 20 percent of applicants for positions in mathematics but accounted for 28 percent of those interviewed, and received 32 percent of the job offers. This was also true for tenured positions, with the exception of those in biology. [but what was the trend and magnitude of the bio-exception?]


In terms of funding for research, male faculty had significantly more funding than female faculty in biology; in other disciplines, the differences were not significant.

Is the latter statistic related to a difference in how NIH and NSF award grants?

And I wonder what the data would look like for some fields not surveyed, e.g. mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, materials science. Similar or different?

This statement: .. women are not applying for tenure-track jobs at research-intensive universities at the same rate that they are earning Ph.D.s, the report says.

That statistic is not surprising. People get PhDs at research-intensive universities, but not all of those people (male or female) are going to apply for tenure-track jobs at such universities. These data ignore women who apply for tenure-track jobs at small liberal arts colleges or who seek non-academic jobs as PhD-level scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. Surely there is a more relevant measure of whether women are applying for tenure-track jobs at R1 universities in unusually low numbers compared to male peers?

This part of the report disturbed me, and does not fit my definition of "women faring well" (a phrase used in the title of the news release on the report):

Tenure: In every field, women were underrepresented among candidates for tenure relative to the number of female assistant professors. In chemistry, for example, women made up 22 percent of assistant professors, but only 15 percent of the faculty being considered for tenure. Women also spent significantly longer time as assistant professors. However, women who did come up for tenure review were at least as likely as men to receive tenure.

What is happening to the women who are hired but do not come up for tenure? How many leave voluntarily, and, if leaving voluntarily, what are the major reasons? What is the definition of "significantly longer"? I guess I need to read the full report to find out the answers to these questions.

And this is kind of intriguing and not at all surprising (to me):

men appeared to have greater access to equipment needed for research and to clerical support, the report said.

I bet that many women faculty can relate to the situation in which male colleagues receive various types of clerical support but we females are expected to do these things ourselves (e.g., retrieving, filling out, submitting forms).

And, to end this list on an encouraging note:

Salary: Women full professors were paid on average 8 percent less than their male counterparts, the report says. This difference in salary did not exist in the ranks of associate and assistant professors.

Too bad for us full professors but at least our younger female colleagues will come through the system without this problem.

These reports keep on coming. Some show encouraging signs (women who come up for tenure fare as well as men), but also contain disturbing news (women are underrepresented as candidates for tenure). Best of all would be if the reports themselves generate positive action on the issues that clearly need attention.

Friday, July 10, 2009

What Do I Look Like I Do

It shouldn't surprise me anymore, but it does, when I get into a conversation with someone I don't know and they make an assumption about me based mostly on my appearance.

The latest encounter was with someone who started to explain to me in very simple terms about the physical properties of liquid nitrogen. I said, simply, "Yes, I know." The person asked "How do you know? Do you work in the office of a company that supplies liquid nitrogen tanks?"

I am certainly not insulted at being mistaken for an office worker, though I think it is a bizarre first assumption when hearing that someone is familiar with the properties of liquid nitrogen.

What about me signaled "office worker"? I was wearing shorts, a short-sleeved shirt, and casual sandals, so I clearly wasn't dressed for office work of the sort the other person imagined (though I was, in fact, dressed for going to my office).

Why not stop after "How do you know?". Or just ask, "So what do you do?", "What's your job?" etc. if you want to know if the liquid nitrogen familiarity is job-related.

In my daily life, I don't care if random people guess that I am a scientist or not, especially if I'm not wearing my special graph paper socks and shirt, but I wish that the possibility that a woman is a scientist were considered more likely than it is.

This was one minor incident, but it was one minor incident among many, and that's what I want to change.

Thursday, July 09, 2009


When I moved into my office in my current department, I was not provided with office furniture, so I rummaged around in campus and department storerooms and acquired the basic items from whatever was available. Over the years, my office furniture has not changed a lot -- some new (old) bookcases have been added, the filing cabinets have departed, and I have gone through a succession of (free!) office chairs as they have become available.

Note: My department is not typically so cheap. Everyone hired after me has nice new office furniture. I was hired as part of a 2-body deal and fell into the trap of just being 'grateful' to have gotten the second offer etc. so I was very undemanding about details like office furniture.

Because I did not set up my office furniture with much care or thought, I eventually had a few physical problems that inevitably result from spending a lot of time in one place (a chair) doing one thing (working at a computer), especially when these furniture items are not well configured.

I am of average height for a female person, but I have long had trouble (not just here) getting the desk-chair spatial relations right. With many desks, if I raise the chair enough so that my arms are in a good position for the keyboard, my feet do not reach the floor. This is not a good situation because eventually my feet go numb and later hurt. Ergo, I've come up with some partial solutions (footrests; not sitting still for so long etc.), but I have never done anything major, like getting new office furniture (which I would have to pay for myself).

But I'm thinking about it now. Do I really want to spend the next 20 years with my ergonomically not-so-great office furniture? I'm considering chucking the big old desks and just getting a slab of something to rest on something else of adjustable height. It will probably look weird, as do most ergonomically correct furniture items, but at least my feet will touch the floor and my arms will descend gracefully at the appropriate angle to the keyboard.

Either that or I should just proclaim that my office is now in the cafe down the street and just spend all my time there, typing on my laptop in various sorts of comfortable chairs.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Skin Deep

It's official: I am thick-skinned.

I have written in the past in the blog and the book about how important it is to find ways to deal with negative reviews (papers, proposals, teaching, whatever) and to develop a 'thick skin' about these things as a way to survive the constant evaluations that occur in an academic life. I feel upset and angry about negative reviews, especially if they are unfounded, mean, and stupid, but I don't let them get to me long-term.

The 'thick skin' metaphor describes a way of not being too sensitive and easily hurt. But then:

Recently I had a tetanus shot, which hurt. The nurse stuck the needle in my arm and then said "Oh no, it's not supposed to do THAT. Hmm."

WHAT? It's not supposed to do WHAT? I wondered (but didn't look).

"Oh, nothing.." the nurse replied, "It's just.. well, you must have very thick skin. You don't look like you do, but you do."

Ah ha. In fact, that's also true in a metaphoric sense. I don't look like I do, but I do.

But I've always wondered:

Is it better to appear tough (as I most definitely do not) so that people don't even try to push you around, or is it better to be tough even if you don't look like you are?

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Why I Hate the iPhone

Why do I hate the iPhone when it is clearly a nifty gadget and I am otherwise completely devoted to Apple/Mac products?

I hate the iPhone for irrational reasons related to the number of times I get emails like these:

F, I know you want me to send you the text and you should have it in your hands soonish but I'm stuck sending things from my iphone.

F, I am emailing from my iphone and so there’s some new stuff I can't get to you yet.

I would have emailed you earlier. Turns out I'm actually emailing you now from my iPhone. Anyway, I'll try to prioritize getting those files in your hands. Hope you get this.

I was planning on emailing when I had more for you and I am sending this from my iphone and it might not go through. Sorry.

F, i got your email on my phone last night and I tried emailing you but I think it failed from low reception so sorry if this is a repeat email. I will try to send it later.

I can relate to having wifi access issues. There are some times/places where internet access is not ideal. Even so, for me, the iPhone has become irrevocably associated with excuses. For me, the sentence "I'm sending this from my iPhone" does not instill a sense of awe and techno-envy but instead I get a sinking feeling that I'm not going to see a certain draft or a certain figure for a while yet to come.

Please send me inspirational stories of how an iPhone changed your life for the better, got you released from prison, helped you do something you wouldn't otherwise have been able to do, and/or allowed your cat to dial 911 and save your life. I need these stories because right now, I hate the iPhone and I need help working through my iPhone issues.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Lost & Found

As my graduating students pack up and move out, they have been finding things. My things.

In some ways, I am a very organized person. Most of these ways involve getting things done and not forgetting (too often) when I have something to accomplish by a certain date. In other ways, I am not an organized person. Most of those ways involve the arrangement of my office and the things in it.

Although much of the scientific literature is available in electronic form these days, some things are not. I lend books and back issues of journals -- as well as assorted other tangible objects -- to my graduate students. And I am not good at keeping track of who has what.

Yes, I have tried check-out lists, but after the first few entries, the lists tend to sit there, unused for both check-out and return. And even if I were diligent about enforcing the sign-out/sign-in system, sometimes students borrow things when I am not around, or one student borrows something and then lends it to someone else. The lists are never accurate, so I have given up on them.

If I can't find something and I'm pretty sure it's not in my office, I just send an email around to the group and say "Does anyone have X?" and either it turns up or it doesn't.

Something interesting about the most recent finding and returning of things by my departing graduate students is that one of them had items borrowed by a student who graduated 4-5 years ago and had given the borrowed items to this other student (his housemate), telling him to give them to me. But he did not give them to me. He forgot he had these things until he graduated and started packing up his office and home. Recently I have been reunited with some very long-lost items.

I have had an unusual number of students graduate this spring/summer, so lately I have been getting a lot of books and other items returned to me. Somehow in the intervening years while these items were in other offices, the space they formerly occupied got filled in with other things, causing me to contemplate in a very serious way the possibility of considering maybe doing some major office organizing this summer.

If I do organize my office, I doubt if this effort will be accompanied by the creation of a system for organizing the lending of books etc., but at least I will be starting almost from scratch, with only a few (?) things already lent to current students and postdocs.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Loose Ends

It is in the best interests of advisers and graduate students that students graduate in a timely way and move on to another scientific (or other) adventure, but in some cases a 'timely way' means that a student leaves before completing all the things that need completing (i.e., papers). What to do?

It depends a lot on the (ex)student whether the post-graduation tying-up-of-loose-ends occurs efficiently, if at all. A common complaint of advisers is how difficult it is to get thesis-related papers completed and submitted after a student has moved on to another place or position. Here are the scenarios I have experienced:

- A student graduates with one or more unfinished papers but finishes them in a timely way and submits them. These students are exceptional and are therefore (by definition) the exception, alas.

- A student graduates with a few -- or maybe more than a few -- unfinished papers and needs to finish them (for their own career) but never seems to find the time. As adviser, I might be able to finish the papers if provided with the necessary material, but this only works if I have been closely involved in all stages of the research and if the ex-student is willing to relinquish some control over the paper(s). Lingering unfinished papers are a major problem for projects funded by an (ex)adviser's grant and cause a lot of stress for all concerned. In these cases, I need to get the papers out because I am ultimately responsible for the results of the research (grant), and my former students may also need the papers for their own career advancement, but my former students may have no time for 'old' projects now that they are working on new things.

A student graduates, leaves academia, and has no interest in writing papers. This is more clean-cut than the previous example, as it is clear that the ex-student will not be writing the paper(s), but this situation has its own challenges. For example, I am still limping along trying to finish some papers from grad students who got jobs, graduated, and left me to finish their paper(s). It is really hard to write a paper entirely for someone else, no matter how involved you were in the research. These were mostly MS students. I didn't want to delay their graduation and therefore their employment options, but there was no way the paper(s) were going to be completed before the student graduated. In some cases I have given up entirely and just let a project drop, unpublished, but in other cases I don't want to (or can't) do this.

If I refused to let my students graduate until all the essential papers were submitted, it would add years to the graduate program for some of them and they would run out of funding. I don't think that is a good option for anyone, no matter how many problems it causes for me, as adviser, as I tie up loose ends and try to get thesis-related papers finished and submitted.

If a student is out of funding and/or has a post-graduation job offer, they should leave as soon as they have completed a thesis that is deemed acceptable for the degree. Ideally, the thesis will consist of published and/or submitted manuscripts, but it is rare for the entire thesis to have reached this stage by the time a student departs.

This post probably sounds like a complaint -- and it sort of is -- but I also accept that this is just the way things are going to be with some (many) students and I need to find the best way to deal with it. I will still continue to encourage my students to graduate in a timely way, but I also hope I can find better ways to get manuscripts completed and submitted even when the students don't or can't help much with this.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

She's Just Not That Into Her Job

Earlier this summer I spoke with a colleague who mentioned in passing that a technician who was helping him when he visited another institution seemed a bit resentful about helping him, or at least was not as cheerful as she could have been about helping him.

I said: Think about how she feels. She has a PhD, did a postdoc, wrote some high profile papers, but then took a technician job at the institution where her husband is a big professor. She's good enough to have been a professor in her own right, but instead she spends her days helping others do their research, with no hope of advancing in her career.

My colleague looked puzzled. He said: She has nothing to complain about. She has a job and she and her husband live in the same place.

Then I realized: My colleague and his wife live several hours apart owing to complicated job/family issues. His wife is not an academic, but it still has not been possible for them to live in the same place for the past few years. He was thinking of the situation from the point of view of 'how lucky this couple is to be together in the same location'.

But then I thought: He should understand the technician's unhappiness (if I am correct about the reason for her job dissatisfaction). The reason my colleague and his wife live apart is because each of them would be unhappy if they gave up their present job and look a less desirable job in their spouse's current city of residence.

Perhaps living apart is so difficult that his instinctive reaction involves his wish to live in the same place as his wife, rather than first considering the reality of what that would involve if his wife quit her job, moved to his city, and took a job she didn't like. I am sure he is well aware of that, but his longing to have his family together dominates his feelings and point of view.

My husband and I lived apart for years while we were trying to find jobs we both wanted in the same or proximal location(s). We are lucky that it worked out for us and we never had to face the long-term implications of one of us making a sacrifice in career aspirations. However, perhaps it is because I confronted, at least hypothetically, the wrenching possibility of having to take a job I didn't want while my husband pursued his dream job that I projected a particular explanation for the spouse/technician's job dissatisfaction. [Note: I know from personal experience and other reports that she is in fact dissatisfied with her job, so I am not jumping to conclusions about that, at least].

I hope things work out for my colleague, but I also hope he will have some sympathy for this smart and talented scientist who chose family over career. She may well have made the best decision for herself and her family, but it can't be an easy thing to do.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Proposed Ethical Lapse

These difficult economic times have resulted in many necessary cost-saving measures and cuts. These difficult economic times have also resulted in some unnecessary measures and cuts that do not save anyone any money. Examples of each:
  • Freezing faculty salaries (and hiring) saves a university money.
  • Freezing postdoctoral salaries (and hiring) does not save the university money if the postdocs are entirely paid from external sources of funding.
In fact, universities benefit financially from postdoctoral scholars because postdoctoral salaries may be part of the indirect cost calculation of a grant. Postdocs in the sciences bring money to a university. Freezing salaries of postdocs or other soft-money researchers is a money losing policy.

Perhaps administrators aren't aware of this? Perhaps they are aware but it's too difficult to make different policies for different job categories? Perhaps they are concerned about fairness? That is, why should one group of employees get a raise when others are experiencing salary freezes or cuts?

I know that faculty at various institutions have written letters to the powers-that-be about restrictive postdoctoral hiring/salary policies, with only limited success at overturning the policy or being granted exemptions.

I can't think of a good reason why grant-funded salaries can't be paid as budgeted in the grants. If the money exists in a grant for the specific purpose of paying a researcher, the researcher should get the budgeted money no matter what the university policy is regarding hiring/pay for faculty or staff.

Some of my colleagues have been trying to find ways to get around the salary freeze so they can pay their postdocs (or themselves) the amounts budgeted in grants. Here are some of the possibilities that I have heard discussed:

1. Writing and back-dating a letter promising a specific raise in an official letter to a postdoc. Although the salary for the first year is always mentioned in an offer letter/hiring contract, in some cases the salary for subsequent years is not. The proposed back-dated letter is an attempt to get around the lack of a specific letter for the second or subsequent years. If a pre-economic-crisis letter exists and spells out the salary/raise for subsequent years, the university has to honor this.

2. Finding a way to get the raise money to its intended recipient in a non-salary kind of way, e.g. buying an awesome personal computer of equivalent cost as the unpayable raise. Computer purchases can easily be justified on most grants. This isn't as good as a real raise, but it's better than nothing.

Back-dating a letter clearly isn't ethical, and I suppose spending grant money on something that wasn't originally budgeted and that might not directly impact the research isn't ethical either, but can these ethical lapses be forgiven because they are done for a good cause? Are the lapses justifiable because they are done to counteract a misguided policy, or should we follow the rules, however stupid they are?

If we can't spend the budgeted money on salary, we either have to spend the money on something else (something we are told at ethics training workshops is not allowed) or we have to give the money back to the funding agency at the expiration of the grant. Perhaps we can prolong our grants with no-cost extensions until the no-raise policy is lifted and eventually give our postdocs the budgeted raise, assuming the postdocs haven't moved on to another job.

I have recently considered another not-so-ethical route to take so that I can give a raise to a postdoc. The raise is in the grant budget, was justified in the grant proposal, and the postdoc deserves the raise. I made a request to the Dean that I be allowed to give the postdoc the budgeted raise, and my request was denied. So I started thinking of ways I could somehow get the raise to the postdoc anyway.

I could perhaps be talked out of my unethical idea by persuasive comments to this post, but at the moment this idea seems kind of appealing to me. Consider:

One of the only ways to be granted an official exemption to the no-raise policy is if the person in question has another job offer. The job offer doesn't have to be carved in stone -- it can just be an email from someone at another institution expressing an intention to offer a position. I don't want my postdoc to go out and get a real job offer (and he has said he wants to stay on here as a postdoc for another year or two), but I am pretty sure that I could get a colleague at another institution to send my postdoc an email expressing an interest in hiring him away from my institution (but without any real intention of doing so). With such a letter in hand, there's a good chance I could get the raise approved.

Ethical? No.. Should I do it anyway? Is there another, better way?