Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Snarling v. Smiling

The FSP family is on the road, and having the age-old discussion about whether it is more effective and satisfying to snarl at airline personnel or whether it is better to smile and be nice, even in the face of unbelievable incompetence.

We have this discussion in other contexts as well -- e.g., when dealing with obnoxious colleagues and students. The MSP in the family is a snarler; I am typically more nice. It's unclear which way the offspring will go, but she is considering her options.

Comment moderation and posting will be intermittent whilst we roam.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

25 Dec 2007

My Christmas presents from my mother.
Refrigerator magnets!

My Christmas present from my brother.
I don't really know what it is for, but it's made of foam and he got it free at a convention.

Christmas Cat

Monday, December 24, 2007

Top 10 Worst Jobs

In my academic life, I have had a number of excellent jobs. Even the academic jobs that weren't so great had certain interesting aspects to them. I even enjoyed being a teaching assistant as a grad student.

In my previous (non-academic) life, I had many awful jobs working with despicable and/or insane people, and I thought it might be fun to list some of these jobs. I have recently been working late to finish some papers and get manuscripts (re)submitted, and at a time like this, it's good to be reminded that things could be far far worse.

Top 10 Worst Jobs I Have Had Thus Far
(10 = least worst; 1 = worst worst)

10. Library worker: front desk
This job was mind numbing most of the time and I was not allowed to read (in a library!). There were a surprising number of rude people checking out books, but one of the pleasures of the job was that it was easy to get revenge on rude people. For example, one could 'forget' to demagnetize their books, causing the rude people embarrassment and inconvenience when they tried to exit the library. During one particular encounter with an extremely rude person, I dropped her library card down a slot that led only to a drawer immediately below the front desk, but there was no way for the rude person to know this. I screamed Oh no! That slot leads to the furnace in the basement! Your card has been incinerated and you cannot check out these books! I then 'found' the card, but in my confused state, forgot to demagnetize her books. This is why this boring job is the least worst of the list.

9. Dishwasher
This job was not so bad either. It was kind of disgusting dealing with all the leftover food and the industrial dishwasher was loud and the job was boring, but I liked my coworkers.

8. Newspaper deliverer
I delivered newspapers back in the day when this was a job that kids did. I walked or rode my bike in all weather and placed each newspaper in the door or mailbox, depending on customer preference. I collected the newspaper fee each week in person. I had the stereotypical experiences with dogs: that is, I was bitten on more than one occasion, and had to go to the emergency room once for a bad dog bite. The most vicious and insane dogs had names like Angel and Mimi. I did this paper route diligently for years, but it turns out that my mother had put the route in my brother's name, it being more common for boys to have paper routes back then, and he got awards for my work. I am sure that this has emotionally scarred me in some way, but not as much as some of my other jobs.

7. Sandwich maker
This was horrible, but at least it was brief. I worked long shifts with no breaks and was not even allowed to sit down. I had to use sharp objects and machines to slice and dice vegetables and meats. The deli area was extremely hot. After I fainted a few times from exhaustion, I was fired.

6. Babysitter
This was also horrible and also brief. In fact, I only did it once and I hated it. The experience did not start well because it was my mother who made me agree to babysit for two obnoxious twin boys who lived on our street, and I was not happy about being forced to do this. Then, in a bizarre twist of fate, my mother was invited to ride in the Goodyear blimp that very day and to bring a guest. She refused to bring me because I had made a "commitment" and I couldn't break that commitment just because it was the one and only time in my entire life that I was likely to be invited to ride in the Goodyear blimp. So my mother went without me. As the twins shrieked at each other and threw food at me, I vowed never to babysit again.

5. Library worker: book shelver
This was a bad job for three reasons: (1) it was boring, (2) my supervisor had many bizarre rules that were difficult to follow, and (3) the library patrons were dominated by residents of a nearby institution for the mentally disturbed. I worked on some floors of the library that were totally dark unless I turned on the light in an aisle. I was only allowed to have a light on as long as I was in an aisle, and then had to turn it off and walk in the dark to find the next aisle. This was stressful because of reason (3) above. Some of the library patrons thought it was very fun to sneak up on me in the dark and then scream suddenly. Note that I had this library job before the one described in #10, so at this time I did not deserve to be tortured in a library. Also, some of the less stable library patrons thought it was very entertaining to leave razor blades in some of the books I was shelving, as well as disturbing notes. My supervisor did not care about any of this, but she cared very much that I follow the rule about the lights. This was a bad job.

4. Waitress in seafood restaurant
I have nothing good to say about this experience. I worked long shifts with unpleasant people and had to dress like a cooked lobster. Huge buses would arrive and 100 people would want to be served at once. Someone always injured themselves on a lobster and would get mad at me just because they were clumsy and were bleeding on their coleslaw. The bus people would leave a few nickels under their plates as tips. The cooks said lewd and crude things to the waitresses and the manager yelled at everyone. A surprising number of customers were not nice. When I am visiting my ancestral home and drive by this restaurant, I shudder to this day.

3. Cook in awful restaurant
Even worse than being a waitress is working in the kitchen of a bad restaurant. One summer I worked in the kitchen of a restaurant that was run by a man with a really bad temper and questionable rules to increase worker efficiency. For example, he decided that it would save time if we removed burgers from the grill with our hands instead of using implements. If he saw us using an implement, he screamed and threatened us. So we got burned, and then would run into the walk-in freezer and submerge our hands in vats of pickles. The boss soon realized what we were doing and prohibited us from leaving our work station after extracting a burger (by hand) from the grill. Near the end of the summer, he got very angry at me and started telling me that I was a loser who would never amount to anything because I couldn't even do my job well as a cook in this lousy restaurant and that I didn't know anything and that he was so much smarter than I was blah blah blah. As soon as he stopped yelling, I started quoting the beginning of Book I of the Aeneid, in Latin -- at the time, I knew quite a lot of it. He fired me. Has anyone ever been fired for quoting from the Aeneid? It was truly a worthwhile experience (and I had been about to quit anyway).

2. Servant for wealthy insane people
A college friend and I responded to an advertisement for a summer job working for a family that had a house on a certain island off the coast of New England. The family liked to hire college students to "help" with some light housework, occasional child care, and occasional cooking at their summer home. Much time off was promised, and we would be treated like "one of the family" and paid well. Once we were on this island with no way to escape, the nice people of this family informed us that we would do all the cooking, clean the large house from top to bottom every day, and take care of their beastly children (who liked to spit, throw hard objects, and scream if not given their way). Our time off mostly consistent of going along with the family on "fun" outings at which we had to fetch things for them and basically continue to be servants. Soon after arriving, one of the family members had a screaming fit because we had allowed someone to pluck a grape from a bunch of grapes without using the grape scissors. Our pay was docked. On a daily basis, the grandfather would wander into the kitchen, look in the freezer, scream "There's not enough ice! Make more ice!". We would make more ice. Then the grandmother would wander into the kitchen, look in the freezer, scream "There's too much ice! Get rid of all this ice!" and throw it all out. Then the grandfather would wander back in.. (etc.). Our pay was docked. One night there was a storm and a shutter flapped loose. The next day, the eldest daughter yelled at us for not fixing it in the middle of the night. Our pay was docked. And so the summer went. The only member of the family who was nice to us was the youngest daughter, but she was only nice because she had recently joined a cult and walked around in a daze that may well have been chemically induced. My friend and I kept ourselves sane by writing novels in the style of Jane Austen about our experience and the dark secrets that our employers no doubt were keeping in the attic.

1. Farm worker for tragic farm family
In my Youth, I always did well in school and I always loved to read. One might think that my mother would be happy about this, but at some point in my teenage years she decided that I was becoming "too intellectual" and that I needed to spend a summer carrying out strenuous manual labor. I objected to this anti-intellectual plan and I believe I even called my mother a Maoist at some point, and that did not go over well. So, I soon found myself indentured to a friend of a friend of my mother's co-worker's dentist, or something like that. I was not even paid in money. I was paid in vegetables. The farming family consisted of a middle-aged couple, their young son, a grandfather, and another relative of some sort (a young man, perhaps a nephew). The woman of the farming family had recently survived a suicide attempt, and spent her days staring out the window at me. The young son spent his days kicking kittens and puppies and trying to make the large hog eat something that would make it ill (or, even better, explode). The young man had some emotional problems as well, and he liked to jump out from behind tractors and corn stalks to scare me. The grandfather was extremely nice but demented, and every day he told me how to get from the farm to Florida, mentioning every route number in turn, over and over and over. The farmer man was nice but he didn't really know what to do with me, as he was somehow forced to participate in my mother's Cultural Revolution-like experiment to cure me of being so intellectual. So he used to make up jobs for me. I spent two entire weeks walking up and down the rows of corn, straightening any that had been knocked over. I spent an entire week walking up and down the rows of potatoes, crushing potato bugs by hand. I shingled and painted the farm house, even though I had no idea what I was doing. I got heat exhaustion and was constantly on the look out for the disturbed young man who liked to scare me. One day as I lay under a tractor, delirious and nearly unconscious from the heat, I decided to become a professor.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Short Days, Long Meetings

This has been a week of meetings, and in particular long meetings. I define a long meeting as anything over 1.5 hours, and by that definition, I had 3 long meetings this week so far. Now that classes are over, there is ample time for long meetings.

Today I had a 4-hour meeting. That was a long meeting, but in fact this meeting typically takes 6+ hours. For some reason, the committee was extraordinarily efficient and in agreement today. Perhaps it was a random event, or perhaps everyone just wanted to get things done and have the academic term finally finally finally end. Or maybe everyone is so fatigued that we all just agreed with each other.

I didn’t mind this particular long meeting because it involved a committee that has faculty members from many academic disciplines. The discussions are very interesting and I always learn a lot. Today I particularly enjoyed a conversation with history and English professors about the different ways that we approach our research. Despite huge differences in academic culture, there are important similarities. For example, we are all primarily driven by curiosity and deep interest in our field, and in our discussion today we all mentioned how thrilling it is to discover something – it doesn’t matter if it’s something in an old archive or something in a lab or even something that just occurs to you when you think deeply about a question or topic.

I liked being reminded about what is so amazing about universities. We are collections of people who are thinking intensely and passionately about the universe, life, art and everything. We are learning, teaching, and discovering, and we get to do this as a job. For me, being reminded of that is a good way to end the term.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Christmas Time Birthdays

A glance at the keywords used in search engines to find this blog clearly shows that the topic of Christmas Time Birthdays (CTB’s) is heating up. My addition to the CTB genre was My Christmas time Birthday (December 21, 2006 – the date of the blog entry, not the date of my birthday).

If you type “Christmas time birthday” into Google, my blog comes up as the very first entry, and this is of course thrilling. I am pleased to have provided information for those who are actively searching for ways to deal with the CTB situation. Presumably these are all kind people who are seeking creative suggestions for ways to enliven and enrich the birthday experience for CTB people so that we will not feel ignored and slighted and therefore become bitter and twisted. I assume that the selfish people looking to cut corners wouldn’t be doing such searches and have already sent off their insidious For Your Christmas-time Birthday combo cards.

One of my daughter’s friends has a CTB that typically falls at a time when her mother is out of town at the MLA conference. For that reason and because a lot of friends are also out of town, my daughter’s friend gets to pick whatever day she wants to celebrate her birthday and have a party. She typically chooses a day in February or March, and she is happy with that because she feels as if she has two special days.

One of my grad students also has a CTB. When we were talking about this the other day, he brought up a positive aspect of his CTB. He said that when he was a kid, he loved having a CTB because he would get presents that would be too expensive for any one holiday but that were OK for a ‘double’ event. This is how he got a Nintendo as a kid. Such thoughts did not occur to my parents, who tended to give me socks for my CTB. Maybe it is not too late for my mom to talk to his mom. Last year, my mother gave me a nautical-themed dishtowel for my birthday.

But of course this is not really about presents and attention and so on, although some of it is.

As I wrote last year, I am now very fond of my CTB because my family and I always go on a trip somewhere interesting. It is hard to feel distraught about getting a nautical-themed dishtowel for your birthday when you are spending the day on a beach in the Algarve or climbing Mayan pyramids in the Yucatan, and this year promises to be just as fun.

I am fortunate that I get to travel and enjoy my birthday in an interesting place. The #2 item on Google for CTB keywords is an article about how hard it is for people without much money to provide a festive day for their CTB kids. It is possible to have a fun and happy day without a lot of gifts, and it is also possible – and essential – to avoid making your child feel like they are a problem because of the timing of their birthday.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Not Rated

The subject of rankings of colleges/universities, departments, and programs is huge and complex and I am not even going to begin to tackle it in a comprehensive way. I am, however, interested in the topic of how administrators decide which rankings they like and don’t like.

You might think it is simple: administrators like high rankings and don’t like low rankings, but it is actually more complex than that when you consider the relative rankings of departments within a university or unit of a university.

For example, there is one particular science/engineering department at my university that is typically very highly ranked in major surveys of graduate programs. I think it is in fact a very excellent department. I have worked with faculty and students in that department, and served on university committees that evaluate faculty and students in that department, and there is no question that it has many strengths. Owing to its excellence, this department receives a lot of attention and resources from the university, and, to be fair, generates a lot of attention and resources for the university. Administrators love this department.

Consider now the situation in which another department (just for fun, let’s say this is My Department) ranks extremely high in a recent survey, but the Esteemed Department does not rank as high. Are the Deans et al. happy that My Department is highly ranked? No, they are not happy. In fact, because the Esteemed Department is not as highly ranked as they expected it to be, the survey must be flawed. In fact, the Deans et al. are so disturbed by the unexpectedly low ranking of the Esteemed Department (i.e., not even in the Top 10), they take no joy whatsoever from the high ranking of any other department and bury the data.

If the Esteemed Department had been ranked #1 or #2, the media engine would be roaring and we would all be reading glossy university magazines and brochures that heralded to the world the amazing success of this department. Are the people in My Department angry and bitter? No, they are not angry and bitter. You might say, however, that they are chagrined. They are also considering options for self-promotion that show that they are proud of their accomplishments but at the same time are not slaves to rankings, which we all know are deeply flawed, or at least, some of them are.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


This week I did some professor alchemy and turned numbers into letters; i.e., number grades into letter grades. A previous school I was at let us keep everything as numbers that went directly into a GPA. Of course, some alchemy was also involved in that system as well; i.e., the mythical curving function that some professors apply to their grades.

This is the first semester in a long time in which none of my students got a grade of F, and I am very pleased about that. Some students withdrew from my classes at various times in the semester, and one of these students was possibly heading towards an F, so the lack of F's is perhaps an artifact of this withdrawal.

I also gave one grade of Incomplete rather than giving an F. The decision about whether to give an Incomplete or an F can be difficult. It is easy if a student who was otherwise doing well in the class has an emergency at some point in the class and misses an exam or key assignment(s). Those students get an I, make up the work, and then get a grade.

The decision is more difficult if the student has missed a series of assignments or more than one exam, and doesn't contact you to discuss the situation. I just had an F vs. I debate with myself about one student, and decided to go with the I.

I sent the Incomplete student an urgent email, as I have a number of other times in recent weeks as the possibility of an F started looming. When I talked to this student in class before the term ended, she said she does not read her email. I said that this was the primary means by which I would communicate with her and other students in the class outside of class, but she has yet to respond to any email I have sent.

I can't even remember what we used to do before we could email students. They can always call or come see us in our offices, but what if we need to talk to them? I am quite sure I never called a student unless they called me and left a message with their phone number and a request for me to call them back. I can see this I student's campus and home phone numbers in the directory, but somehow I can't imagine calling her at home to discuss her grade. I talked to a dean-like person about the situation, and he said that I could pursue certain channels to find out who her official advisor is, and the advisor could then activate certain special advisorial mechanisms to reel in a student to discuss academic problems.

Ultimately, completing the required course assignments is her responsibility. The I converts automatically to an F if the work is not made up in a certain amount of time. I am hoping that the work will be made up and the student will end up with a good grade. I may pursue the advisor mechanism of tracking her down, but if she wants to get help or discuss the I with me, she knows where to find me, and I hope she does just that.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Formatting Matters

I have been reading a lot of proposals and research statements lately. It is very important that documents such as these grab the reader/reviewer at the beginning and then follow through with compelling supporting information in subsequent parts. Unlike manuscripts, these types of documents are more free style in how they are formatted, with only a few limits about fonts, font size, and margins.

Especially in long documents, the use of various formatting styles helps highlight when a sentence, phrase, or word is really important. Bulleted lists, the creative and appropriate use of subheadings and paragraphs, and (at least in science) the insertion of useful or cool images can also be effective formatting tools.

But then there are those persons who go berserk with the formatting and treat the reader like we are all too dense (or lazy) to pick out an important word or concept. Writing that your research is innovative doesn’t necessarily make it so.. but a well-written sentence or succinct paragraph about your research or ideas might get this same point across in a less obnoxious way.

I know that in some cases this excessive formatting likely is a response to a previous proposal review that indicates a reviewer couldn’t possibly have read the text, but there are effective ways to emphasize important text and there are annoying ways to emphasize arguably important text.

I use bold type in grant proposals, but sparingly, and I try to put one illustration on each page. I summarize main points with
  • bulleted
  • lists
and I am a big fan of breaking up giant chunks of text with subheadings (but not too many).

Sentences don’t have to be terse. Long sentences should, however, be avoided if they contain a lot of really very many unnecessary, non essential, redundant and extra words, unless they are all very beautiful words, which is unlikely but not impossible*.

In the stack of proposals that I just read, I was intrigued that some people used bold type, some used italics, and some underlined. Fortunately I did not encounter anyone who used all three styles in one document; there seem to be distinctive personal styles when it comes to emphasis. I did notice in these few dozen proposals that I just read (about half of which were science/engineering and the rest humanities) that, in this group, scientists and engineers tend to favor bold type and humanities faculty tend to favor italics or underlining, with the exception of political scientists (bold type).

In proposals, I am much more likely to use bold type than other formats, but in this blog, I veer between bold and italics depending on my mood. I am not typically an underliner. I find underlined words aesthetically unpleasing. I will not hold this against a proposal-writer who writes that their work is innovative (underlined), but I might hold it against them for not backing that statement up.

And then there are the people who put lots of words in
‘quotation marks’.
I wrote about this topic last year at about this same time because ‘tis the season for me to read lots of proposals from faculty whose 'primary' expertise is in the humanities, and many of these faculty favor long, complex sentences that contain ‘words’ that I don’t understand although the proposal-writers are specifically told to eschew ’jargon’ (see also December 6, 2006: This Post Contains ‘Words’).

This issue of formatting is important because if a reviewer of a proposal (or a reader of a research statement) is reading more than a few proposals/statements (e.g., dozens to > 100), they may well not read every word. You need to write your document so that a reader either wants to read every word (because what you write is so fascinating) or you need to structure the text so that essential points will be noticed. It is very important that these essential points have content and not just be empty statements to the effect that you think you are awesome.

* Clearly, Proust did not change my life, although I am always in search of lost time.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

MS v. PhD

My research group has always had a mix of M.S. and Ph.D. students, though typically Ph.D. students greatly outnumber M.S. students. Some of my M.S. students go on to do a Ph.D. (here or elsewhere), but most do not. Some of my former M.S. students teach at two-year (community) colleges or in K-12 schools, some work for government agencies, and some have better jobs in industry than they would have had with just a B.S or similar degree.

These are all good things, and I am glad that I was able to help these former students get a graduate degree that led them to career opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have had. If I were to be totally selfish and pragmatic, however, I wouldn’t advise M.S. students who were clearly going to be ‘terminal M.S.’ (TMS) students. They are not cost effective. They require a lot of time and some require a lot of resources (depending on their research project). Rarely is that time/money well spent if ‘well spent’ is defined strictly in terms of tangible research products that typically indicate productivity (i.e., papers).

For this reason, some of my colleagues do not advise terminal M.S. students, or strongly prefer not to advise them.

I am not quite so severe in my TMS student avoidance, but I can certainly understand the philosophy. In my experience, it is extremely rare for a TMS student to produce a publishable paper or even to produce a high-quality dataset that can be used as a basis for a paper. In part, this is because I am rather strict about the amount of time a TMS student should take to get their degree. I think two years is enough for a TMS in most cases. Grad school is of course immensely fun, but why spend 3 or more years just to get an M.S.? I could insist that TMS students keep working until they produce a publishable paper, but in most cases, that’s not going to happen in any reasonable amount of time.

In the context of yesterday’s discussion, if a prospective student writes to me and says that they are interested in getting an M.S., I will certainly look at their application, but M.S. applicants are at a disadvantage relative to Ph.D. students in terms of being involved in grant-funded research. Teaching assistantships can fund M.S. students and therefore pay for salary/tuition/benefits, but someone still has to pay for the costs of doing the thesis research, and I am that someone if I am the advisor.

Even so, sometimes it is worth taking on a TMS student. One of my best Ph.D. students was initially an M.S. student who just wasn’t confident about doing research until she realized in the first year that she excelled at it and loved it. That example is definitely on my mind when I review applications for students who say they ‘just’ want an M.S. I think that if someone has even a remote interest in a Ph.D., it is good to express that interest in the application and in communications with a potential advisor.

Note: In some fields, the terminal M.S. degree is very useful for certain jobs, and good research can be done in the time frame of an M.S. thesis program, so my musings should of course not be universally applied to all advisors in all of Science. I am also not considering those Ph.D. students who fail at the Ph.D. and get an M.S. as a consolation prize.

I don’t want to give the impression that I regret the time I have spent advising TMS students. In fact, there have only been a few (in fact, 2.5) who were a total waste of my time and resources because these students were so unpleasant to work with. Any warm and fuzzy feelings I might have about creating employment opportunities for them is obliterated by memories of how awful they were to advise.

As for the others – those who spent a couple of years here, took classes, taught labs, and learned a few things about research – I am by no means disappointed that they ‘just’ got an M.S. It would have been great if they had actually produced a paper from their research, but I know it is unrealistic to expect that from a terminal M.S. student in the time frame of 2 years or so.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Writing To Me

At this time of year, potential grad students send email messages to potential graduate advisors. I've been getting these emails for months, but I have been getting more of them as the application deadline approacheth.

I answer all inquiry letters from students, but my response varies with the tone/content of the inquiry letter.

These inquiry letters come in several varieties:

Type 1: Form letters: Some students send out inquiry letters to many professors and don’t have the time or energy to tailor each email to each potential advisor. (note: in my department, students need to have an identified advisor from the very beginning, although it is certainly possible for a student to switch advisors once admitted to the graduate program)

My response: Cursory. If the email was really annoying and the student didn’t even take the time to write my name (“Dear Professor” or, worse, "Dear Sir"), I write back a form letter reply (“Dear Student” or "Dear Ms. X"). If I am in a good mood or if the letter gives me hope that the student is not terminally clueless, I write a brief email inviting the students to look at my research webpages and write back with specific questions if they are interested. I figure that in some cases, students sending form emails have not gotten any (or any good) advice from professors/advisors at their undergraduate institution and somehow do not know that a “Dear Random Professor: Tell me about your research” letter is not going to get an enthusiastic response.

Type 2: Specialized letter, but unfocused, poorly written, or otherwise demonstrating cluelessness. Example:

“Dear Professor FSP,

Hello my name is Student X. I want to start graduate school in the fall. Please let me know if you are accepting new students. Do you have research funding? I am interested in learning more about your research.


My response: polite and somewhat informative but not detailed. I provide information that the motivated student can use to find information (e.g., on my webpages) and formulate a more focused letter. In some cases, this type of inquiry letter indicates some advising about what to ask potential advisors, but either this information was not complete or was not completely understood. For example, asking about funding and asking whether a potential advisor is even considering taking on new students likely indicates some advising about what to write, but the vagueness about research does not make for a strong first impression.

When a student writes “I am interested in learning more about your research”, and that's all they say about it, I have no idea what – if anything – the student has done to learn about my research in the first place. That is, did they just read a brief description on a webpage somewhere or have they trolled through my research webpages and/or read some of my papers? If the latter, it would be good if the student gave some indication of that in their email, not by writing “I have read 16 of your recent papers and I think they are fabulous” but rather by showing that their interest in my research program involves a specific research focus (see Excellent letter).

Type 3: Excellent letter: focused, well-written, demonstrates that the student knows something about my research and why he/she might actually want to come to this university


“Dear Professor FSP,

(brief intro about who they are; school, degree/date, any research experience). I am interested in X, Y, and Z, and am particularly curious about investigating A and B. I am familiar with your research on W, and would like to pursue a Ph.D. in [something related]. I saw on your webpages that you [something demonstrating knowledge and ability to form a question about research opportunities]. (+ some questions about grad program/application logistics – these are fine, but best placed after discussing research)

Student X"

My response: enthusiastic and detailed, engaging the student in a discussion of their research interests and possible research topics for their graduate work if they come here to work with me.

Ideally, I will meet some of these students at conferences or visits to the department, but in some cases all I have to go on is what is in the application file ± email correspondence. Given the disparity in the number of applicants vs. the number of positions, the written record (including the research statement in the application) is extremely important.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Extreme Conferencing

Conferences are exhausting, but I find them quite fun overall. I like the Science and I like the social aspects. There are all sorts of weird socio-political interactions that also occur (or almost occur, or might have occurred but no one is really sure), but there are many interesting interactions and even exhilarating moments. I typically return from conferences tired but also emotionally recharged from the social interactions.

A certain colleague of mine hurls himself into each conference like it is a mosh pit, and emerges broken and ill at the end. He spends days talking loudly, drinking a lot, arguing, not sleeping much, and racing around stressed out and highly caffeinated. He gets very emotionally involved in certain conference sessions, becoming extremely angry at some talks or posters and thrilled by others. He is sort of a moody guy in real life, but nothing like what he is at conferences. In the best case scenario, he loses his voice at a conference. At two recent conferences, however, he had medical problems, although he is very healthy when not at a conference.

I think that, to him, extreme conferencing is the only way to have a really intense conference experience and to feel like he's made an impact on the discussion. In real life, he is Dr. Distinguished Professor Person, patiently explaining things to students and dealing with insane colleagues who don't really understand his research. At meetings, he is surrounded by people with the exact same passion for his field of Science, and hence the bungee-jumping, ice-climbing, sky-diving, demolition derby type conference behavior.

My concern is that what temporarily wrecked him in his Youth will start to be a problem now that he is Middle-Aged (as evidenced by the health problems, one of which required medical attention, at recent conferences). But if he slows down at conferences, will they be as fun?

Monday, December 10, 2007

Surrounded By PhD's

One of the things I like most about my neighborhood is that even though it is located close to a university, it is a very diverse neighborhood, populated both by people affiliated with the university as well as many who have no connection to the university at all. It is quite possible, in this neighborhood, to be aware that not everyone in the world has a Ph.D., and that is a good thing. And our academic neighbors are not just professors, but also postdocs, grads, undergrads, and university staff members. It is also somewhat diverse in more typical meanings of the word; i.e., in terms of race, culture, religion, and economic class. It is perhaps least diverse in terms of the political views of the inhabitants.

Some years, one or more of my grad students lives nearby. There have been times when living in the same neighborhood has been stressful for both my students and me. The most troubled grad student I have ever advised lived on the same street as my family. He used to go inside his house rather than encounter me walking (or even, his housemates told me, driving) past his house. I am sure that living near me was not a good thing for his mental health, and I found it difficult as well.

Some of our closest friends in the neighborhood live next door. These neighbors have no connection whatsoever with the university. We trade cat care favors, enjoy chatting while we’re working in our gardens, and have dinner together every few months. When my family was on sabbatical in Europe, our neighbors visited us and we toured around together. We always seem have a lot to talk about, but the one thing we never talk about is our work, mostly because our neighbors dislike their jobs so much.

This weekend we went to a party next door. We don’t know our neighbors' other friends well but have encountered many of them enough times at other social events to be familiar with them. This time, I found myself in a circle of 6-7 people who were all talking about how much they hate their jobs. This wasn't just routine job annoyance. These people all really hate their jobs, and they are all counting the years until they can retire. A few of them have college degrees, but most do not, and all are in low-skill jobs that are wearing them down, year by year.

It’s hard to know what to say in a conversation like that. I don’t hate my job (despite the jerks) -- it’s an important and interesting part of my life -- but I wasn’t about to chime in with a perky “I love my job!” comment. When asked, I just said something vague about retirement still being a ways off for me.

My daughter was at the party. Mostly she played with the cats, but she overheard this conversation and asked me about it later. She remarked “All those people hate their jobs, but you and daddy love your jobs.” It had never occurred to her before that people could hate their jobs so much. Most of the people we socialize with are professors or proto-professors, and she hasn't encountered any Really Angry Professors yet and she doesn't remember the depressed grad student who lived down the street.

In addition, we have a close friend who went to grad school to get a Ph.D. (long after she had graduated from college) because her husband is a professor and all their friends have Ph.D.'s. She was uncomfortable about being the only one without a Ph.D., not because it made her feel less smart, but because she was the only one in our social circle who hated her job. At the time, I wasn't sure that was the best reason to get a Ph.D., but she did it, got a tenure-track position, and is excelling at teaching and research. I think she's amazing. She did something really hard but that eventually led to a career she loves. She's stressed out, of course, but so far it seems to be a good kind of stress.

I certainly don’t want my daughter to think that a Ph.D. is the only route to happiness and being a professor is the only wonderful job in the world (well, OK, maybe sometimes I want her to think that). However, I am pleased that, however much she hears us ranting about certain annoying aspects of our academic careers, her major impression is that we love our work, and that among most of our friends, we aren't unusual in this respect.

I also want my daughter to see the value (and fun) of a college degree, but I don’t want her to look down on people without college degrees, not to mention Ph.D.'s. So far that isn’t an issue – she loves our next-door neighbors unreservedly because they are interesting, friendly people. Of course it never occurred to her that they didn’t graduate from college, and she thinks no less of them now that she knows they didn’t.

This weekend's events reminded me of how different my daughter's childhood is from mine. I grew up in a place and family with no Ph.D.'s in sight, but she is growing up mostly surrounded by Ph.D.'s. I am an eccentric outlier in that part of my family because I have a Ph.D., but I don't want my daughter to be an outlier if she doesn't acquire one.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Aggressive Women

This has happened so many times:

I am in a meeting at which a woman scientist is discussed (for whatever reason), and she is criticized for being "aggressive".

I object.

My colleagues think I am biased and possibly irrational, and that my response is some knee-jerk reflex to Defend Scientific Womanhood no matter what.

My opinions about everything else are not taken very seriously because I have demonstrated that I am not objective.

Criticizing someone for being aggressive is a cheap way to undermine them. What does it even mean? Is being aggressive always bad? If someone is so aggressively competitive that they will step on everyone in their path, including students and puppies, and cast aside all consideration of ethics to achieve scientific glory, then OK, I think that is a bad thing. However, that is very far from the case in every example in my personal experience, including the most recent one.

This insidious phenomenon has been discussed before by me and many others: women who demonstrate self-confidence and comprehensive knowledge of their research/science are seen (by some) as aggressive. I should mention that it is not just men who criticize women for this; women also criticize other women for being aggressive, and no, I am not misinterpreting something that was meant as a compliment.

The recent example that has me so angry today involves a case in which an extremely smart, friendly, personable, and interesting woman was severely criticized for being aggressive. I was so surprised at this absurd statement that I laughed out loud. I asked for clarification, thinking at first that the comment wasn't meant to be as critical as it sounded or perhaps that I had missed some important information somewhere, but no such luck. I think my response was calm, reasoned, yet forceful -- perhaps even aggressive! -- but, whether I was effective or not (clearly I was not), why was I the only one objecting?

And another thing, since I am ranting:

In this meeting, a woman was described as glib, and this was again meant as a criticism. I said to the maker of the glib-comment: I would describe her as very articulate and well-spoken about a wide range of topics, showing great depth and breadth. Where do you draw the line between glib and articulate? My colleague said OK, you're right, she is very articulate. I said And that's a good thing, right? Yes, we all agreed that being articulate is a good thing. Maybe I won that point, but I didn't change whatever underlying reason made that colleague describe someone as glib rather than articulate in the first place.

I hate it when I underestimate the insanity of my colleagues. I am quite cynical, but I think I need to recalibrate my cynicism for some of this committee work.

This semester, I am on more committees than is good for my sanity. I still like to think that it is important that I am there to make people defend their stupid sexist statements, however ineffective I am at changing their opinions, but perhaps I just think that because the alternative is difficult to accept.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Mulling the Poll Results

From my pseudo-scientific, statistically invalid poll yesterday, it seems clear that students are a lot more comfortable about sharing a campus recreation facility with professors than we professors are about exercising with our students. > 90% of students like or don't mind encountering their professors at the rec center, whereas a majority of faculty either avoid campus rec centers entirely or go anyway, despite preferring to be in a less student-dominated environment.

One of my colleagues commented that it would have been interesting if the poll had been further divided by gender, but I deliberately kept the poll quite general just to get a first-order idea of how people feel about faculty and students sharing campus rec center facilities.

Note: If you haven't voted yet, the polls are still open! If you are a grad student who teaches, vote in the 'faculty' poll (and thanks to the commenter who brought this up).

Why are professors so much less comfortable about being at a student-dominated rec center? Hypotheses (not necessarily mine), some of which were touched on in yesterday's post, include:

Hypothesis 1 - Many professors aren't comfortable interacting with students (and others?) outside the classroom/lab milieu.

Hypothesis 2 - A corollary: In a classroom, professors are in control (or, at least, we think we are) -- we are knowledgeable and we set the rules. At the rec center, we are in a totally different situation, and some/many might find it embarrassing to be seen sweating on an elliptical trainer or treadmill.

Hypothesis 3 - Professors are typically older than students, and we are reluctant to put our aging bodies on display to the extent that we have to in a gym/pool/locker room setting.

Hypothesis 4: We so dislike (or are tired of) the surprised reaction of students encountering us in a non-classroom setting that we avoid places where this is likely to occur. As we are always teaching different students, there is an endless supply of those who will be shocked that we have emerged from our professor lairs to mingle with real people.

Hypothesis n: ?? (leave a comment if your reason for not wanting to work out with your students is missing)

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Working (Out) With Students

At dinner with colleagues a few nights ago, the conversation turned to the topic of faculty use of the university recreation center. Most universities have well equipped exercise facilities, and the cost of using these facilities is far less than the cost of joining a fitness center. Although many faculty use the campus rec center, some faculty aren't comfortable going to a student-filled facility to exercise. As a result, some universities even have (or are planning to build) separate facilities for faculty and staff.

I suppose universities have done surveys to find out about faculty/staff use of rec centers and reasons for lack of use. In a small informal survey (by me), I find that the main reason for faculty non-use of the campus rec center is lack of time. That is certainly true in my case this year. I have used the rec center regularly in the past, but that's not possible this semester owing to my teaching load and search committee activities on top of everything
else. Search committees are important, of course, but very time consuming.

And that's OK! There's no way to guarantee that the time is well spent, but, according to some of my readers, because I am a highly compensated professor with a secure job, it's fine that I spend all this time with candidates who may or may not be 'serious' rather than spending the time with my family or doing research or sleeping or something, but that's the way the game is played and it's just business. But I digress.

Another reason given for faculty avoidance of student-dominated rec centers isn't so much not wanting to sweat on a treadmill next to a student, but rather not wanting to shower with their students. Some male colleagues (male and female) have complained about the lack of shower privacy options at their rec centers. A female professor acquaintance feels that putting her C-section scars and stretch marks (which are apparently so prominent that they are visible from space) might deter some students from ever having babies, or could at least ruin someone's day.

Yet another reason for faculty dislike of university rec centers is being uncomfortable about the "I can't believe my professor is here exercising!" response from some students, or various embarrassed or negative reactions by students who would prefer that the rec center be a refuge from reminders of their academic responsibilities and stresses. Some students definitely think it is cool to see their professors at the rec center, and are happy to chat about academic and non-academic things with faculty, but others would prefer to encounter their professors only in the classroom.

The "I can't believe I'm seeing my professor outside the classroom" response isn't confined to rec centers, of course. Most of us have had students exclaim such things when encountering us on the sidewalk of a main street near campus or in a store. I suppose it is strange to see someone out of context, but do they think that professors have secret professor tunnels that we use to walk from one place to another and special professorial means of acquiring special professor foods? (Of course we do have special stores for acquiring professor clothes, but that's another issue). For some faculty, this phenomenon can be a reason for avoidance of campus recreational facilities.

For faculty who use campus rec centers or would consider using a campus rec facility:

Do you use the campus rec center?
Yes, often, and I like/don't mind being with students
Yes, often, even though I'd rather not exercise with students
No, seldom or never; I'd rather exercise in a less student-dominated place
Free polls from

For students:

What do you think about faculty use of rec center facilities?
I like it or don't mind it
It makes me uncomfortable to encounter faculty at the campus rec center
Free polls from

Tuesday, December 04, 2007


Some of the comments on the last post bring up interesting related points: whether an interviewee is ‘serious’ about a position, and the role that a Significant Other (S.O.) has in the decision to accept or decline an offer of a faculty position.

When you get an invitation to interview, you might not know in advance if you want to be in that department or live in that area. When you visit, meet people, and learn about the area, you are checking the place out as much as they are checking you out. It can also be difficult to know in advance whether an academic setting is a good place for your S.O.; this is why many places invite the candidate and their S.O. (± other family) for a second (post-offer) visit.

What I have trouble understanding, however, is the situation in which someone goes through the time and effort of an interview, consuming lots of time and money by the interviewing department, but apparently does not know that their S.O. will never agree to move to the vicinity of the university or college that is conducting the interview.

From talking to colleagues over the years, I have heard of the following My- S.O.-Won’t-Let-Me reasons given for not accepting an offer of a faculty position:

1 – My S.O. doesn’t want to leave Our State/City. I always assume that this means that a certain really important conversation that ideally would have taken place before the interview didn’t actually occur until after the offer was made. The S.O. may well have good reasons for not wanting to move no matter how great the other place is, but if so, it would be best if that were worked out before so many people invested time and money in the interview process.

2 – My S.O. doesn’t want to live in such a [insert obvious physical characteristic that is known even before the interview: e.g., big city, rural area, Midwestern place, southern place, west/east coastal place, cold place, warm place]. Again, this is something that ideally would be discussed in advance, before getting on the plane to interview at the defective place, though I suppose it is always possible that someone could be geographically challenged or not realize that they have a cow phobia or cactus allergy, or something.

I know that this issue can be more complex than I am portraying it. Your S.O. might not really want to move to a place that is so X, but their reluctance might be overcome after a visit. That's something you might not know before the interview. In that case, it would be better to use reason #3 instead:

3 – Your U/City/State is not a good place for my S.O. to live/work, and we didn’t know this until I/we visited. This is a good reason. I think everyone can understand this reason, even if it can be disappointing. The other two I think are obnoxious reasons.

It is difficult to know whether any of these reasons for declining an offer are sincere – perhaps some people think that blaming their S.O. is a polite way to turn down an offer. If reasons #1 or #2 are sincere, though, I think that the candidates and their S.O. have some issues they need to work out and/or that they must not have given much – if any - thought to the people whose time they wasted by going through a process that had no chance of success. Perhaps you have to be on the other (search committee) side to be selfish enough to think about your own wasted time and effort. Even so, most of us accept the randomness and risk that comes along with a search process and know that the interview process is complicated and stressful for everyone, resulting in some less than mature behavior (on both sides).

Does any of this matter? I think so. I have seen the negative feelings generated by a perceived lack of 'seriousness' (commonly caused by Lame Reasons #1-2 for declining a job offer) linger and affect how someone is viewed within the scientific community.

Monday, December 03, 2007

2 Many

What do you think about the scenario of an interviewee being accompanied by a spouse or significant other to an interview for a faculty position?

* I am not talking about situations in which there is a clear need for such an accompanying person, e.g., someone to help with child-care. There are certainly circumstances in which an accompanying person is required or beneficial. *

The question is, what about the situation in which the accompanying person, who is not and will not be considered for a job at the university doing the interviewing, attends interview events: Goes to the interview talk(s)? Comes to ‘social’ events (e.g., dinner with the search committee)?

There may well be circumstances in which this level of involvement is necessary, but unless someone can convince me otherwise, I think that in the absence of extenuating circumstances (e.g., babies; disabilities), it is not appropriate for the accompanying person to participate in interview activities, including quasi-social events like dinner with the search committee.

At search committee-interviewee dinners, the conversation certainly need not be All Science for the entire meal, and it should also not be an extension of some of the more stressful aspects of the interview (Why is your research important? What research will you be doing in 10 years?). However, it should be possible to talk with the candidate about Science and other issues relevant to the interview without their spouse/partner getting upset about being left out of the conversation and/or getting anxious when questions get too interview-like.

Memo to accompanied interviewees and/or to those accompanying interviewees:

- Don’t kiss each other during dinner. Professors, especially those on search committees, cannot handle public displays of affection during meals.

- Don’t feed each other. Professors, especially those on search committees, prefer to think that candidates can feed themselves.

- Don’t tell cute stories about each other, including revealing affectionate nicknames and embarrassing childhood episodes. Professors, especially those on search committees, prefer not to know any of this until after an interviewee becomes an actual colleague. Then we definitely want to know.

- For female accompaniers: don’t single out the women on the search committee for girl-talk about babies and gardens while the guys are talking about Science. In some cases, the men on the search committee may have more to say about babies and gardens.

I am not making these examples up. My observation of behavior like this has led to my negative opinion on the issue of accompanying-persons.

If anyone who is reading this is freaking out because they accompanied their Beloved to some interview events, fed him/her from their own fork, smooched at dinner, and called the interviewee “pookiebear”, all in front of the search committee, fear not. If the search committee thinks the candidate will be a great research and teacher, that’s the most important thing. Even so, it would be best to let the interviewee meet/dine alone with the search committee, however terrifying that may be.

Friday, November 30, 2007

$ Matters

The typical procedure when invited to give a talk at another university is for the invitee to get the plane ticket and then get reimbursed after the travel is completed. Lodging, meals, and other transportation costs are taken care of directly by the host institution.

I was recently thinking about all the professional travel expenses my husband and I currently have that have not yet been reimbursed. Including past travel that has yet to be reimbursed and future travel that won't be reimbursed until various times over the next 5-6 months, the sum is quite large at the moment: in the range of $7000. It is so large in part because the system has broken down a bit in terms of timely reimbursements for past travel relative to payments for future travel. In addition, because my teaching schedule is lighter in the spring term than in the fall, I scheduled most of my invited talks for next term. I just got a flock of plane tickets and loaded up my credit card.

For one talk I gave months ago but for which I have yet to be reimbursed, my hosts have been very apologetic but say that their departmental accountant has been deliberately losing receipts and taking a long time with all reimbursements. I have sent my receipt and social security number to the accountant 3 times so far. Methinks my department isn't the only one with a hostile zombie staff member. My hosts say that I am welcome to call their accountant and yell and/or whine, but that option doesn't appeal to me very much (yet).

The delay is annoying but not a huge problem for me. It occurred to me, though, that hostile zombie accountants could cause major problems for financially vulnerable people, such as some candidates for faculty positions (e.g., recent/current Ph.D. students interviewing at several/many places).

As long as there is a constant stream of reimbursements to offset the constant acquisition of new plane tickets, the system works pretty well. For me right now, the system is out of whack, with a drought at one end and a flood at the other. If things got dire, I would ask a host department to get my plane ticket for me, avoiding the reimbursement issue entirely. In the meantime, I will just try to enjoy the glorious adventure that is air travel in the U.S. these days, and not worry so much about $ matters.

Thursday, November 29, 2007


For the past year and a half, I have been doing pretty well in the language class I’ve been taking. I do much better at writing and reading than I do at speaking, but I’m making progress on all fronts. Recently, however, I encountered a major obstacle. As part of an exam, we had to listen to an audio clip that was played on a mini-laptop set on a table at the center of the classroom, and then answer questions about what we heard. The audio clip had background music, there was construction and traffic noise outside the classroom, the laptop vibrated on the table, and the speakers on the laptop were lousy. I couldn’t make out most of the words in the audio clip.

The other students also had trouble understanding the audio clip, but not as much trouble as I did. The instructor played the clip again and let me sit closer to the laptop, but that didn't help. When I was closer to the speakers, I mostly just heard the background music. I had to leave that page of the exam mostly blank.

I have been aware for the past year or so that I have been developing a mild case of Cocktail Party Syndrome, the inability to differentiate sound from background noise, but I hadn’t previously encountered a situation in which it mattered. I don’t think I have a severe case. We watch movies in this class and some of these have background music, but as long as the movies are played with a good sound system, I can understand them fairly well. When we have audio assignments for homework, I use headphones and definitely don’t have a problem then.

The instructor says that part of learning a language is learning how to understand the language even when the sound is not ideal. You have to deal with sounds as they come, even if the words are indistinct or partly obscured by other sounds. What if you are in a crowd? What if you have to understand a message broadcast over a loudspeaker in a bus station? It is important to understand what is being said outside a classroom setting, and therefore being able to do that is part of being able to do well in this class.

I agree with most of that, but there’s only so much I can do about my hearing in certain situations. I don’t know what I would do about this class if I were a real student and found that I couldn’t do the audio portions of the exams. Perhaps I would get my hearing impairment documented and request some accommodation, even if this involved creating an unrealistic language environment.

This situation made me think about all my students who need accommodations for exams and assignments owing to various physical and learning disabilities. It is rare to teach a class these days without at least one student needing to take exams at the disability services office, needing extra time, or needing some other accommodation. For example, I recently taught two hearing impaired students who needed interpreters in two different classes, and had to alter my in-class teaching style accordingly.

Providing accommodations for students with disabilities involves time and effort – sometimes a lot of extra time, and that can be difficult for an instructor. There have been times when I have been frustrated by the additional time and effort required, especially when I didn't have any time to spare.

However, these accommodations are an important part of making university education accessible to as many people as possible. I have heard the but-that’s-not-how-it-is-in-the-real-world argument against these accommodations before and have never found it very compelling. Now – much to my surprise – I find it being used as a reason for why I should just try harder to discern sounds from background noise*. Although my situation is not dramatic or dire, I am more convinced than ever that accommodations in a course can make the difference between success and failure.

* As it turns out, I didn't fail the exam after all, as the instructor just informed the class that she won’t count that part of the exam very much. However, she does want us to work on our listening skills more, and we may encounter an audio clip on the final exam.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Academic Economic Unitness

Today in a conversation with a colleague, my husband was stunned when the colleague made a somewhat bitter remark about how much easier my husband’s life is than his because my husband has a professor-spouse and therefore two salaries. This and some comments that followed offended my husband because he felt that the colleague was saying that one of us should work for lower pay and not be such an economic burden on the department. Perhaps there would be more salary money for those in one-salary families if the two of us weren’t sucking up so much of the department’s cash to fund our lavish lifestyle? I am exaggerating -- this colleague would never state his opinion so crudely. Even so, what millennium is he living in that he thinks that my husband and/or I should make a lower salary because we both work?

And why stop with penalizing members of two-career couples? Why should single/childless faculty get paid more than a meager amount when they are just going to spend their money on themselves? Why don’t we scale faculty salary according to the number of children and dogs that each person has? Cats should count as well, but they don’t seem to be as expensive as dogs, so there would have to be a different coefficient for cats in the salary equation unless n(cats) > 12. I’m sorry if I’m offending anyone, but I would not include a salary adjustment for rodents or reptiles, and I am ambivalent about fish and birds. Should boy offspring count the same as girl offspring and/or should the offspring coefficient be adjusted for age and desire for high-end audio/video/computer equipment? [end of bizarre hyperbolic rant]

[start of serious blog-text] My husband’s negative reaction to this conversation was based in part on a long history of our both being underpaid relative to our colleagues in the department. The previous chair considered us an Economic Unit and saw no reason why either one of us should be paid according to our merits since together we made a decent salary.

The previous chair, as well as the person my husband was talking to today, are both in one-salary families, with wives who stay(ed) home with the kids. That’s their choice, of course, but it should be irrelevant to departmental decisions about faculty salary.

Perhaps it is harder for some of our colleagues to deal with our Economic Unitness because we are both Science Professors. If one of us were in a different career, would some of our colleagues still think the professor in the couple should be paid less, or would it be different because only one salary was coming from the department/university?

It struck me as kind of amusing that this colleague envies our situation. Salary considerations aside, I am sure he faces challenges in terms of balancing career and family, but I am fairly sure that he doesn’t have some of the difficulties that we do; for example, a sick kid or a no-school day doesn’t throw his work day into chaos. He probably also doesn’t realize that for years we spent half of our combined salary on day care. None of that should matter, however, to the simple fact that members of an academic couple should each be paid a fair salary, no matter how many spouses, offspring, or pets we have.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Museum of Me

Being efficient doesn't necessarily correlate with being neat; at least, not in my case. My office is piled high with lots of stuff, old and new. I was thinking about this recently because I am contemplating a major cleaning and tossing-out of old stuff. I did some office cleaning during the Thanksgiving break, but nothing dramatic: there are still piles on my desk, but these piles now consist only of the 57 most urgent things I have to do in the new few weeks. The dramatic cleaning, if it occurs, will have to be after the term ends.

I was also thinking about my office-as-archive in the context of last Friday's post. Specifically, I was musing about why I have a proclivity for deleting emails and having a neat electronic inbox when my physical office is a mess. I briefly considered the possible lingering psychological effects of a job I had in graduate school: organizing the office of a deceased professor to see if any of his papers or letters should be saved for a university archive. [This blog seems to have a bit of a death theme this month: Editing the Dead, 11/7; Friends, 11/23).. sorry about that].

In that case, my office-organizing job was not a sorrowful task -- the deceased professor had been exceedingly mean (in fact, the word vicious readily comes to mind) and a sociopathic harasser of women. Organizing his office was, however, a sobering task in that he had saved everything. He had saved every letter he had ever received in a 50+ year long career, and he had also saved carbon copies of letters he sent. It was not surprising to find that many of the letters he sent were hate letters. My personal favorite began: "Dear X, You are a parasite..". I made sure those went to the archivist for review, as they nicely captured his personality and approach to professional relationships.

I have never sent a you-are-a-parasite letter to anyone, but I still don't like to save a lot of my correspondence. I do save some messages -- mostly ones that amuse or interest me -- but I delete more than I save.

After a bit of pondering about the discrepancy between my email neatness and my overall lack of neatness, I decided that my tendency to delete email isn't because I am constantly contemplating my own death and not wanting to leave a personal record. More likely, the explanation is the obvious one: that it is easier to delete email than to organize the flood of papers and other stuff that is constantly flowing into my office. Perhaps if paper could be vaporized as easily as pushing a delete button on a keyboard, I wouldn't have such a messy office.

The big question for me now is whether I am ready to toss out some of the older items in the Museum of Me -- e.g., notebooks from college and grad school, ancient textbooks, paper copies of articles I can now get as pdf's, and maybe even .. giant floppy disks filled with beautiful data from obsolete machines.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

My Mother-In-Law Is Worse Than Your Mother-In-Law

The reason I have time to write today, on this Major American Holiday, relates directly to the title of this post. I have been pondering the deep philosophical question of whether I would rather spend today with my mother-in-law or with my most loathsome colleague (mentioned in previous posts as Professor Troll). I think I would choose the latter, though if this question about my preferred holiday companions were on a multiple-choice test, a better answer would be none of the above or cats (Figure 1).

The reason I might choose my trollish colleague over my mother-in-law for a holiday companion is that I can respond to his rude comments as I wish -- sarcastic comments without guilt, faux-innocent remarks to him about his former classmates who are now all retiring in droves, passive-aggressive mention of my recent papers or grants, etc. However, on the rare occasions I have to see my mother-in-law, I am nice to her, however not nice she is. I am nice to her in person and I am nice to her in absentia (I never say anything negative about her to my daughter, for example). I can't even be sarcastic, and that is difficult for me.

Academic families are complicated, but real families are more so. Even so, I am glad to have a few days off from appointments, meetings, and so on, before diving back into the last few weeks of the term.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Why Do Professors Give Exams..

Today I had a major exam in the language class I am taking. I don't mind taking a test the day before Thanksgiving, but I don't think I would give such an exam in a class I was teaching. In one of the classes I am teaching this semester, I asked the students if they had exams in their other classes this week, and most did not. The few who did asked "Why do professors give exams the week of a big holiday?".

Quite a few of my students either had tests last week or have tests next week. One student asked "Why do professors give exams the week after a holiday?" and another asked "Why do professors give exams the week before a holiday?" and another asked "Why do professors give exams so close to the end of the semester?". The students also hate exams on Mondays and Fridays. I think that leaves a Wednesday in mid-October as the only acceptable date, though it's difficult for students to have lots of exams on the same day or in the same week, so maybe that possibility is out as well. When I was discussing this with my students, I laughed and said "It seems that your real question is Why do professors give exams?".

The class in which I had this discussion doesn't have any exams, so it was an easy topic to discuss openly, although I kept the discussion on the topic of exam scheduling rather than the cosmic question about the existence of exams. It really seemed to surprise some students that professors don't have evil motives when picking exam times, and that the amount of material covered relative to the type of exam is perhaps the main factor in deciding when and how many exams there will be.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Young Pup

Every once in a while I give a public lecture on a topic related to my research. These talks are challenging to give in a coherent and interesting way because the audience is so much more diverse in scientific experience than even a typical introductory science class. There is also a huge range in age: in a recent talk, my audience ranged in age from 12 to 80-something.

In this most recent public lecture, I spoke in a large dimly lit auditorium. I used a microphone, paced around on a stage-like thing, showed some cool images, and talked about some interesting research questions and results. At the end of the talk, I answered questions from the audience; some questions were very fun to answer, some were easy, some had no answers, and some were bizarre. After the general question session, some audience members came to the front to ask me additional questions one-on-one.

One man (estimated age: 60-something) came up to me and looked at me very closely. Then he said “I am so relieved to see that you aren’t actually as young as I thought you were.” I pointed to the wrinkles at the corners of my eyes and said “Observe the dramatic evidence for aging.” And he said “I know, that’s what I was just looking at.” He said he’d spent my whole talk thinking I was a “young pup” and it “really bothered” him to think that someone so young could “know so much” and “be so smart”. He repeated that he was very relieved to know that I am not so young.

OK.. whatever. I have definitely learned a lot over the years, though sometimes I think that the wisdom I have accumulated through experience is being eroded at the same (or greater) rate by the effects of aging. At least I can still put on a good (science) show.

I think I could have done without that particular conversation, though, and maybe next time I will ask the person who introduces me to be sure to mention the dates that I acquired my various degrees. That way, the “old dogs” in the audience can do the math and figure out that I am deeply middle aged.

Despite the random encounters with strange people, I enjoy giving these talks. It’s nice to see big groups of real people who are interested in Science, who turn out for an evening’s random Science talk because they want to be there, and who are thrilled when they learn something new.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Extreme Reviewing

Lately I seem to be suffering from a strange syndrome that could be called review addiction. I could also call it extreme reviewing, not because my reviews are extremely negative/positive or extremely long/short, but because I am currently reviewing what I would typically consider (for me) to be an extreme number of manuscripts (8), in addition to a few dozen proposals.

Another way to describe this syndrome is that I have become a reviewing doormat, unable to just say no to editor requests to review.

There are many possible explanations for my extreme reviewing behavior of late, including:

- Based on the manuscript titles/abstracts, I was interested in reading and reviewing these manuscripts. It just so happens that I have lately been asked to review some interesting papers. I was curious to read them, so it was difficult to decline to review them.

- As someone who seeks reviewers in the capacity of being an editor, I know what it's like to have trouble finding a reviewer for a manuscript. I could easily decline to review a manuscript on the basis that I am unable to take on more reviews. However, if I've got a manageable editorial load at the time I am asked to review another manuscript and I'm interested in the topic, I say yes.

- A year or so ago I started publishing on a research topic that was a new direction for me, and now I get asked to review manuscripts related to this topic. I am interested in establishing myself more in this particular subfield, and reviewing is one way to become part of the scientific community related to this topic.

- I have a manuscript in review or am about to submit a manuscript to all of the journals that recently asked me to review a manuscript. I feel that I have a moral obligation to review for these particular journals, as their editors and reviewers are (or, I hope will soon be) taking the time to consider my manuscripts.

- Some of these manuscripts cite my work, and I have an interest in making sure that this was done appropriately and accurately.

- As I learned last week, I am not quantitative. Perhaps I can't count. Perhaps the number 1 is conceptually the same to me as the number 8.

The perceptive reader will note the use of the Sarcastic Font in the last item, but it could be that I succumbed to a bout of extreme reviewing owing to a related effect, which I will call the incremental effect. That is, I got asked to do a review and said yes. I got asked to do another, and said yes because I can certainly handle 2 reviews. Then I got asked to do another and I figured, what's one more? The end of the semester is approaching and it's an interesting paper and.. then I got asked to do another and it was also an interesting paper and didn't seem to be too long and .. so on.

I wouldn't have agreed to do all these reviews if I didn't think I could do them well and get them done in a timely way. I don't think I will take on any more until 2008, though.

Evidence that I am not a complete review doormat: I turned down one recent review request because one editor sent me two requests in a single day for two different manuscripts for the same journal; I accepted one to review and declined the other.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Homework Help

This is probably cheating to ask for help with this, but I am puzzled by a question on my language homework this weekend. Here is the question (translated):

To be a good teacher, it is necessary to be

(a) patient
(b) strange
(c) optimistic
(d) hard

Too bad 'all of the above' is not a choice.

(and yes, I do know which one I am 'supposed' to choose).

Friday, November 16, 2007

FSP as Student, continued

This week in the intermediate-level language class I am taking, each student has done an oral presentation on a topic of our choice. These presentations are not supposed to be practiced talks, and we certainly can't read from notes. We are supposed to stand in front of the class and start talking -- e.g., about a book, movie, recipe, trip, friend, relative, pet etc. -- and then the presentations evolve as we are asked questions by the others in the class and by the instructor.

I decided to talk about some of my research experiences relevant to the countries where this language is spoken. In these places, being female has definitely affected my experiences, but that point wasn't central to the story I wanted to tell today. It was important for understanding the context of my experience, but mostly I just wanted to tell a story that I thought was funny.

The others in the class kept interrupting me with questions like "Why did Person X say that to you?" or "Why did you have to do that?" and in each case the simple answer was because I am female. The students asked me why that mattered. So, for a while the discussion was about gender roles and sexism, something that had not been a topic of direct discussion yet in this class. This is the second year of a class that meets 5 days/week, so we all know each other fairly well by now and have talked about a lot of things, but not this particular topic (and hence my knowledge of the relevant vocabulary was limited). The instructor had not had exactly the same experiences, but she had come to the U.S. so she could teach at a university, so some of it resonated with her as well.

Eventually I got back to telling my funny story, and by the end, everyone was laughing. Perhaps this says something about my priorities (at least for today), but I was more pleased that I was able to make people laugh in another language than that I had educated my fellow students about the international nature of sexism, though perhaps it is possible to accomplish both.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The MisCitation of Me

Today I was perusing the titles of articles that just appeared online in one of the journals I typically read, and I saw one title that seemed sort of interesting in a peripheral-to-my-research but might-be-relevant kind of way. I skimmed it, and saw a citation of one of my papers. My first reaction was to be very pleased -- one of my 2007 papers was cited by someone else's 2007 paper, and that is nice. My second reaction was What?!??

The sentence that preceded the reference to FSP et al. (2007) was about a topic not discussed by FSP et al. (2007). In addition, the sentence seems to imply that FSP et al. (2007) has certain data on this topic, but in fact it does not. It has other data -- very nice data, in my opinion -- but not the cited data.

In other examples of incorrect citations of my work, I have been very annoyed, particularly if the citation accompanies an interpretation that is not one that I actually made. I have also been annoyed by examples of what I thought were abuse of my data or other research results.

But what about a citation that overall seems harmless, however wrong? My paper doesn't contain the indicated data, but that doesn't bother me nearly as much as having my interpretations or results distorted or otherwise misrepresented.

On the plus side, I have the citation in my citation index. On the negative side, what if the (mis)citation leads people looking for the non-existent data to my paper, resulting in massive disappointment and heartbreak when the sought-for data are not found? That would be so sad. I will try not to think about that and be glad instead that someone (mis)read my paper.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Qualified v. Quantified

Today a random grad student stopped by my office to ask what he described as a random question. He said he was going around asking various people a particular question, and even though my research is "not quantitative" and I "probably never use equations", since my door was open, he thought he'd ask me his question anyway. He was asking people which equation editor they use.

I am "not quantitative"? Those are fighting words in some fields..

I did not challenge the student to a duel or shove my equation-filled reprints in his face; I just answered his question, simply telling him which equation editor I use. He was surprised that I use equation editors and have opinions about them, but he didn't comment further.

Not all of my papers have equations, but some do, including a few very recent ones. Since this student has clearly not read my papers, I wonder what about me screams "not quantitative" to him. Of course I have a hypothesis, but then, I just happen to be wearing my gender lenses today.

To many, being quantitative shows that you are a serious, rigorous scientist. I was discussing this with one of my students recently in relation to the main goals of his research. He said that a main goal was to quantify things. I said "Why?" and he seemed surprised, as if quantifying things was an end in itself. This turned into a wide-ranging and interesting conversation about his research and future directions for his work, including discussion of where quantifying things fits into the general scheme of his work.

Another frequent quantitative topic is something I call my you can always get a number speech. This speech has several parts: (1) You can always get a number.. but does it mean anything? and (2) You can always get a number, but even if it means something.. what does it mean? (i.e., the number itself is not an end in itself, you have to think about it).

It is surely a sign of age that I have these little speeches that I find myself giving over and over. There is probably an equation I could write (if I ever did such things) that relates my age in any given year to the frequency with which I give these speeches. Or something.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

On Failure

To follow on the last couple of posts on success, it might be timely to discuss (again) the topic of failure. In this case, I mean failure in an academic sense -- e.g., failing to obtain a degree or failing to do well in research (as a student, postdoc, or faculty member).

There are of course many scenarios, reasons, and types of people who don't do well in the academic ecosystem. The various types include:

- those who could do well if the powers-that-be weren't evil, biased, and/or lacking judgment, or who could do well if the academic system weren't so inflexible;
- those who could do well but are hindered severely by problems beyond their control (e.g., physical/mental illness or family issues);
- those who could do well if they tried/worked harder (that's a loaded statement, I know);
- those who are intellectually unable to do the work;
- those who are intellectually able but lack other essential elements (e.g., creativity; ability to complete a project, including writing)

I am not going to discuss the first two items today.

I have observed examples of the other three species throughout my academic career. They have always existed and will always exist. A challenge for faculty advisors is to identify them before accepting them as advisees. At this I have failed repeatedly, providing me with some expertise on the topic, as well as my own experience with failure.

It is important to note that I am not talking about people who could do well with good advising, mentoring, and a flexible research program -- I place them in the first two categories in my list.

It might seem to be easiest to identify in advance those who are intellectually unable to do research, but this is not always the case. Some of my best graduate students have had not-so-stellar undergraduate records, and some of my worst were undergrad stars.

Determining whether someone is going to be enthusiastic about their graduate/postdoctoral work is also difficult. Example: a graduate student who, as an undergrad, had done a research project and apparently done it well, with excellent reference letters from the undergrad research advisor; applied to grad school because of an apparently deep interest in research and excitement about an array of possible projects; arrived at grad school and suddenly lost all interest in research, appearing in the department occasionally to attend a class and teach a lab. I can't help but think of all the applicants we had to reject (owing to the limited number of grad positions available) the year this student was admitted; if we had known, of course we would have chosen differently.

Judging someone's ability to do research can also be difficult to do before that person is given a chance to demonstrate their abilities. However, giving someone a chance to get started with a research project to a sufficient level to judge their abilities fairly takes time. That, combined with time for courses, exams, and teaching labs (in some cases), means that you might not know for 2+ years whether a grad student is going to be able to do Ph.D. research. In the case of a 'failing' grad student, although the right decision may become more obvious with time, it also becomes more difficult to make.

I know of no fool-proof way to know in advance if someone has the ability and passion to do research. Genetic testing? Personality quiz? Crystal balls or tea leaves? I think it's going to have to continue to be an educated guess + trial-and-error kind of experience.

Failing is seldom an unemotional thing. I have never had a student who, after a year or two, just shrugged and said "oh well, I guess this research thing isn't for me but thanks anyway for trying to help me". Nor have I had a student who, after leaving the program (voluntarily or involuntarily), said "I am tormented by regret about all the money that was spent on me, including precious grant funds that you worked so hard to obtain and that I have essentially wasted because I didn't do the work I was paid to do. Here's the money back." [hands the department a check].

Some of my colleagues hope that there is a special circle of hell reserved for those who waste a substantial amount of everyone's time and money before quitting or failing. I am perhaps not so extreme, though I admit to having unkind thoughts about such people from time to time. Instead, I think it is better to wish our 'failures' well, and hope that they will succeed in their non-academic lives and be happy .. and perhaps also make a lot of money and send us that check.