Friday, November 26, 2010

Needy students

I've tended to make myself pretty available to the students in my classes for extra help outside class. I really do want the students to learn, and it is also a good way to boost teaching evaluation scores without compromising grading standards. It seems to me that 5-10% of the students take 80-90% of my out of class time. I am beginning to wonder if I am doing some of these students a disservice by not forcing them to learn how to access resources other than their professors for help.

I really think that part of what students go to University for is to learn how to learn things quickly. I've noticed that many of my timesink students do not belong to study groups and tend to study and work alone almost all the time. It is very difficult to get a BS or BSE in my field without learning how to work in groups. There is no way I would have been able to get much out of my senior level labs and problem sets without working the material through with my classmates. I imagine other STEM fields are similar. In the job world, pretty much everyone works in teams, so they may as well learn how to now. So now I am starting to wonder if I am falling into the academic equivalent of a helicopter parent for some of my students.

Maybe next time, I should make myself more of a last resort than a first place to go for questions via email.

Monday, November 22, 2010

An annoying trend

Maybe this is just me and my luck of the draw, but I am noticing an increasing number of manuscripts coming back to me for a second review. I try to be a good citizen and all, and accept as many reviews as I can, but if each review ends up being 2 for 1, I will have to take this into consideration.

When I first started reviewing, it was really rare for me to see something a second time before publication. Now it seems to be happening for about 1 in 3 manuscripts I review, and most of them are completely unnecessary. Now, I don't mind if I get something back after saying "publishable with major revisions" as long as the authors have actually done some of the revisions! The last three manuscripts I've gotten back for a re-review have been:

1) something I said needed minor revisions. Isn't this something the editor or assistant editor can make a call on?

2) something I rejected for publication. I don't reject things lightly--I had major issues with the science and many of them are still there. If there ever is a time for adding reviewer 3 or 4, this is it, rather than sending it back to me. I don't think that papers that are rejected should go back to the original reviewers. If the editor thinks there is something the reviewer missed, it is time for a new review.

3) something I said needed major revisions to be accepted, and sent along 2 pages of suggestions. Almost none of them were implemented, and most were completely ignored. In their response, the authors pretty much said "The reviewer is wrong." without any additional evidence or support for their position. Why bother sending this back to me?

I find this particular trend really annoying. It is almost like editors don't want to make a call on anything anymore (and I can say that never having done it myself :-).

I've also had the situation where I get a manuscript from a big name group, and it is terrible. I reject it with lots of comments, and it comes back polished up after implementing all of the reviewer comments. I really resent that Professor Big Name has too many people to properly oversee/mentor their trainees in how to write papers and is farming it out to reviewers. It makes me not want to do such a thorough job.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Interested in non-parenting issues facing women in science?

TheHermitage is organizing a Q&A with women in science at various career stages. Go ahead and submit your questions, and she will pick 4 of them to forward on to her panelists, including yours truly. The only rule: no babies.

We all love babies, and some of us panelists have had a few, but most discussions of women in science end up as a discussion of kids/motherhood when these issues only affect a subset of women, and certainly aren't the only issues facing women that are worth discussing. Here's your chance to spark a discussion on ANYTHING else facing women in science today!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Cheating, professors, students, and "the system"

There was this article at The Chronicle of Higher Ed on ghostwriting academic papers that has attracted lots of comments and some attention. I was really shocked by this. First, I knew about the existence of this stuff back when I was a student, and it has only gotten easier to make contact with potential ghostwriters over the Web since then. Second, why do people feel it is the professor's job to suss out cheaters like this?

Here is my take: too many people go to college these days because they need the validation of the degree, not because they are interested in learning anything. Because a college degree now is what a high school diploma was a generation or two ago (in terms of job requirements), there are plenty of motivated people who just want to get through their classes so they can get a decent job with some security. The system doesn't care if they have any particular knowledge, just if they have a degree. This encourages gaming the system, so it is only natural that some people make a living serving that niche.

I don't work too hard to catch cheaters myself. I follow all the security rules set up by my University, I don't put too much weight on things that are easy to fake (like online quizzes), and I give out old reference exams to level the playing field a bit so students don't feel like they need to buy copies of my old exams. Anything obvious I crack down on, since otherwise it can be very demoralizing for my hard working students, but I have too much to do to try to worry about all the ways a student can cheat on an exam.

That said, I don't collect my assigned problem sets, because I am not a jailer keeping my students from free time. The ones that want to learn do the assigned work and learn. The ones that don't, don't. I tell my students that they will get out of my course what they put into it, and I focus on the ones who are trying to learn, not the ones who are gaming the system. There will always be cheaters, and people will always try to game the system. Many of the rules designed to catch cheaters make life much more difficult for everyone.

I still believe that the cream will rise. I have a hard time thinking that someone who pays ringers to do all of their work for them will be able to pass an oral board exam in medicine, or stay on the job for very long as an engineer, or make it as a bench scientist, making their "fake" credential a very expensive gold star. If someone can learn the material without doing the assigned work, that means they have talent, and I wouldn't mind working with them if their "fake" degree gets them in the door. The bigger problem in my mind is the disconnect between the credential and the competence of the credential-holder. We see academics complain about this all the time when recruiting postdocs. It seems just as true in every other field. Buying papers is just a symptom.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Quick tips for proposal writers

I am reviewing a bunch of proposals now for my panel. If you are writing a proposal PLEASE keep in mind that many of your reviewers will be reading 10+ proposals in a short period of time, not all of which are well within their expertise. I never appreciated how difficult it is to do a good and thorough job until I am doing it myself!

Prodigal's 10 quick tips:

1. Use figures. Really. It helps break up the text, illustrates your thoughts and plans, and can help someone vaguely familiar with a technique remember more about how it works. You don't need preliminary data as much as schematics and cartoons.

2. Use paragraphs! The wall'o'text is REALLY hard to read through and maintain concentration for 80+ pages!

3. Define your acronyms and abbreviations. Not everyone will remember the abbreviations you use in your daily work, especially after 8 hours on a panel.

4. Make sure you refer to others working in your field who have made significant advances, not just your group and your collaborators/friends. People on the panel WILL notice this one! Don't get lazy on lit review.

5. Make sure your proposed research is easy to find. In some of the proposals I am reading, it is difficult to figure out what has been done recently, what is background, and what will be done with the money over the course of the proposal.

6. Use headers! Go ahead and bold them. When I need to go back to look for something, I want it to be easy to find.

7. Don't blow off broader impacts/diversity statements. They WILL be read, remarked on, and used for funding decisions. The top proposals have both awesome science and well planned broader impacts, so just awesome science alone won't cut it.

8. If your proposal is a team proposal, clearly state what each team member will do. Don't just add names and not talk about their research contributions. Saying "Professor X will make calculations in support of the experiment" or "Professor Y will characterize the samples" are NOT research contributions!

9. If your proposal has both theory and experimental parts, talk about how the two parts will be integrated. Team proposals should be TEAMS, not 2 cool PIs working in parallel. If that is the case, you each should have written a separate proposal.

10. Be concise and as clear as possible. If you have to make a choice, though, pick clarity.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Annual reviews for students

When I first got to Prodigal U, I was a bit surprised by the number of formal reviews our grad students undergo. At PhD U, we had a 2nd year oral exam (not on research, with a few profs assigned to a whole cohort by sub-specialty), a General Exam (on research with the student's committee), and our defense. Since a PhD take 5-6 years, this is one review every 2 years or so, and is not too uncommon a pattern in my field. Here at ProdigalU, our students have a presentation based review every year, and I find I like this system very much.

For the student, it means a closer relationship with the professors on the review committee (which is the set up on a student by student basis) who see them every year. On the committees I have sat on, we are able to provide specific project related feedback, which can be a huge help to them. It also means more oversight, in case an adviser (through ignorance or maliciousness) is not acting in a student's best interests in terms of their research and training. The process also insures that students get to give high stakes presentations of their research at least once a year, which is much more practice at giving talks than I had as a newbie grad student.

For the professors, it is really nice to see the annual progress made by various students in the department. I was amazed this year to see just how much difference a year has made in scientific maturity for some of the students I am reviewing. It is also a way to keep up with what is going on in my colleagues labs, and perhaps spark collaborations. In addition, advisers can get some feedback or advice from peers on how to handle situations with their trainees from people who are familiar with their work. Though I haven't used this yet, I can see that it is a great potential resource. The major downside is that a proper review takes an hour, and we all have to review our own students, plus other students in the department so it can eat up a lot of time.

I admit I was a bit dubious when I first heard of this system, but I have been won over by seeing how annual reviews work in practice. I think it is much better for our grad students than the system I experienced, even though it is a time sink for me at a point in my career where I am already overscheduled.