Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Hey professor, I am honestly, truly sorry

Here are the (mostly disturbing) entries for the Final Exam Excuse Contest 2010. I have numbered them so that you can vote on your favorite in the poll at the end of the post. Some of these are real e-mails from students; some are not. Some are easy to detect as fakes; some are not.

This isn't the *nicest* way to end the academic term, but many of us have been getting these e-mails (or ones eerily similar..) in the past few weeks, so I hope the group-wallow in parody and sympathy will be emotionally satisfying in some way, or at least mildly entertaining.

My end-of-term experience has been supplemented by a cheating incident that makes me very sad because the students involved did not need to cheat (they were getting decent grades; now they are not), but I don't feel like writing about student "misconduct" right now.. maybe in 2011, when I am older and wiser and energized for the new year and term.

In the meantime, I am going on a blog-break while my family and I travel to an interesting part of the world. I shall likely return in early January.

Thanks for reading, and please vote in the poll at the end of this post.


Hey professor,

I am honestly, truly sorry for missing the final exam in your case. I am not usually so irresponsible and this is completely out of character for me. However, I feel that I should ask that you excuse my exam, in that one of my housemates was in the emergency room and I had to be there with him. You can check with the ER to prove that I did not just forget the exam. I have had some bad luck lately and I would never of missed the exam because your class is one of my favorites, but you know what they say: friends first. I am wondering if I would be able to make up the exam this Saturday, which is the only chance I have before my flight home for Christmas. I know you might want to take off points for the late exam, but I really am afraid about how it would affect my GPA, and I am a Senior. Thus, I could also do an extra credit project, if that would help you to give me the grade I really deserve were it not for missing the final. I will do any project you want, because I am very greatful to you for helping me even though I had my friend in the hospital. However, I might need to turn in my extra credit project after Christmas because I am going home and also my computer is at IT with a virus and I can't get my files off it. They said it would be done by now, so I have no idea when I'll get it. Is it ok if I can get an incomplete so that I can do my best work on the extra credit project? Also, I could take the final exam after Christmas so that I can really demonstrate my best work for this class, but I understand completely if you want me to take it on Saturday.

Thank you so much, I truly do love the class and I am sorry I let you down,



Dear Mr [prof]

i miss exam because due to car crash. i study all night and fall sleep drivering to school

i can bring police story to show why i missed. how can i get new exam and when

i must must must pass class or lose student visa!!!!!!!!!

thx Mr for helping me


hi fsp, im sorry i missed the final exam but yesterday morning my cat
was puking and i had to take her to the vet, and then after i got home
i was going to study but the cat puked again on my only clean sweater,
so i put the sweater and all my other dirty clothes in the laundry but
the dryer must have been 2 hot because my clothes came out all
munchkin-sized, so i went to the tj maxx to buy some new clothes but
then i left my lights on and the car wouldnt start. i tried to get my
friend to drive me to campus for the exam but he was all hungover from
celebrating the end of the semester and couldnt come pick me up at the
tj maxx, actually he couldnt get out of bed, and by this time i was
late for the exam and i would have called ur office but i lost my
phone. so its not my fault i wasnt there for the final yesterday but i
do really need to take the test because my dad said if i failed one
more class he would take away my cadillac escalade. i studied for a
whole hour and im sure i can get the a+ u told me i need to pass. i can
i can come in for the makeup exam tomorrow after 7pm or the next day
after 6 pls let me know which is best for u.



Dear Female Science Professor,

I regret to inform you that I could not make it to the final because
my grandmother died, and I need you to give me a make-up final so I
can get an A in this course. I don't expect you will, of course,
because you refused to give make-ups to all of my friends, whose
grandmothers also died to make them miss the exam. I don't know what
your big problem is. One day in class you made a big deal about
reading "real scholarly literature" instead of Wikipedia or stuff. So
here is this real paper for you
http://www.math.toronto.edu/mpugh/DeadGrandmother.pdf and it says, AND
I QUOTE: A student's grandmother is far more likely to die suddenly
just before the student takes an exam, than at any other time of year.
a student who is failing a class and has a final coming up is more
than 50 times more likely to lose a family member than an A student
not facing any exams. So I'm failing the class, and all my friends
are failing the class, and you don't think ahead to the fact that our
grandmothers were going to die? That dude says they worry themselves
to death. He says it is a mounting health epidemic growing with
exponential proportions that must be stopped or our society will
crumble down to its very foundations of society. So now I really
really have to get an A on the exam so I can go to med school to find
a cure to stop this SENSELESS LOSS OF LIFE. Please let me know what a
good time for the makeup would be. I work best from 1 am to 5 am so I
hope that works for you.


Struggling Student



Professor XX,

My grandmother died today, or was it yesterday? I don't remember, it's
all a big emotional blur (/_\) . The funeral is on the day of the final
in a town far, far away and I have to go; she practically raised me
(well, on some weekends and holidays). Plus, her will stated that she
wanted me there specifically. Suffice it to say, I won't be able to make
it to the final exam. In fact, I'm so distraught that studying for any
exams is going to be almost impossible (we were really close).

I really need to pass this class (preferably with an A; my GPA is
hemorrhaging badly). I'm a super senior, and it's the last requirement
for my major. Also, it won't be offered again until Spring 2015! (Whose
great idea was that?!?!) In light of this, I propose that you average
the grades for my last 3 exams (with most of the weight on the highest
grade, of course), and use that as my final exam grade.

I know that you're probably thinking, "Yea, right. I want to see a death
certificate and an invitation to the funeral." Well, you're in luck! A
notarized death certificate and a notarized invitation to the funeral
will be available in a couple days.

Thanks for your cooperation (and the letter of recommendation ^_^ ) .

Very sincerely,



Greetings Dr X,

I missed the midterm. I was miserably sick last week.




Dear Prof X,

I am writing to explain that I accidentally gave my roommate, Student
Y, a pot brownie, so she was unable to take the final exam in your
class. Had I known about the exam, I would not have given this to her!

Please allow Student Y to make up the exam.

Roommate Z



dear professor,

Last week I went to the clinic at the school to get my chest looked at
and I had whooping cough and broncitis, and I was given strong medication
for it. However, lastnight I took my medication on an empty stomach and this
morning I cant stop dry heaving and puking bile ( i am bulimic which also
makes my stomach sensitive). I need to go to the doctors or the hospital,
but I cannot drive right now. This is the second day that I have had this
reaction to my medication and it has cut into my study time and also put me
in pain. I dono what to do because I cannot miss this exam but I also cannot
lift my head out of the towilet for more than a few minutes. I donno how I
can write my exam like this. HELP, what should I do?

Student Y.



hi prof!
i just realized that I frgot 2 come to the final exam yesterday! I know the
exam was yesterday at 8 cuz I just checked on the finals calendr but between
my Chem midterm and my Psych paper it TOTALLY slipped my mind! could i
mebbe take the exam when I get back from break? Because I am actually
writing this on my iphone in the airport right now (also why the speling is
so bad - haha!). I'm super super sorry for the trouble!

Thanks soooooooooooooooo much in advance!!!



Hey professor,

I know it is late (2 AM the day of the final exam!!!!!!!) but I am supposed to
contact my professor in advance about taking a make-up exam for a good reason.
I recently found out that I have several final exams on the same day (today!!!) and so
according to university rules I get to take one as a make-up and I decided to take
yours later because it is my favorite class. The best time for me is Thursday at noon
so I will come to your office then and take the exam.

Professor FSP,

I was starting to study but then I fell down on the floor and was sweating so I went to the clinic and they said I should rest and not study anymore, so that is why I can't take the final exam tomorow. My mom says I have to come home right away so she is picking me up at 2 pm which is when the exam starts. So the best thing to do is not to count this final exam in my grade. An Incomplete is NOT an option because I don't have time to make this up after the break. I calculated my grade as a B+ although I am really an A student and if you want to take into account my difficult circumstances and how hard I worked in your class an A would be good. Thanks for your help.


Dear Mr. [misspelled name]

I am in you're 1:00 class what meets in room 201 of the Maine building I rite you on a matter of grave concern
I had to miss the final exam what took place at 5PM in Maine 201 last tuesday because of a matter of vital importence; My mom cooked a really important dinner for me monday night and so do to the extreme difficulty of travel during the current season I had to go home during finals week because my mom insisted if you new my mom youd understand
I tryed to find you're office which you're web page says is MAine 202; but dint have any luck cuz the Maine building is to obscure and i couldnt find it so i couldnt find you're office and talk to you about it before
i wouldnt bother you about it except as its to important whereas my scholarship require that i keep a perfek 4.0 GPA thruout my intire collige years and so i need to make up the final I dont need you to work extra hard so its ok if you just give me the final that you gived everyone else as my friends said it wasnt to bad when they showed me the answers you passed out at the and
If you need confermation of the importence of the dinner you should contact my mom were in the phone book so were easy to find as our house is across the street from the collidge

you're devoted student John Smythe VII



Professor FSP, you're not going to believe this but just before
the final exam my pet python, Mimi, got loose somewhere in my
apartment building and the last time this happened my landlord
totally freaked and said if it happened again he would evict me
or kill my snake or both. So I had to look for her and I missed
the exam but the good news is that I found her and she was safe
but a little shook up and so then I had to get her calm and there
was no way I could email you until now. I am afraid to leave
her alone now but I could write a paper instead of doing the
final exam or I could take the exam after the break. Just let
me know which of these options you want to do.


NOTE ADDED 12/21: Some late additions include:

14. I studied really hard last night and then slept through
the alarm clock

15. hey, i went 2 the room today and the normal time and no 1
was their. some kid was their and said you gave it during the
exam pd. anyways i work then so i couldn’t come.
i have time to make up the final after work tomorrow so i
can b their bout 4. thx

(no time to update the poll, but you could do a write in vote
in the comments)

Which one do you like the best?
1: ER excuse
2: car, police excuse
3: cat, laundry, friend etc. excuse
4: grandmother excuse, passive-aggressive
5: grandmother excuse. aggressive
6: pathetic but brief excuse
7: pot brownie excuse
8: detailed medical excuse
9: forgot exam excuse
10: last-minute excuse
11: illness, mom excuse
12: mom excuse
13: missing python excuse
pollcode.com free polls

Monday, December 20, 2010

Answering the Mail

In an attempt to be less of a slacker at answering my FSP e-mails, today I am going to give quick replies to some that have been lingering in my mailbox for varying lengths of time. That way, I will feel more psychically prepared for 2011. My apologies to those who e-mailed me but did not get a reply, including in this post.

Because I am providing only brief responses here, feel free to leave a comment expressing interest in a future discussion involving a more detailed and thoughtful consideration of topics raised in the e-mails.

(Some of the questions below have been edited for length)

Question: What is your take on giving information about other grad schools one is applying to? Some schools make it mandatory, some make it optional. What is the purpose of that and does it work in the student's favor to list all other schools?

Answer: How can this possibly be mandatory? Perhaps I am showing my ignorance, but I was aware only that some graduate programs request information on the "competition", if applicants are willing to provide it. Others can comment based on greater knowledge of this practice, but I can't see how it would work for or against an applicant to list these (or not). Just because you apply to a place doesn't mean you will be accepted. I think many places just want to look for overall trends in the data of applicant pools, not track where any particular applicant has applied, but others should correct me if their program uses this information in a different way.


Question: Is having an open laptop during a talk disrespectful to a speaker and distracting to an audience, or are laptops a useful way of taking notes during the talk?

Answer: My personal opinion is that laptops or other electronic note-taking devices are acceptable during a talk. It can be distracting sitting next to someone who is type-type-typing throughout a talk, but if the typing is confined to jotting relevant notes or questions, I can deal with it. As a speaker, I assume that the open laptops are being used for a relevant purpose, although this assumption is clearly deeply flawed, as some people keep their eyes glued to their laptop screen throughout a talk, and occasionally laugh or smile at the screen at a time unrelated to anything in my talk that could be considered amusing (I think). That is rude.


Question (aggregate of a number of e-mails with different situations but similar themes): What do you do if you are a tenure-track professor and many of your colleagues, including your department chair, are jerks?

Answer: My advice, which is not that awesome or satisfying but is the best I can suggest for those in this difficult situation, is to do your work as best you can, don't let the jerks get to you or destroy your enjoyment of your job if at all possible, find as many non-jerk colleagues as you can (within or beyond your department and including administrators), protect your students from the jerks, build a strong record of teaching/research/service, and get tenure. Then you can decide what to do: leave or stay. If you stay, you can then decide whether to confront the jerks or just do your own thing, or take the long view and become a leader in your department so you can change things. Just don't become one of them.


Question: What do you do when a student writes to you, begging for a higher grade because [insert desperate reason]?

Answer: I can tell you what I do in these situations: I write back a short, sympathetic e-mail saying that I cannot and will not change the student's grade or give them an extra credit assignment. It is very sad when there is something important at stake for the student (e.g., a scholarship, financial aid, a chance to get into a desired program), but I try to forestall such unhappy events by giving students feedback throughout the course so that they know where they stand. I will help them if I can, before the final grade is determined, not after. The important thing is to be consistent and fair.

Question: I have been told that one should decline to write a letter of recommendation if that letter is going to be really negative, or at least tell the person requesting the letter that the letter will be negative, and give the person a chance to find someone else (or take their chances with your unflattering letter). Actually, I have two questions: (1) Should one decline to write a negative letter (might this not be important information?) or inform the applicant that your letter will be negative, and if so, (2) How negative is negative? What if my letter would have both positive and some negative things in it? How do I decide whether I am being unfair to the letter-requester if I don't tell them how negative my letter will be?

Answer: This is a complex question. For now I will just say that I think it's fine to write a 'balanced' letter (code for 'has some positive and negative things in it'). Ideally, the person requesting the letter has some idea about what you think of him/her, although I know that is really hard to determine because there are all sorts of complex issues and anxieties involved in that. Nevertheless, if you have provided critical input to someone (e.g., about their research abilities, writing skills, productivity), given them a not-so-good grade in a class, or otherwise given them an open assessment of their accomplishments and/or abilities, there is nothing sneaky about writing some critical comments in a reference letter. Those reading the letter will appreciate an honest and frank assessment, and, as long as your negative comments are written in a professional way and you believe the criticisms to be fair, you've done what you were asked to do.


Question: I am a graduate student and I have a 3-month old infant. I am doing fine, keeping up with my research, caring for my baby, and basically managing things as well as I can, although I feel that I am pretty much at the limit of what I can reasonably deal with. One of my office mates keeps complaining to me about how much work it is for him to care for his exotic reptile pet, which he fortunately keeps at home. Can I kill him?

Answer: I think you should seriously consider it and even make elaborate plans (in your head), but this might be something you want to put off until later, given that your plate is already full.


There are some other good topics for discussion in my inbox, and I hope to get to them.. next year.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Uninvited Speaker

Imagine this scenario:

You are organizing a conference session and thinking about possible invited speakers. You want a mix of old(er) superstars and dynamic early-career people.

One of the early-career candidates for an invited talk has told you that she plans to drop out of academia soon because she is moving to the city where her husband got a job. She might teach a bit but has no plans to continue as an active researcher, despite getting a PhD in a high-profile program and doing excellent and significant work.

Do you invite her anyway because her research is interesting, or do you give the invited talk slot to someone whose career prospects would benefit from the invitation and visibility?

Should a person's stated lack of interest in a future career involving research be a factor in this decision, assuming that there are other possible candidates whose research is as interesting and as compatible with the theme of the conference session? Or is the only thing that matters the research topic (and maybe also the individual's speaking ability)?

I think I would invite the quitting-research person anyway if she is clearly the best person for the session, no matter what her stated career goals. Even if the invited talk slot wouldn't benefit her career, it might benefit others in the audience (e.g., students or others who would learn something from her talk) or it might benefit the session overall to have a diverse group of invited speakers ("diverse" could refer to research topic, methods, career stage, gender etc.).

If, however, there were other excellent candidates who would give a similarly excellent and useful talk and who would also personally benefit from the invitation, I might well tilt towards inviting one of them instead.

One of my colleagues has been in this decision-making situation recently, so I was thinking about this type of scenario.

What would you do? (and why?)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

What Are You Saying?

Today's post, in response to a reader/professor who wrote to me when one of his international students complained that he (the professor) was hard to understand, is at Scientopia.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Contest : 2010

Two years ago at about this time, some FSP readers submitted entries to the Statement of Purpose (SoP) contest. Last year, we did a Letter of Reference (LoR) contest. What shall it be this year?

I have contemplated various archetypal academic texts as the theme of the 2010 contest, but I eventually settled on this:

Write an e-mail message from a student to a professor explaining why you (the student) missed the final exam.

Although we all love and respect our students and appreciate the complexity of their lives, feel free to go a little crazy, make this a cathartic experience (if you need one), and convince me that there is or was no way you could make it to the final exam (but you need to pass this class and maybe even get an A).

It might be interesting if contest submissions are a mix of real e-mails and fabricated e-mails. I wonder if we will be able to tell the difference?

Send your submission to femalescienceprofessor@gmail.com, or leave it as a comment to this post and I will save it for when I post some or all of the results.

I am going to go on a blog-break next week, starting maybe Wednesday, but if you send me your submissions by Monday or Tuesday (12/21), I will try to get them compiled before I go off the grid.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Sabbatical Spouses

My experience with sabbaticals and spouses involves planning with a professor-spouse, so I don't have any personal advice for those with non-professor-spouses. I do know that my colleagues with non-professor-spouses have done one or more of the following: (1) not gone on sabbatical at all; (2) taken a sabbatical, but of the "staycation"/don't-leave-home sort; or (3) taken a sabbatical consisting of short trips or somewhat extended stays at other institutions, but not for a long time (max 3 months, typically less). One friend took the kids to Europe for a few months and left the lawyer spouse at home (though he visited).

Some of my colleagues with professor spouses in different fields or institutions have taken separate sabbaticals at different times or in different places, but few people I know have chosen to do this.

For 2-professor families who want to coordinate a sabbatical, there are some Issues that typically arise, such as:

- You have to coordinate things so that you both apply for, and are granted, sabbaticals at the same time.
- You both have to write grant proposals to raise $ for the missing 1/2 salaries you both won't be receiving.
- You have to agree on a place to go.

Each of these is a potential pitfall. For example, I had to wait more than 10 years for my first sabbatical because my husband was a few years behind me in seniority, and then we had to get our department chair to agree that we could both have a sabbatical in the same year.

The third item in the list, however, consumes most of our sabbatical discussions.

Agreeing on a place to go involves many complex factors. Although my husband and I are in the same general field, we are in different subfields, and different institutions may or may not have interesting (or any) colleagues in one of our subfields. So first we have to figure out all possible places that could conceivably host both of us, given our research interests.

Then we discuss which of those places we actually want to go. Although by this point the list of possible places has been significantly reduced, especially if we add the further constraint that we prefer to spend our sabbaticals outside the US, one or both of us may have different preferences and priorities.

For our last sabbatical, there was a very obvious place that had outstanding colleagues and facilities, was in an interesting place, and that had colleagues who wanted to host us. Also, the institution had money to pay visiting scholars, and that was quite a nice bonus to an already appealing option. So we went there.

That was great, but what about the next sabbatical? We have been discussing this and have pretty much settled on a place we think we would both like to be, and we have ascertained that there are colleagues there who would like to have us around for all or part of a year.

How did we ascertain that? For our last sabbatical, we both knew people at this institution, and it was not at all awkward to discuss our hopes for a visit. In fact, I think one or both of us may even have been invited. For the next sabbatical, one of us was approached by a professor at the university about visiting, and the other started e-mailing colleagues (some current collaborators, others known only from their research) to see what they thought of the idea. They liked the idea.

Although it is a bit disconcerting to cold-email someone and ask "Would you host me for my next sabbatical?", there's nothing too scary about asking someone if you can have a desk and be an interactive member of their research group for a while. Also, making these requests gets easier as you get older and more egotistical, and you count on the fact that people will either be enthusiastic or will at least make up something reasonably nice to discourage you if they don't want to be your host.

Of course our daughter has been an important element in our sabbatical planning as well. She loved the sabbatical we took when she was in elementary school. It was an adventure, she learned a new language, and we did a lot of traveling. She missed her friends and cats, but she made new friends and we figured out where all the cats in the neighborhood lived, and went on frequent cat safaris to visit friendly felines. Not long ago we returned to our sabbatical city and followed our old cat safari route, and there was our favorite cat, sitting in her usual spot, as if she hadn't moved in years.

Now our daughter is looking forward to our next sabbatical in a different place, despite the disruptions it will cause to her schooling. Whether such disruptions are significant (so the sabbatical is not a realistic option) or not a big deal (so the sabbatical is worth it for all) will of course vary from family to family.

I am a big fan of sabbaticals for their recharging effects and for the opportunities they provide to meet and work with new people, live in a different culture, travel, think, and have fun. Even if I couldn't get enough grant money to replace my missing 1/2 salary, I would try to go anyway.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sabbatical Scenarios

Last week I discussed Sabbatical Economics, and explained why paying a professor 1/2 of a 9-month salary every 7 years so they can focus on research or other creative endeavors can make both short- and long-term economic sense for an institution, not to mention for the individual on sabbatical.

Today I will discuss some another aspect of sabbaticals. Please write with questions or suggestions of sabbatical-themed topics I haven't covered.

Myth: Faculty on sabbatical abandon their students, occasionally checking in from the other side of the world (or country or town) just to make sure that everyone is working hard to keep the research machine ticking along while the absent faculty member does whatever it is professors do on sabbatical.

I certainly won't claim that no professors ever do this, but, from what I've seen, it isn't common.

When I was a graduate student and my adviser went on sabbatical, we kept in touch by e-mail, and this was fine with me. In fact, it was great because he had a rather large group of graduate students, most of them very assertive and verbally agile young men, and I never really felt like I had my adviser's attention to the extent that these guys did. In fact, these guys, who were my friends and mentors, were in some ways more aware of my research than my adviser was, although I typically talked to my adviser a few times a week to update him and ask questions.

The reason the sabbatical year was great for me was that I was better at sending frequent, articulate, informative e-mails than my fellow grad students were. I finally got my adviser's attention, and he later told me that he enjoyed these e-mails from me, and for the first time appreciated my work (and work ethic).

I have also enjoyed being a professor on sabbatical. On my last sabbatical, I went to Europe for most of an academic year, although I returned to the US once for some student preliminary exams. Everyone who needed to take their exam in a particular term and who needed/wanted me on their committee took their exams during the week I was back. It was an intense week, but it worked out well. And while I was away, my students were well taken care of by co-advisers or committee members or postdocs or each other, and we all kept in touch by e-mail etc. As far as I can tell, no one felt abandoned and no one's research progress suffered.

For my next sabbatical -- still a ways off but in the preparation stages -- I plan to have some research funds to pay for the travel of at least one graduate student to visit me to take advantage of the facilities and collaborations at the institute that has offered to host my sabbatical. There will also be other opportunities for travel home and abroad involving other colleagues and students (visits, conferences etc.), and, if all goes as planned, it's going to be very cool. I think my research group as a whole will benefit from my sabbatical, even if I'm the only one who will be jumping up and down chanting "No faculty meetings for a year, no faculty meetings for a year" with glee.

If a professor supervises a lab at their home institution, presumably they don't just leave untrained students to run around in it, tossing hazardous chemicals around and exposing themselves to radiation and carcinogens. Professors with labs like this typically have a supervising research scientist, highly trained technician, and/or colleagues who share the lab. Departments have safety officers, everyone in the lab should be trained in the relevant (and many irrelevant) safety issues, and there should be no problem if the supervising faculty member is not in residence for all or part of an academic year.

There are so many ways to stay connected these days, and so many interesting ways to involve students and postdocs in sabbatical-related research experiences, that a sabbatical can easily be an exciting opportunity, not as a selfish thing that faculty do if they don't care about their advisees.

In any case, sabbaticals are a normal part of academic life, and chances are that students and postdocs will be affected by the sabbatical or research leave of one or more faculty. It is therefore useful to discuss ways in which sabbaticals can be organized so that advisees are not inconvenienced or in any way harmed by an adviser's sabbatical.

Questions of the day:

If you have gone on sabbatical, how did you organize things to minimize disruptions for your research group?

If you are or have been a student or postdoc whose adviser/mentor went on sabbatical, how did you deal with the situation? Was it OK or a problem?

Friday, December 10, 2010


Dear Big Administrator of Big University,

Today I got your LETTER. Wow, an actual printed and signed letter, on letterhead, sent by U.S. Postal Service from you to me. Nice watermark.

You couldn't have known that the mail guy in my department office would put your letter in someone else's mailbox and then the 'wrong' person opened it, realized the mistake, and eventually put the letter in my mailbox. Fortunately, whoever mistakenly opened the letter did so quite cleanly, so your letter was still fairly pristine when it got to me, but it was slightly delayed by its unexpected detour to another mailbox. That's OK, e-mail can go astray as well.

Also, it was worth it because, when I saw the letter had been opened, I showed the mail guy the slit in the envelope, hollered "Omigod, the check is gone!" and totally freaked him out (before confessing there was no check and I was just being a jerk). That was the most fun I had today, which is sad, I know.

You also couldn't have known that I seldom look in my mailbox anymore. When I do get physical mail, most of it is junk mail. It is quite miraculous that I glanced at my mailbox this week, when I wasn't expecting anything interesting. In fact, even once I saw that there was something in my mailbox, I almost ignored it, so sure was I that it was not important.

Oh well, some legitimate e-mail gets caught by my university's spam filter, I've been known to delete legitimate e-mail without reading it because I thought it was spam, and other e-mail I may accidentally overlook if it arrives with tens of others. Correspondence by letter and e-letter can go astray.

So, you couldn't have known the perils of sending a real letter to me with your important request. The problem is, though, that your letter says that you value my awesome expertise and wisdom and therefore want me to do something for your University on a particular date, but you did not first check whether that date was OK with me. Alas, it is not. I have another commitment on that date. Perhaps there is a reason why the date is more important than the person (me)?

Anyway, one of these variables is going to have to change, and your letter does not seem to provide the option of changing the date, so I think that means I will have to decline your request.

I thought about discussing this with you, but, although I searched far and wide in your beautiful letter, you provided no e-mail address. Of course I could easily look this up, but am I right in inferring that your preferred mode of communication is by letter? Should I send you a letter on my university's letterhead saying that, unfortunately, I cannot come to your university and share my awesome wisdom with you on the specified date? And then I will wait for your reply by mail? And then, after you write to me, I will write back expressing my further regret? Maybe we will be pen pals!?

I can sort of see why you, a distinguished administrator, thought it would be more formal and respectful to send me a paper letter on letterhead, even if e-mail would have been totally fine with me, but the lack of any contact information is a little strange. Wouldn't further communication be more efficient if we dispense with the parchment and quills and shoot each other some informative e-mails? Or are you tired of only getting junk mail in your mailbox, and are hoping that I will write back, on paper, by mail?

I don't know, but I have a feeling that your ability to take the time to write, print, sign, address, stamp, and mail a letter to me might have something to do with the fact that you have an administrative assistant. And I also think that my inability thus far to reply to your letter, by mail or e-mail, has something to do with the fact that I don't.

If you read this blog and know that I am writing this post instead of writing to you, that would save us both a lot of time. Otherwise, I will drop you a line.. somehow.



Thursday, December 09, 2010

Purposeless Pacing

From a teaching evaluation (not mine, but it could have been):

"The professor paced without purpose while teaching."


Questions for the purposes of data acquisition and discussion:

- Do you pace while teaching?
- Does your pacing have a purpose?
- If it has a purpose, is it a good purpose, a psychotic purpose, a pedagogical purpose, or what?
- Does anyone care? (i.e., Has a student ever mentioned it in your teaching evaluations?)
- Or, if you are a student: Do you care/not care if your professors pace, with or without purpose?

I confess: I pace while teaching. To the extent that my pacing has a purpose, it is so I can be a physical presence in various parts of the room at different times during the class, make eye contact with more students, listen to their questions better, try to see what they are seeing when I project something/write something at the front of a large classroom, or just because I get kind of hyped up when I teach and I feel like moving. I don't know if those are good purposes or bad purposes, but I think they add up to purposes, even if students don't know what they are.

As a pacer, I am therefore a fan of (my own) pacing. It didn't occur to me that it might also be distracting to students. I talk while I move around the room, so it's not as if I am walking back and forth silently, staring at the floor and thinking mysterious professorial thoughts during class. I can understand how that might be a bit disconcerting.

The questions above are intended to stimulate discussion of the important topic of professorial pacing. My discovery of this unexplored (by me) topic has demonstrated to me yet again that there is always something strange and new to think about, just when my energy and spirit have been nearly shattered, or at least flattened into a nanofilm, by committee work.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

MS v. PhD (reprise)

Almost exactly four (yikes) years ago, I wrote about some aspects of the issue of advising M.S. vs. Ph.D. students. There has been much blog-ink spilled on this topic, including from the student perspective. A common question that I get from readers is whether they should do an M.S. or go straight to the Ph.D., so this question seems to be a perennial one.

My point of view is, of course, that of an adviser and a professor who has some influence on admissions decisions, so in my earlier post, I wrote about adviser-centric issues such as whether M.S. students are 'cost effective' for advisers like me.

Today in Scientopia I consider this topic again in response to a reader question about whether doing an M.S. is considered a liability (i.e., a "black mark") for those who ultimately want a Ph.D. I certainly don't think it is, but this student was told by a professor that it would/might be, so I am hoping that readers will weigh in with data and advice.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

As we enter the season of Teaching Evaluations for the term that, for many of us, is winding down (or up, depending on your mood), let us consider two issues:

(1) today's issue: Is the end of the term (but before the final exam) the (a) best, (b) worst, (c) as good as any other time to ask students to evaluate their professor's teaching?

(2) an issue for a not-too-distant future post (to give you time to think about it): What is the strangest comment you have seen in a teaching evaluation? (in your own evaluations or someone else's). I am particularly interested in strange comments that are not entirely off-topic.

A few months ago, a colleague was telling me about the results of a survey of undergraduates taking introductory Science courses at his institution. I was very surprised about the results of this survey (which I will not describe here). I was surprised because the alarming and depressing results were completely opposite to what I have observed (or thought I had observed) in my own classes and in my own department. So I asked this colleague for more information about the survey. How were the questions worded? When was the survey given to the students?

Aha. The answers to both questions explained a lot, and in particular, the one that is relevant to today's post re. the timing of the survey: It was given a few days before the final exam, when students are at their most stressed.

Yes, my colleague said, but if you give students a survey (or a teaching evaluation) after the final exam, most of them won't do it. And you can't give the survey/evaluation too early because the students won't have enough information about the class to respond authoritatively. And participation has to be voluntary, so you can't threaten them with consequences if they don't do the survey (and that might be counterproductive anyway). The only time to get a decent participation rate is just before the final exam.

OK.. but what if that skews the results? (and the people who are interpreting the survey results don't take that possibility into account and assume that there is a crisis because the students seem kind of stressed out?)

Assuming that student evaluations of teaching are going to continue to be employed by universities: If there were a way to ensure that (most) students would do the evaluation, is it "better" to have them do the evaluations just before the end of the term or after they get their grade? That is, is it better to have students do the evaluations when they aren't sure how they are doing in the class or when they know exactly how they did in the class?

And what is meant by "better" anyway? There are various ways to interpret that, but "better" in this context means a time when students will provide the most fair and thorough evaluations, after reflecting deeply on their own role in the learning process and how much they got out of the class.

I don't know the answer, but I do know that students are typically given teaching evaluations at a time when they are feeling a lot of stress about all the end-of-term activities (exams, papers). It would be interesting to know whether teaching evaluations and other surveys of student opinions of their courses would be substantially different after the term is over as compared to just-before-the-term-end. Surely someone has studied this?

Monday, December 06, 2010

Sabbatical Economics

Some universities and colleges have canceled faculty sabbaticals in this time of economic crisis. Eliminating sabbaticals may save an institution money, especially if it is the policy of the institution to provide full salary to faculty on leave. That conclusion ignores aspects of sabbatical economics that are more difficult to quantify (e.g., more creativity, more grants, more publications, less burnout), but eliminating full-pay leave and avoiding the need to hire replacements makes economic sense in the short term.

Canceling sabbaticals, however, makes little to no sense for institutions that provide only partial salary support for faculty on leave, particularly if an institution is large enough that there isn't a need to hire a replacement to teach the courses of the faculty member on leave. In that case, canceling sabbaticals costs the institution money. Here's how that works:

Let's say a university pays its faculty 50% of their salary during a sabbatical; this is a typical amount at many US institutions for a full-year sabbatical. That is 50% of a 9 month salary, so the faculty member on sabbatical gets 4.5 months of salary for the year.

This ~50% makes sense because, in theory, about half of a professor's job (at an R1 university) is research and the other half is teaching (let's ignore 'service' for now). We therefore get paid for the research component of our job while on sabbatical, but we don't get paid for teaching.

This ~50% salary issue, though, is one reason why many professors don't go on sabbatical. I think many faculty have taken a one-term (full-pay) leave when available, but the number who take the full-year half-pay option is considerably less.

In any case, for full-year, half-pay sabbaticals, the institution gets the other 4.5 months of salary. If no replacement is hired, a department (or central administration) can use that money for other things. Even if a replacement is hired to teach some or all of the sabbatical professor's courses, the replacement's salary will likely not be more than the equivalent of the 4.5 months for the sabbatical professor, and may be less. The department either makes money or breaks even.

When I am planning a sabbatical, I request academic year salary in grants to cover at least part of the salary I do not get from my institution while I am on leave. As usual with many grants, the university gets indirect costs (a.k.a. 'overhead' or 'facilities & administration') from the grant, and this is typically 50-60% of the total grant award.

Therefore, the university saves money in salary during my sabbatical -- for my last sabbatical, no replacement was hired, so my department got to keep half of my salary -- and makes additional money from any grants associated with the sabbatical. I try to get grants anyway, of course, even when not on sabbatical, but I do more proposal-writing before and during a sabbatical.

So far, I have just been talking about the basic costs of a sabbatical, but sabbaticals also benefit institutions in other ways that matter: e.g. to university rankings (publications, other scholarly activities, faculty recruitment and retention). It is short-sighted to ignore those factors, even in an economic crisis.

At my institution, we have to apply for a sabbatical and present a research plan for the sabbatical year; just taking a year off, even at half pay, is not considered an acceptable use of a sabbatical. Many of us get a lot of work done while on sabbatical; it's just that the work is research (and of course advising, even if from afar), and not classroom teaching or institutional service.

So, why eliminate sabbaticals if they benefit a university, economically and otherwise? Why would a university implement a policy that results in loss of money, prestige, and perhaps faculty? I think there are two general reasons: (1) misunderstanding of what sabbaticals are (and their economics), and (2) an inability or unwillingness to explain the benefits of sabbaticals to politicians and others. A university or state legislature may get political points for canceling sabbaticals if sabbaticals are seen as paid "time off" for professors. Professors are hired to teach, so why should we get a year off from teaching?

Sabbaticals are definitely a special aspect of this job. Although I work hard to raise money for research and salary for my sabbaticals and I work very hard when on sabbatical, I still appreciate how fortunate I am to have a job with the option of sabbaticals.

This is (obviously) not a profound analysis of sabbatical economics, and I will write more about the general topic of sabbaticals in the near future, but for today, my main points are:

- We professors are lucky to have sabbaticals,
- even though many of us don't get paid a full salary for that year,
- but that's OK because we use the time well,
- providing economic and other benefits to our institutions, departments, research groups, and
- getting intellectually and psychically recharged so that we continue to do all aspects of our jobs as well as possible.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Great Peace

As many of my fellow bloggers know, we are constantly sent spam "comments" from people offering their services as dissertation writers, researchers, and editors. As my fellow bloggers also know, 99.9% of these enticing offers look something like this:

Great peace of fact about to done by one of my recent PhD search and explaining,information provided is also brilliant. [link to] Dissertation Introduction


well your Po$t is good and i really like it :). . .awesome WORK . . .KEEP SHARING. .;)[link to] Dissertation Editing Services

I can't say that I have never seen a thesis written like that (alas), but I can't decide if it makes me feel better or worse to think that someone might spend money for writing assistance that looks like that.

Maybe the guys who try to get their spam ads posted as blog comments aren't actually doing the dissertation writing or editing. Let's consider whether someone who writes well in the relevant language(s) could write/edit a scientific dissertation.

There was a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education by someone who clearly writes well and has considerable skills as a researcher. Ethical issues aside, that person no doubt provides value for the money, although none of the examples listed in the article involved writing about the results of scientific research performed by the person hiring the ghost-writer. It mostly seemed like the 'research' involved interpreting the results of literature searches for undergraduate and MS students; i.e., the kind of thing you can write by reading Wikipedia and a few other sources and pulling it all together if you put some thought and time into it.

This requires skills (thinking and writing), but can someone with no significant background in the sciences write a convincing document (dissertation, manuscript, proposal) involving original scientific research?

Some of my students have sought writing help from various on-campus resources or friends who are not scientists. If given a document that already contains the data, equations, jargon, citations, and so on but that needs help with the technical aspects of writing, certainly a technical writing expert can help improve the document if they are generally aware of the conventions of science writing. And such writing support can help a lot with fixing basic problems encountered by those who don't have a lot of experience writing in a particular language. I am all for technical writing assistance where needed.

But can such a person write a good Science dissertation introduction for someone else? Or a discussion? What about the abstract? I am skeptical that a non-expert could write a convincing intro or discussion, but maybe they could write a good abstract.

Or am I delusional about this?

Thursday, December 02, 2010

In the Course of Human Events

As long as universities continue to avoid taking the lead on making policies about family leave for graduate students and postdocs, it's going to matter what individual professors (PIs) think about such things. So, if you are a graduate student or postdoc who is concerned about work-family issues, presumably you would prefer to work with a professor who has a constructive attitude about such things.

How do you find out in advance which professors have which philosophy?

If you are a graduate student or postdoc who wants to work with a professor who will be accommodating (as much as possible) for "family events", such as the birth or adoption of a child, I don't think you can predict from the gender of the professor what their philosophy about such events will be. Whether an advisor is sympathetic to "family events" that distract their students/postdocs from their Research has nothing to do with gender.

I think that both male and female advisors can be more or less accommodating depending on their personality, life experiences, career stresses, funding situation, and mysterious factors no one can predict. It is not necessarily the case that female advisors will automatically be more "humane" about these situations; similarly, I do not believe (as some do) that female advisors are less understanding, especially if they are the dreaded single, bitter, and old FSP. And ditto for older male professors who don't know what it's like to have a wife with a career and/or who don't respect young male professors who want to spend time with their kids (and spouse). Such people exist, but there is no general rule about gender or generation that will reveal to you someone's likely advising philosophy.

Whether a professor is also a parent also isn't a good indicator of their advising philosophy re. advisees who start families. For example, advisors who are also parents may or may not be sympathetic to their advisees who become parents. In fact, I know some advisor/parents who are less understanding about work/life challenges because they are afflicted with the "I suffered, so you should too" syndrome. I, for one, don't want hear for the nth time the story about an intrepid female colleague (or a male colleague's wife) who went to a conference or taught a class or was back in the lab within minutes of giving birth. (I am exaggerating, but not much.) These are not likely to be people who will understand if someone needs to rebalance their time re. when they are in the office/lab vs. at home.

And of course there are many advisors (female and male; old and young; with and without kids), who are very sympathetic to the fact that some graduate students and postdocs want to start families during their graduate/postdoctoral years.

So how do you find out in advance which professors have which philosophy? I suppose you could ask potential advisors/PIs directly, but you might harm your chances of being accepted if you started asking about future research disruptions before you even start, so you might want to be cautious about this approach. If this is your #1 issue, though, then you might as well be direct so that everyone knows where everyone stands.

If the direct approach is not for you, you might be able to figure out a professor's track record with previous advisees, or at least try to figure out what a professor's general advising philosophy is. That's important information to know anyway, whether or not you are anticipating a "family event" during your graduate or postdoctoral program. Ask around, chat with current and former advisees, look at personal webpages etc.

Or perhaps readers have other general suggestions or personal anecdotes of the constructive, illustrative sort. Have any of you used direct or indirect methods to investigate the family-friendliness of a potential advisor/mentor?

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Last Ditch Effort

In the final run for tenure, should you submit to 'safe' (but less prestigious) publication venues so that you can get your publication quantity up, or should you go for more selective venues so that your publications have more 'prestige' (but gamble that they will be accepted)? This discussion is over at Scientopia.