Friday, February 28, 2014

Toxic Avoidance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 18, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Am I being a dinosaur about space?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Review Or Else

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Excuses Excuses

To those who read applications for academic positions of various sorts: Have you seen a recent increase in supplementary statements explaining possible shortcomings in an applicant's record? I saw a remarkable number this year, but that could just be a random event.
Over the years, I have seen a few, such as when a serious illness or other major life event affected an applicant's academic program or career progress. I am not talking about that sort of extreme event; I am referring to the more routine type of event and explanation, such as low grades or exam scores.

I am actually quite sympathetic to (slightly) imperfect records. A few years ago I wrote in a post about how I had an incomplete grade for a course taken during study abroad as an undergraduate. I was never able to figure out why I got the incomplete or how to make it up, and the "I" automatically changed to an "F". The "F" looked anomalous compared to the rest of my record and I don't recall explaining it in my graduate applications.

When I see these "let me explain my bad grade/score" statements, I sometimes muse about what I would have written had I supplied an explanation for my F. I hope I would have kept the explanation short, provided only the most relevant facts, and didn't insult others (as one recent applicant did to explain some of his F's -- he is actually smarter than the students who got A's because they were mindless sheep).

So: If you have seen "routine" excuse/explanation statements in applications recently, what do you think of them? How do you distinguish between a convincing explanation and whining? Do you know it when you see it? I suppose it depends, but any comments would be welcome.