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Preview: FemaleScienceProfessor


Musings of a science professor at a large research university.

Updated: 2018-04-21T04:45:01.772-05:00


Coaching Academics?


A longtime reader and sometime correspondent of mine recently posed some questions to share with FSP readers (if you are still out there). These questions are quite specific, although there are general questions associated with them (more on that below):

Question 1: Do you have any recommendations for professional coaches who have helped you in your job? It would be especially helpful to know of those who have had success coaching academics, and particularly women in male-dominated fields.

Question 2: Do you know any examples of universities conducting reviews of their own tenure process? Do you have any suggestions for academic experts in judgment & decision-making (or other relevant research areas) who would be good committee members for such a review?
I have no answers for these particular questions, and instead have questions about the questions. For example: 
Even if you don't have any particular recommendations, what do you think of the concept of having a professional coach to help academics? Do you think that would be useful, and if so, with what particular issues? Would this essentially be like a faculty mentor, though one possibly more likely to have actual, useful mentoring skills?

And to the second question: Most of us can likely think of universities that have problematic tenure procedures (and possibly using the term procedures is incorrect in some cases, as it implies a systematic process). Can you think (or better, name) institutions that do this evaluation well? If so, what is so good about the process at these places? Are these positive features exportable to other institutions (peer institutions or otherwise)?

STEM survey for postgraduate women


A request from some researchers seeking postgraduate STEM women to do a survey by February 27:
Dear Colleagues,

We are conducting a study of postgraduate women in STEM fields (natural and physical sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics) to explore aspects of job satisfaction and the ways women are experiencing and influencing departmental and institutional culture. Culture is defined here as the predominant behaviors and beliefs that characterize an academic department or institution. This survey will not ask you to provide your name or institution, will take approximately 10-15 minutes to complete, and has been approved by the human subjects institutional review board of Nazareth College. Should you have concerns or wish to learn about the results of this study, please send an email to All correspondence will be kept confidential. 

Please click on the following link to access the survey:  

Thank you for taking the time to share your experience with us. 

Beth Russell, PhD, LCSW, Assistant Professor, School of Social Work, Nazareth College
Tanya Smith, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University

Moving Stories


Have you been involved in moving a research lab/facility from one place to another within one institution, such as during a building renovation or a move to a new building on campus? How did that go?

I am particularly interested in hearing examples of moves that involved postdocs, grad students, or other researchers paid 100% from grants: did the postdocs/students/researcher do move-related work while paid by these grants, and was that a problem?

And if it was a problem, was this because:

1 - research was disrupted owing to the time required to move the lab (including downtime as equipment was moved) -- that is, time when researchers could not do their research as they would have without the disruption of the move. What was the total duration of the disruption? (Do you have any advice about to minimize this time?)

2 - there was an administrative issue regarding paying people (from grants) to do work not originally accounted for in the grant. For example, a researcher paid 100% time on a grant is not allowed to work on another project, not even outside of normal working hours (I have a problem with that, but that is another issue and the subject of previous post-rants on effort certification). Or were you able to justify the move-related work as being relevant to the grant(s) and the effort certifiers were happy?

3 - both of the above;

4 - none of the above;

4 - other (please explain).

If you were one of the aforementioned researchers who had to do move-related activities because your lab was moving (for whatever reason), did this have a negative effect on you (e.g., your productivity?), and was there anything that was done (or that you think could realistically have been done) to help you?

Some PIs and other researchers at my university and at other universities have wildly divergent opinions about the topic of how to deal with this type of intra-campus move.

So, I am looking for your Moving Stories. There are likely some impressive tales of moving woe out there, but I am hoping there are also heartwarming moving stories with happy endings (and beginnings and middles). 

Yes of Course your Course is Rigorous, if you say so


If you write recommendation letters for undergraduate students applying for graduate school, internships, and the like, have you ever included the fact that the student got a good grade in your rigorous, challenging, demanding class?

And if you wrote that, did you back it up with data? Or did you mention the fact that your entire institution is so uber-prestigious that the students are all super-smart, ergo, anyone getting a high grade in your rigorous class is exceptional?

I don't think I have ever described one of my own classes like this. Perhaps my classes are not rigorous. Perhaps I don't think my saying so would be compelling, even if they are. 

So, how do you feel about reading recommendation letters in which someone describes their own course as rigorous (challenging etc.)? Are you convinced by this? If not, what would convince you? Data? That the student was only one of (specified low number) out of (moderate to high number) to get a (high grade) in a course? 

Some (few) institutions give some useful information in transcripts about grade distribution and class size, but most do not. So we are left with the self-described rigorous professors to guide us.

Perhaps I sound a bit cranky about this. I am not really all that cranky about it. Compared to the heartfelt stories of inspiring uncles and chemistry kits that inspired the applicants as children to pursue a passion for science, including graduate study, the self-described rigor -- although surprisingly common -- is more amusing than annoying. 

(And I certainly don't hold it against the applicants, who are, after all, typically have few choices of letter writers and know nothing of the letter-writing skills of their referees.)

Contest Entry : Rejection Letters, 7


This rejection letter arrived 5 years after the actual application/search process. That seems excessively long.

What do you think:

1. better late than never?

2. if an institution is going to send a 5-year-late rejection, couldn't it be a bit more appropriate?

3. I am just glad to have closure.


January 28, 2015

We, at the University of Wisconsin, would like to thank you for taking the time to express your interest in the FACULTY-OPEN RANK position that you applied for on December 10, 2009. We have now completed the search process and unfortunately you were unsuccessful. Nevertheless, it is our hope that you will continue to consider other employment opportunities at our institution in the future.  Please continue to visit our job site  for the most current opportunities.

Thank you,
Search and Screen Committee Chair

Contest Entry : Rejection Letters, 6


Sad but apparently true, though I hope it wasn't recently true and I hope the administrators concerned all ended up spending their days dealing with major, expensive all-encompassing software upgrades that were supposed to link many vital academic/administrative systems but instead caused mass chaos that never ended.

Submitted by a reader:

Dear Jane:

Thank you very much for interviewing for the open position, Director of Herding Cats.  We were impressed with your qualifications and we all enjoyed your visit several months ago.  I do apologize for the long delay in getting back to you, but I believe Professor Tuna, head of the search committee, informed you that we made an offer to another candidate.  We appreciate your continued interest in the position.

At this stage, after negotiating a counter offer with her home institution, the candidate has decided to leave the field and accept a highly lucrative position in industry.  The search committee has recommended that, as the second-ranked candidate on the short list, you be offered the position next. 
Unfortunately, the Department Head decided to reopen the interview process by inviting someone ranked below the short list, an acquaintance of his.  That candidate has been offered and has accepted the position.

Thank you again for your interest.


Wira Mess
HR Representative

Contest Entry: Rejection Letters, 5


A late but great entry!

Dear Applicant,

Thank you for your interest in our advertised position. I am very sorry to announce that after careful consideration of your 36 page application by a panel of international experts, we are unable to offer you an interview.

If this makes you feel any better, please consider that despite flying 12 international experts in from around the world, spending an entire week sorting through all the applications in a very expensive conference centre, the result of this is nearly equivalent to a random process.

I say this constructively, i.e. to encourage you to apply again to any future positions we may advertise, since the quality of applications is ultimately uncorrelated with selection to the short list.

An. Eminent Professor (who also happens to be your former advisor).

Contest Entry: Rejection Letters, 4


Short and not sweet, from Eli Rabett:


You lose

The Search Committee

Contest Entry: Rejection Letters, 3


Would you want to get a letter like this?

(Too?) Much Information Letter

Dear [applicant name],

We received 154 applications for our advertised position. Of these we selected 32 for a "long list" of applicants and we requested letters of reference for those. You were in this group of 32.

Of those 32, we narrowed the list further to 12 individuals. One or more members of our search committee met with most of these 12 at the Big Conference or at least attended their conference presentation. You were in this group of 12.

Of those 12, we selected 5 to interview. You were not in this group of 5. The selection of the 5 individuals was not based on merit. How could it be? All 12 on the next-to-final short list are highly qualified. In fact the 32 on the long list are highly qualified and probably another dozen or more beyond that.

It might not make you feel better to know that the selection process is nearly random in the end. The struggle is to make that semi-random selection fair (that is, not favoring those we happen to know and like or whose advisors are our friends, trying not to let unconscious bias creep into the process, and so on).

So how did we decide? Is it about that nebulous concept of "fit"? Sort of, but fit can go both ways. The faculty could decide that the best "fit" would be someone who "builds on our strengths" in a certain subfield or "fit" could be defined as needing a person who works on something new and different that would nevertheless somehow "fit" with our vision of exciting future directions. In this search, we interviewed some of each type.

Was there anything in your letters of reference that caused you to be non-selected for an interview? No, there really wasn't anything. All the top candidates had excellent letters of reference.

Was it number of publications? No, it was not. Was it the impact factor of the journals? No. Citation index? Definitely not, you are all too early in your careers for that to be any useful indicator of anything.

In the end, the interview list was selected by the search committee, with input from other faculty and other interested parties, after reading and discussing the application materials, including publications (Perhaps it is useful to mention that the research statement can be quite useful as an indicator of what each applicant's ideas are for future research and teaching.). It is a time-consuming process so even if there is some randomness, it is a thoughtful randomness, if that makes any sense.

Anyway, we interviewed the interviewees and a few stood out and we made an offer to one of them and that person accepted, so our search process has now been completed and we wanted to let you know that.


The Search Committee Chair, on behalf of the Search Committee

Contest Entries: Rejection Letters, 2



Contest Entries: Rejection Letters, 1


Here are two entries in the Rejection Letter writing contest, including one (the first one) that is based on a real letter that may (or may not?) be needlessly a bit cruel.

We wish you well

On behalf of Dr. Marty Bloom, Chair, Dept. of Many Words for Science and the MWFS Search Committee at Badly Located State School  we greatly appreciate your applying for a faculty position in our department.   We regret that your name was not on the short list.  We wish you well in your search for a position appropriate to your accomplishments and interests.


Mary Sue LogginsSearch Committee Secretary



Dear Applicant,

Thank you for applying for Job [ID code 87340000001]. 

Your application passed audit.

You have not been selected for this job.

(end text)


Write This 2014


For the past couple of weeks I have been feeling occasionally distressed that I had not yet announced the theme of the annual Academic Writing Contest, and then I noticed the date on last year's announcement -- December 22. So now I feel better, though only if I don't think too much about what that means about the past two years.

A summary of the themes of the last six (6) contests:

And now, to celebrate the end of 2014 and get everyone in a festive mood for 2015, the theme for this year's writing contest is: The Rejection Letter.

The rules are simple:

- Write a brief rejection letter that exemplifies whatever interests you most about this type of communication -- how awful they can be, how insincere, how kind, how bizarre, how cryptic, or whatever.

- Entries can be made up or can be (anonymized) real ones that are somehow noteworthy for their awfulness, awesomeness, bizarreness etc.

- Email entries to, and as usual I will arbitrarily post some or all of them whilst the FSP family makes its annual expedition to somewhere interesting.

Jekyll-Hyde Q&A


During the question-and-answer time associated with talks at conferences or in department seminars, have you noticed any difference in how questions are addressed to male vs. female speakers? By "how", I mean things like tone of voice and level of politeness/aggression.

This difference is one of those things that I keep expecting to go away with time as a result of the increase in numbers of women as speakers and audience members. It has definitely decreased in frequency but it has not gone away.

Something I noticed at a conference earlier this year was that audience members were commonly quite polite and encouraging of student presenters (of any gender). The fangs mostly seemed to appear when there was a non-student early-career female speaker: postdocs/research scientists, assistant professors, and even in one case an associate professor.

This is of course a completely unscientific anecdotal subjective observation. Nevertheless, over the years I have observed some mid-career and older male colleagues who consistently go through a sort of Jekyll-Hyde transformation when a younger woman gives a presentation. They are rude, aggressive, patronizing, and make it clear that the answers given to their questions are inadequate and probably wrong. They do not do this with male speakers. Ever.

I know that some male colleagues who also noticed this phenomenon and were uncomfortable about it tried to talk to at least one of these colleagues. I am curious to see if this criticism will somehow sink in and modify behavior.

A concern is that whatever subconscious impressions are triggering these negative reactions to female speakers also seep into reviews of papers and proposals, decisions on hiring and promotion, or any other circumstance involving evaluation of a less public sort. Or perhaps (total musing alert) it is the public nature of the rude questioning of a female speaker that is the (subconscious) goal, and private reviewing of a paper or proposal does not trigger such a reaction. I am just making this up; I have no insights into the psychology of this behavior. I have just seen it in action too many times.

I do not mean to imply that there is an epidemic of disrespect at conferences and seminars; in my academic world, there is not. In fact (silver lining alert) the examples I describe here are perhaps particularly evident today because they have become relatively rare. I am also encouraged by the existence of male allies who notice and speak up.

So: During the question-and-answer time associated with talks at conferences etc., have you noticed any difference in how questions are addressed to male vs. female speakers?

This is Your Brain on Administration


Certainly I am not the first to realize that a proliferation of administrators at certain levels of academic institutions results in an increasing number of tasks passed down to lower levels. This year, it is like a fire hose spraying a deluge of new administrative tasks directly at my head (and at department staff, without whom I would collapse into an inert heap). It is causing me to face one of my greatest anxieties about being a part-time administrator: losing my research brain (not to mention my blogging brain).There are many things in life that can encroach on our creative-thinking time and abilities -- babies and illness (to name just two) -- and over time can make it difficult to sustain an energetic research program. I have experienced those; now my major distraction is of a more mundane sort: administrative thoughts are taking over my brain.It is not just that I have less time for research. Realizing this was a bit of a surprise. I guess I always assumed that administrators who complained about the negative effect of administrative duties on their research were talking about how little time they had for research. The lack of time for research is of course a factor. But now I think that a more insidious factor is what spending so much time on administration can do to your brain.Administrative work (in my experience) can be broadly classified into two general (admittedly imperfect categories): Stupid Tasks and Other Tasks.Stupid Tasks are classified as such by me because they are unnecessarily time-sucking. These tasks include things that:- a robot zombie computer could do;- are the result of shiny new policies that are meant to change but not necessarily improve anything for anyone;- are the result of someone else doing something stupid, unnecessary, immature, or unwise; - are involved in documenting that we are not spending federal, state, or any money on illegal drugs, yachts, massages or alcohol, and -- just as bad -- are not spending this research money on that research project instead of on this research project, and we can prove it by documenting how everyone spends all their time, 24/7, whilst working on this or that research project; oh, and by the way, the system by which we monitor all that is going to change every year or so and in between you will spend a lot of time figuring out the new system, which will have bugs, but there is training you can attend to learn the new system before it is superceded by the next one, which will cost the university a lot of money and will be bewildering;- require lots of meetings but don't need to;- involve people who work for the University Facilities unit. Some Stupid Tasks are actually important, many are urgent, and all are annoying. Other Tasks are ones that require some higher level of thought or decision-making than the Stupid Tasks. Some of these are stressful and some of them are the only reason why being a department/unit head is at all rewarding (examples: hiring, supporting faculty/researchers/staff/students in various ways, solving problems that are worth solving, being an advocate for the department in the university and the broader Science community, connecting with alumni, and just generally being helpful so that bright and hard-working colleagues and students can do their great work as well as possible). Being an administrator requires some creativity, and that may help keep the research part of the brain from atrophying too much. But I have found that it is easy to let a focus on Stupid Tasks take over, narrowing my vision and withering my imagination (I fear). And again, it isn't just about time. I can make time for research (most weeks). It's just that during random times when I might previously hav[...]

Rejection Rules


Telling people (by letter, e-mail, or voice) that they are not getting a position for which they applied, or are not even being considered (at all/any more), is difficult. Do I even need to bother to say that I understand that it is not as difficult as being the one getting that information? (Probably, so I just did.)I have written about rejection letters before, and have a blog label for posts on "criticism, rejection, or failure" (22 posts, including this one). I still stand by the approach I described two years ago regarding how to go about rejecting applicants:(1) just do it -- once a decision has been made, it's better to let an unselected applicant know where they stand than to leave them unnecessarily uninformed and wondering;(2) be respectful and professional; the rejectee likely does not care to hear that rejecting them is painful for you;(3) if possible, be informative with relevant data (number of applicants, where the applicant ended up in the process etc.); this is also part of being professional and respectful, even if there are a very large number of applicants to reject.I am sure that there is a lot of variation in how and when different departments/units inform unselected applicants of their status. For much of the process in my department, I leave communication with unselected candidates to the search committee chair and/or the department administrator, depending on the situation. My personal role as the bearer of good or bad news comes near the end of the process and involves only the candidates who made it to the very-last stages of consideration. When a search is still underway, my only contribution to the rejection process is to make sure that  someone is informing applicants of their status in a timely way.Rejection may occur at any one of many points in the process:First: rejection of those who reflexively submit applications for positions for which they are not qualified -- for example, those who are in a completely different field with zero experience in the research/teaching topics of the open position. I wonder why these applicants even bother. These applications typically arrive soon after an ad is posted, even if this is months before the deadline or target date for submitting applications (not a good sign if you are applying to a research university with expectations of continuing research activity).Then: those applicants who meet the basic qualifications for the position but, owing to something about their record or field of expertise, are not selected for further consideration.Then: those applicants who make it to the long-list but not the medium- or short/est-lists. The reasons for non-selection at these points range widely. Then: those who interviewed but who are not offered a position -- there may be various subdivisions of these depending on how many are interviewed and what goes on in terms of discussions among faculty, administrators etc., so the timing and mode of rejection may vary.That's a lot of rejecting. In my experience, departments are encouraged to conduct at least some very broad searches rather than narrow searches in the hopes that broader searches will increase diversity. Broader searchers result in larger numbers of applicants and therefore larger numbers of rejections. If the ultimate goal is noble, I think it is preferable to have a larger number of applicants (and therefore rejections) than to have fewer applicants/fewer rejections.Agree or disagree?[...]

Why Being An Administrator Is (Sometimes) Super Cool


Why can it be very great to be an administrator, at least certain kinds of administrator, such as department heads or program directors or maybe even some dean-like people?

Because, from time to time, you get to offer people excellent jobs, like tenure-track sorts of jobs. Such jobs do indeed still exist. Some people are getting them and that means that other people are making the official offers to those people. I have found that I very much enjoy being one of those other people.

That is: It is of course very thrilling to get an offer of a tenure-track position. It is also super cool to be the one making the offer/s.

I like to think about this when the relentlessly trivial and soul-destroying aspects of being an administrator start to gain on the positive aspects.

Below is a highly schematic graph that I hope I can eventually replace with a graph based on actual data (with a Time axis that has real units). This example graph is just to show in a relative sense how super cool making a job offer is compared to routine administrative tasks and the occasional unpleasant (but not catastrophic) financial or personnel crisis. 

+ = supercoolness; - = suckiness; 0 = neutral; time has no units...

3G Women's Colleges


When I started this blog in 2006, my daughter was in elementary school. Now she is starting to think about college -- what type of institution in what part of the country/world and so on. So far the reality/stress of actual applications and decisions has not yet arrived and it is interesting to discuss the options.

One thing that interests me is that my daughter is very serious about applying to women's colleges.

When I was in college-search mode decades ago, I was interested in women's colleges -- for different reasons than the ones motivating my daughter. I was interested in women's colleges in large part because I felt that I would be taken seriously as a scholar in such an environment. I did not want college to be a repeat of high school, where boys were the ones 'most likely to succeed' (no matter that the top 11 students in my graduating class were female). In that sense, my motivation was somewhat negative in that I was seeking a place that was very different from what I had experienced before.

My daughter's high school takes her very seriously as an intelligent, motivated, articulate person and she has every expectation of being taken seriously in college as well. So her interest in women's colleges is more of a positive one: she thinks of women's colleges as places where she would be surrounded by many interesting and ambitious women. She knows that she could also find such communities at other types of institutions but has a particularly positive impression of this aspect of women's colleges. This impression comes from a few visits to women's colleges and also from meeting graduates of women's colleges at various times over the years.

Her interest in women's colleges is also intriguing to me because my mother went to a women's college. In my mother's case she went to a women's college because her parents made her go to one, not because she wanted to. This was in the 1950's. My mother had been a bit wild in high school -- lots of boyfriends, smoking, parties.. mediocre grades -- and her parents didn't want her to go to a big state university (as her calmer younger sisters later did). So she went to a very small, somewhat obscure and quite isolated women's college. She has always spoken fondly of her college and has remained life-long friends with some of the women she met there, so it was a good experience for her despite her lack of interest in women's colleges. [She also met my father on a train during her sophomore year, got married soon after (allowed by her parents on the condition that she finish school), and had two babies within two years of graduating.]

Three very different women from three different generations with three different reasons for attending (or possibly attending) a women's college. Three decades ago I wondered if such places would still be around and relevant in the 2010's. I am pleased that they are and I am particularly pleased that strong and confident young women such as my daughter can have such positive motivation for being interested in them.

"In Science, It Matters That Women Come Last"


Emma Pierson has written a very interesting article titled In Science, It Matters That Women Come Last. The article is filled with data and analysis (and graphs!) about gender trends in publishing in some subfields of the physical sciences and math. She examined numbers of papers and authorship order for male and female authors using 23 years of papers from arXiv.

If you read the article, I recommend that you read it all the way through, including footnotes. As I read it I had some questions such as, "What about fields in which authorship is alphabetical?". These questions are answered. You may or may not agree with the methods but these issues were anticipated and the analysis considers the effects of different authorship-order practices in different fields.

There are many fascinating aspects of this dataset and Pierson's discussion of the data. One that particularly interested me is this:
.. I found evidence that women tend to work together. If a paper has one female author, the other authors on the paper are 35 percent more likely to be female given the share of female authors in the field overall.
It is possible that this is largely the result of female PIs tending to advise/hire more female students and postdocs (Pierson mentions a study that seems to show this). I wonder also about the tendency of women scientists to collaborate as peers and how data/trends related to such collaborations will change with time.

I see changes in my peer-collaborations with time in my own career. For the first 2+ decades, my female coauthors were my students and postdocs, with a few isolated exceptions of female-peer coauthors. More recently (the last few years in particular), I have had many female-peer coauthors. It has become routine. I thought this was because there were simply more women in my field now -- in fact, I am sure that is part of the explanation -- but now I wonder if there is more to it. I guess we'd need to know more about how the authorship dataset breaks down by advisee vs. peer coauthors to understand what it means.

What do you think this particular result (that 'women tend to work together') means, either for you or in your particular sub/field?

Maybe Definitely Give This Person Tenure


By request, this is a follow-up post on last week's musing about being the external letter-writer for someone's tenure/promotion evaluation. Today I will compare the wording of positive letters vs. not-so-positive (but not killer negative) letters (in the US academic system) to demonstrate the differences; some differences are obvious and some are less so. Although some external letter writers evaluating candidates for tenure/promotion write unambiguously negative letters, most letters are either positive or positive-ish.I don't think the opening sentence is necessarily very indicative, although letters that start by saying that it is a "pleasure" to write the letter (perhaps even a "strong letter of support") of course tend to be very positive. Letters that start with a basic statement and perhaps a description of how the letter-writer has interacted (or not) with the candidate could go either way.Positive letters tend to start positive and stay that way, with any quibbles buried deep within them. In my experience, lukewarm letters tend to start positive or positive-ish and then decay in magnitude of positiveness for the rest of the letter. I am not sure that I have seen a letter start negative or lukewarm and end up highly positive, although I have seen letters that I thought were quite negative end with a statement that the candidate would get tenure at the letter-writer's (in some cases elite) institution; that can be confusing.Unambiguous positive statements that might appear in a very positive letter:Dr. (or Professor) X is a world leader/pioneer/internationally known and respected specialist in [research field].Dr. X and his/her students/postdocs have published (many) excellent papers on [topic/s].Faint-praise statements that might appear in a lukewarm letter:Dr. X is a specialist in [research field].Dr. X has made contributions to the field of [topic].Dr. X's research appears to be quite solid.  Note: To make those statements even more negative, the research field could be described as narrowly as possible.Examples of very positive words and phrases: strong (inter)national reputation, novel, creative, major/significant/signal/tremendous/impressive/insightful/brilliant contributions, rigorous, breadth and depth, breakthroughs, widely respected, widely sought as an invited speaker, key player, true scholar, fundamental/leadership role, taking the lead (etc.), groundbreaking, rising star, international star, exceptional, exceptionally strong case for tenure, original/originality, elegant (referring to research, not the person), high profile, swimming at the top of the talent pool, the world beats a path to X's door, having X on your faculty brings renown to your institution.Note that the hyper-positive adjective-laden letters tend to come from US academics or those very familiar with the US system. Non-US letters tend to be more restrained (the same is true for proposal reviews) and readers of such letters need to calibrate for this. The statement "Dr. X's research is quite good" might translate into Americanish to "Dr. X is the world leader and pioneer in creative and insightful investigation of a wide range of significant research topics."Lukewarm (US) letters are characterized by fewer adjectives and of course few/no strong-positive adjectives. They may instead have faint-praise type adjectives such as 'solid', 'good' (with or without some other mild adjectives). The mild equivalent of the very-positive description 'has been extraordinarily/very productive' might be something like, 'has apparently been quite busy'; the positi[...]

CV Gap Years


Every year I get asked to write letters for the evaluation of faculty at other institutions for tenure and/or promotion. My typical thought process on being asked to write a letter for someone I don't know well is: "OK, I've heard of that person/read their papers/seen them at conferences. Sure, I'll write a letter." Then I note the due date and send off a quick e-mail agreeing to write the letter. Most often the request arrives in the summer and I write the letters in summer or early fall. [If you click on the 'tenure' label in the frame on the right -- perhaps after scrolling down a bit -- you will see my previous comments on writing tenure letters.]When it gets to be time to study in detail the materials relevant to the evaluation -- for example: CV, selected publications -- in many recent cases I have dealt with (recent = past 5 years) -- there have been complications. Example complications: unexplained gaps in the publication record (at least, unexplained to outside reviewers), lack of advisees and lack of publications with advisees, and/or few to no grants (and no research proposals pending with the individual as PI). In a recent example, I was asked to comment specifically on publication quality and quantity, grants, and other research aspects, but I found this difficult owing to some of these complications.I can think of 'good' explanations for all of those complications. A gap in publications could be related to a massive time commitment setting up a lab and preparing new classes; it could also be related to personal issues that would not trigger an official extension of the probationary period and that would not be explained in a cover letter to external letter writers. Lack of advisees could be caused by unsuccessful attempts at advising students who quit or failed for reasons completely unrelated to the advising ability or practices of the faculty member. And we all know that it is difficult to get grants these days (although we still have to try, so a lack of pending research proposals is troubling). The host institution is of course aware of all these issues, knows the context, and will likely do what it wants about them -- ignore them completely and focus on the individual's potential or treat them as fatal flaws that justify denial of tenure/promotion -- no matter what my letter says. And there are other significant factors (teaching ability) that are typically not known by outside letter-writers who are asked to comment on scholarship.Sometimes I think that these letters are just a necessary formality and there is nothing useful that I can say in my letter. It's not constructive to think about that while working on one of these letters, so I try to think about how -- as a faculty member reading other people's letters for colleagues -- I find some letters to be quite useful. These letters can be useful not so much for whether the individual thinks the candidate should or should not be tenured and/or promoted but for the perspective they provide about the person's body of work.So I try to focus on that aspect of my letters. After (re)reading some of the candidate's publications and thinking about their ideas and work and trajectory, I try to express what I think about that person's scholarship and their impact on the field. (I have written before about how I do not like to do comparisons with others in the field and I do not like to answer the question of whether someone would get tenure at my institution.) Writing in detail about the candidate's research may or may not be of interest to faculty an[...]

Room for Improvement


Student comments on my teaching of a particular course:Great professor!I have enjoyed this class!I liked the readings.This course required too much previous knowledge.Professor very helpful with homework.Homework very useful for class.Well-constructed lectures.Very organized lectures.She speaks very clearly.She answered my homework questions.She provided images and charts to supplement the subject matter.The in-class exercises were helpful.I liked the practice exercises we did in groups during lecture.I liked that she asked questions during class and this helped deepen my understanding of concepts.Useful supplementary material to help us understand lecture material.She explained the topics completely in class. Didn't use a textbook as a crutch.It was great that lecture and lab material were well coordinated.She was always ready to answer questions.She was always willing to help with any questions.She provided the subject matter very clearly.The last project was too much work for this level of class. Lecture presentations very clear.I liked the in-class exercises.You should improve your teaching methods.Note that almost all of the comments are in the 3rd person (except for the last one), as if the students were writing to someone else about me, rather than writing to me with feedback. I don't know if it matters in terms of type and level of feedback whether the student is imaging an unknown audience or speaking directly to me (?). At evaluation time, I give a little talk to the class about the importance of this feedback and how it is used by instructors and the department/college/university, but I think there is still general confusion among students about what exactly the purpose of these evaluations is and who reads them and whether anyone cares what they think. These are overall nice comments, and unfortunately also rather classic in that the criticisms are too vague to help me understand what the specific complaints are.The last comment, despite being too vague to be useful in any specific way, is absolutely right. Despite being deep into my mid-career years, I don't want my teaching to fossilize. I want to improve. In recent years I have attended teaching workshops and gotten some ideas from those. When I team-teach, a faculty colleague is in the classroom with me, so I get some peer feedback. And last term, I jettisoned the too-long and too-detailed textbook and provided focused readings, including some that I wrote myself. That seems to have worked quite well (or at least no one said they missed having a textbook), so perhaps that counts as an improvement. I would also like to do some new things involving e-learning and have been to some workshops and meetings about that. I am thinking about teaching because I was just looking at my evaluations, though mostly I am enjoying having lots of uninterrupted time for research. This week I even managed to submit a manuscript on which I am primary author. It's been about two years since I've been able to do that (and I don't mean to imply that I did it alone -- an excellent colleague was essential to the completion of this paper).As I was finishing the paper (and a related grant proposal) recently, it occurred to me that I could create a new teaching module based on this work and incorporate it into the class for which I just received teaching evaluations (not, of course, as extra work but replacing some older material). Probably more than any major change in teaching style, a realistic way that I can improve my teaching is to find good[...]

Men are from Pluto


A colleague and I were talking about this and that recently and he said that at some point he needs to find a new research topic, as the one that he has been working on (very successfully, and in fact sort-of pioneered) is getting very crowded. It's not as much fun (says him) to be in a crowd instead of way out ahead.

So then he said that it was difficult to start working on a very-different topic because it can be difficult to get funding if you lack a track-record and expertise in that new thing. True enough. So I said, "Collaborate" (unsaid but well known: That's what I do).

He said, "No, you can't project authority if you collaborate."


Context: We are both full professors and therefore getting adequate credit for our work is not a career life-or-death issue as it is for early-career scientists. For the early-careerers, this can be important (depending on your particular context). Collaboration can still be a significant research component -- enjoyable and rewarding in many cases* -- as long as you also stand out from the crowd in some way for your ideas and expertise.

But other than that, who cares about projecting authority? OK, some people do. My colleague clearly does, and he is very good at it (projecting authority). I don't really care. Well, I do a bit (I don't like being overlooked), but I don't think collaborating has lessened my "authority". If anything, it has increased it.

I reject as a general philosophy the idea that collaborating de-authoritizes you (I just made that word up), although if that's what floats your boat, go ahead and enjoy your authority (alone).

* if your colleagues are not jerks, and if they don't hold up manuscripts and proposals.

Measure for Measure of Success


Something that I have been seeing more and more in grant proposal reviews (my own and those of colleagues who have shared theirs with me) is the idea that it's not enough to have a record of success advising grad students, undergrads, and postdocs in research -- you have to understand and explain your advising techniques and you have to have a plan for assessing and improving.OK, I get that, but even when I attempt to do those things, it isn't good enough for some reviewers. They think that I (and my colleagues) are relying too much on past success and traditional measures of success (degrees, publications, conference presentations, post-graduation employment). They are not convinced that that is sufficient. They want something different. Apparently, unless you change something, you are not improving and therefore are not being transformative, or something.Example reviews (comments condensed/reworded to remove any identifying vocabulary):A highly qualified PhD student has already been identified for this research but the mentoring of this student and an undergraduate is largely assumed based on prior experience of the PIs. The PIs have records of successful advising but should include in the proposal a more intentional discussion of how they plan to train the next generation of scientists. The mechanism for success is not explained and there is no plan for assessing success of their mentoring. How will successful training of the graduate student be determined other than by the record of publications, presentations, and completion of the thesis? Although the research is potentially transformative and this is an excellent team of researchers, because of these shortcomings in the broader impacts I have given the proposal a lower rating.That makes no sense to me. I am definitely not saying that we all deserve to have all of our grants awarded just because we have had past success. However, I think that if the proposed research is deemed excellent by a reviewer and the PI has a demonstrated record of success with advising, it does not make sense to downgrade a proposal rating for the reasons given in the example review above, contributing to the rejection of the proposal and therefore a lack of funding for the graduate student. Here's another:[From a review of a proposal that included one week of salary for a soft-money research scientist who runs a lab in which students would do some analyses for a proposed project]: Description of the mentoring of the postdoc is not well developed. There is no mention of career counseling. Mentoring in professional activities such as writing proposals and papers is confined to discussions and support for participation in conferences and workshops. There is no mention of how the postdoc will be mentored to collaborate with diverse groups of researchers and students. There is no description of the postdoc's career path in the context of developing an effective mentoring plan for him.And this:[From a review of a proposal that included a substantial component of support for undergraduate research]: These PIs have a long record of success in advising undergraduate students in research but no evidence is presented for how the field of research on undergraduate research will be advanced. These are just anecdotes, of course, plucked from reviews of different proposals by different PIs. At least one of the proposals even involved a colleague who does research on teaching and learning. It wasn't enough. So[...]



A colleague recently shared a review of his (rejected) proposal. The most negative review contained this statement:
There were a number of editorial errors found throughout the proposal. Some were missing commas and the like,
The mind, like, boggles.

Now I need to know: have you ever
  • commented on punctuation in a review? (minor errors, egregious errors, pet peeves?) -- did it affect your overall rating of the proposal, as far as you know?
  • received a comment on punctuation in a review? (minor errors, egregious errors, pet peeves?)
And if there were punctuation, grammar, and/or spelling errors in a review that criticized you for real or perceived punctuation errors, how did you feel about that?

Did you think, "Oh well, the reviewer is just bashing out a review on a webform and of course shouldn't be held to their own high standards for punctuation in proposals. Perhaps that missing comma on page 10 of the proposal indicates that I am a sloppy and untransformative scientist and therefore didn't deserve a grant that would have supported student research."

Or did you think something a bit more negative about the reviewer's punctuated hypocrisy?

Liveblogging the Exam


Although taking an exam is most certainly more stressful than giving an exam, giving an exam can be quite stressful. I am not asking for sympathy, I am just stating a fact.The most stressful exams to administer are those in large classes in which students are packed into every available seat and there may be (alas, too often) issues with cheating. You can devote considerable time and effort to anti-cheating activities such as giving multiple versions of exams, you can have students sign an honor statement, you can patrol classroom non-stop during the exam, or you can just hope for the best.Giving an exam to a small or medium-sized class is less stressful because the logistics are easier, but that is not to say that giving an exam even in these circumstances is lacking in stress. Or, at least, that is my opinion. Is there anyone who would rather give an exam than have a regular class? I would much rather have non-exam class time. [I am deliberately not addressing the possibility of not having exams at all. In some courses I do not give exams, in others I do, depending on the course.]OK, so I am about to give an exam in a medium-sized class. I am not dexterous enough to blog while handing out the exam (and the TA does not seem to be in evidence), but I can combine semi-live and liveblogging to try to capture the essence of the experience from the front of the room.I enter the room. They are all here, in their seats, staring at their notes. This has been a very punctual class so I am not surprised they are all here on time. In a more typical class, students would appear throughout the first 10+ minutes of the class, even on an exam day, making a lot of noise as they rush in, grab an exam, find a seat, deal with the logistics of finding a writing utensil and putting their water bottle in a suitable placePut your notes away! This takes a moment. I try not to let it eat into exam time (there is another class in this room right after ours), so I start handing out the exam to the nearest row of students who are note-free.Can we start now? I should remember to say that they can start as soon as they get the exam but sometimes I forget and then someone always asks. It is not a large class, so the time difference between those who get the exam paper first and those who get it last is about a minute. If anyone in the back needs that extra minute, they can have it at the end. In a large class, I need a fleet of assistants to help hand out exam forms so that no student has to wait too long to get the exam or to get their question answered if they have one during the exam.The room is never totally quiet. Someone is always turning a page, even if the exam has.. one page. And certainly if the exam paper has 2 pages: rustle rustle rustle. The second-most common noise is erasing. There is a lot of erasing going on at this very moment. Some students have very impressive erasers.Two students just had questions about different exam questions. Both were answered easily by my pointing to a key word or words in the exam question. In both cases the student immediately saw that the answer to their question was right in front of them and thanked me.The first student is done with the exam, halfway through the allotted time.The second student just finished, with 20 minutes left to go. Make that three students.Are the ones who finish very early the ones who are doing well in the course so far? In fact, there[...]