Friday, December 30, 2011

I Would Consider Being A Postdoc In Your Lab

Has anyone else gotten one like this? I have, unfortunately, although it wasn't in the cover letter, it was in follow-up correspondence. This is, of course, another entry in the Cover Letter contest.

Professor Female,

You may remember that we met at the X Conference last year when my advisor, Professor Bigname, introduced us at the Z Inc. cocktail party. At the time, I mentioned that I would be finishing my PhD in May 2012, and I am on track to do so. I am therefore in the process of looking for a tenure-track faculty position, but would also consider being a postdoc in your lab.

As you know, I have a lot of expertise in A, B, and C. I have read a few of your papers, and think that my background would be a great asset to you.

Since I am also applying for tenure-track faculty positions and other postdocs, I can’t commit to coming to work with you until I know all of my options. Ideally, I will be offered a faculty position for the coming academic year, but if that doesn’t happen this year, and particularly if no other postdoc positions are available when I finish my PhD, I would be very pleased to join your research group as early as June 2012. My wife and I are planning on starting a family as soon as possible, and I think it would work out quite well if that difficult first year, when our child is an infant, coincided with time spent working with your research group, before I move on to a more challenging and time-consuming tenure-track faculty position.

We should talk soon about my options for a postdoc with you. I will be visiting family in your area over the upcoming holidays, and I will call or e-mail to let you know when I am available to meet with you.


A postdoctoral applicant whose assumption that I, a female professor, would be sympathetic to his plans to start a family was incorrect, not because he planned to start a family soon (that is fine with me) but because he managed to turn it into an insult to me.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

I Plan to Collaborate with You

Another entry in the Cover Letter contest; this one nicely captures the phenomenon of "I am going to collaborate with Professors X, Z, and You" in such letters, crossing the line between noting points of mutual research interests to a specific announcement of future collaboration.

Dear Search Committee:

I am writing to apply for the position of Postdoctoral Fellow/Instructor/Assistant Professor at your Liberal Arts College/Large University. I am currently a grad student of Professor X at Prestigious University, working in algebraic geometry. My adviser said that I will probably defend this spring if I get my act together.

I first learned about your Large University/Liberal Arts College when I stood in line next to Professor Big Name at Huge Conference, and she mentioned that my talk looked ``interesting'' and that she even might come to it.

I am passionate about research! Enclosed you will find my research statement. I am certain that Professor Big Name will find my work fascinating, and I have contacted her to let her know that I plan to collaborate with her when I arrive at your institution.

I am also passionate about teaching (but not too passionate if that's not your thing)! I consistently receive above average student evaluations. One student once told me that I am ``the best,'' but unfortunately did not mention this on the evaluations. Her email address is available upon request.

While I did have to check the ``Yes'' box next to your question ``Have you ever been convicted of a felony?'' I just want you to know that I have since returned all of the merchandise.

Thank you so much for your time and consideration! I will check back soon.

Warmest regards,

Alex Awesome

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Clueless Cover Letter

Another Cover Letter contest entry:

Dear Miss FSP and members of the search committee;

I am writing to apply for your tenure-track, postdoctoral, or other temporary full-time or part-time position in Physics.  My advisor Professor Famous says I am finishing my Ph.D. this year since I am running out of funding.

My research is in theoretical physics.  Specifically in my dissertation I study the homotopy type of moduli of IIB plane-wave 19-dimensional hyperelliptic Clebsch-Gordon coefficients of holonomic Kontsevich correspondences on Artin stacks of strings.  I am also interested in the homotopy type of moduli of IIA plane-wave 19-dimensional hyperelliptic Gordon-Clebsch coefficients of holonomic Kontsevich correspondences on Artin stacks of strings.  My research statement is enclosed.

I am wildly excited by the possibility of indoctrinating young undergraduate minds on the absolutely marvelous wonders of the fascinating subject of Physics and in particular about my research.  I believe in student-centered learning, continuous assessment, and the integration of research and education.  My teaching statement is enclosed.

I am particularly interested in working at your college or university because my girlfriend's cousin's former roommate says the skiing is great.

I plan to attend the March meeting of the American Physical Society and would like a chance to chat with you then.  You can get in touch by drawing on my Facebook wall.

Sincerely yours,

Clueless once-promising slacker physics grad student

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Herewith a Kool Kover Letter

Another entry in The Cover Letter contest:

Dear Search Committee:

My name is Dr. Joseph von Kool and I am applying for the open position in your Department.

Herewith I submit to you my application materials thereof for the aforementioned tenure-track position. Whereas my address is listed as Prestige University, henceforth I will be located at the Uber-Institute until such time as a tenure-track position is proffered and forthcoming.

Most sincerely yours,

J. von Kool, Ph.D.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Dear Search Committee Chair

Another entry in The Cover Letter contest. 

Dear Search Committee Chair,

I know these letters are usually addressed to a person, but the job market is so terrible these days that I hope you’ll excuse me for using your title instead, since I have to write 93 letters this week. 

As you no doubt have figured out already, I am an applicant for your position in Molecular Biology.  I am well trained in (Biology  Chemistry) because of both my undergraduate and graduate training at MIT, and I’ve had experience as a teaching assistant in (organic introductory biology) as noted in my teaching statement, so I am completely prepared to teach the course you mentioned in the position advertisement. 

My research is on the reversal of aging in female fruit flies by the polyphenolic compound, resveratrol, a component of red wine, and I anticipate considerable student interest in working with me in this area.  My PhD was with Famous Scientist, a foremost researcher on molecular gerontology, and we have three papers published and four in press resulting from my graduate work and two years of postdoctoral fellowship.  I have been funded by Major Private Foundation, the US Wine Institute, and the National Institutes of Health during my postdoctoral research period and I anticipate future funding from all three agencies to support my research at   ____  university.

In order to set up my laboratory properly, I will require a startup fund of $600,000 for equipment, supplies, personnel, and travel, to be spent over a four-year period, after which I expect my laboratory to be self-sufficient.  I need to have a release from all teaching and committee work for the first year and a light load of teaching and committee work for the entire pre-tenure period if I come to your school.  It is essential for the development of my research in a highly competitive area that I not be distracted by these other elements while I am setting up my research endeavor.  I am sure you understand this situation well, since there is lots of research in your department of (chemistry biology).

Please examine my CV, research plans, teaching statement, and letters of recommendation carefully.  I look forward to visiting your department, in fact I may be in the area and if so, will call to arrange a visit soon.


An Outstanding Candidate

Friday, December 23, 2011

On the first day of Christmas, a Cover Letter Entry

We here at FSP are still accepting entries for The Cover Letter Contest, but here is an example, just to help set the festive mood for the contest.

To whom it may concern:

Please find attached my application for your open position in Nanoherpetology. I completed my PhD in Nano-neuroherpetology in 2008 at the University of X, and since then have been a postdoctoral research in Applied Electrical Nanoherpetochemistry and Engineering in the famous Z lab of the K Institute. I was strongly encouraged to apply for this position by my mentor, Professor E, the world expert cosmoherpetologist who is rumored to be an imminent choice for the National Academy of Sciences.

My expertise and my personality are a perfect fit with your department. I expect that, given my expertise and background, I would be able to have a large and well-funded research program up and running within the first year.

I have enclosed but a few of my more significant publications for your review. A complete archive of all my peer-reviewed publications can be downloaded from the ftp site (address). A copy of my press releases and other media-related materials (podcasts, videos, documentaries) are also available on request.

Other information about my research accomplishments and a framework for my future research can be found in the enclosed materials, along with a list of courses that I could easily teach at the graduate and undergraduate levels. In addition, you may be interested to know that my wife does not have a PhD. In fact, she works as a receptionist in an insurance office, a job she would happily leave.


Sinclair Snake

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Forgetting Me

'Tis the season to think about our ancestral homes and aging relatives. Not that I don't think about them at other times, but in the past few weeks I have been mailing packages and cards and such to various relatives who live in or near the place where I grew up, far from where I live now.

My similarly-aged colleagues and I are at the point where, when we meet at conferences or elsewhere and the topic turns to Life, Family etc., a common element of the conversation is the declining health (or, in some cases, the decease) of parents. In recent years, on more than one occasion, collaborative research and planned research visits have been postponed owing to a colleague's parental health crisis.

With time, I am sure more and more of us will be talking about and dealing with our own declining health, but for now, many of us are focused on our parents. Because most of us are academics who took whatever jobs were available, wherever those happened to be, most of us do not live geographically close to our ailing parents, adding another challenge to the situation.

As I am writing this (a few days before I will post it), it is my mother's birthday. She is physically very healthy, but, as I have mentioned in a few posts over the years, she has long been showing signs of some sort of dementia. I started noticing it quite a while ago, and, not surprisingly, the signs have gotten more obvious over the years.

Years ago, when it was clear to me that she was not going to mention her symptoms to her doctor, I talked to him. Instead of taking my concerns seriously, he was offended. He told me that (1) he is such an excellent physician that he would not miss signs of a problem, even if they were subtle, so who was I to tell him that she had a problem?, and (2) if I really cared about my mother, I would quit my job and move closer to her. This was a disturbing conversation, but my mother would not listen to a single word of criticism about her awesome physician.

Later, when the signs were impossible to ignore and I kept insisting that she talk to her doctor (the same doctor that I talked to), she finally did. He did some tests and prescribed Aricept.

She isn't going to get 'better', of course. And for now, she is enjoying life, despite having to stop doing some activities that previously were a major feature of her days. She can't process a lot of new information or complex ideas or concepts, and this also makes it difficult to have a conversation with her. For example, we can talk about liking or not liking a book or movie, but we can't discuss what about them we liked or disliked. To her, something is either "wonderful" or "dreadful", and there isn't really anything in between.

She can no longer keep track of new details of my life -- career milestones, travels, even my health. She asks the same questions over and over, tells the same stories over and over. She remembers little incidents from years ago and forgets major recent events. For now, this is all still in the realm of manageable, and just requires a lot of patience by those around her.

One of the strangest aspects (for me) is that she seems to be forgetting some aspects of who I am. That is, she still clearly remembers major facts that have not changed recently -- my name, where I live etc. -- but she seems to remember me as a different kind of person than I think I am.

To explain with an example: I have always loved to travel and I have always loved having adventures. My brother does not like either. He has to do some travel for work, but mostly he stays home, and that is what he prefers. This is not something we each developed as adults; these are traits that have been apparent since we were children. And yet, my mother 'remembers' that my brother is the adventurous one and I am not. When I tell her about some place I have been or something I have done, she gasps and says "But that's not like you! It's your brother who does things like that." Well, no, actually he doesn't. I do. There is no way to convince her of this. And then she forgets it all anyway and doesn't even remember that I went anywhere or did anything in particular, until the next time, when she is surprised again. It doesn't help to send her photographs or detailed descriptions; new information that she can't absorb just goes away.

That is a benign example. It doesn't really matter if she thinks my brother is adventurous and I am not, but other examples cut a bit closer to the heart in terms of who we are and who we have been to our mother. This, too, will never get 'better'. 

What is she remembering and what is she forgetting? Is she making things up out of nothing? Are her memories rooted in the way she thinks people should be? How she wishes we were? Or is it all random, dependent on physical and chemical changes in her brain, not anything related to her real thoughts and memories? In most examples of her 'remembering' things as they aren't, I don't fare too well in terms of her perceptions of my personality, interests, and past actions. Where does that come from?

This year, as I selected gifts for her for her birthday and Christmas, I thought constantly about the state of her mind, as there are some gifts, including some books, that she would no longer enjoy. We used to exchange joke gifts, but now these just confuse her. She actually can't keep track anymore of who gives her what gift (this has been the case for the last few years), so I select things with the general hope that she will like them, even if she won't know who gave them to her a few minutes after she receives them.

Sorry if this post is a bit of a downer at a time when most academic types are decompressing and hoping to have a relaxing week or two with family and friends. I plan to enjoy the next few weeks as well, but I would like to extend a wish for peace, patience, and support to those facing similar issues with parents, relatives, or friends.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Family Leave, Nerdy Babies, Feline Guest Post

For some reason that is probably related to my shortcomings as a blogger and a human, I typically ignore requests to post announcements and links of various sorts, and, strangely enough, I do not respond to requests for guest posts from people who are clearly sending out form letters and have absolutely no clue what this blog is about.

But today I am going to change all that, at least for today, sort of. I am going to post an announcement, a link for a shopping site, and I am going to allow a guest post from one of my cats, all in one post. It is pretty incredible, I know, but I am feeling festive today. Not so much, though, that I am ready to do one of those meme-things (yet).

Perhaps I am feeling happyish today because someone wrote to me asking if they could quote one of my posts about having a Christmastime Birthday. This is not the first such request. If I am remembered for anything, it seems that it will be for this statement:
In fact, I hope there is a special place in hell reserved for the creator of "For Your Christmas Time Birthday" cards (especially the ones with birthday cakes surrounded by poinsettias and holly). (FSP 2006)
Anyway, here is an important announcement about a topic of interest to astronomers and others:

Would you be interested in posting about our effort to improve family leave policies for graduate students and postdocs in our field (astronomy)? 

Since posting our petition to encourage the establishment of family leave policies by departments and fellowship committees only a few hours ago, we already have over 300 signatures. As in all fields, supporting early career scientists is a hot topic for us. 

from: the American Astronomical Society Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy

p.s. In addition to the petition, we recently sent a survey to all astronomy department chairs in an effort to catalog current formal policies and existing practices. (We already know that most grad students and postdocs fall through the cracks). We will use these two pieces of information to create a formal recommendation from our American Astronomical Society. We will also share examples of departments which have succeeded in funding more progressive family leave policies for graduate students and postdocs in our field.  

And here is a link to a site where you can acquire some nerdy baby gifts, as described in this e-mail message to me:

We're two MIT grad students who noticed a lack of baby apparel for the discerning academic or scientist. As someone who's into science, math and possibly nerdy gifts, we thought you might like some of our designs:

And here is a guest post from one of my cats (I can't say which one, as he prefers to be anonymous, but it is the one who does most of my grading and editing). This cat has kindly agreed to write a thoughtful essay on what it is like to be a feline who secretly grades science problem sets and exams, not to mention editing dissertations and manuscripts. As you might imagine, this situation raises some tricky ethical and other issues, and I think it is worth discussing from the point of view of the cat.

Note: I am not paying my cat to do this guest post (nor do I pay him in money to grade and edit), but I have agreed not to edit or alter in any way his guest post.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

LoR Lore

Today in Scientopia, a discussion of the phenomenon and consequences of Late Letters of Reference.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Woman of Few Words

Reminder: Don't forget to send in your entry for The Cover Letter contest! There are some great ones so far, but I am sure there are more creative examples lurking out there somewhere. 

Sometimes it seems like I could start 93% of my posts with "Not long ago, I was talking to a colleague and.." One might think that I spend a lot of time talking to colleagues. One might be right about this.

In any case, today is one of those 93% of times. Just imagine the usual beginning, blah blah blah..

.. and he reminisced about the time, many many years ago, when I gave an interview talk for a tenure-track faculty position in his department. He says he remembers my talk vividly. I do not remember my talk, vividly or otherwise. I remember the topic of my talk, but that's about all I can come up with for memories of that event.

Fortunately, my colleague's vivid memories are positive ones. One thing he remembers, however, is how short my talk was. In fact, it was 15 minutes shorter than any other candidate's talk. He says it was unusually short. Despite the passage of time, that sort of horrifies me, even though I know the interview had a happy ending (spoiler alert: I was offered the job).

My colleague hastened to tell me that he liked my talk -- and remembers it -- in part because it was short. According to him, I had something to say, and I said it, no more and no less. Everything I said was interesting. (<-- doubtful)

I could probably provide more insight into why my talk was so short if I could remember it more, but in general, talks that are unusually short are much less common than talks that are painfully or inappropriately long. Perhaps I benefited from that fact.

Unusually short talks may result when:

- The speaker freaks out mid-talk and decides to skip over a large(ish) section of the talk. (I don't think this has ever happened to me, but I have seen it.)

- The speaker speaks really really fast and therefore covers the planned material in much less time than intended. (This is not typically a problem for me, and it doesn't seem to have been an issue in my historically short talk).

- The speaker did not practice the talk and greatly underestimated the amount of time it would take to cover the material. (I always practiced my interview talks.)

- The speaker forgets to say a lot of things that s/he intended to say. I don't speak from notes, but I do typically have projected images as visual guides, so in order for this to have a significant effect on the length of a talk, there would likely be lots of forgetting of little points, not a wholesale forgetting of a major component of a talk. (Maybe I did this? I don't remember..)

I really don't know, but I can think of two other things that might have come into play in my case. One is that I had recently given a similar talk to an audience that interrupted me a lot with questions during my talk. If you go from such a setting to one in which you are not interrupted at all, it can affect the length of the talk considerably. Maybe I scaled my talk back, accounting for time for questions during the talk, but there weren't any (?).

Another possibility is that, for this particular talk, I remember that I merged several research projects into one integrated talk. I took some things from my PhD research, some things from my postdoctoral research, and some things I had been thinking about not long before the interview. I wrapped them all up together in what I hoped was a coherent package, and then.. well, I don't remember, but it seems that in the merging, I made the talk shorter rather than longer. That is, I distilled the essence of various projects (perhaps too much), hit the highlights without elaborating on anything in great detail, and gave some idea of where I wanted to go with this type of research in the future.

It seems to have worked in that case, but of course a danger of this approach is appearing as if you are not an expert in anything in particular and prefer to skim the surface of a range of topics. I was fortunate to have a friendly and interested audience in that case, but I can easily imagine this going the other way, and having the primary impression of my short talk be that I didn't have much to say.

It probably matters whether some in the audience know a great deal about your research topic, or not so much. In the case of my epic short talk, the faculty were conducting a search in a field that was not well represented in their department, so maybe it also worked in my favor that I didn't bore them all with the gory details of the research.

Mostly, I think I was just very lucky. A too-long talk is not a good thing, but a too-short talk also has many pitfalls. So, what to do? Perhaps the perfect talk is the slightly-shorter-than-most-people's-too-long talk.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Tabby Time

The other day, I read an essay by someone who used the word "tabby" in a negative sense; that is, when a person is acting like a "tabby", it is not a good thing to be. I can't find the original statement, but when I read it, I was outraged. Or, at least, I tried to be outraged, but I was mostly just feeling very tired, but relaxed, and peaceful, and... tabbyish.

There are far worse things than being a tabby, particularly at the end of a term.

You might not want to be a tabby (in the correct sense of the word) while giving a talk at a conference, interviewing for a job, or writing a grant proposal (except while doing the budget).

But you might want to be a tabby while attending a faculty meeting, meeting with prospective graduate students, or grading. Actually, I am not sure about the grading.

Tabbyism definitely has its place in academic life, especially on this December Friday.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Rah Rah Rah

In a semi-recent conversation with a colleague from another university, I asked him about the results of a search that was conducted in his department. He told me the names of the candidates who were interviewed, and I was very impressed with the list. How did his department choose between Awesome Person X and Awesome Person Z, for example?

My colleague admitted that, at that point, the decision got a bit random because the department liked everyone they interviewed. But, alas, their Dean did not think that they should hire everyone that they interviewed, so they had to make some difficult decisions. This is a far better outcome for a department than a failed search, but is of course painful in other ways for those involved.

[Some might wonder whether such a deep pool puts the Selected One at a disadvantage in negotiating for start-up etc., but it does not seem to have done so in this case. The candidate ultimately chosen accepted the job and got a rather nice start-up package, not to mention a tenure-track position in a department that is very enthusiastic about their new colleague.]

One thing that struck me about my colleague's response to my question about How They Chose is the extent to which "passion for research" seems to have been involved in the decision. I am all for Passion For Research (PFR), but using this as a decisive factor semi-worried me for at least two reasons:

(1) One of the interviewees not selected happens to be very passionate about research; in fact, every much so, in the best sense of the term. And yet, my colleague told me that this candidate's PFR did not come through as well as it did for some of the other interviewees -- perhaps the ones who were less nervous? There is no point in discussing whether that is fair or not; clearly this department had to decide among an excellent group, and other than drawing names from a bucket, how are you going to decide? But still, are those who are less nervous at an interview necessarily 'better' -- more poised, more likely to be successful researchers (in the long term), more likely to be better teachers? Maybe, but I would guess/hope that the real answer is 'no'.

(2) Perceptions of PFR can also be used to select those who display this trait in a different way than the majority of those making the decision. That is, a group of men might use this to prefer male candidates over female candidates, but not in any obvious way. This struck me as a possible example of 'unconscious bias'. In fact, the job went to a man, and the apparent runner-up was also male. Why didn't the female candidates score as high on PFR?

How do you display a strong and convincing PFR during an interview anyway? I don't think it is enough to say, "Research is my Life", even if you say it many times. I don't think it is even enough to talk about how you think about Research every waking moment, including while flossing your teeth. That would unconvincing (and weird, and disturbing).

It is more likely something that is conveyed by how you speak about your research, in both formal and informal settings during an interview -- your tone of voice, the words you use, your body language, your apparent level of enthusiasm in discussing your past, present, and future research. For some people who are particularly nervous, shy, awkward, and/or reticent, this type of evidence of PFR could become quite subtle, particularly if others are more obviously cheerleadery about their research passions.

So, I'm not saying that my colleague's department should have done anything different -- in fact, they made a great hire -- but I think it is something that faculty and administrators need to be careful about during the hiring process.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Cover Letters : The Contest

A few years ago, we here at FSP started a tradition of having a contest of sorts in December, just in time for the break. Each contest has had a theme involving some type of Academic Writing:

in December 2008, The Statement of Purpose;

in 2009, Letters of Reference; and

in 2010, Why I Missed the Final Exam.

In 2011, the selected topic is The Cover Letter (CL).

That is, the cover letter that is written as part of an application for an academic job such as a faculty position or a postdoc. The purpose of these letters may vary in different fields, but I am thinking of the kind that accompanies an application that also consists of a CV and a research (± teaching) statement. In this case, the Cover Letter is not the main vehicle for transmitting information about yourself to those who will be evaluating you. It is just what its name implies: a cover letter that indicates your intention to apply for something and that might introduce your most salient features.

That sounds simple, but these things can be difficult to write. What to write? How much to write? What tone to use?: humble? aggressively confident? terse? enthusiastic? Are these letters important because they are the first impression you make to some decision-makers? Does anyone even read these things?

There are many possible approaches to the CL. Anyone who has served on a search committee has likely seen variations ranging from the minimalist ("Here's my application") to the epic (many pages on the topic of Why I Am Awesome, much of which is repeated in the body of the application).

And yet, as with contests in previous years in which readers have submitted their versions of certain types of Academic Writing, I have selected the Cover Letter because there are certain elements that tend to appear in these types of letters.

The goal, therefore, is to capture the essence of the Classic Cover Letter, or at least to entertain and/or horrify us all. Parody -- gentle or savage, subtle or pernicious -- is encouraged. The goal is not to cause undue anxiety to those who are in the process of writing such letters or who recently sent off some applications with possible (?!) flawed CLs, but we recognize that such unintended side effects may occur.

Entries can be sent to, and will be reviewed by the FSP Editorial Board. I will be traveling quite a lot in late December - early January, but will post the entries and results as internet access permits.

Entries will be accepted until the position is filled. Review of entries will begin Friday, 23 December, 2011.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Hold That Thought

Not long ago, a colleague from another university visited my university, and was accompanied on his visit by his wife, who is also a scientist. This colleague and I have not been working together for very long, and I do not know him well. I had never met his wife before, but I was happy to meet her, and liked her very much. She is doing some very interesting work, and I enjoyed talking with her.

This is where I need to mention that my colleague's wife is 15-20 years younger than he is, as it is relevant to the rest of the anecdote.

Another scientist, who met my colleague and his wife for the first time during this visit, later remarked to me that he'd had a good discussion with the colleague and his "grad student". I corrected him, saying that the woman in question is not a student, she is a research scientist.

He asked if she visited because she is also working with me, and I said no, she came with my colleague on the visit because they're married and were traveling together, to our university and then on a short vacation in the area.

My intention in making the correction wasn't to gossip; in fact, my main interest was to let him know that the young woman is a research scientist, heading up her own research program. I wasn't offended by his assumption, but I wanted him to know that she's not a student. In fact, it occurred to me that she and this scientist might be interested in collaborating on some research, as they have mutual research interests.

Except that this scientist's immediate response on learning that my colleague (who is close to my age) is married to this young woman was: "Allllriiiiiight! I'm impressed! Well, good for him! Wow, that's great."

Can I assume that he is pleased that my colleague is married to a smart woman who is doing interesting research? Please, can I assume that?

Friday, December 09, 2011

Caption the Essence

In case anyone has been spending an extreme amount of time grading lately (or will be soon) and needs a bit of a creative break, or any kind of break, here is a pseudo-fun non-graded activity:

Provide an Academic Caption to the picture below.

It can be anything you want, but should involve academic themes and characters.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Academic Parasite

When I wrote the title above, I thought to myself "Wait, I must have used that title before." In fact, a quick search of the archives shows that I have done exactly two (2) posts that contain the word parasite, but never have I used this title even though one of the two (2) previous posts uses the term in the same context I will use it today.

So that's pretty exciting (for me), but what does it mean? That's what I am going to discuss today: what does it mean to be an academic Parasite?

I can remember hearing this term twice: once a very long time ago, and once this week. There may well have been others, but they have not been stored in my long-term memory compartments.

The first time I heard it, I was a grad student and the speaker was an old and supposedly distinguished professor who hated most people, so it wasn't a surprise to hear him insult someone. Typically, that someone was me, but in this case, that someone was a perky-but-clueless visiting graduate student who had come to prostrate himself before The Great Man and glean little bits of wisdom. They met in the GM's office for an hour or so, and then the grad student came to my office to chat.

He said "We had a really great discussion!" (unlikely: The GM did not "discuss"; he lectured)

And "I think he really likes me!" Well, he did have a few acolytes, all male, who worshiped him, named their children after him etc., but I wasn't sure... and then:

The phone rang. It was The GM, wanting to talk to me. "Is THAT PARASITE still there?" he screamed into the phone. (etc.)

The second time, in a conversation this week, a professor who is a much nicer person than The GM asked me if I had ever worked with a particular individual. I said, without explanation "I used to, but not for quite a long time now." He laughed and said "Good! He's a PARASITE!" He's not wrong.. there are specific reasons I no longer work with that person.

But what does it mean?Are there different types of Academic Parasites? Do we need to classify them?

Of the two instances mentioned here, the first one was just a student asking a professor for advice, information, anything that would help him (the student) with his dissertation research. The GM's response was clearly extreme (it was a student asking for help!).

The second instance involves interactions among professors who are collaborators. In some cases, this distinction of student-professor vs. professor-professor interaction is important; in others, not. (<-- important note: That link is to a 2006 post, when things were different.)

I will propose a simple definition, for starters:

Someone who takes and uses the research ideas and/or results of others to advance their own research/career but doesn't give back, share, or cite appropriately = parasite.

But how do we know when someone has crossed a line between a somewhat unequal collaborative situation (this is not unusual) and a parasitic arrangement? Is a parasite by definition engaged in unethical behavior? That is, does the "taking" always = "stealing" (ideas, results)?

I think that if the taking/stealing involves people who are not collaborators, and the taking/stealing involves information from proposals or other unpublished work, the person in question is worse than a parasite, and there are probably more appropriate words. If, however, someone takes ideas from published work and then repackages them as their own (because they don't have any of their own), they are a weasly parasite.

If someone takes ideas and data from collaborators, then it is a bit more ambiguous. If someone is content to do (essentially) nothing but have their name put on papers as co-author, they are a passive parasite. If, however, they do (essentially) nothing and put their name on papers (but not yours or your students), then they are a more virulent and dastardly variety: the evil parasite.

This is not a very pleasant topic, but, in the course of a career, we encounter all kinds of people. Fortunately for me, the parasites have been few and far between, so my classification scheme (and/or my imagination) is rather limited. 

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Don't Go There

Recently, as I was walking across a rather pretty campus, I noticed a more extreme example of what occurs on most campuses:

the mismatch between where the landscape designers (and landscape maintenance crews) want people to walk, and where people want to (and do) walk.

Surely most campuses have little dirt footpaths that cut off right angled or curved *official walkways*. In some cases, these footpaths are allowed to exist, and in some cases these are eventually promoted to official walkways and are paved/landscaped, in recognition that people are going to walk that way.

In other cases, however, there seems to be a never-ending battle between those who want to take short cuts and those who do not want those short cuts to be taken. Short cuts are fenced off, reseeded or re-whatevered, and pedestrians are forced to follow the approved pathways. The grass (or whatever) looks nicer that way. Perhaps if some short cuts are allowed, new ones crop up until you might as well pave the whole campus. And who wants that?

I don't think the issue of short cuts is about laziness, rebellion against authority, or even a lack of respect for turf. I think it is about getting from Point A to Point B, in some cases in a rush between classes or meetings.

In my recent across-campus walk (not on my own campus), I was amazed at how pedestrian unfriendly the campus was, despite the abundance of green space and landscaping. It looked like an appealing place to stroll, as long as you strolled only where the original campus planners wanted you to go.

There were of course walkways between buildings, but it was if the designers only allowed for people to walk easily from Building X to Building Y. If, however, for some unimaginable (to them) reason, someone wanted to walk directly from Building X to nearby Building Z.. forget it.

Clearly, many people do want to go from X to Z, and a distinct (unofficial) path has developed over time. It was also clear that this path is not in favor with those responsible for maintaining the campus landscape. The path is in the process of being erased (and not for the first time), and the X-Z people herded to an official-but-circuitous route.

I am sure it is a nightmare to maintain a campus landscape so that the non-paved parts remain in good shape despite "off-road" pedestrians, Frisbee players, jugglers, and bicyclists, not to mention extreme climate events, crazed rodents and so on. But still: It should be possible to have a pedestrian-friendly pathway system that recognizes the need to get from A to B and from A to C quickly.

Can we classify campuses in terms of the goodness of fit between where people want to walk and where they are "supposed" to walk? Do we need a ratio, preferably a dimensionless number with a cool name? Can we call it the Versailles Number?

I lack the time to develop this idea further right now, but welcome comments and suggestions.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Don't Try This At Home

For various reasons, the school my daughter attends this year was unable to organize things so that she could be in the math class that followed from the math class she had last year. In fact, the class she was put in this term is working on math that she did 3 years ago.

Fortunately, the teacher of that class does not make her (re)do that "old" math with the rest of the class. During class, my daughter sits by herself and works on her own.

So what does she do in math class? She does math problems that I assign her, based on the math that I teach her in the evenings at home, using an online textbook. That is the temporary solution we worked out with her school: I will teach her math at home.

Why me? Why not her dad?

Because this is what dad-as-evening-math-tutor would be like, we feared:

In contrast, this is what mom-as-evening-math-tutor is like, in theory:

 (though perhaps a bit more alert, most evenings).

So, I am the designated parental math tutor, and here is what I have learned so far:

- The things I hate about grading still apply. Grading doesn't become more fun just because you are teaching your own beloved child. That is, just because I am teaching my daughter, who is the light of my life and a truly wonderful human being, doesn't make it any less annoying when she turns in a messy page of homework covered with incomplete erasures and crossed out things and a mystifying sequence of answers in no particular order (and no helpful labels).

- For me, Science is easier to teach than Math. In Science, I know how to explain things. In math, some things can be explained by examples -- perhaps many examples of different sorts -- but some things just are. That is showing my limitations as a math teacher, something I also encounter when I teach a quantitative Science course: I explain why I am doing the math in terms of the Science, but I don't typically explain the math itself. I just do it.

- There are a lot more (imaginary) people in (this) Math textbook than in (my) Science textbooks and I don't like some of them. Most chapters of the math textbook we are using describe an impressive array of enterprising teenagers figuring things out involving math. That's nice -- I like the textbook quite a lot, actually -- but I wonder how much the involvement of people -- even imaginary ones -- affects math-learning. That is, are we each influenced by whether we relate to the imaginary people and their imaginary problems? For example, I am not so interested in Josh's questions about the operation of his remote-controlled car or Delores' attempt to figure out which phone plan to get, but I am intrigued by some of the scientific and sociological datasets and the various things we can learn by analyzing them. And, although I do appreciate the real-world examples, sometimes I get tired of all these perky teens and just want to play with the equations.

- When you teach math at home, in the evening, to your child, you can have ice cream during class

Anyway, despite my shortcomings as a math tutor, we seem to be doing OK with our math-with-mom-at-home arrangement. Even so, once the schedule is fixed so that she can join the right math class at school again, I will happily hand her (and the grading) over to a real math teacher.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Break It Up : An Ode to the Paragraph

Today I am thinking about : paragraphs.

You might not think that this topic has any hope of being interesting, and you are probably right, but I am thinking about paragraphs anyway. In particular, I have been wondering why I feel so wearied by long long long paragraphs in Science Papers. I can deal with them in Literature, but I am not so happy about them in Science Papers, especially ones I am reviewing, especially if the entire paper is really really long.

Assuming the content of a Science Paper is interesting and not enraging, it can be very pleasant to read a paper that contains paragraphs, each with a nice topical sentence followed by related text that flows in a logical way to a semi-stopping point, and then .. a break before the next paragraph, which continues the discussion or presentation of information. Reading text that has perfect paragraphs is like listening to beautiful music.

In one manuscript I was reading recently, the authors seemed to think that having a heading every couple of pages was sufficient for breaks. That is, within each heading, all the text was semi-related enough to go in one (pages-long) paragraph. I don't really know why they did this, but it made the paper more difficult (tiring) to read, at least for me. The writing is not bad; it's just not good.

But again, I don't know why long paragraphs wear me out. I don't have a problem with a short attention span, I don't have any particular problem with reading comprehension, and I found the overall topic of this particular paper moderately interesting. And yet, I kept putting the paper aside, to continue reading later. In fact, I have not yet finished reading it.

It seems strange to me that it would make that much difference to have a little indentation in the text now and then.

And of course having too many paragraphs is also annoying.

And single sentence paragraphs are also terrible in their own way.

And maybe I am extreme about this, but I think that the technical aspects of a paper -- even a 'dry' science article -- can have a big effect on how the paper is perceived, how much and how closely it is read, and how (much) it is enjoyed. Content is critical, but so is format and organization. 
Am I being shallow, focusing on the packaging and unduly enamored of a pretty text package? Is this mania for writing beauty related to the fact that I have synesthesia? Maybe, maybe not, but I think that paragraphs help a paper breathe, and that a big long chunk of text can suffocate a paper. (And maybe also a blog, but I think it's OK to hold blog-writing to a different standard than a science article).

Do such technical writing aspects affect how you review a manuscript or proposal? I don't mean that in the sense of writing quality, but in terms of the details of how the text is formatted -- paragraphs, headings, and such. Over-formatting is also annoying, but how much do such things really matter in how readers (including reviewers) perceive the quality of the overall document? And can such things affect how much a paper is cited?

Friday, December 02, 2011

Crazy Enough For You?

It seems that I have had this experience before:

I am talking to an eminent, senior scientist in my field, and the conversation will be about semi-normal sciencey things and then -- zoom! without warning! -- we are in the realm of big-idea crazy-talk, as in really crazy.

Sort of like this, with the speaker being the eminent scientist:

"And then when we were studying X, it led to the insight that ... and of course that was different from what Schmoe found, but when we also tried Z, we found that results were consistent. But of course, the Earth is flat, and we are taking that into account, but Schmoe didn't."

I had such a conversation recently, and it also involved something like this:

"I read your paper on ABC, but I think you are basing a lot of your work on the assumption that the Earth is round, but it isn't of course. There's no evidence for that. You are making the same mistake that everyone makes. I used to, but then I realized: The Earth is flat."

I realize that someone doesn't have to be eminent (or old) to be (apparently) crazy, but I mention it because I wonder if it affects how we respond to this type of thing. That is, if someone you don't know wanders into your office with a New Theory of Everything, would your response be different compared to what you might say (and how you would say it) if someone with a long and distinguished record of scientific accomplishment (apparently) starts to go off the rails with their scientific ideas?

Are we more likely to assume that the former is insane (and not an eccentric genius who wanders from campus to campus trying to get someone to discuss their brilliant, transformative idea), and that the latter just might be on to something that has been hidden to the scientific masses because we so love conformity and are afraid to step back and blast away at centuries of belief in something we all "know" to be true?

I am not talking about level of respect -- I hope we would all be respectful to the maybe-crazy person with the New Theory of Everything, even if it is written in tiny letters covering the sides of grocery bags -- but about how likely we are to say "You're wrong" or to wonder if maybe we have been blind to the Truth all these years because we are science-sheep.

Perhaps it matters how (apparently) crazy the idea is. "The world is flat" is a good analogy for the encounter I had recently, but there are more subtle versions of (possibly) crazy ideas.

In my most recent encounter, I did not directly say "You are wrong". I said "There's actually a lot of evidence that the world is round. For example... [devastating list of compelling evidence]", but all I got back in response was "Well, I was talking to Other Famous Guy about this and he agreed with me."

Conversation = over for me at that point.

It was even pointless (and weird) to have to summon evidence for how we know the Earth is round -- and that's why I think I only did so because of the eminence of the scientist with whom I was having the conversation. But I rather quickly reached my limit of being willing to discuss this. At that point, the best options are to change the subject or leave, depending on what is possible for the situation.

Have any of you had this experience? What did do you? Did you doubt for a moment your belief in whatever idea was being challenged? If you tried to discuss the issues, did you make any headway?

Thursday, December 01, 2011


Do you listen to and/or (later) read speeches given by those accepting awards? I hasten to note that I am not writing on my own behalf here, at least not as the recipient of an award and therefore not as the giver of such a speech. I am writing as someone listening to/reading such a speech given by someone else.

What do you want to hear (if anything) in such a speech? Let's say the speaker has 5-10 minutes (maybe less) to cram in all the thank-yous  and personal history things that are necessary and expected, but perhaps there is a bit of time -- a minute or three -- to go beyond the ritual thanks.

Do you want them to talk about Research -- for example, their perspective on what is interesting in their field? More about their Life -- professional and/or personal? Pitfalls (in addition to Successes)? Important cats?

What makes a good speech? Should it be somehow different and memorable, or just try for the usual heartfelt thanks to those who helped along the way?

In the last couple of years, I heard at least one award-acceptance speech that took a political detour after the ritual thanking of mentors and students. The speech could have been interpreted as being highly critical of people in the audience with particular citizenship/political views. Responses that I heard ranged from

"Whatever -- he can say whatever he wants; it's his award and his speech" to

"Why go nuclear with strong political views and criticize innocent people in a friendly audience? We aren't responsible for the decisions of governments and behavior of politicians" to

specific rebuttals of the political statements ("He's wrong because..").

At least the speech was memorable. I suppose the other way to be memorable -- if that is your goal -- is to say something really bizarre. Or, instead of thanking those who helped you along the way, you could list all the people you hate the most.

If you have heard or read a memorable award-acceptance speech (for positive or negative reasons), what was memorable about it?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Worst Case Scenario

In my November contribution to the "Catalyst" section of The Chronicle of Higher Education, I wrote about how I typically deal with some rather minor instances of being insulted -- specifically as a woman -- in a professional context. I have written about this topic here in the blog as well, so I was not surprised by the various responses.

In the essay, I did not discuss major harassment or discrimination -- just the routine type of gender-specific insults. Even so, there was the usual comment saying that readers should not assume that it is common for women to experience this type of thing. For example, Woman X is Y years old with Z years of experience and has never ever been insulted or experienced any type of disparagement related to gender etc. etc. and therefore wants younger women to know that my experiences are unusual.

OK, that's great that some women never experience anything even remotely resembling sexism or obnoxious behavior related to gender, and it is worth noting this. Even so, all of us (me included) need to be careful about not extrapolating from our own experiences to the rest of the universe.

I am sometimes reminded of this -- in the opposite direction on the harassment spectrum -- by some of the e-mail that readers send to me, relating horrific tales of long-term, systemic discrimination, harassment, and abuse that is ignored and even encouraged at an institutional level. This is occurring today, in the US and elsewhere.

The problems described by these women are far beyond my experience, and they are far beyond any simple fix. They are at the level of class action suits or other courses of legal action; they are at the level of alerting the media and trying to get someone to expose the abuse.

The data are there -- there are documents detailing the abuse, there are numbers showing the career trajectories of women at these places, there are records showing the non-response or ineffectual response of upper administration to repeated examples of severe problems.

This is not the experience of all of us, but it should not be the experience of any of us.

As the recent example of Penn State has shown us, even crimes against children may not move the upper administration of some institutions to take action if apparently sacrosanct segments of an institution are involved. So what then can be done about situations that are not as shocking but that nevertheless should not be allowed, such as a pervasive culture of mistreatment and harassment of women and the perpetuation of a hostile work environment?

A question I have asked before but need to ask again:
  • What can a woman, or group of women, do in these extreme situations, other than quit/leave? 
What if you don't have the energy, resources, or time for a lawsuit, but nothing else has worked? -- that is, when no amount of presentation to upper administration of documented evidence has brought anything resembling a constructive response.
These incidents are not confined to any particular kind of institution (public/private, large/small), but it does seem that women at certain types of private institutions have fewer options for pursuing their complaints. (Discuss..)

There should be a mechanism for investigating these situations and finding a reasonable remedy, and if there is no institutional will to do so, there should be outside pressure, from the legal system, the media, donors, and/or the public. And in an ideal world, those who bring such suits or actions would not have their careers destroyed in the process.

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a way to do this without causing harm to the people -- in this case, a group of women -- who are already being harmed.

What to do?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Not So Secret

There was a recent essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled "5 Big Secrets Your Staff Wishes You Knew". Great title! Click. The essay is aimed at professors, and I am sure that many of us professors want to learn things that will help us interact better with staff. This is one of the useful things about the Chronicle -- it provides information from the point of view of all sorts of academic citizens at all sorts of institutions, so we can better understand each other.

OK, so what are The Big 5? I must say that I found them disappointing, even as I appreciate the main point of the essay: be respectful. It's sad (and cynical) to call this a secret, but it is good to be reminded anyway. It is something that we probably all forget more than we should.

In any case, here are The Five Secrets, in case you missed the essay:

1. Don't call them secretaries. The author of the essay is an academic program specialist. Most of us have administrative assistants in our department offices. Many have bachelor's degrees; some have more advanced degrees.

OK. Most of the professors I know don't use the word "secretary" anymore, but I can believe the word is still used now and then. I understand that "secretary" comes with some negative connotations, but at the same time, I don't think it is cool to slam secretaries, past or present, with this:

If you treat your staff members as mere secretaries, they'll probably act like mere secretaries. You won't get much constructive work out of them. But if you treat them like professionals, you might be surprised at how helpful they become.

Why assume that the people (most of them women) who are or were known as secretaries are/were not competent professionals with many or all of the same skills as the modern administrative assistant? Is the author (a man) referring to stereotypes of female secretaries? Is that why he used the word mere?

And I didn't understand the point about level of education in the context of level of respect. Surely the author is not saying that we should respect someone with a bachelor's degree more than someone without? That would undermine the entire point of the essay, in my opinion, because it leads to the conclusion that those without a PhD should automatically respect those with a PhD, and I don't think the author feels that way (nor should he, or anyone). I think the main point here is supposed to be that we should be aware that some staff are highly skilled.

The hint of retribution if we don't get the title right is also a bit disturbing. I have taught classes in which some of the students didn't know I was a tenured professor. On coming to my office hours, some expressed amazement that I had my own office, considering that they thought I was an adjunct. So what? Although I was not happy about the underlying assumption (woman = adjunct? or should I say contingent faculty?), I was not offended that they didn't get my title or tenure status right. Should I have become less constructive and helpful with these students? I can't imagine doing so.

2. Staff have deadlines too. This is a good reminder for us all. We all have deadlines, and we should all be considerate when we need something done now(ish). I think many of us can relate to this. We professors too-frequently encounter students who request letters of recommendation a day or two before a deadline, administrators who need something done yesterday, and staff members who forget to tell us that there is a new form we need to fill out (today). Ideally, we can try to minimize the number of times we ask someone to do something at the last-minute, but it does happen to us all, alas.

3. Staff can 'lead the way on technology.' That's great, but no one in any department I have been in has had anyone on the administrative staff who could 'lead the way on technology', no matter what their age (or my age). I suppose the main point here is to get to know the staff and their abilities.

4. Staff don't always think in the abstract. This one surprised me the most because I wondered: and professors do? This is where I scrolled down to see where the author works; in what kind of department do the professors always think in the abstract? The author is in a college of medicine. Scary.

It is strange to assume that faculty wander around thinking in the abstract all day. Many of us spend our days teaching and dealing with research management issues (grants management, keeping track of our advisees, writing reports, filling out forms that keep changing.. ). I wish I had more time for abstract thinking.

5. Staff are people too. I'm sorry that anyone would consider this a secret, but again, I can appreciate that the point is worth making.

This 'secret' seems particularly aimed at a certain species of condescending professor. Apparently, "The professorial supremacy complex inflicts far too many in your ranks". I am sure this is true, and for anyone who has to deal with those of us who think or act this way, surely even one is too many.

In some cases -- for example, asking a staff member to do something at the last-minute before a deadline -- I wonder how much of our (inadvertent) rudeness relates to the fact that we all have too much to do, that many of us are under quite a lot of pressure (even those of us with tenure), and that staff have to deal with large numbers of faculty with different styles and abilities in terms of organization, deadlines, social skills etc. Those aren't excuses, just reasons for explaining what might seem as rudeness or lack of respect, or even a "supremacy complex".

I understand why the author felt compelled to write this essay. As I have described before, sometimes, when I am spending some time in the main office of my department, I am mistaken for a staff person by someone who isn't a regular member of my department, and I am frequently struck by how rude people are when they wander into a department office and talk to staff.

Several times I have been abruptly handed pieces of paper and told to give this to So-and-So. What to do? Say "no" and hand it back without further comment (perhaps giving a bad impression of the real staff, who are unfailingly nice) or send the rude person to one of our hard-working staff people so they can be interrupted and ordered around as well? Typically, I will smile and say something like "I am Professor Z and, like everyone else here, I'm very busy, but if you want your (whatever) delivered to the right person, you can do it yourself. There are mailboxes over there, and a directory of offices in the hall." This sort of works.

Anyway, despite my criticism of the content and tone of the essay, I will say again that I appreciate its premise: staff should be treated with respect -- but I would add that this applies no matter what their title or how many degrees they have. The same goes, of course, for how staff treat professors, no matter what the professor's title, age, gender, ethnicity etc.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Style

Warning: This is not the most important post I have ever written, but it's Friday, not to mention the Friday after Thanksgiving, although I did take the afternoon off yesterday (but not, alas, today), so this is all I'm good for in the way of posts right now.

A (true) story that entertained me:

The other day, I rode my bike to one of those stores that sells Everything. For the ride, I had rolled up my pant legs, not having remembered the handy velcro strap that I sometimes use; the right leg was rolled up more than the left leg. When I arrived at the store that sells Everything, I forgot to roll them back down. I was no doubt too busy thinking about Awesome Science Things, or something.

This is relevant because, as I was standing in an aisle gazing at an astounding array of vegetable peelers, two older women stood at the end of the aisle and talked about me, loudly.

The 50-something year old woman said to her 70-something year old mother, "Look at HER! She has her pant legs rolled up!"

I was taken aback. My first thought was: JERKS.

Only then did I realize that I'd forgotten about my rolled-up pant legs, but surely someone with rolled up pant legs, even if a bit asymmetric, was not worthy of this kind of attention? I looked down and saw that the asymmetry was not even too noticeable, as the right leg had mostly unrolled itself as I walked.

Were they visitors from some planet in which rolled-up pant legs were illegal or taboo?

Then the 50-something year old woman said "See, it's just like I was telling you. THAT is the STYLE." The 70-something year old woman just made a hrrmph-like noise, so the 50-something year old continued, loudly, pointing at me and proclaiming 3 more times that what I was wearing was THE STYLE. The older woman grudgingly agreed to get some pants with rolled-up legs for her granddaughter, but she was not happy about it.

Even so, how thrilling for me! To be the epitome of STYLE! Such things do not ever often happen to me.

Too bad these women were wrong.. and strange.. and unpleasant.. and I feel sorry for the granddaughter, who will be getting a gift(?) that is not actually THE STYLE according to anyone except perhaps middle-aged, absent-minded, bicycle-riding FSPs (unless -- maybe! -- that is what she aspires to be?!).

Thursday, November 24, 2011

How Nice Are You?

In 2008 at this time of year (that is, the Thanksgiving holiday in the US), I had a post about whether or not I give exams just before a major holiday break (I do not). As usual, there were some interesting comments, but I think this question deserves a poll in 2011.

In this poll, a "No" answer implies a deliberate choice to not give an exam or quiz before a major break (you can explain why in the comments).

An answer of "Maybe" implies that you don't really pay attention to holidays/breaks and you just create the schedule however makes the most sense for the class/topic; if a quiz falls just before (or just after) a break, so be it.

A "Yes" answer implies that you deliberately schedule exams just before a break because .. (explain in the comments); e.g., this ensures attendance, you'd rather give an exam just before than just after a break, you are evil etc.

Do you give exams just before a major holiday break?
No, never
Maybe, if that's the way the schedule turns out
Yes, very often or always free polls 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Take Down

For some reason -- or, possibly, for no reason -- the manuscripts I have been sent to review lately have been of a certain type: the type of paper that has an interesting dataset or idea that would make an interesting focus for the paper, but the authors instead choose to spin the paper as an attack on someone else's idea/s. That is, the papers seem to be aimed mostly at criticizing someone else's published work and proposing something different instead, even if that something:
  • isn't all that different from the original idea they are trashing;
  • isn't nearly as interesting as what they could focus on instead (says me); and/or
  • isn't supported by their own data.
These cases are different from those in which there is clear evidence that a published idea or dataset is wrong and that wrong needs righting.

I have disproved the work of others before (including one of my early grad advisors, who hated me for it), but I don't derive any particular pleasure from it -- at least, not on a personal level. As a scientist, I can appreciate the sweeping away of an old, bad idea and replacing it with a beautiful new idea that explains things, and I feel satisfaction and pride if it's my research that does this or helps with this process, but I don't enjoy an attack for the sake of an attack.

For that reason, I find it hard to understand when someone else chooses -- and it is a choice -- to go that route when there really isn't much of a point to doing so. That is, when some researchers try very hard to find something, anything, no matter how unimportant, to tear down, and focus on that so much that the rest of their work is subsumed.

Yes, I know that sometimes there is personal animosity involved, but in the cases I recently encountered, the people involved actually get along quite well, at least as far as I know. The attacks in the manuscripts under review are not vicious or personal; they seem almost formulaic, as if the primary authors were told that this was the best way to write a paper that will be noticed (cited) or that they should be sure to distinguish their work from that of others.

In fact, the primary authors of these manuscripts have all been PhD students or postdocs. Maybe they are trying to make a splash? I think the papers could be really nice contributions if the focus were more on the substance of the research, not on some far-fetched or unfounded undermining of a minor point in some other publication. 

Probably my reviews will sound patronizing to the authors, and of course they and the editors can ignore my advice, but I think it is a mistake to go negative when there is nothing to be gained by doing so.

If you have gotten advice, particularly as an early-career researcher, about the best way to set up a paper, did that advice include anything about this issue? For example: framing a paper as an argument or attack is a good way to write a paper (no matter what), this is a bad way to write a paper, only do this if you think you are totally justified and it is an important issue etc.?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

To Stay or Not to Stay

Over in Scientopia, the topic of discussion today is whether it is bad to stay at the same institution for a postdoc after a PhD, and various other scenarios related to staying vs. moving on at different academic stages.

Monday, November 21, 2011


Can you think of a (good) reason why a journal would need to know the gender of authors and reviewers?

A reader wrote to me with this question, as a result of being required to select a gender-revealing option when registering on a journal's website. This option was separate from one asking for the professional title (Prof., Dr., Prof. Dr. etc.). It was not possible for this person, even after communicating with journal staff, to register without checking this box. In fact, the journal staff insisted that this information was essential because otherwise communication was too difficult and would involve the awkward use of "he/she" in letters, or perhaps embarrassing mistakes if the gender of the person wasn't clear from their name.

I can think of reasons why a woman would not want reviewers and editors to know her gender, but I can't think of a good reason why reviewers and editors would need to know the gender of an author or reviewer. It occurred to me that a journal might want to keep track of how many papers are published by male vs. female authors (or lead authors, in fields that make this distinction), but that is not the reason the journal gave to the reader who wrote to me about this issue. In that case, the concern was making embarrassing mistakes in using pronouns in correspondence or that someone would be offended if referred to as he/she instead of by the correct pronoun.

If a journal did want to keep track of gender data, those data could be separated from individual papers, so that editors and reviewers did not see it for any particular individual or paper. 

If you are writing to someone whose gender you do not know, why would you even use he/she or his/her in direct correspondence with them? This is a real question. Am I overlooking something?

In my role as editor and reviewer, I do not need it; 'you' is nice and direct, or I use the person's name or title. In correspondence about someone, I can use their title, a term such as "Reviewer 1" (if they are anonymous, you shouldn't use a pronoun anyway), or I refer indirectly to "the author/s", depending on context. The journal with which I am most closely involved is based in Europe, with close ties to Asia, North America, and Australia. It is more formal than many North American-based journals in its correspondence traditions, but even so, we do not need to know the gender of authors or reviewers.

Yes, I know about Frau Professor, Herr Professor etc., but those can be options for those who prefer those titles. There should not a requirement to inform a journal of your gender before you submit a paper or review an article.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Nature Error

OK, OK, yes I saw the stupid "Futures" story(?) titled Womanspace in Nature in late September, I read the comments (many of which are great), and I agree that Nature should not have published this thing, not just because it is offensive, but because it is bad -- bad writing, bad story, bad way to crank up traffic on the site -- and should not be in a journal, not even in an obscure corner of a journal website. The editor showed appalling judgement.

Many of the ensuing comments are great, and I don't have much to add, except that some of the comments struck me as outstanding examples of classic responses flung out whenever there is a suggestion that something just might possibly be sexist or at the very least offensive to many people. In the case in question, that something was written (and published in Nature) explicitly for male readers with female significant others, portraying women in general as having certain shopping tendencies, and including generalizations that would be unthinkable to write about people of, say, a particular religion or ethnicity (but are apparently OK if you are writing about women as a group).

One of the classic responses is along the lines of: "I was just joking. If you weren't so humorless you would see how funny I am." I have written about these "jokes" before. They have no place in a professional venue.

The other insidious classic response is the "My wife wasn't offended by what I wrote and she is a woman and not only that but she is also really smart and I sometimes do the cooking at home and therefore my participation in what is traditionally a very female household job makes me by definition a non-sexist, hear me roar."

Or something like that. Variations on this are "I am that man's wife and I thought what he wrote was very funny" (so he is not sexist; see the comments in Nature, including the one from the author's wife) and/or "I am a woman and I wasn't offended".. ergo, the author is not a sexist.

I am not sure I am following the reasoning here. Is it that men are only sexist if they say they are, but they never are if someone else says they are? And any woman can speak for all other women (just as we apparently all shop the same way) and therefore if only one woman is not offended, sexism doesn't exist, even if many women (and men) were offended? That is, sexism can never exist, it can only not exist?

I think I am beginning to develop a hypothesis. Maybe Nature will publish it?

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Today in Scientopia, I discuss issues related to the independence, or lack thereof, of graduate students, and whether the preferred amount of independence in research is a good match with the advisor's preferences.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Man Boy(cott) 2011

This is a repeat topic, but it's something that keeps happening, so here it is again.

There is a conference that is of some interest to me. It's not a super-major conference and it is not urgent for me to attend, but it will be an interesting group of people, and I expect the level of intellectually stimulating conversation and exchange of ideas to be high, making the trip worthwhile. I think that I will go to the conference.

And then I look at the list of keynote speakers: all men, no women. I won't specify the exact number of speakers, but let's just say it is in the vicinity of 10, so it's not as if there's just one or two.

The conference topic is one that involves many women researchers worldwide. I can easily think of several without even trying. By "without even trying", I mean that without specifically trying to think of women researchers -- when I just think of people doing interesting research in this field -- many of these people are women.

[Note: I am rather peripheral to this topic, so am not implying that I think I should have been invited; I do not think this.]

Sometimes when I encounter these all-men slates of keynotes for a conference that I'm not sure I want to attend, that fact tips the balance for me and I do not go. If, however, I think the conference will be overall worthwhile anyway, I may go, and I will likely speak with the conference organizer, asking about the lack of women speakers.

Last time I wrote about this, I asked for comments on whether an all-men slate of keynote speakers would be a non-issue, a maybe-issue, or a deal-breaker for readers in their decisions to attend conferences. There were many interesting comments, with of course the usual wide range of opinions. Today I am asking the same question, but in poll form. This tends to increase the number of responses, but of course we lose a bit of the nuance, so feel free to leave a new or repeat comment on the topic in addition to voting. 

Does an all-men speaker slate influence your decision about whether to attend a conference?
No, it is always a non-issue for me.
It can be a deciding factor.
Yes, it is a deal-breaker for me. free polls