Tuesday, December 30, 2008

SOP Fun, Continued

These quality entries to the Statement of Purpose Contest resemble many real ones that I have read. If these look anything like a real SOP that anyone is contemplating submitting with an application, I urge you to reconsider.

Thanks to all who submitted SOPs. I enjoyed reading them all.

We must know. We shall know.--- a mathematician, David Hilbert's epitaph

I know I want to know. I seek to know how we know what we know. I'll always be training myself in the hope that I can raise questions to which the answers can raise more questions than answers. For this cause, I choose to apply to your X program where my three favorites can be explored if accepted: relations between germline immortality and somatic aging, everything about the chromatin and the X animal system.

Math? Chemistry? Biology?

A childhood saturated with love, 6 years committed to playing the piano followed by violent adolescent years, upon retrospection of these, I became aware of the freedom and responsibility of choice early. I chose to spend most of the high school time teaching myself advanced math, chemistry and biology together at university level. This fun and challenging experience benefits me by making it second nature to relate things and by lightening the memorization later in college years, which enables my focusing on great experiments that lead to textbook knowledge: by the end of the freshman year, I spent hours reading prestigious periodicals with the question "what's next" in mind. However most importantly, having realized my comfort zones in math and chemistry, I found that my curiosity goes straight into biological questions.

Careful. Professional. Independent.

Transition from library to lab was first attempted thanks to Dr. X's support from Jan. 2007, when I began with my project proposal on Functions of ABCs in cell senescence in his lab. To investigate whether ABCs function consistently with the cell senescence mechanism of tumor suppression, several candidates with significant expression difference in young and senescent fibroblasts were identified by microarray. I started from cloning the candidate genes and overexpressed the ABCs using retroviral vector in human senescent model cells, void vector and seed region mutation as controls, and did phenotypic quantifications of both replicative and stress-induced cell senescence. During the first week in the lab, Dr. X told me to note and gradually form a good sense of the liquid surface positions in the tips commensurate to the volume pipetted, which helps train my hands to produce repeatable results. He also insists on our being professional and independent. I kept a copy of experiment record as detailed as possible (120+ pages till now) and I always avoided leaving halfway an experiment or counting on others although I had 40hrs+ classes per week. By careful plans I ensured that time for classes mostly fell into waiting time for experiments, by having a working cycle 6:00-8:00, 18:00-24:00 on weekdays and full-time on weekends and vacations. Independent thinking is greatly encouraged in our lab. By the time of qualification report I managed to address caveats in the first-hand experiment design and upon cloture I perceived deeper about the many layers of ABC regulation and could propose further experiments from perspectives of epigenetics and TF-ABC network. Actually I was the only student in our grade that finished the Undergrad Research Funded Project and the only one that was challenged for 30 minutes in the defense.

Big question. 95hrs/week hands-on. "not fully-employed".

The 14 months in Dr. X's lab inspires while the 10-week Summer Student Training Program at N institute pushes. 56 of us were selected from the more than 600 applicants nation-wide and upon arrival, Dr. Y *someone famous* asked us to raise BIG questions of current biology and propose research outlines to address them. This mental exercise saved me from a tendency to care too much about detailed techniques. For field work, I chose one lab doing X animal genetics to identify 'eat-me' signals on dying cells other than phosphatidylserine, since the X animal system, the engulfment-degradation question and understanding life as genetics are most unfamiliar to me. The 95hrs/week hands-on made me proficient in genetics and other approaches dealing with X animals; it also assured me that I don't hesitate leaving my comfort zone to learn something new and keep pushing as long as I have passion for the question. Besides, inspired by comparing 4 PIs' big pictures and projects they actually carry on when discussing with them our group's favorite big question, I decided to spend two months "not-fully-employed" reading intensively for brainstorming diverse topics as well as thinking up and jotting down projects to address them. Now I'm prepared to start my undergrad thesis either in Dr. Z's lab at T institute, Singapore on ABCs in neurodegenerative diseases or in Dr. X's lab working on TERT's role other than telomere elongation and ABC-X-Y cluster both at the same time.

Adolescent's brain. Germline immortality and somatic aging. Dr. A's lab

I think asking "what happens in an adolescent's brain" is to some extent the beginning of the ends of biological research proposed by Dr. Crick in his What Mad Pursuit: how does the zygote develops into a mature organism and the physiological basis of mental activities. On the meta-individual level, the link between germline immortality and somatic aging is of equal interest to me. For my Ph. D. training, I'd choose to address the second using the X animal system, for the convenient cross-links between each two of cell senescence, post-mitotic aging and germline immortality, and for taking the advantage of such a mature model system to achieve an all-around training. I found Dr. A's lab ideal both because of the first excitement when I searched PubMed for "X animal, telomerase" and the contacts we had later on. I also found several IGF-1 workshops, 6 groups working on aging and cancer, other X animal people focusing on chromatin in XXXX, U of C and the X Area X animal Lab Super Meeting of special attraction: rotations and exchanging ideas in future can all add sparks. With the full appreciation of the past time immersed in research besides an exceptional experience when I was tutoring senior citizens to play the piano and touched by their perseverance with the career they have keen interests and their sophistication as a scholar, it will be my honor if one day I can be fully engaged in the process of knowing by running my own lab (best to be at university for I had best mentors all my way and would love to identify myself as one of them). I believe XXXX provides the best training, training and contribution perfectly coordinated and an ideal.

When I ask "what is life", I understand it's a question that life asks me. When I am answering by making choices, I'm writing this in the hope to be admitted to XXXX.

Y. Yin


Science. I have often seen is as a lofty ambition when I was young, and never in my freshman year did I imagine I would be applying to graduate school in chemistry, yet here I am. I never imagined it because I saw myself as following the artistic tradition of my family; according to my grandmother, one of my ancestors was William Yeats, but she often has been wrong though. Nevertheless, I saw the potential for artistic expression in science and I after I fell in love with chemistry, I decided to join the discipline and unite the two worlds of science. My view of chemistry, and my desire to join your graduate program may be summarized by this poem that was written by my ancestor William Yeats.

"I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above"

This is a reference to the ivory tower of academia. I see my future in contributing to science and society through the discoveries that I will make.

"Those that I fight I do not hate
Those whom I guard I do not love"

Science is very impersonal and our successes in the laboratory, our scientific manuscripts and world-changing discoveries, are independent of being good or evil, or about doing science in the right country such as Iran or the USA. We have to keep that in mind and always think of not letting chemical progress get away too much from the society that it is supposed to serve.

"My country is Kiltartan Cross
My countrymen Kiltarta's poor"

Well, I'm not really sure what that line of the poem means since my grandparents were born here and we don't really talk much about the old country. So, let's move on to the next part.

"No likely end would bring them loss
Nor leave them happier than before"

I don't like this part of the poem either since I believe that chemistry has the potential to change lives, and if I succeed in your graduate program, I hope to change the lives of the less fortunate of our society. But like that Irish Airman, I also know that I'm ultimately doing this for myself and that I must find something that I am happy with myself. And that is chemistry.

"Nor law nor duty bade me fight
Nor public men nor cheering crowds
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds"

Exactly! I agree with my artistic ancestor there 100%. When they were saying on CNN about how this country needs more scientists and that we're losing the competition to China and India and innovation, I didn't really care. All the money was in business and I was young. It seemed that science jobs are just destined to be outsourced. But after I went into the undergraduate lab and set up my first Grignard reaction, I knew. I knew that I needed to go into the lab again and start setting up other reactions. Reactions that have never been done before. Discovering mechanisms and transformations that would take me to the clouds of scientific discovery.

"I balanced all brought all to mind
The years ahead seemed waste of breath
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life. This death."

Well, the poem ends pretty bleakly there, but there is a grain of truth to is if you substitute "chemical research in your institution" for "death". I have considered many other graduate programs and I balanced the pros and cons, and I looked at my life in the past. High school was easy for me and even though I planned to go into art history, I changed majors to chemistry in second year in university since I wanted a guaranteed higher income later in life. I was planning to get a secure degree and never challenge myself. My life, before starting graduate school can truly be called "a waste of breath". But also I showed resolve in switching majors to hard science and I will show resolve in becoming successful in your graduate program, so "chemical research in your institution" or "death", will truly be in balance with my previous commitment to overcoming adversity and pursuing goals.

I hope that you will seriously consider my application for graduate study in your chemistry program.


-Jonah Yeats (B.S.)

Monday, December 29, 2008

Yet More SOPs

Some applicants to grad programs go the route of being very very focused on a specific topic, and others go straight for the Big Questions. The Statement of Purpose entry below, from Patchi at My Middle Years, takes the latter route. Impressive.

Below this one is prime example of a groveling SOP, from Academic Crossroads.

I am applying for admittance into the _______ Graduate Program at University _________. My main interest is studying the origin of life and molecular evolution. You may be wondering why I'm applying for a physical sciences program instead of a biological sciences one, but I am convinced your program is the right one for me.

I have been interested in the origin and evolution of living things for many years and I chose my undergraduate biology department with particular care. My professors were quite knowledgeable, even though most classes were given by TAs (which were not that bad). However, when I expressed my interest in studying the origin of life I was informed that I needed a Noble Prize to be taken seriously. I was not discouraged by this information, and it has led me to apply to your program.

I am convinced that the scientific studies in your program are the kind of research that gets the people in Stockholm to reach for the phone. I would be especially interested in working with Dr. FSP, as her work in ________, __________, &_________ are particularly favourable to the Noble Prize. Not many women have been awarded the Noble Prize and I believe people are starting to notice. Tides will change and I need to be ahead of that wave.

As we celebrate Darwin's 200th birthday next year, I hope to be enrolled in your graduate program and on my way to the success I need to fulfil my dream. With a graduate degree from University _________ I am sure I will be making contributions to our knowledge on the origin of life before Darwin turns 250!


from Academic Crossroads:

"Meaningless! Meangingless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!" -Solomon in Ecclesiastes

With these words, Solomon (who is most often cited as the author of Ecclesiastes) announces the consequences of obtaining wisdom. Solomon is also credited with authoring the majority of the Proverbs. Therefore, I announce my application to the Biology Department at FSPU where I will conduct a systematic meta-analysis of all evolutionary biology work in order to offer support to fundamentalist Creation Science programs around the globe.

While I have absolutely no background in college-level biology, I have had a fascination with science since the womb. My lab skills are impeccable as I duplicated Mr. Wizard's experiments flawlessly in my kitchen by the third attempt. I still retain the knowledge that if you want to remove an ice cube from a water glass with a string, then it is best to position the string on the ice and sprinkle salt. My electronic set and LEGOs represent my favorite toys as I systematically followed the instruction to produce the desired result. I have also experimented with plant watering frequency extensively and found that plants watered less than once a month tend to die rather rapidly.

I developed an interest in my present research when I moved to the Bible Belt where people convinced me that evolution was a conspiracy theory advocated to advance the gay agenda. Knowing of my instrinic interest in science, people continually told me to study biology to provide sound apologetics for Creation. In college, I chose instead to study Literary Criticism because I cry at the sight of a caged animal but have been unable to find gainful employment outside of the retail sector and food service. I consider my employment history to represent God's judgement on my previous career path.

I desire to attend FSPU because of the presence of Extremely Famous Professor, a leader in evolutionary biology. By connecting within a Very Distinguished Department, I will be able to observe lab practice critically to detail the many limitations of the methods and errors in the data analysis. Moreover, I will have unparalleled access to EFP's publication record and data behind those publications allowing for a strong meta-analysis that will further accent the lab's methods and errors. With the results of this research, I can establish that like everything that has time to live, it is now time for evolutionary biology to die.

I sincerely think that I can make a strong contribution to the community at the University of ScienceWomen and look forward to hearing from the Department of Ecology soon.

Friday, December 26, 2008

More SOP

Here is another fine entry to the Statement of Purpose (SOP) contest. I particulary like the first line of this one from Ambivalent Academic.

I have a passing interest in joining the Chemistry Graduate Program at FSP University. Most of my previous scientific experience is centered around biomedical research, including 4.5 years working toward a Ph.D. in Sub-Sub-Field of Biology. I have quit that program, in part because I was inadequately compensated for the work I was putting in, but mostly because I have come the realization that there are far more interesting and important questions to be answered by science. Hence my interest in your program.

A wise man (don't ask me whom, you don't know him) once told me:

"Most of the world's problems are ethanol-soluble...and those that are not you aren't likely to solve anyway, so the best course of action in either case is to go get pissed."

This is really the crux of what scientific endeavors are all about. One could not do better than solving the world's problems, and that is precisely what I propose to do as a graduate student in FSPU's Chemistry Department. Or rather, I propose to dissolve the world's problems in ethanol. During the course of my preliminary work on this problem, I have discovered that the most efficient and effective means of dissolving problems in ethanol is to directly imbibe solutions of ethanol as soon as a problem presents itself. I have found that problems go into solution more rapidly at a timepoint just after their inception, with the rate of dissolution approaching a more constant value as the problem matures. This work is fairly preliminary at this point, but I am confident that further problems inherent to graduate studies will provide ample opportunity to expand this data set.

In addition, I propose to examine the effects of different concentrations of ethanol solvent on the rate of dissolution of different sized problems. I have extensive experimental plans for this proposal, including careful titration of the problems in question into specific ethanol solutions. Furthermore, I propose to examine the ethanol production mechanism as it relates to efficacy of problem dissoultion. Specifically, I am interested in whether distilled ethanol solutions are more or less effective than fermented-only ethanol solutions in dissolving problems both large and small.

I think that you will agree with me on the importance of this research. Think of how much humanity would benefit from a specifically defined set of parameters for dissolving problems! I have attached several references (including my previous Graduate Advisor for the Ph.D. program I have recently left), all of whom can vouch not only for my long-standing interest in this project, but also for the diligence with which I conducted preliminary research for this project, even while attempting to complete my thesis work in Sub-Sub-Field of Biology. My references and previous efforts in this research speak for my ability to continue to excel in this field. I am only in need of the appropriate environment in which to conduct this research.

Given the fine history of the FSPU Chemistry Department and it's reputation for beating graduate students senseless (both literally and figuratively), thereby providing them with myriad problems upon which I may conduct my studies, I cannot think of a better program in which to pursue my research.

Thank you for your consideration of this application - Cheers!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

SOP Contest Entry #1

The following entry, submitted to the FSP Statement of Purpose (SOP) contest, is one of many fine entries that I will be posting over the next few days (if internet connections continue to be reasonably good from my remote location). The one posted today is by Naomi L. Ward and is particularly awesome because it has the following essential awesome elements: (1) an absurd quotation that is supposed to be deep and that is used to explain the applicant's reason for being interested in Science (or whatever); (2) obsequious statements and adjectives ('prestigious'); (3) mention of childhood (e.g. an important elementary school teacher; a relative etc.; special bonus points for mentioning a science fair); (4) mention of famous scientists (Albert Einstein is of course a particularly special choice); (5) unintentional mention of reasons why the applicant might actually be a loser as a person and a scientist; and (6) random cultural references (Vivaldi?)(extra bonus points for Leonard Nimoy).


"I believe in everything until it's disproved. So I believe in fairies, the myths, dragons. It all exists, even if it's in your mind. Who's to say that dreams and nightmares aren't as real as the here and now?
-----John Lennon

I am open-minded, just like John Lennon, and really want to explore some of these so-called "myths" by pursuing a graduate degree at your prestigious institution. I believe your joint Anthropology-Herpetology graduate program will nourish my efforts to prove the fairy-dragon connection. This hypothesis has been cherished by me since 2nd grade, when Mrs Lewis first introduced me to the different kinds of dragons and caused me to wonder "Where does all this diversity come from, and why do fairies and dragons appear in the same story books?"

My first experiments on this topic earned me a "Moderately Commended" at our school science fair, and really encouraged me to broaden my views. This led me to experiments in plants. As Albert Einstein said "A table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin; what else does a man need to be happy?". The great man's insight sparked my curiosity and my next science fair project (in high school) was about whether gooseberries would ripen quicker if I got my little brother Ernie to play Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" to them. Unfortunately, I didn't get any awards for this project but this disappointment has taught me how to overcome great obstacles and persist in my scientific career. As somebody said, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger".

My most recent work experience has been great preparation for graduate school. I wasn't so good at making the cappuccinos so I was promoted to stacking boxes of supplies in the back of the shop, which has really improved my quantitative and spatial skills. I had to work a lot of hours at this job so my grades weren't so good for the last couple of semesters, but I've always believed that you can't really see the potential in someone based on their grades alone. My greatest role model in science, Leonard Nimoy, didn't make his Hollywood debut until age 20, so he was clearly a late bloomer just like me.

Naomi Ward

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Not Great Expectations

The FSP Statement of Purpose Awards Committee is still conferring, but so far we can state with confidence that many of the best (= worst) involve mention of childhood and emphatic statements about how great the applicant is.

The topic of today's post involves yet another of my experiences as a science professor who is also a student in an undergraduate language course.

In the 3rd year language class I've been taking, we had an in-class written final exam and an oral final exam, and those went pretty well, I think. This term, we also spent one class per week studying a related form of the language, and for that we had a separate, take-home final exam involving a translation exercise. We studied Language 2 (the related language) entirely in Language 1, so although Language 2 twisted my brain in strange and difficult ways, studying it has helped me with Language 1.

It sort of comforts me that the native Language 1 speakers in the class also struggled with Language 2, although I know I would have an easier time with 2 if I were fluent in 1.

Anyway, I spent many many hours on the take-home final exam, translating Language 2 into Language 1. I didn't count, but it was at least 8-10 hours over the course of a week. It was difficult, but in the end I was pleased with the result, although I know my translations are imperfect.

Before I turned in my translations, the professor said to me "I know this exam will be difficult for you, but don't worry, I am not expecting that you will do very well. Just do as much as you can."

It is always fascinating for me to have these interactions in which I am a student having a conversation with a professor about a topic (e.g. exam performance) that I might have with my own students. In this case, I know the professor was being kind and trying to relieve any stress I might have about the exam. She was saying "Don't worry", but what I heard was "I have low expectations for you."

I don't particularly like being the focus of low expectations, and I hope she will be pleasantly surprised when she reads my translations. Then maybe she will have medium-low expectations or maybe intermediate expectations for me. Either would be better than low expectations.

I did not directly ask the professor "So, how do you think I'll do on the exam?" -- she volunteered the information. When a student asks me how I think they'll do on an exam in a class I'm teaching, it can be difficult to get the response right in terms of not being too encouraging ("If you've really learned the material, you should be able to do fine on the final exam") yet not unreasonably optimistic ("Don't worry, it's easy and you'll do fine!") or too negative ("Well, you've failed all the other exams, so it doesn't look good for this one, does it?").

It's better not to make a guess about the difficulty/outcome of an exam except as is necessary to provide motivation to a student who is wondering if they need to study. When I am confronted with questions about exam difficulty/outcome, I prefer to answer instead by asking the students if they have anything they want to ask or discuss about the course material.

What I have learned from my recent conversation with my language professor is that telling a student, however indirectly, that you have low expectations for them may not actually be as comforting as the statement is intended to be.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Why DrugMonkey is Sort of Wrong

Note: Comment moderation and posting will be sporadic until early January, as the FSP Family is now on its annual FSP-Refuses-To-Spend-Her-Birthday-At-Home trip to an interesting destination. My plan is to post some of the more awesome entries of the Statement of Purpose Contest throughout the next week or so, as internet connectivity and time permit and after I've had a change to peruse the submissions more, but I have a few other topics -- e.g. today's -- to cover first.

Also note: For those of you with relatives and friends who have Christmastime birthdays, you may want to consult my posts from 2006 and 2007 on this important topic. I continue to rule Google for the relevant keywords, so am clearly the definitive source of information.

OK, now on to the main topic of the day: Why DrugMonkey is Sort of Wrong about whether junior faculty should 'go slow' in their first few years.

Actually, he's not wrong at all. It is a fact that tenure-track faculty need to do proposal-writing as if it were an extreme sport. And when I was told to go slow and not be "too ambitious" as an assistant professor, I was offended and ignored the advice.

That's the way it is now and has been for a while, but what I'm wondering is whether it has to be that way. What about those who can't or for some reason don't write swarms of proposals and try to acquire acres of loot and lucre? Are they by definition mediocre faculty who would become deadwood if awarded tenure? Should we write them off as unable to fulfill the requirements of a faculty position at a research university, or is it possible for someone to take a more moderate approach and not be deemed a failure?

Last week I wondered what the perfect number of proposals and grants is (for a science professor at a research university). I don't think anyone would argue that the number for most of us should be high, but I wonder if this must always be so.

Is it possible that we could be more flexible in terms of what is acceptable for the pace and size at which early career faculty build their research programs and not sacrifice our high standards (whatever those are)? There have been many times in the past 10+ years that I have encountered grad students and postdocs who leave science and/or academia in large part because they don't want to be continually trying to acquire grants that are getting more difficult to obtain. Maybe we should bid these people a fond farewell and conclude that if they can't take the heat etc. etc., but my impression is that many of these departing people are women.

This was in the back of my mind when I wrote the post last week. My gut reaction is to advise early career faculty to write as many excellent proposals as they can and rapidly build an impressive research group that tackles big interesting questions, but I wonder whether we should reconsider this approach. Is academia losing some otherwise talented people by requiring this level of activity from the very beginning?

Perhaps an early career professor (female or male) -- for example, one who has young children -- needs to start slow with a grant or two and a few grad students. If they are doing well with that and seem to be on an upward trajectory, even if one with a less-steep slope than that of we monomaniacs who worked 24/7 and ate take-out pad thai every night for the first 5 years of our tenure-track position, is that person nevertheless an unambitious failure who should be culled from the academic herd?

There is no reason why women can't write a swarm of proposals and get grants and build a research program just like the men do. If there were sufficient numbers of women who wanted to do this and who had supportive partners who helped with child-care and other family activities, perhaps we'd be all set. But we're clearly not all set.

My young colleague who is struggling right now is male, but he has young children and is having trouble balancing family and work. If he can't handle another proposal right now because it would harm his family in a way that is unacceptable to him, should we really advise him to do the proposal anyway? Is his inability to submit the perfect number of proposals a sign that he's not going to make it in academia and won't get tenure, or is it a sign that the culture isn't as family-friendly as it needs to be, or something else?

My daughter was born before I got tenure and I've done fine as a professor at a research university, but if I say "I did it and you can too" to an early career professor, am I being an inspiring role model or am I saying that you have to be a clone of me to succeed? The former has not shown itself to be particularly effective, and the latter seems kind of grim. Are there other options?

Whether I am a doyenne or a grand-dame (DrugMo - can we go back to when you called me a curmudgeon? I think I liked that better), I am also an anti-role model for those who see how much time I spend on work and decide they don't want to be like me. Again, does that mean that these people can't or shouldn't be science professors at a research university? The traditional answer would be yes. Those who want to spend an insane amount of time writing proposals and papers and managing a research group will be the science professors at the big research universities and those who want a different balance between work and the rest of life will go elsewhere.

I suppose that system works in a way, but is this one of the reasons why the women faculty in the physical sciences, math, and engineering at my university can all go out to lunch together and sit around a medium-sized table, and why it doesn't take much time to learn the names of the new women faculty each year? In fact, I've already met both of the new ones this year.

Any change that comes will likely be slow, so in the meantime, if you want to get tenure in a science department at a research university, listen to DrugMonkey.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Delayed Admiration

Reminder: Tomorrow is the deadline for the FSP Statement of Purpose Contest. Many of the submissions thus far have been quite terrifying.

A colleague of mine who got an MS degree ~ 20 years ago and went on to get a PhD at a different institution, then an NSF postdoctoral fellowship and a faculty position in which he has excelled, becoming widely known and respected in his field, a recipient of numerous grants, a perpetual invited speaker at international conferences and the holder of an endowed chair, recently had a conversation with his long-retired MS advisor.

The advisor said that he had been reading some publications by my colleague, including an early paper related to the MS research, and thought they were really good. He said "I underestimated you". He said that way back when, he actually didn't think much of the research his former student did, but now that he has looked at it more closely, he is impressed.

In this case the student's work was apparently good and the advisor didn't recognize it at the time. Another common scenario is that the work isn't really all that great (says me). It is the rare person who, in their first or second year of graduate school, demonstrates in a compelling and unambiguous way the great scientist that they will eventually be.

I have had students who seemed like they were going to be superstars but who flamed out, and others who were slow and steady and ramped up to excellence over the course of years. Did I overestimate the former and underestimate the latter? Maybe, but whether I was right or wrong about any of it, do I want or need to report on my current perception of the gap between their student-science and their current-science, now or ever?

Students by definition are in learning mode. Professors are too, and only become wise and all-knowing the moment tenure is awarded.

Anyway.. I personally can't imagine saying "I underestimated you" to a former student because

1 - Is there any point to saying this?
2 - It's not actually a very nice thing to say.

Maybe the ex-advisor thought he was complimenting his former student and it was his grudging, socially-inept way of saying a nice-ish thing, but I think it takes a certain level of egomania for someone to think an admission-of-error statement like "I underestimated you" is a compliment.

My colleague was bemused by this conversation, not annoyed or upset, but even so, I think a more straightforward "I'm proud of you" would be a better way to cover some of the same ground. Perhaps I should add this point to FSP's Guide to Academic Etiquette.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Perfect Number of Grants

Yesterday I mentioned somewhat at random the numbers 3 or 5 grant proposals and 8 grad students. I picked these numbers without giving them a lot of thought, but with the intention of describing a moderate-to-large research group size in my field, but not an extraordinarily large one.

I was trying to be somewhat moderate and balanced in my discussion of what to advise an early career science professor, but at the same time admitting that I have never been moderate or balanced myself. I think the advising philosophy of "You should be just like me" is probably not a good one in general, at least in this case, even if the overall concept of getting as many grants as you can sounds like a good thing for an early career science professor to do.

I have been PI on 3 ± 1 grants (+ others as co-PI) at a time and have advised 8 ± 2 students/year for most of the 21st century, but I have only managed this by extensive and varied collaboration and co-advising. It would be difficult (and maybe impossible) for me to maintain these numbers over time as a single investigator and sole advisor.

There are various ways that those desiring a large-ish research program or group can build one, even when proposal funding rates are << 20%.

- If you have something (a lab, some unusual expertise, brilliant cats) that other colleagues want or need, you may get asked to be a PI on collaborative proposals with colleagues at other institutions or a co-PI on proposals by your immediate colleagues. Unless I think a project is really boring, stupid, or insane in a not-good way, I typically say yes to invitations to collaborate. I also say no if I feel that my participation would harm the project owing to my already having quite a lot of funding; this has only happened once though, and I was kind of using it as an excuse to say no to a friend.

- If you have brilliant ideas but require collaboration with others to do a project, you can ask other colleagues to be a collaborative PI or a co-PI with you, and they will of course say yes.

- If you are at least somewhat multi-inter-cis-transdisciplinary, you can apply to more than one funding agency and/or to more than one program within a funding agency.

- Your university may have small grants for various species of professor or various types of research; these are well worth acquiring if possible because this is a way to get funding for the all-important preliminary data needed to get a big proposal funded.

I also stretch grad student funding by having students do a mix of RA and TA, with stipends supplemented by whatever fellowships are available from the department, university, or professional societies.

I have worked hard to build my research program, but I have also been very fortunate and I am always aware that someday I might have fewer (or no) grants. If that ever happens, I hope that I at least have some warning and can keep my students supported until they graduate. Then I suppose I will re-'group' at a smaller scale and work with whatever funding I can muster, perhaps by exploring other means of acquiring research funds. Perhaps I will start buying lottery tickets, or perhaps I will try to sell more FSP T-shirts..

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Perfect Number of Proposals

A colleague recently asked me to participate in a proposal. I'm happy to do so, even though I know that I was his second choice. This colleague originally asked an assistant professor who ended up declining because he didn't feel he could manage working on two proposals within a few months of each other. I respect the assistant professor's decision, as I suspect that there are some complicated things going on in his life right now. He made his decision based on what he felt he could and could not handle in the near future in terms of proposal-writing, and he may well have made the right decision.

Or not. He made his decision without talking to his official faculty mentor. That's fine, but it raises the general question: How do you decide what you can and should take on in terms of proposals and projects early in your career? How do you balance what you want to do vs. what you should do vs. what you can realistically do?

This episode brought back memories of my early decisions about how many proposals to submit as an assistant professor. My first NSF grant, lo these many years ago, was a modest one that helped me get my research program started but that wasn't enough to build a research group and tackle some of the big ideas I wanted to pursue.

My second grant allowed me to do some of this, and that was great, but when the grant was awarded, the relevant program officer (PO) told me not to submit any more proposals for most of the duration of my grant and that I should do a good job with this one grant and not be 'too ambitious' early on.

At the time, I was very annoyed by that. The PO seemed to think that the best way for me get started was by proving myself one project at a time, but I felt I should and could do more. If it had been the general practice to give a young investigator one big grant for the first 4-5 years, even if it was a CAREER award, that would have been fine, but that wasn't the situation at the time.

It's not as if I wanted to write 17 proposals, or even 4 or 5. And I wasn't planning on hurling vast numbers of proposals at NSF in the hopes that one or more would be funded. I had some very specific ideas about what research I wanted to do, why I wanted to do it, and how I was going to do it.

I was impatient. I didn't want to wait 4 years to submit another proposal, and I wanted to advise more than 1-2 grad students at a time. So I ignored the well-meaning program director's advice, submitted proposals to other programs, sought other sources of funding, developed collaborations, and built my research program.

I have no regrets about that, even though I can now appreciate that I wasn't being patronized by the program officer, I was being mentored.

But I still wonder: do we have to be so cautious? The practical short answer is yes, in part because funding for basic science research is limited and not everyone is going to get as many grants as they would like. For the sake of discussion, though, I'm going to ignore funding budget constraints. In this discussion, the only issue is how to advise early career faculty about what the optimal number of proposals/projects is, and whether early career faculty should be advised to go slow and not be 'too ambitious'.

I can see how it would be bad advice to say to an early career person: Sure, go ahead, write 3 or 5 grant proposals this year and take on 8 grad students, sink or swim, good luck. And it is perhaps rare for a mentor (a program officer or a faculty colleague) to know enough about their mentee to gauge how much of a research program they can reasonably manage and sustain in the first few years of their career.

Perhaps it is therefore better to err on the side of caution and advise a gradual building of a research program. Along with preparing classes for the first time and figuring out how much service work to take on, not to mention having a life outside of work, we can keep plenty busy even with one research project and a couple of graduate students.

Even so, if a young colleague wanted to try to do more, I would not discourage them unless I had specific reason -- based on their record, not on a one-size-fits-all philosophy -- to counsel caution.

It would be nice if there were an equation that would calculate the Perfect Proposal Number for us, based on all the relevant variables involving work and life. Lacking such an equation, perhaps the best thing that assistant professors like my young colleague can do is to talk with their mentors and discuss the issue. The mentor might not give the best advice, and maybe the advice will be (and should be) ignored, but perhaps the discussion itself can put the issue into better focus for all concerned.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

More Diverse Award Issues

When confronted with a male-dominated list of nominees for an award for research excellence, I am troubled if the imbalance is significantly greater than the male : female ratio of faculty in the relevant academic disciplines. For example, if the % of female nominees is less than half the % of female faculty who are eligible for the award, I would like to know why.

Are more male faculty meeting the criteria for eligibility, and if so, why? Or are more male faculty being nominated for other reasons; and if so, what are these reasons?

And in the nominating letters for the few female candidates, why do some nominators (typically a department chair or other senior faculty colleague) mention all the mentoring a female professor has received, but this is never mentioned for male faculty? If an award is for research excellence, why is it even relevant to mention extensive mentoring?

Perhaps the departments that provide extensive mentoring of assistant professors are proud of this, but mentioning mentoring for female nominees but not for male ones undermines the nominations of female faculty. There is nothing to be ashamed of in being mentored, but if it is only described in the nomination letters of women faculty, this implies that the women needed mentoring but the men didn't or that the women attained research excellence with lots of help but the men didn't need help.

And then, in the midst of my being troubled by some of these issues, a different diversity issue arose: An extraordinarily talented male science professor (MSP) was passed over for an award because his letter writers were not diverse. That is, the 10-12 letters saying that this guy was the most awesome scientist in his field were all from men. I think it is sad that there aren't (m)any senior women of sufficient stature (i.e. National Academy members) who could comment on the excellence of this MSP, but should he be denied a significant award because of this?

These two cases are related. The first case -- the lack of women nominees -- indicates a systemic problem in recognizing the research excellence of women faculty, and the second -- the lack of women letter writers -- is a side effect of the lack of women at senior levels. The first is a serious problem because it directly impacts the career advancement of many women faculty. The second is unfair to the MSP involved, but he is already a successful and highly respected scientist, so the serious problem isn't so much that he is at a disadvantage because of a situation for which he is not individually responsible, but that the situation exists at all.

Perhaps if we can solve the first problem, the second one will not arise and a random collection of reference letters from the top researchers in any particular field will consist of some men and some women. I think the MSP in question deserves to get an excellent award even if there are no women peer scientists who can support the nomination, but, in the hopes that something good could come of this situation, perhaps the first problem will be more likely to be solved if more men feel that they personally are being harmed by a lack of women at all levels of seniority in the sciences.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Award Angst

** Reminder: The deadline for the Statement of Purpose Essay Contest approacheth: Saturday, 20 December 2008 **

'Tis also the season to consider the subject of award nominations and the bizarre process of nominating and evaluating faculty for awards that recognize outstanding work in the various components of a professorial job (research, teaching, service). In fact, 'tis almost always the season, as there are many such awards, but right now this is on my mind because I have recently been directly or indirectly involved in at least 4 different award-related efforts.

Some academic awards are just nice pats on the back and allow you to add another line to your CV with the name of some obscure award that won't impress your mother because it isn't the one award she's ever heard of for scientists. Others have real significance for your career, particularly those that come with unrestricted research funds or that increase your visibility in your field.

A few issues related to awards and the evaluation process are troubling me. At the moment, my plan is to devote 2 ± 1 blog pots to discussing various topics related to ethics and diversity in the nominating, evaluating, and awarding of awards. For example:

What do you do if you are on an awards committee and have a routine conflict of interest with an award nominee and so cannot vote or comment on the nomination, but you have 'inside' information that would probably eliminate this person from consideration if the information were shared with the rest of the committee?

Do you honor the restrictions of the conflict of interest and say nothing or do you speak out to prevent a grave injustice? Does the answer depend on the nature of the inside information or does the conflict of interest prevent intervention in all cases?

Presumably the information is relevant to the professional activity for which the award would be awarded. For example, someone can get an award for outstanding research or teaching even if they steal candy from babies, refuse to help blind old ladies cross the street, and leave anonymous obscene comments on blogs. Unpleasant but legal behavior is not relevant and should not be considered, though there are perhaps extreme examples of non-work related activities that might make someone unsuitable for a professional award. In those cases, though, a person may be less likely to be nominated for an award.

What if the inside information involves knowledge of false statements in the nomination file? Other nominees might also have false statements in their nomination files but these would only be detected if another awards committee member knew those nominees well. Is the imbalance in level of information about nominees sufficient reason to honor the conflict of interest and overlook false statements (a.k.a. lies) or should lies be revealed if they are known?

Does it matter what the award is? For example, I was once discussing a particular situation with my husband, and he was disgusted by the very existence of a certain nomination and the problematic aspects of it, but he concluded "Who cares if Professor X does get some award?" until he asked what the award was. When I told him his response changed to "Oh, if it's that award, you need to say something."

His other response was "But be careful. You don't want to appear to be a vindictive back-biting hysteric from a dysfunctional academic unit populated by frauds when it's really just this one person who should never have been nominated."


Friday, December 12, 2008

Answer Key

It is both heart-warming and disturbing that so many of you are so cynical. I refer of course to the results of the pop quiz on Tuesday, in which I asked readers to guess which listed item was not a real criterion for a physical science course to be approved as a general education requirement.

I must confess that the quiz was a bit of a trick question because I took information from several universities and melded and merged and modified a bit, but without changing the core of the various criteria I found.. with one exception that I modified a bit more than the others.

Perhaps the most deeply cynical among you will be gladdened to know that #1 (The course must deepen a student's understanding of how physical phenomena involving non-living matter and processes can be investigated by the scientific method through the development of hypotheses that can be tested by observation or experiment) is a real criterion at some universities.

Whatever joy you may find in this knowledge may, however, be destroyed when you learn that the active learning criterion (#3) was not fabricated.

And it will likely not surprise you, given the rant at the beginning of Tuesday's post, that #4 is real (Phenomena to be investigated must explicitly involve the interactions of humans with the physical world and its non-living constituents).

I really wish I could tell you that #5 and #6 were made up. I think #5 is weird (The course must explore the limitations of science and scientists, and how these limitations impact public policy issues of regional or global significance). It could be fairly harmless, or it could be 'code' for requiring science professors to reveal to students to that scientists don't know everything.. or at least, that they don't know everything about Certain Topics.

I despise criterion #6: Students in this course must learn that scientific problems can only be successfully solved within the context of the ethics of a particular society. It pains me that someone somewhere on some committee really believes that and thinks it is a sane and appropriate criterion for any course at any university.

Although criterion #2 may exist at some university beyond the scope of my limited research into this topic, I did in fact make it up: Physical phenomena to be investigated must be of major significance. Highly specialized topics of primary interest only to scientists are unlikely to be approved.

It sounds like it could be real, though, doesn't it? I would not be too disturbed if a committee somewhere had concerns about professors blathering on about their obscure research specialty (although I am quite sure that almost never occurs in general ed science classes), especially since one can debate the concept of 'major significance'. Innocuous fake criterion #2, however, pales in comparison to some of the evil criteria further down the list.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Help Full

In the comments on yesterday's post, there were some excellent suggestions of ways to email a potential advisor about getting together at a conference.

I can of course speak only for myself in terms of what I would like to see in an email of this kind; it's possible that other, nicer professors would be happy just to see a student (however naive) showing interest, and other, crankier professors would not want to be emailed at all.

For me, the best approach is simple and direct. See examples below; brackets indicate optional text.

[Dear] FSP,

[Brief first sentence, if necessary, explaining who you are.] I will be at the Z conference next month and would like to meet with you if possible to discuss my [possible] application to your grad program.

I will be giving a talk/poster at DAY/TIME. Would it be possible for us to meet at/after that?

Serious Science Student

or this:

[Dear] FSP,

[Intro sentence if necessary, as above.] I will be at the Z conference next month and saw that you are giving a talk/poster on [topic]. I'm very interested in this topic and, if possible, would like to meet with you at the conference and discuss graduate/postdoctoral research opportunities. [Mention possible days/times, especially if you are also giving a presentation, or ask if there is a good time to meet].

Serious Science Person

I like short email messages that provide the essential information and/or ask the most essential questions.

Potential advisors are not (all) going to examine your email in great detail for hints of laziness and instability. Even so, you don't want your email to give the wrong impression, so it would be best to avoid the following:

(1) Do not ask for information you can easily find out yourself, e.g.: asking "When is your talk/poster?" to a potential advisor.

(2) Do not assume that you will meet; ask first. I have had students write to me and say "I'm going to find you immediately following your talk in the X session". The difference might seem subtle, but it would be better to write and ask "Do you have time to talk after the X session?".

(3) Don't ask for personal information. I realize that professors can be elusive and, even with a prior appointment, it can be difficult to separate an individual professor from the conference herd, but I don't like it when appointment-seeking-students write to me and ask me where I'm staying at the conference, what my cell phone number is etc. I'm happy to set up an appointment to meet during the conference, but I don't want to be stalked.

I suspect that a more common problem, however, is that some students are too timid to approach a professor for a conversation. The best way to deal with this is to send a pre-conference email, either to set up an appointment or just to announce your existence. It is mutually beneficial for prospective students and advisors to meet, so as long as the email is not obnoxious, this is an excellent way to make sure you both have that opportunity.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Help Less

An email I received before a conference this fall, from a student who has discussed applying to graduate school at MyU to work with me:

Dear FSP, I will be attending the conference on Thursday and Friday. Please let me know if you have a presentation on either day, and I will certainly stop by.

HelpLess Student

Isn't the Younger Generation supposed to be so totally wired and networked and connected that they know that they can find information about anything online? Is this email a proverbial red flag that this student will not thrive in a graduate program requiring creativity, energy, and independence? Or should one not read too much into a casual email that may just have been intended to say something like "I'll be at the conference and hope to see you there too", kind of like a Facebook "What are you doing right now?" news flash thing?

At the moment, my opinion is rather firmly entrenched in the former scenario, but perhaps I could be convinced otherwise by an extremely awesome Statement of Purpose.

Note: In the near future, an answer key will be posted to the question at the end of yesterday's post. In the meantime, let me just say that I am disappointed in many of you and hope that you will do better on the final exam.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Moving Target

At many institutions of higher education, course enrollments rise and fall depending on whether they satisfy a REQUIREMENT imposed by the university and/or college (or other university sub-unit) and/or department (for a major). The only way to get significant enrollment in most science courses for non-majors is if the course satisfies a science-for-non-scientists kind of requirement.

I am sort of on board with this 'liberal arts' philosophy of American higher education and think it is a good thing if undergraduates take a broad range of classes in the sciences and non-sciences. I say this recognizing that I am being hypocritical, as I specifically chose to attend an undergraduate college that lacked any requirements beyond those for the major. I took a wide range of courses, but I didn't want to be made to do this.

Anyway, despite being generally positive about these requirements, what I am not so positive about is the fact that the criteria are constantly changing for courses to satisfy these requirements.

One of my courses is specifically intended for students without any particular background or strong interest in Science, but to get it approved as fulfilling one of these requirements has involved significant effort on a regular basis. It seems like every other year or so I have to re-justify my course and describe in terrifying detail how and why my course deserves to be a requirement-fulfilling science course for non-scientists.

And every time a new set of criteria is rolled out, the list of criteria gets longer and weirder. And that's in addition to the ever-expanding need to explain how student learning outcomes will be assessed.

Do the criteria keep changing because there is a committee tasked with this task and they feel an urgent need to have an outcome, so they keep changing things? With all due respect to the hard-working and dedicated faculty and administrators who serve on these committees, are these requirements so abused that this level of scrutiny and frequency of course justification is needed?

During my recent travels to other universities, other professors have mentioned their own travails with the exact same issue, suggesting that it may be a rather common experience.

A frequent complaint by my Science colleagues is that some universities require that science classes for non-scientists discuss the relationship of humans to the science topic in order for the science class to fulfill a general science requirement. This is a complicated issue. I surmise that the intention is that Science courses be made 'relevant' to undergraduate humans, and I can understand that, but it's not difficult to think of some courses that don't directly involve human activities but that nevertheless concern significant and interesting topics for non-science students. Should these courses be excluded from general ed requirements because they don't involve humans?

If the science-human connection is allowed to be somewhat indirect (e.g. Humans live in the universe so any course that involves a topic related to something in the universe is relevant to humans), any science class that is taught at the appropriate level can fulfill the general ed criteria. It's when the criteria are very detailed that some courses become difficult or impossible to justify as general ed requirements. Maybe that's a good thing and maybe it's not.

In the early days of justifying a science class to fill a general-ed requirement, it was easy to address the human-science criterion by saying something simple like "Science 101 includes discussion of the relationship of Science to humans and human society". To most of us scientists, it is obvious that understanding the physics, chemistry, and biology of the planet and beyond is important for life, and it's not too difficult for most of us to make connections to 'real life' as the occasion arises during an intro level course.

As scrutiny of such courses intensified, this type of justification had to be more elaborate and specific, e.g. "Science 101 includes discussion of the following topics that relate to how Science impacts human society and the daily lives of all people on this planet: [LIST]". This is easier for some sciences than for others, but for most it's not so difficult to come up with some examples of topics we teach anyway.

Today, however, as we approach the end of the first decade of the 21st century, we physical scientists must meet greater challenges to have our courses approved for the non-science masses, even as it becomes ever more important for non-scientists to understand some Science.

To explore this issue further and to show that I am very concerned about Blog Reader Learning Outcomes, I will provide you with an active learning exercise/assessment survey (cleverly disguised as a multiple-choice question), based on info compiled from various colleagues at major US universities:

Which of the following is NOT a real criterion for a physical science course to be approved as a general ed requirement for non-science majors?

1. The course must deepen a student's understanding of how physical phenomena involving non-living matter and processes can be investigated by the scientific method through the development of hypotheses that can be tested by observation or experiment.

2. Physical phenomena to be investigated must be of major significance. Highly specialized topics of primary interest only to scientists are unlikely to be approved.

3. The course must involve an active learning component that helps students understand how physical phenomena can be elucidated in terms of basic principles recognized by scientists.

4. Phenomena to be investigated must explicitly involve the interactions of humans with the physical world and its non-living constituents.

5. The course must explore the limitations of science and scientists, and how these limitations impact public policy issues of regional or global significance.

6. Students in this course must learn that scientific problems can only be successfully solved within the context of the ethics of a particular society.

This is an open book test, but you must do your own work and turn off your iPod while choosing your answer. Tests will be graded at the professor's leisure and returned during the one class you skip this term. Results will be curved in such a way that everyone will be happy with their score.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Statement of Purpose Essay Contest

Are you a professor who wants to recapture your youth? A postdoc who would like to make a fresh start? A grad student who already regrets putting that Einstein quote at the top of the statement of purpose you submitted with your application to the grad program? You are in luck because now you are being given a second chance.

Announcing the first ever FSP Statement of Purpose Contest. Rules and information are as follows:

In the spirit of other literary contests that seek to emulate a particular author or style -- e.g. the Imitation Hemingway contest -- a Statement of Purpose (SOP) submitted to the FSP Statement of Purpose Contest should not be a sincere attempt* at a SOP. It should instead make mockery (gentle or savage) of SOPs, yet capture the essence of the genre. See a sample essay here.

Limit: Not too long.

Deadline: 20 December 2008, at no particular time; as long as it is still 20 December somewhere in the world, entries will be accepted. Late entries may be accepted if you beg and you have a really really good excuse, but probably not.

Prizes: Fame, respect, adulation, and perhaps even an FSP graph paper T-shirt (with or without the logo); winning entries will be posted, and maybe some losing entries too.

You may enter the contest as often as you wish because how would I know otherwise? Entries will be judged by a learned panel consisting of FSP and one or two highly caffeinated colleagues.

How to enter the contest: You can send me your SOP by email (see address in profile at right) or in a comment to this post. If you send me email, do not send an attachment! I realize that this eliminates some spectacular formatting possibilities, but many SOPS these days are submitted online by cutting/pasting into text boxes, and I would like to emulate that part of the experience as realistically as possible.

* To those of you who have sent me real SOPs to read in the past few months, I am sorry but I cannot give you feedback. I hope you can all find real people to read them and give you comments.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Timely Suggestions

When someone gives me a manuscript or other text to read and/or edit, I return it with comments as soon as I can, ideally within a few days, though the time depends on the length of the document and what other priorities and deadlines I have at the time. There are certainly times when I take longer than a few days to return comments, but in general, a document to edit (e.g. a thesis chapter, a manuscript draft, a proposal draft, an abstract) is a very high priority for me, whether or not I am a co-author or co-PI.

Experience has shown that this is just one of many strange things about me, and also a reason why I am not always a joy to work with. Most people take longer to return comments on a document, and, in a collaborative relationship, this can lead to mutual annoyance. I can get annoyed at the delays, and my colleagues can get annoyed at how hyper I am about making progress and finishing projects and manuscripts.

Most of my students appreciate the timely comments, but not all of them do. If a student gives me something to edit and I hand it back in a day or two, the response can range from "Thanks for the quick turnaround" to "Oh no, I don't want to see this again so soon".

My students sometimes ask me how they can get more timely comments from committee members or co-authors who are taking a long time to read and edit drafts and therefore delaying the student's progress towards manuscript submission (and possibly degree completion).

Here are some options:

1. Do nothing. Wait. You can do this (a) calmly or (b) not calmly.

2. Do a few things. Polite reminders by email, casual questions in the corridor or restroom (if relevant) etc.

3. Blackmail/threats of the "I'm going to break down completely and it will be your fault if you don't read my thesis draft soon" sort; or the "My dying grandmother's last wish is that I get my degree by December 7 of this year, so can you please get back to me soon with your comments?" sort.

4. Ask the grad advisor, department chair, or someone else to intervene in extreme cases.

In fact, I don't recommend some of the items in this list. The situation can be difficult for all concerned. Everyone is busy, and some people are so insanely busy with work and life that there's no way they can provide thoughtful comments even within the time frame of a few weeks. This happens to me as well during extremely busy times (e.g. before a proposal submission deadline when my husband is out of town and I am teaching a lot and I have an exam in my language class and my daughter has lots of after-school activities and my cat has laryngitis). Fortunately, life isn't like that 24/7/365 and it should be possible to read and comment on a draft, even a long thesis, if given sufficient time.

Polite, reasonably spaced reminder emails (or phone calls or in-person conversations) can help make sure that a document doesn't get lost in the crowded inbox of a busy person, though try not to cross the invisible moving boundary between polite reminding and obnoxious pestering. If you have a deadline, it is of course important that you provide the document for review well in advance if at all possible. And it's OK to remind people of the deadline once it starts to loom large.

If a situation really starts to drag out because someone doesn't have time to provide comments after they have had a document for a reasonable amount of time, extreme action must be taken. Note, however, that 'reasonable amount of time' is a flexible concept depending on the length, complexity, and importance of the document, and the personalities of the readers. Ideally, the 'reasonable amount of time' is something that has been agreed on by all concerned, or involves a deadline that has been announced well in advance.

If you need something (text, data, comments) and the other person is extraordinarily slow at providing these (despite having agreed to do so), there's not much you can do other than the occasional polite reminder/query, working on other things in the meantime, and trying various calming activities and substances so that you don't spend inordinate amounts of time being anxious and angry.

If you're a student and you need comments on your chapters/thesis, it's a good idea to talk to each person who has to read your thesis draft, and find out when they want the document -- e.g. how far in advance of when you absolutely need/want to be done. I like it when students ask me this. If the student is organized, has a plan, and gives me the thesis draft on the agreed-on date, I can plan ahead, knowing that I have to make time to read the thesis during a particular week or two. I consider 2 weeks a reasonable time frame for reading a typical thesis (whether or not major parts of it have been published already).

If a committee member (or even the advisor) can't keep to an agreed-on schedule and the situation gets dire despite repeated calm but urgent discussions, it's time to talk to the grad program advisor and work out a reasonable solution for everyone.

There are always going to be people who are slow to respond to request for comments on documents. It starts with committee members/advisors who are slow to provide comments on the thesis, and proceeds to reviewers who are slow to review manuscripts and editors who are slow to make decisions. If you do collaborative research, there will always be some colleagues who are slower and less responsive than you might prefer, and this can make you extremely anxious if you need to submit manuscripts for various important career reasons, not to mention communicating your amazing research results and ideas. That's why it's be good to do some research on calming activities; you'll need these throughout your career.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Too Much Like a Thesis

The common practice of having a doctoral thesis in the sciences be comprised of manuscripts that have been published or submitted (or that are about to be submitted) increases the chance that the advisor and others will participate in a major way in the writing of the papers/thesis. I touched on this yesterday, but want to discuss this specific issue more directly today.

I have found it to be a not-good use of time for a student to write a thesis and then turn the thesis chapters into papers. It is far more efficient (time = a*grant$^2) to go straight to manuscripts and add any extra thesisy stuff in Appendices or ancillary chapters to the thesis.

Furthermore, as a reviewer and editor, I have seen many a manuscript that was 'too thesisy' and needed significant revision. This commonly happens when a thesis chapter is transformed into a manuscript but is not transformed enough and retains too many thesisy elements.

The review comment "This reads too much like a thesis" is a negative one. The comment typically refers to the fact that the details of the study -- or the background material of the research -- are explained in excessive detail and at a more elementary level than what is appropriate for a journal article.

I have also seen this comment applied unfairly to a student/author. Just because an author is a current or recent student doesn't mean that their writing is automatically too thesisy.

A journal article should not be thesisy, but a thesis should be -- that is, a thesis should contain detailed information. The thesis is an archive of the work that was done, and may contain all sorts of information that should be documented somewhere, if not in a published paper. Some of the detailed explanation parts of the text, however, are not so useful even in a thesis; e.g. if a student spends pages explaining some basic background information that could easily be summarized in a few sentences with a few key citations.

I prefer the papers-as-chapters mode of thesis construction because it helps both the students and me, but it's not a perfect system, as it works best if the student can and does write without too much assistance and if the other co-authors (including me) provide timely but not intrusive comments (a topic for a future post).

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Dragging Them Over the Finish Line

What do you do if a student is this close to finishing their graduate degree but they just can't get some parts of the thesis (papers) written, either because they can't write, won't write, don't know how to stop writing, or don't have time to write? How much help do you, the advisor, provide?

1 - none, except the usual advisorial encouragement. It's their thesis, and if they can't write it, they don't get the degree, even if they are so so so so so close to finishing.

2 - a moderate amount, but not to the point of actually writing text for them. You can 'outline' sections of text for them to fill in (thesis Mad Libs), and even sit next to them giving them suggestions of words and phrases to type and plying them with double espressos, but you don't actually do any writing.

3 - a lot, even to the point of writing significant amounts of text.

Option #3 might sound unethical, but this is not necessarily the case. For example, if you are a co-author on papers that comprise the thesis, it's reasonable for you to do some of the writing. Your contribution will be indicated in the thesis by your co-authorship of the constituent papers. The problem comes if a lot really means a lot.

Some students with many co-authored 'thesis chapters' (papers) may have a problem getting their thesis approved if 'too many' of their thesis chapter papers were primarily written by/with others, but if the student has taken the lead on most of the chapters/papers, it's not a problem to have co-authored some. The worst (and least ethical) situation is when the only way a thesis will get done is if the advisor ghost-writes the thesis.

I wish I could have a consistent policy regarding how much I help students with finishing a thesis, but that isn't possible. Situations vary depending on the urgency of the publication(s) resulting from thesis research, and the consequences (for me, for my other students) of not publishing thesis results and of not having a student get their degree.

A possible solution for MS students who can't write their own thesis would be to let them get a different type of degree -- e.g. one that requires only coursework and no thesis. Even if the original intention was that they write a thesis, if that's not going to happen but the student has spent years taking classes, they might as well have something to show for their time and efforts. If the advisor writes a paper based on the student's work, the student can be a co-author, or even first author, depending on the particular situation.

PhD student who can't or won't write are a much bigger problem. You would think that a PhD student nearing completion would smell the barn or see the light at the end of the tunnel or [insert similar analogy]. Alas, in my experience it is the rare student who accelerates across the finish line. Many have to be dragged, and some of that dragging may involve the advisor's doing various amounts of writing for the student.

It is disturbing how many professors I know who joke about how many MS and PhD theses they have written (for other people), but it is also understandable that this is a common situation. Most of us want our students to finish and not collapse in a desperate heap just short of the finish line, unable to get across without being dragged. Is it cheating to help them? Is it unfair to those who finish their thesis without help? Perhaps, but it's not really a race.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Ending It

Most of my collaborations, long-term and short-term, have been very positive experiences. I haven't had any trouble finding interesting and collegial people with complementary research interests. It can be frustrating working with other people who have a different style and pace of working (and writing/editing/communicating), but in general things work out for the best..

.. except when they don't, and then the situation and attempts to extricate yourself from it can be painful.

Last spring I wrote about Working with Jerks, as I believe it is nearly impossible for one to go through an entire career without ever working with someone of the jerkish persuasion. There are many different species of jerks, and some are more odious than others.

If you find yourself working with a difficult and/or unpleasant person and you want to get out of the situation, is there a good way to do it? The short answer is no, if 'good' means 'easy', 'uncomplicated', and/or 'without negative consequences'. These situations are seldom as simple as making a call (or sending an e-mail .. or text message .. or posting something on Facebook) to say "You are a jerk and I am not working with you any more." (even if you leave out the first part)

In some cases, there are ancillary, complicating issues, including personal connections and funding commitments. If there are such issues, you have to think carefully about whether and how to end a working relationship.

What if the jerkish colleague has some mitigating circumstances? For example, what if this person has had some difficulties in his career/personal life, has a 'mood disorder', has some difficulty relating to human beings but is not an evil person, and so on? Do all those what ifs add up to making excuses for someone who should be ostracized or are they sufficient reason to end a dysfunctional and/or unpleasant working relationship?

I know some people who would respond So what? to each of the what ifs above, and others who would take these into account and try to continue working with a difficult colleague. So, let's consider some more what ifs.

What if one of your jerkish collaborators runs a lab that you need access to and there are no other such labs on the planet? Unfortunately, I cannot recommend trying to end such a collaboration.

What if one of your jerkish current or former collaborators becomes an administrator at a major funding agency? If you've collaborated with such an administrator, they have a conflict of interest with you and cannot be involved in the review or decision process of your proposals, but it can make for a tense situation if you don't have a good working relationship with a grants officer. Unfortunately, I cannot recommend trying to end a collaboration with such a person either, though I've tried it.

What if you don't have a tenured or a tenure-track job (yet) and you can't go telling influential jerks to take a hike (yet)? Ditto.

What if the problem person is a dysfunctional student or postdoc and you have a lot invested in them (time, funding) and/or it would be a major problem for you and your research group if you fired them?

Do all these what ifs sum to the conclusion that, more often than not, we have to continue to work with unpleasant people even if we don't want to? Does this help perpetuate the existence and survival of the jerk species in academia?

I hope not, but only once in my career thus far have I successfully done a surgical removal of an extraordinarily jerkish collaborator, and it took many years of putting up with unpleasant behavior by that person before I reached the point of no return. The point of no return for me happened to occur in a charming alley of a major international city and involved my saying to my soon-to-be-ex-colleague, in a rather emphatic way that startled passersby: "You are a psychopath. I am done working with you." [FSP walks away]

It sounds kind of funny now, but at the time I was quite shaken by the experience because I had a lot invested in that collaboration (financially and emotionally), and I was worried about the collateral damage -- i.e. would there be negative consequences for my research group of severing this collaborative relationship? It was clearly the best thing to do, though, and the few negative consequences were worth the aggravation.

A more typical way to end an unwanted collaboration, however, is a more gradual, more diplomatic retreat.

As I get older, I have less patience with unpleasant people and in theory have the luxury of working with whomever I want, but it is never that simple. There is almost always some reason why I could put up with some amount of unpleasantness for the sake of the larger project, or the students, or other colleagues, or someone or something. I could, but do I want to? What level of difficulty is acceptable and what level justifies ending a collaboration despite the consequences?

There's no one answer, of course, in part because it's a moving target, but in general, if the bad outweighs the good, it's time to end the collaboration. Perhaps you can be open with the ex- or soon-to-be-ex-colleague about why you are no longer interested in collaborating with them, or perhaps you can "reevaluate your priorities". And perhaps you can gradually extricate yourself or find some other polite exit strategy that doesn't involve yelling about psychopaths in the middle of a street.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Old Colleagues

In the course of one's career, colleagues who are collaborators in research -- i.e. not the colleagues who are the same old people who sit around the same old table for faculty meetings year after year -- come and go depending on mutual research interests, opportunities, funding, student advising needs, and so on. There are some colleagues, however, with whom one works (continuously or episodically) for many years. These are the ones I am calling old colleagues -- people with whom one has worked for more than 10-15 years, to pick a semi-arbitrary FSP-centric time-frame.

I pored over the FSP Database and discovered that I have one (1) non-spousal colleague with whom I have collaborated (episodically in an intense way and otherwise in a low-level way) for 20ish years, a few with whom I have collaborated for 15ish years, and colleagues galore with whom I have collaborated for 10 ± 1 years.

Mostly my long-term collaborations have been of the voluntary, mutually beneficial sort. I have not compiled the data in a way that would permit a statistical analysis of the duration and types of all my collaborations over the course of my career. I think the data would be quite scattered (mostly). but perhaps there would be some interesting and/or disturbing trends. In the meantime, I came up with an incomplete and somewhat arbitrary list of types of long-term collaborations.

To work with someone on a decadal time scale might indicate one or more of the following:

1. You are shackled together by necessity (e.g. large research groups using a unique shared facility). You may or may not like each other, and this may or may not matter depending on how many other people are in the group and the compatibility level of your working styles and geographic/disciplinary distance.

2. You like each other and have compatible working styles, so you keep finding projects to work on together just because it's fun and productive to work together. Your research is not transformative owing to the collaboration, but that's OK.

3. You have overlapping but different research expertise, so your collaborations are mutually beneficial. Presumably you also like each other and have compatible working styles. Your collaborative research is all the more awesome because of the collaboration.

4. You do exactly the same research but you are the only two people in the world who care about this research and have bonded over this. (OK, so it is more likely that two people in this situation will hate each other with every molecule of their respective beings and will not work together, but I am going to include this anyway).

5. It's not easy for you to start a new collaboration (for professional or social reasons), so you keep working with the same people over and over.

If this list has anything to do with real life, it suggests that long-term collaborations may be a positive or a negative thing, depending on the situation.

Additions to the list are welcome.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Invertebrate Time

In the novel Netherland by Joseph O'Neill, the protagonist's wife and son move to London, leaving him in New York:

My family, the spine of my days, had crumbled. I was lost in invertebrate time.

Although my situation is not so sad and dire -- my family is away on a short visit with the in-laws -- I can relate to the feeling of being adrift in time, lacking the usual spine of my days.

I suppose I could go shopping today, supposedly the biggest shopping day of the year, but I have gotten this far in my life without feeling the urge to get up before dawn and lurk in a mall parking lot so as to rush into a store when it opens and immediately fill a shopping cart with on-sale electronic devices. Instead, I will enjoy my quiet invertebrate time by writing and thinking at home and at the office.

I plan to spend much of the day in my office, working on an interesting paper and trying to make progress on a proposal. There might be one or two other colleagues around, and a few grad students and postdocs, but the corridors will be empty and dim. It can be very pleasant working in a peaceful department building for a day or three.

I find that on the rare occasions when I have time alone with no teaching, no meetings, and no family responsibilities, I immediately revert to the working-eating-sleeping schedule I followed in earlier, less evolved stages of my academic life. I work long hours, eat at random times, and stay up most of the night. This isn't so great as a long-term lifestyle, but when you only get to do this once or twice a year, it can be quite fun being temporarily invertebrate.

The other day, my husband wondered if, years from now, we would revert to our pre-child academic lifestyle once our daughter grows up and leaves home, or whether we won't be interested in working such long hours again. In our pre-child life, we knew which near-campus restaurants were open all night (or at least very late), and our cats never knew when to expect us home. Our felines and our future grad students probably hope that we will not adopt a 20/7 work schedule.

In the meantime, I am enjoying my few days of invertebrate time, and then will be happy to resume normal life, especially since the term is almost over.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanks for Not Moving to Bolivia

Thanks to Peggy Kolm for her nice review of my blog-book in Nature this week. It's great to have such comments from someone whose own women-in-science work I admire so much. And she's right about my writing for many different audiences, though she did neglect to mention cats in that list.

Anyway, the fact that I am getting increased blog traffic as a result of the review almost makes me wish I were posting something a little less strange today, but this is what I am thinking about:

On this Thanksgiving Day, I am taking time to reflect on the fact that I am thankful that this has never happened to me:

"In 1960, with sales [of Slinkys] down, Mr. James joined what his wife considered a religious cult and moved to Bolivia, leaving her with six children and the company. "
- from the obituary of the widow of the inventor of the Slinky

Well, I guess it wasn't all bad. She did awesome things with the company, which prospered (but even so..).

Perhaps I should try harder to find something else for which to be thankful? How about this:

I am thankful that the departmental accountant who left work without warning very early Tuesday, not to return until Monday, and who neglected to do a very essential thing that absolutely had to be done before the end of the month (i.e. Sunday), checked his email from home Wednesday morning and finished the task.

I got all my paperwork done on time, but he did nothing with it before leaving the office Tuesday without warning or even a message to say he hadn't done anything with my forms. I was just a little bit stressed out about this for 15.5 hours, but that's OK, the problem was solved in time.

The accountant, who fortunately had not moved to Bolivia and joined a cult but had instead started his holiday early, and I just exchanged pleasant Happy Thanksgiving emails, and all is well again. Life would be boring without a bit of accounting peril now and then, would it not?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Pre-Holiday Test Fest

Would you give a quiz or test the day before a long (> 3 day) holiday break? For example, would you give a quiz/test the day before the Thanksgiving break?

Some schools in the US are not in session this week at all, but I think most are in session either Monday-Tuesday or Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday.

Is there a special place in hell reserved for professors who give an exam the day before Thanksgiving break and other long mid-term breaks in the academic schedule, or is this a clever way for an instructor to ensure attendance and/or to see who is serious about a course? Or is the day before Thanksgiving break (for example) just another day in the schedule and, if makes sense to have a quiz that day, so be it?

I will reveal my philosophy on this, at the risk of appearing nice: I never give a quiz the day before Thanksgiving break. Or Spring Break.

My no-quiz-before-breaks philosophy derives in part from my being ever-so-slightly nice on special occasions, but there is also a self-interested practical issue involved. I avoid giving make-up exams if at all possible, and many students have quite valid reasons for needing to miss the day-before-Thanksgiving-break class; e.g. long-distance travel to be with an ailing grandparent or to meet a new niece. These students would need make-up exams. I don't have to give them make-up exams, but I would, and then I would spend my week preparing extra exams and giving these exams and I don't really have time for that.

It is sad that so many students miss the awesome educational experience that is my day-before-vacation class, but it's also kind of nice to teach a smaller class, even if just for a day. There is a more relaxed, festive, and casual atmosphere than usual, and more students ask questions than usual (perhaps to distract me from my lecture, but that's OK). And some students who have never before spoken in class will ask a question. This is great. And sometimes I end class a bit early.

I like that the last class before a break has a relaxed and friendly atmosphere, not an anxious test-taking one. And then I don't have to grade over the break either.