Friday, September 15, 2017

Digital privacy in academia and beyond

Bottom line: you have none.

Go look at the posts and comments on this by potnia theron and fighty squirrel. If you use your University's network access, you may as well consider them to have a list of every site you visit, if not a keylogger for what you do online. If you use your business email address for non-business things, you are inviting your boss to know anything you wrote. When I worked at National Lab, we knew our phones and mail accounts were monitored, so people used cell phones/alternate email accounts or face to face meetings for private discussion. What is true then is as true now--never, ever put anything in email that you would not mind becoming public knowledge. If you get involved in anything that triggers an investigation of you (even as a witness to something, even if it was something crazy your office mate did, even if it is something innocuous taken out of context), your electronic history will be combed through in detail. Best to confine specific gripes about specific people to in person conversations!

At the same time, while privacy tools like TOR help, human nature is working against you. It is really, really hard to stay anonymous on the Internet. One minor mistake posting using the wrong account, checking email without TOR, or referring to something done by an alternate persona, and you are done. Private VPN sites don't work for everything one might want to do, making it really hard to stop your access provider from tracking you at least some of the time.

I use a thin pseud because I don't want it to be easy to find me, but I am well aware that there probably are people who know (or could find out quickly if they so desired) who I am. Almost everyone in truth relies on "I am a tiny needle in a giant haystack" for privacy, but that only works if no one decides to look for information about you.


Monday, September 11, 2017

If you hear something, say something

In this age of increasing incivility, I just want to remind people that speaking up when you hear something you feel is demeaning, bigoted, or inappropriate can make a difference. A personal story: when I was a grad student, I worked with a professor who sometimes told racist jokes in social situations with his research group. This is something I don't particularly enjoy, and I was sure it was making the non-white students uncomfortable. Even though I wanted to keep working with this person, and even though I wanted this person to write me letters in the future, and even though this person was on my committee, after a little while, I decided that the next time he made one of these little jokes, I would say something.

I was very nervous about it--I had no idea how it would go, though this person is generally reasonable. I practiced to myself what I would say, and sure enough at lunch one day, I had my chance. Shortly after he had just told a racist joke, I was alone with him. I told him that I don't like those kinds of jokes, and that I would prefer if he didn't tell them when I was around. After that, he never told one in my presence (I have no idea what he did when I wasn't around). I think he didn't realize that such jokes can make people feel uncomfortable, since he didn't "mean" it. That said, it can be horrible to work in an environment where people (like your PI!) routinely make disparaging remarks about your culture or background. It is worth saying something to improve things, or even to make sure things don't get worse.

Three things:
1. It is much, much easier to say something when the remarks/behaviors are about someone else. I am not sure how this would have played out if it was sexist humor in this situation, but I have definitely been told that I have no sense of humor and/or need to lighten up when pointing out troubling sexism to peers. Saying something about jokes that target you can also get you labeled as a troublemaker or complainer. So help out your colleagues--say something when they are the butt of the "joke", and hopefully someone will have your back as well.

2. I kept my comments about myself "I don't like" and about the jokes "that kind of humor" rather than calling the professor a racist, or implying that he was being cruel on purpose. I think people are less likely to feel defensive with this approach, and it is more likely to get results. As far as I could tell, the professor treated everyone fairly. It was just the "jokes".

3. Not every person is reasonable. This is not an option for everyone, but if it is, I recommend doing your bit for the social atmosphere. I certainly enjoyed working with him a lot more without having to listen to racist humor, but I was also fortunate, and this incident could have ruined an opportunity for me. I suppose in the worst case, it could have cost me my PhD. If a negative outcome will have very adverse affects, make sure you think things through. I am also talking about the occasional inappropriate remark or joke, not actual harassment, which is a much more serious problem (and likely will not get better with this approach).

Thursday, August 31, 2017

On interviewing: to Skype or not?

As the academic year begins, it is also the beginning of job search season for TT applicants. In my field, the typical timeline is to have application deadlines in the Fall, with most interviews complete by Feb or Mar. Last year, I took place in some Skype pre-interview screening for the first time (it is not common in my field). Traditionally, my department has made the interview list using materials from the application file alone (see here for more details on our usual process). Then we bring in 4-5 candidates for a two day interview.

After seeing how helpful I found the Skype interviews (we used Skype--we had our candidates share their screen and give us a brief research overview), here are the pros as I see them:
  • We can screen more candidates--it is hard to go from the long list to the short list just on the paper applications, and often we'd like to see more than 4 or 5 applicants
  • We don't waste trip money plus 2 days of departmental time on candidates who obviously won't work (English not good enough, can't explain their research live, can't answer questions, etc)
  •  It is harder to fake a presentation and answer questions than a written proposal (after some of our interviews, I have wondered if the candidate wrote the proposal)
  • We can clarify points of possible research overlap/fundability/feasibility that may be unclear in the application due to the inexperience of many of our candidates in writing proposals. Naivete in a proposal may be due to moving into a new area and not being fully immersed yet, or it may be holes in thinking. 
  • Skype pre-screening seemed to help less experienced candidates who are perceived as riskier choices to bring out for an interview.
It is not all positive though. There are some significant downsides too, and some of my colleagues are reluctant to add an additional step to an already long and intense process:
  • It is not the norm in my field (though I think this is changing to be honest), and we may turn off good candidates 
  • It is another time and work intensive thing to add to the search committee's burden (already large, since there are lots of files to read in a short time that overlaps with Fall proposal season)
  • Technical glitches may influence opinions unfairly
  • It can be hard to schedule time when all (or even most) of the search committee can be present at the same time as the candidate, and this is not considering time differences
  • It is yet another hoop/timesink for candidates (since we asked for a brief presentation)
The bit about helping less experienced/riskier interview choices might end up more important in the end. I've noticed since joining ProdigalU that our faculty candidates (and therefore our new hires) tend to have more and more experience prior to getting a TT job. The percentage of applicants in the pool applying from their first postdoc without other experience is dropping, so in some sense, candidates are self-selecting (so if you are in your first postdoc, apply anyway!)

I am not sure this experience creep is a good thing (or even a bad thing, but it is a thing). It isn't even that we have loads of people doing multiple postdocs (we have some of this too)--many of these more experienced people just plain did something else at some point in life (like me!) before the TT. But life experience (especially writing experience) is a major advantage in a tight field, and it is hard to compare the files of a newly minted postdoc who has been in a student or trainee somewhere since age 5 to someone who has been a group leader, or a decorated educator, or an experienced science editor. With pre-screening, we can see both.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Student recruiting again

It's that time of year again. In the US, there seem to be primarily two systems for admitting students into graduate programs in science, with local variations on the theme. In one, the students are admitted to the department, and select an advisor after starting the program. This may happen with or without rotations through different groups. In the other, students apply to the department and professors select students from the applications that meet admission requirements. Students are then given conditional admission, with the condition that they have to join the group (or one of the groups) they've been selected for. In the Prodigal Department, we admit students to our program, and they join groups after arrival without rotations, so we are entering the busy season for student recruitment.

This year, I will be recruiting hard for new students, as I've had a bunch of recent graduations. My group is small, funding is tight, and I can't really afford a mistake here. I used to do a hard sell when I first started, but now I mostly look for enthusiasm and scientific curiosity. I am never offended when people don't choose my group, because I am well aware that there are different strokes for different folks, and the last thing that I want is someone who does not want to be there in my group. If someone is not excited by their project on Day 1, how will it be on Day 1095?

In addition, I've been thinking about this post at Mistress of the Animals and subsequent comments about a bad PI-student match. There is a big disconnect in the comments, with some people saying that the responsibility lies mostly with the PI (poor mentorship and/or lack of training), and others saying that the responsibility lies mostly with student (poor choice in group and/or not proactive when the situation wasn't working). Like all situations, the truth is probably a little of both, which is why I won't take a student if I don't feel I can work well with them.

With that discussion in mind, each year, I am surprised by the number of incoming students who have already chosen a group from afar. Some choose just from a website, the publication record, and a phone call. Other choose from fairly brief interactions at events for accepted students. Even those who visit ProdigalU separately typically spend just part of one day checking things out, which is a short time to gather enough information to decide if you can work with someone, especially since everyone is likely on their best behavior.

I am pretty sure that everyone who is admitted to our program (which means they have at least a little research experience) has been told that they need to consider the whole group before making a decision and not just the sexy project, the reputation of the PI, someone else's previous experience, or the placement of group alumni. However, these are the only things that people who show up at ProdigalU already set to join a group can use to make their choice. Most of my colleagues who pick up students ahead of time like this have much larger groups than I do, and can more readily afford a mismatch.

So what do I tell my own undergrads when they head off to grad school? Pick a project that excites you. Don't worry too much about how prominent the researcher is as long as they are publishing regularly in good journals. Make sure your future groupmates are people you can work with. Ask about expectations: work hours, progress, expected time in the program, publications and how they will be handled, etc to make sure you and your PI at least start out on the same page. It is NOT crazy to want to know ahead of time about expected work hours and time off.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The post tenure blahs

This is another self-indulgent post. When I was on the TT, every so often someone in the academic blogosphere would post something about feeling kind of off/unsettled a few years post tenure. At the time, I could not really understand what they meant, being in the thick of the tenure grind myself. Now I am there, and I know what they mean.

As academic scientists, we spend most of our pre-tenure careers forward looking: as undergrads, we look for grad programs. As grad students, we look for postdocs. As postdocs, we look for a TT/research position. In my case, I took a pause here and worked at National Lab for a while, but there we had our own versions of forward looking. Once on the TT, we focus on tenure. And then we have reached the place we have been working towards since we were 18 years old in one way or another.

The first year, it is all relief. Maybe on sabbatical or doing sabbatical planning. After that first year, it begins to sink in. I've reached my goal. Now what? A whole career spanning 20+ years since high school looking for the next gold ring, and now there are no more rings to grab. At the same time, it is not like post-tenure life is stress-free. I still have huge funding pressure, and still have to push out proposals and manuscripts. It is still high stakes--I have students who depend on me, and less benefit of the doubt since I am no longer a newbie.

I am not ungrateful, bored, or unhappy in my job. I love my research, have great students, and awesome colleagues. I (mostly!) enjoy coming to work every day. It is just kind of weird and unsettling to NOT be seeking the next gold ring after all these years.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Why things don't change

Ii is kind of a good news/bad news thing, if you value civil behavior and a safe and fair working environment for all. The good news: Christian Ott, another unrepentant sexual harasser is no longer a professor. The bad news: he resigned on his own under pressure, since Caltech didn't think that violating the terms of his suspension by contacting one of the students he harassed, despite any required "rehabilitative training", disqualified him from being professor.

While it is surely a sign of progress that this wasn't swept under the rug completely by Caltech like it would have been even 10 years ago, one of the students has already stated that she is leaving academia due to the lame response by the University and other stars in the field. Tolerance of awful behavior by "geniuses" has a chilling effect on people choosing and staying in STEM fields, especially academia. Things may be better, but the improvement is glacial.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Deadlines

There are deadlines, and there are deadlines. While I try to meet all deadlines I have agreed to, when push comes to shove, there are things that can slip and there are things that cannot.

Things that can't slip: proposal deadlines, fellowship applications, many grad school submission deadlines, recommendation letters, most conference abstracts

Things that can be turned in late (though I really try hard not to): reviews (though I try not to miss by more than a day or two so as not to put the editor/program officer in a difficult spot), invited manuscripts (they seem to build in some extra time here in my experience, but be careful!)

This is something I almost always end up discussing with students. My students seem to think all deadlines can slip, or none of them can (I guess based on their prior experiences with extensions in University?).

Methods I use to try not to slip deadlines (or panic last minute):
  • Put deadlines on my calendar right away, often with a reminder a week ahead of time.
  • Do reviews right away (ideally, the same week I agree to them), but this is not always possible
  • When students are attempting to meet a school submission deadline, I meet with them to set up a schedule for milestones. At the end, I can return thesis chapters with 24 hour turn around time, but that means clearing a lot of other things off in preparation and not agreeing to do any other reviewing in that period.
  • Abstracts for me are pretty fast--I have loads of experience with this. For my students, I have them plan to be submission ready a week before the deadline.
  • Do reference letters for undergrads the day I am asked. I am very fast writing for undergrads at this point--I can do one from scratch in an hour or less, especially for students not in my group. Letters for my grad students take a lot longer, and I have to plan in the time. I do reuse existing letters as a template for undergrads--I always use "find" to make sure all pronouns are appropriate!
I have not yet found a way to not be working like a maniac until the last minute on proposals, but I have gotten better about submitting at least several hours before the deadline, rather than frantically logging in at 4pm for a 5pm deadline.


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Learning how to be a good reviewer

Considering how important reviewing is to research science, I am really surprised by how little thought goes in to teaching students how to do a good job as a referee. I got literally no training--I started getting review requests as a postdoc, and learned on the fly. I am sure I was unreasonably harsh the first few times, and I am truly grateful to the journals that send on all the comments so I could scale my comments with those of other reviewers.

Students are notoriously harsh when it comes to reviewing the work of others. I see it in class, when students give absurdly low marks when asked to score each others' presentations, in journal club when students harsh on the work of other groups, and sometimes in reviews, when I have senior students review papers with me so they can see how I do it. At the same time, students are very sensitive to harsh remarks sent on their own work, but don't have the experience to put either their own reports or the reports they receive in context.

Writing a good referee report is a skill that can/must be learned like any other. Even considering how to phrase something is important if you care about how the comment will be received. "There are a number of typos and grammatical errors that should be double checked before final publication" and "The writer is obviously not a native English speaker and should get someone to edit their horrible writing" both comment on the same thing, but one is more likely to be received constructively than the other.

When I am going over reviewing with a student, I go through how I approach a manuscript with them, then have them write a "review", then go through the review with them before editing into the final report. I never send a student report without doing a review myself, just to make sure I agree with the comments (which will have my name on them). So how do I go about reviewing a manuscript?

1. I have a new file open to type my comments as I go. I don't like to have to try to remember what I was thinking, particularly for long manuscripts.

2. I start with a summary of the manuscript (which I add to as I read). This tells the authors what I think the manuscript is about after reading it. If my summary does not match what they thought they wrote, they will know there is a miscommunication that should be cleaned up. This has actually happened to me once when I was a postdoc--the summary did not reflect what I thought the paper was about. I've also received some great insights into my own work this way, particularly for my first first author paper.

3. I point out glaring typos/grammatical issues until I get past 5 or 6, and then I just add "There are a number of typos and grammatical errors that should be double checked before final publication". I really dislike editing via referee report. If the writing is of a quality that I cannot understand what the authors did (this happened once), I stop reviewing and send it back with a comment to that effect.

4. If the paper is in my area, I sometimes have some suggestions of papers to add to the background (I only sometimes suggest papers from my group. More often, it is something else I think they may have overlooked). If the paper is not exactly in my area, I take more time with the introduction/background, and make suggestions if there is anything I need to look up myself in order to understand the manuscript.

5. I go through each reported experimental result, look at the figure(s) or table, and think about how I would interpret that data. If I conclude something different from the authors, I mention it. If I think the authors are overinterpreting, underinterpreting, or missing a control, I mention that too. I also mention if I agree/if the discussion is appropriate. If any questions come up, I write them down. If the questions are just for interest and are likely beyond the scope of the paper, I preface the question with  "This may be beyond the scope of the paper, but..." to make sure the question is taken in the spirit offered (and doesn't block publication of an otherwise fine manuscript because the editor insists that everything be addressed).

6. I go through the methods section and try to imagine replicating the work from just the methods section.  I often have questions about details here that I think should be reported.

7. I read through the concluding remarks and make sure they make sense and place the work in the perspective of the field.

When I am done, I look through the paper again quickly to see if I missed anything. My final report is usually 1-2 pages long. I've never recommended acceptance without revision, though I rarely reject manuscripts outright (in my opinion, suggesting major revisions and/or a different journal is not outright rejection). It takes me a while to do a good review, but I really appreciate thorough reviews of my own work, so it is worth it to me. I'd say I take a good 1-3 hours to do a typical review (depends on length and my familiarity with the area).

When I am reviewing with a student, usually their first draft is way too harsh, asks for a huge number of additional control or scope experiments, does not differentiate between simple experiments one can expect anyone in the field to be able to do and super-heroic experiments that very few groups can even attempt let alone get usable data from, and is either way too brief or super long. Student reviews are often about showing off a students' knowledge or protecting against looking stupid rather than an attempt to improve the work that was submitted. It is a big mental shift for a student to start thinking of themselves as a knowledgeable scientist rather than as someone who will be graded on their review. Through it takes longer to do a review with a student, I'd rather have my students learn how to do this with guidance then get thrown into the deep end right away.

Monday, July 10, 2017

TT and children

Xykademiqz recently put up an excellent post on the spacing of her kids' ages and her career trajectory, growing out of a question after a post about enjoying her kids. This is an issue that comes up again and again--family, life decisions, and academia. I am linking back to her, and posting this, because I think this is such an important issue. When I was a student, I was convinced that having a family was incompatible with the TT, especially for a woman. This is one of the reasons I didn't even consider an academic position when I finished my PhD. Part of the reason I felt so strongly about this was that up until that point, I had NEVER had a female professor for any of my STEM courses. My undergrad department had one female faculty member (not in my area), untenured with no family. My graduate department had one female faculty member (not in my area), who got tenure while I was a student and then immediately got pregnant, leading to snickering all around by the (mostly) male students and some of the faculty members in the department. There were no counter examples to help me make an informed decision about family and academia--all was rumor and guesswork.

Fast forward to now, and I have both tenure and a family. I had both of my kids pre-tenure. I am a living example that it is possible to get tenure AND have young kids at the same time. In fact, I had one child inside academic (at ProdigalU) and one child outside of academia (at National Lab). From this perspective, I can say that it is much, much easier to have young kids at ProdigalU even pre-tenure than it was at National Lab. Academia is just so much more flexible than most other jobs, and with balancing anything, flexibility is key.

At National Lab, I was required to be at work for set hours. If I needed to be somewhere during those hours, I had to take time off. Since I also got only 12 weeks unpaid maternity leave (the standard FMLA is what Feds get), I burned ALL of my sick leave and vacation time after giving birth, leaving me with practically no wiggle room when LittleProdigal got sick. From observing my colleagues, even after a few years, it is really hard to build up enough vacation time to both have reasonable vacations and be available for kids school and other activities that take place during the workday.

In contrast, as an academic, your schedule is your own. It is long hours, but you set them. Other than scheduled classes and meetings, I can leave work whenever I want to or need to without worry. I don't really ever worry about missing an activity with my kids. Unless I am traveling, it is no problem. This is as true for fun things like concerts as it is for emergencies like sick kids or closed daycares.

On top of keeping track of hours, face time was a thing at National Lab. It was really important to look visibly busy all the time and have the appearance of working in your office or lab for at least 8 or 9 hours a day every day. Asking for time off during the day was frowned upon--better to just take a whole day off then look not serious about your work. Some of my friends in non-academic jobs worry about being mommy- or daddy- tracked, and are reluctant to ask to go to a soccer game or school concert.

There isn't really face time in academia in the same way. As far as I know, no one cares whether I am in my office, or even worries about where I might be when I am not there. I certainly don't keep track of the people in my hallway. There is still a culture of looking busy/complaining about how busy we all are, but there is little or no checking up. Everyone teaches and travels at all different times anyway, so you'd need quite a lot of free time to really track this stuff anyway. 

It wasn't super easy to have 2 preschool aged kids while working towards tenure. I worked at home many nights, but at the same time, I was able to reserve the time from 5 pm until 8 pm for family almost every night. I can't imagine that any demanding career is easy to balance with the needs of kids (who can't really wait for many things). In fact, I'd say medicine is way worse (at least until training is done, which can be 7 or more years post-med school), and oddly, medicine is considered a somewhat family friendly career (I certainly was told that a lot when I was a student).

There's never really a good time to have kids, so you may as well have them when you are ready and let the chips fall where they may--you can figure it out in the middle of things without preplanning every second! Not everyone can balance career and family in a way that makes them happy, but don't let people tell you that you can't have kids on the TT, or that serious academics can't have more than one, or that academia is uniquely incompatible with family life, because it just isn't true.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Funding ideas for sabbatical planners

Inspired by xykademiqz's comment on my previous post, I am going to link dump everything I had in my bookmark list from when I was planning my sabbatical. No sense in wasting all this work!

Ideas for sabbatical funding:
These are just what I found when I was looking for my own sabbatical. There are probably more things out there--this is by no means a comprehensive list. If you know of something else, feel free to add it in the comments or send me an email, and I'll add it.

I have also found that many universities have their own internal funding for visiting professors. This money can (usually) only be applied for by a local host, but can pay for travel costs and housing for short term stays. It is worth asking about! After my sabbatical, I was invited to another university for a few weeks though one of these programs, which was fantastic.