Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The 5 worst conversations I've had as a professor

All of these involve aspects of being a TT professor that I never considered until they came up. Forewarned is fore-armed!

5.     Student with boundary issues
        My second year teaching, I had a student who stalked his (female) lab TA. I was unsure what his deal was, but it turned out he had major boundary issues. We had to discuss appropriate and inappropriate behavior after he was unable to understand why finding a large and angry male student standing right outside her research lab door late at night when she was alone, was not expecting him, and the building was nearly deserted might be upsetting and fear-inducing. Apparently, he had been standing there for hours after a late afternoon appointment with the TA ended. The discussion ended the creepy behavior, but I wonder about that guy.

4.     First time failure
        My very first semester teaching, I had a student crying in my office after I returned my first midterm exam. He had never failed anything before in his life, and had no idea how to handle it. I had no idea what to do. I gave him a tissue, gave him some ideas about how to go ahead from here, and resolved to think about strategies for crying students BEFORE handing back exams next time. Since then, I've had many more students crying in my office (I get crying students of all genders--maybe I am a cruel professor?), but have coping strategies pre-planned.

3.     Personal hygiene
        This was really the most embarrassing thing I've had to do thus far as a professor. Pretty early into my time at ProdigalU, I was sharing student office space with a much more senior colleague who was traveling extensively over the summer. He had a visiting "student" (I think he may have been a professor in his home country, but had student status at ProdigalU) who had terrible body odor. It was very hot. The office had 6 people in it. My students were very upset and asked me to do something about it. So, I had to have a discussion about personal hygiene and cultural norms with a man much older than myself, who was clearly seriously annoyed at having to talk to me at all, let alone about the topic. No one ever tells you about that one before you start the job!

2.     Stalker student
        My most frightening conversation was with a student who was clearly having mental health issues, and kept screaming at me and refusing to leave my office. Luckily for me, my colleagues noticed something was amiss, and called someone to take her to student services for help.

1.     Leaving without a PhD
        The very worst conversation I've had in my office was when I had to tell a student they would not be getting a PhD with me. It was necessary, but painful on both sides. In retrospect, I let a bad situation go on too long, which was not good for me, my group, or the student. In the end, it all worked out. The student now has a job they really like, and was not cut out for PhD research anyway. It is very difficult when it feels like you are killing someone's dream, and worse when they have been working with you for a while and you really like them.

Friday, December 2, 2016

What a TT job interview looks like to the search committee

It is academic job time again, and ProdigalU is running some searches. I've written before about how the search committee selection process, interview advice (personal experiences: post 1, post 2), and the research/chalk talk specifically. I thought it might be interesting to remove the curtain on what it actually looks like when you are on a search committee on an interview day.

The first thing to remember is that interview occur DURING the academic year. In my field, the most busy period for interviews is December, January, and February, though sometimes we extend into March if we get a late start. So, even before the candidate shows up, there is a scramble to book a room for the research talk if it isn't a normal seminar day. No matter when this talk is, some people will be teaching if it isn't a normal seminar day. Depending on the timing (like is it exam period?) it may also be hard to fill all of the one-on-one slots (typically 30 min) for the candidate. All of the search committee members sign up (they get first shot at the schedule), but in a typical interview, we have 10-12 slots per day to fill up over two days, and we have 35ish faculty members (some of whom are on leaves of various kinds), which means we need to coordinate the schedules of 30-35 busy people to fit a schedule that will not run on time anyway. Worse if it is during finals, the first two weeks of the semester, or during midterms. So, as the interviewee, if it seems like your schedule is constantly being updated, this is why.

The second thing to keep in mind is that you are one of 4-5 people who will be brought into ProdigalU in rapid succession for 2 days each. If multiple searches are going on (not too unusual at ProdigalU right now, since many of the Boomer profs are going emeritus/leaving in other ways), you might be one of 10-15 people brought to the department in rapid succession.  Most people take TT searches pretty seriously, since one of the unusual features of academia is that you get to pick your future colleagues with whom you might be working for 30+ years. But even so, some interview fatigue sets in. As the interviewee, you are on an adrenaline rush, experiencing what might be one of the most important days of your life thus far. The people interviewing you are trying to cram your visit into an already busy schedule AND they might be doing interview related stuff 2-3 times a week or more for two months. Your interviewers are definitely interested in learning more about you, and want to hear about what you can bring to the department. But, they are being pulled in many directions at once, whereas you (hopefully) have a laser-beam focus on your interview. The more you can keep your interest level up and your intensity high, the better.

On top of that, almost no one in academia is actually trained in interview techniques, so most people are going to default to the same kind of talk about their science that they do when meeting seminar speakers from outside their field. This is your chance! If you want to discuss something, ask questions about it! Ask about facilities, how things work at InterviewU, their science, interactions with other departments, the students, etc. People are happy to talk about things they know you will find interesting.

So, what does a typical interview day look like for me when I am on the search committee:
  • 8:30ish     Arrive in office and caffeinate, emails, prep for lecture
  • 9:30          Teach class
  • 10:30        Office hours
  • 11:30        Email catch up
  • 12:00        Lunch with candidate
  • 1:30          Candidate seminar
  • 3:00          Meeting with one of my grad students
  • 3:30          One on one with candidate
  • 4:00          Escort candidate to next meeting, stop by main office for administrative stuff
  • 4:30          Email catch up
  • 5:00ish     Head off to pickup the ProdigalKids
On non-teaching days, the teaching slots are when I actually get research done. Sometimes I have dinner with the candidate instead of lunch, and work then too. All search committee members try to have at least one meal with each candidate. If not on the search committee, I don't (usually) have meals with the candidate, but everything else remains on the schedule. A TT interview is a massive resource sink for the department, since the whole department makes a huge time commitment to the process.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The sudden relief of no deadlines

October is a hellacious month for deadlines. It is mid-semester, so there is grading to do, plus there are many proposal deadlines to hit. Early November is spent catching up on all the things that slid in October. Mid-November, it is the hectic end of class period, plus Thanksgiving planning (for those in the US). The beginning of December is bliss--classes end, so no more lectures. The final exams are written. There are no more proposals due (at least in my field), and service obligations are ending for the year.

My favorite time of the academic year is in early December. This is the time I can actually have great discussions with my grad students, catch up with the manuscripts on my desk, and actually spend some long stretches of time on research. It is like a mini-summer, but feels all the sweeter after the huge Fall proposal rush. Alas, the feeling of relief is all too short before the wind up to start the next semester!

Thursday, November 10, 2016


I am not really sure what I want to say. The US has elected someone who is uniquely unqualified, has made a mess of every job he has attempted (except for reality TV), made no attempts to hide his hatred and disdain for anyone who is not white, straight, cis-gendered, Christian, male, and able bodied, and whose economic plans are likely to lead the country into ruin. There are no brakes on him, since his party also controls both House and Senate.

I take some relief from the fact that he didn't win the popular vote, so at least half the voting population was not interested in this package, but I am also depressed that 45% of eligible voters would rather just sit at home than pick the next president, even in an election that was as pervasive (and high stakes) as this one. I am also bummed by the fact that the GOP controlled Senate was rewarded for refusing to do their job for 10 months and at least hold hearings for Merrick Garland. This does not bode well for future administrations with split control of the executive and legislative branches, and is a terrible precedent to set.

Keeping the focus on the usual subject of this blog--science and academia, I think the Trump administration will be terrible for basic science research. This is a man who is an anti-vaxxer and climate change denier, regardless of the heaps of evidence to the contrary. He has threatened retribution against his enemies, which might include all the scientists that supported Clinton. The GOP thinks academia is a hotbed of radical progressives bent on brainwashing American youth, which does not bode well for increasing support for Universities in general. Both Trump (who ran Trump University!) and the GOP are all in for unregulated privatization of education, which won't help students OR universities either.

I don't see the funding climate getting better. I hope it doesn't get worse. Depending on how things go, the best and brightest students from abroad may consider opportunities outside the US, as other countries provide more research support, possibly more opportunities for immigrants (depending on how that plays out) and a better social climate for their families. It certainly isn't the apocalypse, and I do think there is a lot of overreaction in terms of predictions of future consequences, but there is no denying that it feels like a kick in the teeth from the country to those groups attacked by Trump and his alt-right friends. It is also a full on reminder (like I needed one) that sexism is not only alive and well, but will not be solved one funeral at a time.

Friday, October 28, 2016

The agony and the ecstacy of being an examiner for a PhD

I don't think I know any active researchers at ProdigalU who shirk this bit of service. After all, if someone attempts to blow it off, their own students will have problems finding examiners.  When the science is good, the writing is at least adequate, and the student shows up prepared at the defense, it is an awesome (if time-consuming) experience, particularly if I knew the student throughout their progress in the program. When the science is boring (or bad) and/or the student shows up unprepared, it is unbelievably awful.

It takes me a minimum of 2-3 hours to read a thesis that is well within my research specialty, longer if it is outside my areas of expertise. And longer still if I am one of the report writers. I take this responsibility seriously--after all, this is a key part of my job as a professor. It does a student no favors to grant them a PhD they can't back up with PhD level work when they go job hunting. Also, when ProdigalU hands a student a PhD, it has the same meaning whether it represents the quality work of a well-trained researcher, or the minimum acceptable work of someone pushed out after time served. Students (rightfully) get upset when they perceive that someone is granted a "pity PhD", since they want the PhD they are working so hard for to be a credential of quality when they move on to their next stage.

It makes me really annoyed at the PhD supervisor when someone shows up unprepared at a defense. It wastes my time doing the evaluation. It suggests that the supervisor doesn't care much about the quality of a PhD (or of their own trainees, for that matter). Most painfully, it makes the evaluation really difficult and take a long time. ProdigalU has public PhD defenses, so it is painful to watch a student struggle at a defense in front of colleagues, friends, and family.

As for the evaluation committee, it is always hard to know where to draw the line--should we pass a student with an acceptable thesis if the defense was a disaster (I think no)? Should we pass a student whose talk was fine, but couldn't answer questions adequately (I think no)? Should we pass a student whose talk was awful, but did a good job with the questions and the thesis (I think yes). We all have different lines, and many of us feel pretty strongly about those lines. It can get very contentious in the committee, especially if they supervisor really wants the student out and graduated.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Inviting speakers

Not talking about conferences here--there are a whole other set of considerations when organizing sessions for a conference. I am talking about invited seminars. The sort of thing that has a limited budget with many slots to fill, including slots at times that are very unpopular for travel. How do you decide who to recommend as a speaker? Do you suggest friends? Big name speakers? People who you want to hear? People who you want to meet?

In my department, there is a seminar coordinator (a service position usually given to newer folks to help them network) who organizes the seminar schedule. This person solicits suggestions from the department for speakers, but has discretion over who to invite. The person who makes the initial suggestion acts as host, though the seminar coordinator takes care of the invitation, scheduling, and travel details. The host organizes the visit schedule, introduces the speaker, and arranges for dinner. So the host gets a lot of contact with their suggested invitee. Thus, I tend to suggest people who I want to meet and people whose research I want to hear more about after seeing a short conference talk.

My suggestions tend towards the early- and mid- career side, as there are many other mechanisms (and prestigious named lectures with actual budgets) that bring in well established big names. I figure that I am more likely to make a possibly useful connection with someone earlier in their career, especially since the seminar coordinator gets to do all the inviting and off campus interacting. Plus invitations are a whole lot more meaningful to less established people. I am sure the big name folks could probably travel every day of the year if they wanted to. Even better, newbies tend to have fewer schedule constraints and are often happy to take slots at less desirable (like January in a place with winter) travel times, since they do less travel overall. Lately, I have also tried to include people I've seen give great talks at meetings who are also visible members of underrepresented groups, even if I don't have a huge amount of research overlap, because I think it is really important to put a diverse slate of speakers in front of our students. I think I saw this idea a few years ago on Drugmonkey's blog (I'll admit that I am too lazy and too much in the middle of F*cktober to go looking, but I think it was there).

I guess I put a lot of thought into something that nets me an average of one hosting opportunity per year. One of my colleagues thinks I am nuts, and only suggests people who are either mega-big names or people directly in his research area. But how hard is it to start a list at a meeting, and just keep adding to it as you see people who might make good seminar speakers in the future?

Friday, October 14, 2016

Locker room talk

Of the many horrifying things that have happened during this presidential campaign, the "locker room talk" thing is really the only one I want to talk about. Namely, I want to talk about what bystanders should do if they don't want to look like enablers or worse, co-travelers when various bigotries as used a humor or bonding mechanisms.

First of all, "locker room talk" is rarely confined to locker rooms. I certainly hear sexist "locker room talk" in my day to day life, and I don't go into male locker rooms. I've been in meetings where someone has said some horrifying sexist thing, and everyone just lets it go, probably because no one knows what to say. The thing is, if a woman says something, she highlights her position as an outsider at best, and more likely gets dismissed as an overly sensitive complainer. Ditto for people of color and racism, LGBT people and homophobia, religious people and Islamophobia/anti-semitism/anti-whatever (the first two are far more common in Prodigal city, but YMMV) or whatever. Calling someone out on their bigotry is much more effective when it is someone in the "in" group, because then it becomes clear that these comments are unacceptable period, and not just to the outsider.

It is really difficult to be the one who says something, particularly when there is a power imbalance. When I was a student, one of the professors I interacted with was fond of racist jokes. It took me a week or so to work up the gumption to say something, and I spent a while thinking about what exactly I would say. After I decided to say something (and what that something would be), the next time he told a racist joke in front of me, I told him that I did not like that type of humor, and would prefer if he didn't speak that way in front of me. To my surprise, he apologized (though he really should also have apologized to the non-white people he told these jokes in front of) and never repeated that kind of humor in front of me again. Our working relationship did not change, even after this discussion, which was a huge relief to me, but it certainly could have, which would have changed the course of my career (and probably for the worse). I lucked out there.

The truth is, I think most people don't see themselves as bigoted. They may say these things unthinkingly, out of habit, or out of a desire to fit in (if they think most people would appreciate their comments). Calling someone out gently may get them to reconsider these kinds of remarks. And even if a bigot remains a bigot (but stops doing so in public), at least the local environment is improved for their targets.

Given that Trump's "locker room" comments were about women, what I want to say to my male colleagues is that they should think about what they would say to someone making similar remarks now, BEFORE it comes up so they are prepared. One of my male colleagues, after a meeting where there were horrifyingly sexist remarks, said that he was really shocked and unhappy about the comment, but didn't know what to say or do, and that now he regrets it. I told him that it isn't too late--he can still speak to our colleague in private, or at least he can think about what he wants to do the next time.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Seminars, guest speakers, and departmental culture

In my department at ProdigalU, we have weekly seminars covering the full range of subjects across our department, and we also have topical guest speakers less regularly. Attendance for first year grad students to the weekly seminar is mandatory, but after that, attendance is optional. Attendance at topical seminars is always optional. At first, I was surprised by how few students actually took advantage of the opportunity to see some outstanding speakers at the top of their respective fields, even if they are outside the students' immediate area of research. But then, I realized how few faculty actually attend when the topic is not research relevant, and it all became clear. The students are taking their cues from the professors.

At PhDU, it was in the departmental culture for all faculty to attend the weekly seminar. For more topical seminars, all faculty in that area would attend. As a result, it was the norm for students to attend weekly seminar, and also to attend topical seminars in their areas. I think this is a much better departmental norm for students and for the speakers (who have a large, diverse audience).

A good seminar is organized such that non-experts can follow and find interest in at least the first section of the talk. As a result, I find that I often get ideas when attending seminars outside my immediate area. I also find that such information becomes useful and/or interesting at some point in the future as my research evolves, and then I have a starting point to start out. Furthermore, I find this so helpful, that I sign up to meet seminar speakers as often as I can (though I wait until a day or so before the schedule is set for people outside my area so that my colleagues who have a more direct interest have a chance). Meeting with the seminar speaker is a way to find overlap, meet people in my broad field, and network all without ever leaving ProdigalU.

I do my bit to work on the departmental culture--I come to weekly seminar when I am on campus, and I encourage my students to attend as well. However, my observations of new faculty arriving after me suggest that it is more likely that departmental newbies will adopt the norm (of not attending without direct personal benefit). Maybe I am the only one who sees seminars in my broad field but outside my area as something useful?

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Cell Press, scientific fraud, replication, and retractions

As per Retraction Watch, Cell Press will not be retracting two papers that were flagged as problematic after one author claimed to have manipulated his data to fit the desired conclusion. That author, Dr. Yao-Yun Liang, is conveniently unavailable. The first author (Xia Lin) and the corresponding author (Dr. Xin-Hua Feng) already have a retraction under their belt for "inappropriate data manipulation" found in an earlier paper, but Baylor College of Medicine (where the work was carried out) conducted an investigation, and found no evidence supporting claims of fraud in this case. So far, so good.

Now for the weird part: Cell Press had Dr. Feng get some of his friends to attempt validate the results, which they did for the Cell paper in question, and now claims that means no fraud was committed (as does Baylor College of Medicine, which uses this result to bolster their claims from their investigation). There was an interesting discussion of this over at DrugMonkey's blog a couple of weeks ago, just after the first editorial note was issued by Cell (September 8) regarding this paper. Even weirder, apparently the validation results of the Molecular Cell paper in question were inconclusive, but Cell Press won't be doing anything anyway!

This is beyond bizarre. First of all, whether the results replicate has no bearing on whether fraud was committed. We all like to think we have good scientific intuition, and sometimes that is actually true. It doesn't mean we get to publish papers with data manipulated to support our good intuition. If there was fraud, the paper should be retracted, even if the conclusions end up being sound.

Second of all, if Cell Press is going to use the "if the data replicates, it isn't fraudulent" argument, they should at least be consistent! From my understanding this is what happened:

     1) Dr. Liang says he manipulated his data in these two papers.
     2) Dr. Feng denies the allegation, and says Dr. Liang is trying to to hurt his career with these lies.
     3) Baylor College of Medicine investigates, and finds that it is a "he said-he said" problem, and says there is no evidence of fraud.
     4) Cell Press decides that Dr. Feng should get some people to replicate the result to "prove" they were not fraudulent (WHAT!).
     5) It all works out in the end for Cell, so they say that since the results replicate, it doesn't matter.
     6) It all doesn't work out in the end for Molecular Cell, but they say it doesn't matter anyway.

Huh? Something is so off with this scenario. Setting aside the fact that manipulated data does not have to be inconsistent with actual experiments (it just has to be falsified), if replication is supposed to settle the issue, then why is Cell Press ignoring the "inconclusive results" for the data in question in the Molecular Cell paper?

To my mind, Cell Press had four options:
  • They could say they will use the results of the Baylor College of Medicine investigation, and not retract. 
  • The could say the Baylor College of Medicine investigation was not thorough enough, and do their own investigation, then make a decision.
  • They could believe Dr. Liang and retract.
  • They could not know who to believe, and retain the "Expression of Concern", keeping it attached to the papers, and putting in all the information about the confession, the denial, and the Baylor College of Medicine investigation.
Any of those things would have been reasonable (if possibly controversial) responses to the allegations of fraud. Instead we got false logic about how "if it replicates, it must have been real" which was ignored when that became inconvenient for Cell Press. And people wonder why Retraction Watch is so busy?

Sunday, September 25, 2016

If in doubt, just apply

I don't know what people are telling their students/postdocs these days, but our department has a TT search ongoing right now, and I am getting a surprising number of inquiries about whether someone should apply for the position or not, especially since I am not a contact person for the position, nor am I the search chair. And these are all from people who seemingly have a fairly decent overlap with the listed areas of interest in the ad.

I suppose these may be veiled requests for more details on what we are looking for, but still, if in doubt just apply. The worst that will happen is that you will not get the job, which is the default without submitting an application. This is good advice for anything, really. If you overlap with the selection criteria, just apply and let them reject you if you aren't what they are looking for.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

A self-indulgent look at this blog

I was flipping through the stats Blogger automatically keeps on the blog, and it made me feel really proud of the writing I do here. This blog has probably been read more than anything else I have ever written, which is an odd feeling, considering that few people know that I do it. My most read posts have almost 28,000 views between them.

Two of the three most popular posts are about non-academic jobs (my first post on this, and my link aggregator page).  The third is a Mendeley review from 2011, which is still fairly popular (and actually still reasonably representative of my thoughts on Mendeley, which I still use 5 years later). Rounding out the top 5 are posts on how I got my National Lab job (hint: don't expect what I did to work for you--it was luck!) and how search committees sift through applications (still true). After my top 5, views per post drop pretty steeply (50% drop between #5 and #6, for example). Interestingly, my posts on job searching in various forms are more popular than anything else. After that, it is actually academic misconduct posts which get a lot of views, followed by more detailed interviewing advice in the top 10. From that, I would guess that most of my audience consists of students and/or postdocs.

The most likely path to my blog is through Google, which sends 5X the traffic of the next most common entry point, which is Xykademiqz's old blog (Thanks!).

Most of my audience looks like it comes from the US, with Switzerland a surprising second (at least surprising to me, since I write in English about issues primarily of interest to North American readers). Only 58% of my audience is using Windows, with 26% using Macs. I wonder how that has changed over time. My readers primarily use Firefox and Chrome, which is not too surprising.

The blog averaged about 2300 page views per month while I was on hiatus, which is just astounding. I pretty much started this blog (and keep it going) for my own entertainment. I tend to do advice posts and commentary, since I would have liked to see that sort of thing when I was struggling with the issues I discuss. It is actually really cool and quite surprising to me that so many other people have found it interesting/helpful.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Things I wish I knew before I started mentoring students

As newly minted scientists, we are not trained in how to be effective mentors. Nevertheless, in almost every research environment, mentoring becomes a significant portion of the job. This is especially true of TT positions in higher ed. Alas, my only training in being an effective mentor came on the job. I was thinking about this recently, since it is student recruiting season at ProdigalU. So here are some things I wish I knew when I started:

  1. So many of my early decisions would be reactions to things I did not like about the way I was mentored. Sometimes consciously, sometimes not.
  2. Even though #1 is true, it was hard not to replicate aspects of my advisors' mentoring styles, since that is all I knew when I started.
  3. Although I knew (and was reminded by many, many people) that Prodigal as a student is not a good model to use in deciding how to mentor, it is really, really hard to act on this knowledge.
  4. My first students (brave as they were to pick an advisor with no track record and no one to ask about) would have a HUGE impact on my mentoring style. (So recruit wisely).
  5. Even though few people ever really have an idea of how to set up a group culture (and I was certainly in that boat), one will form anyway (even without my input) and it will stick around a long time. I really lucked out that my first set of students were serious, hard working, and easy going. They set the tone for the next rounds of students and on to today. I should have paid more attention to this, though I am happy with how things turned out in the end.
  6. My students are my best recruitment tool (luckily for me, since I think I have great students!)
  7. Just as my students will be linked to me forever, I will also be linked to them (see #5--hooray for great students). 
  8. Mentoring is much harder than it looks. It takes quite a bit of experience to figure out the best way to mentor a particular person, and no one strategy works for everyone. I am still learning. Some personality types will never click, and that is no one's fault. If that happens, it is even harder to be a good mentor.
  9. People need what they need, and sometimes that isn't me as a mentor, no matter what their science abilities are. If the mentor-mentee relationship is not working, it is best for all concerned to resolve the situation quickly. It does NO ONE any favors to pretend things are OK when they aren't, or that someone will get a PhD when they won't (at least not with me). I let things go on for way too long when this happened in my group.
  10. Recruiting is just as much making sure I can work with the student as it is attracting students to my group. 
  11. I ended up doing nearly as much mentoring about things outside the lab as inside (and not just career stuff either). I hadn't expected this.
  12. That I would be so excited to hear from group alumni (undergrads too). I wish I stayed in better contact with my own mentors, now that I see how nice it is to hear about how things are going with my former students. I also wish I had told more of my students this when they were in my lab.

Friday, September 16, 2016

What can we teach our students?

There is an interesting discussion over at Drugmonkey's blog about whether it is possible to teach things like resilience and ambition to students. In my opinion, the answer is no. Similarly, I don't think it is possible to teach our students a strong "work ethic". By work ethic, I mean the desire to work/study hard to get results and to take pride in one's work, regardless of the public reward. By the time students get to us (typically 18 at the youngest), I think such traits are set. They may even be set to some degree at birth (that is, it comes more naturally to some people than others, and is harder to teach some kids than others).

The one thing these traits have in common is the DESIRE to use strategies that can be taught. Coping strategies can definitely be taught, but the desire to use them (i.e. resilience) can not. Career development strategies can be taught, but the desire to use them (i.e. ambition) can not. Work/study skills can be taught, but the desire to work hard/study hard and to take pride in one's work (i.e. work ethic, for lack of a better term) can not.

This is something I always suspected, but my opinion has been reinforced by the experience of raising my own children. It is really hard to convince some children (even if they are very young, even if you are providing assistance, even if you are modeling the next step) that they should want to cope with adversity instead of giving up. Other kids just jump right up and keep going without any additional input. For very young kids, I think it is possible to teach such traits (resilience, ambition, work ethic), but it certainly helps that with kids one can enforce something like resilience until it becomes more natural.

Becca has a great comment listing out things an advisor can do to help a group member who is facing adversity, but doing any or all of those things will not make a person WANT to continue on. Since moving to ProdigalU, I have seen students offered every possible assistance and quit anyway, and I have also seen students suffer with the double whammy of negative life experiences (research or otherwise) plus poor mentoring and still finish their degree and go on to great opportunities. Part of what I attempt to screen for when interviewing potential group members is persistence/resilience because it is so important in research (much more important than GPA!), and I don't think it can be taught.

I try to set up a supportive environment. I don't ever dress down students in public. When good things happen, I am happy with my students, when bad things happen, I try to help them get through it. I remind students that a rejection is about the opinions of a few people in the world, that many great ideas were first rejected (not that all rejected ideas are great, though :-), that business is business and personal is personal (and rejection is clearly business!), that failing at something is not the end of the world. I share coping strategies, and I am clear about the ups and downs about life at ProdigalU (and also at life at all the places I was before).

This goes for both my research group and my classes (to varying degrees, of course). My more resilient students probably don't need this (but hopefully it helps them feel supported). My less resilient students hopefully learn more about how to keep going. My non-resilient students quit (which may be the right thing for them to do--if they decide my field is not for them due to lack of interest, it is definitely the right thing to do). I am sure I fail some of my students, since I am not a perfect human being, nor I am I the best mentor for every personality type. I know that I have helped students who wanted to keep going, but didn't see a way forward. I don't think I have ever convinced a student who didn't want to keep going to use the mechanisms in place to help them.

UPDATE: I haven't been at ProdigalU that long, and have a small group. All of my grad students thus far have left with a degree. When I talk about students quitting, it is students in my classes, or students I am a committee member for. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Collaborations and team grants

Pretty much at every stage of my career there have been team grants of some kind, offered by institutions, states, federal agencies, industrial funders, what have you. The idea behind these sounds good: "Collaborations encourage creativity and interdisciplinary science, which is good. If we mandate that people must be co-PIs to get money, we can encourage collaborations." In practice, many team grants turn out to be ways that two or more PIs can fund their individual research on a theme that vaguely connects the two or more groups which really a collaboration. Being honest, I've done this too. Money is money, and sometimes even if we plan to work together if the funding comes through, there is already momentum on the solo projects, while the joint project has to start from scratch.

In my experience, successful collaborations rarely start out through formal mechanisms. Usually, I am talking to someone informally about my work (or theirs), and while chatting, we have an idea for an experiment/calculation/analysis that one of us can do on the other person's problem. Sometimes, my collaborations have started when my students have done something similar. In any case, all of my successful collaborations have started from one experiment and grown from there. In the best cases, the single experiment grows into a new approach on a problem that neither of us can tackle alone (even better if we can then get joint money for it!). Always, though, the working together starts BEFORE the joint proposal, not as a happy outcome of writing a joint proposal. 

I won't say that team grants are a terrible idea, since once a collaboration begins, they are an excellent way to fund research that might be hard to get funded in other ways. Nor do I think that multi-PI grants that end up as separate projects along a theme are necessarily bad. I just don't think that anyone is really served by pretending that team grants produce collaborative science, rather than being an opportunity to support something that is already there.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

ResearchGate, preprints, and open access

I am not much of a social media person, so I don't usually sign up for new social sites, even when work related. Recently, I set up a ResearchGate site for myself, mostly as an experiment. A colleague of mine swears by it, and claims that his citations have really increased since he started using the site. It is an easy experiment to try, so I just set up my page, and let it go. So far, nothing I have seen convinces me that more people are reading my publications, but it is early days yet. Also, I am not illegally uploading my publications, so there is that. If I am still blogging here, I'll revisit my ResearchGate experience in a year or so.

My field is not really one that uses preprint servers much, though I have no real objection to doing so. I much prefer to read the nicely formatted journal versions (when available), rather than the preprints on the arXiv myself. I think preprints are a good idea, but peer-reviewed journals serve a beneficial purpose both in acting as gate keepers for junk (and I think anyone who has done a review knows that), and also in improving manuscripts. All of my own publications were improved during the peer-review process.

I have a few open access publications, and they are not cited at a higher rate than my other publications. All the data I have access to seems to confirm my own experience that it is not hard to get access to a paper, even if ProdigalU's library doesn't have it. Legally even. Interlibrary loan works, but it it slow. Faster is to just email the corresponding author. In my experience, they are happy to send a pdf (which is usually fine under the licensing terms--I have never even come close to sending out as many as I am entitled to as an author). Not instant gratification, but still pretty easy access to the literature. And that is before the quasi-legal or downright copyright violating methods. The actual fastest method is to just google the title, and often a non-pay walled link will show up. I just don't see access to publications as a major issue for most people with an Internet connection.

I get that some people have open access as a near and dear issue in their hearts. I get that extortionate journals are a problem, and that libraries are being squeezed by publishers to take on (and pay for) crap journals they don't want to get the ones they do through packaging. The thing is, open access doesn't solve this problem and adds new ones. Quite frankly, I can't pay page fees. I just don't have the money. Even if I did, there are not many non-predatory open access journals in my field, so I would just be paying more money to those same journals already extorting my library. Furthermore, at this stage in my career, the work that can go into high impact journals needs to go into high impact journals (mostly for the benefit to my CV), which means no open access.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

More research shenanigans, this time at Duke

Duke University is being sued under the False Claims Act, a US law that lets whistleblowers receive a percentage of recovered funds when they can prove that someone or some institution has defrauded the Federal Government. The suit arises from the activities of Erin Potts-Kant, a biologist who has pled guilty to embezzling $25,000 in research funds and also has had to retract or correct over a dozen papers due to "unreliable data".

I find it really interesting that almost all of the quotes Science uses refer to the dangers such lawsuits pose to research institutions:

The Duke case “should scare all [academic] institutions around the country,” says attorney Joel Androphy of Berg & Androphy in Houston, Texas, who specializes in false claims litigation. It appears to be one of the largest FCA suits ever to focus on research misconduct in academia, he says, and, if successful, could “open the floodgates” to other whistleblowing cases.

Really? Research fraud and misuse of grant money is so widespread that all academic institutions should worry? I think that is much more frightening than the prospect of whistleblowers collecting damages from research institutions. I actually think it would be a good thing if institutions were held responsible for looking the other way as long as the research money is flowing. Researchers who harrass their students, fake data, or defraud the government should not be protected. Universities should WANT to get rid of these bad actors. Maybe if they have to pay through the nose, they will.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Online course resources

I am looking at the blank site for my new course with dread. It is such a huge timesink to prep the web learning system site for a new class. The interface is super-clunky and counter-intuitive, which makes it a huge headache, and I am not even sure how much value the students get from it.

It is convenient to be able to post electronic resources without having to photocopy a whole bunch of course stuff (and also not waste a huge amount of paper, since it is impossible to match the attendance with the number of sheets). In the olden days when dinosaurs walked the earth and I was an undergrad, I am sure professors complained about photocopying stuff for their courses. At the same time, that function could easily be replicated through a course shared file repository. No need for all the bells and whistles.

So I ask is it worth it? Looking at the typical components:

Posting files online
Easily replicated elsewhere without the headache. As a side effect of having course Web resources, students now expect professors to post their slides online. Alas, student evaluations are used for tenure and promotion, so it is not easy to just say no and take the hit. I am not sure that this is helpful. I've noticed a  large decline in my students' note taking skills (which are actually useful later in life). I've also noticed my course slides available (and sometimes for sale!) at various sites that collect such information for students. I am not hugely uptight about my IP rights and all, but it is irritating to see my hard work available to the whole world. If I wanted that, I would post them on the open web myself. I did complain when I found my slides for sale. Neutral.

Online discussion forums
Some years, the online discussion forums get heavy use, particularly for large intro courses, but some years not. I actually like them, since they can reduce my workload quite a bit, and sometimes head off having to answer the same question over and over again via email. It does not prevent having to answer the same question over and over again in office hours. Sometimes degenerates into an Internet discussion board (which adds moderating to the workload). This happened to me once. Probably a benefit most years.

Online gradebook
Excel is so much easier to use for this (and THAT should shame these web learning companies!) that I usually do my gradebook keeping offline, and copy the results into the tool. So, not a time saver for me. I don't know how useful the students find it, but most of them only look at the end of the course, which suggests not much. Net minus, then.

Recorded lectures
Significantly reduces course attendance. The lecture format (which is more or less required for a course with 200+ students and half a TA) may not be the best tool for learning, but at least the students keep vaguely up with the material. And without recorded lectures, students don't fool themselves into thinking they can watch later, and then never do it. I see many of the students binge watching lectures a few days before the exam. This is unlikely to help their learning. A net minus in my opinion.

Online quizzes/evaluations
Anything provided by the company is useless, since the answers are pretty much freely available pretty quickly. Making my own is very time consuming, but I actually like this feature (now that I know how to make variables in the questions so each student gets their own individual problem). Can't be worth much of the overall course grade, since it is impossible to know who actually completed it. Still a net plus (I think).

Linked web resources
I have yet to find a way to get the students who need this to use it, so overall neutral. Could be a useful tool, though, since it is much easier to just click and link than to type in a web address. My failure to effectively use this notwithstanding, a plus.

Email tool
Definitely a minus for the prof. Makes it way too easy to send an email with just one little question (that is already answered elsewhere!). Repeated for 200 students, makes responding to actual class problems difficult. Net minus.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

School supplies!

The best part about back to school is buying school supplies. I always used to love buying all the things on my list on the first day of school. The ProdigalKids get their lists before school starts (which makes a lot of sense!), but I still love gathering all the school stuff and getting it ready.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Recruiting students

When I first started at ProdigalU, I did a hard sell on my group and my research. I gave a flashy presentation, had handouts to give to students, and pushed pretty hard to recruit. Since then, I've kind of had a change of heart. After a few years of recruiting and mentoring, I came to realize a few things that made me change my approach:
  1.  Selling my research to someone not really interested is a bad idea. A PhD is a marathon, not a sprint, and if a student is lukewarm on their project at the beginning, they will either not finish, or do a half-assed job when what little shine there is comes off. Student enthusiasm is the most important thing, so now I discuss my research, showing off all the really cool things, but backing off a bit on the sales pitch, and allow the interested ones to select themselves. Relatedly, persistence is much more important than what is on the CV when they arrive at ProdigalU.
  2. Being able to work with someone is really, really important. Sometimes people just don't "click" for whatever reason. I do not become best buds with my students (more on socializing here), nor do I expect a personal connection with everyone in my group. It is human nature that some people are easier to get along with than others, and I try my best to be fair. I try to provide as equal opportunities as possible for things like fellowships, conferences, introductions to other scientists, and other professional development stuff. If when meeting someone, I don't think I can successfully do that (they rub me the wrong way, or I feel like our communication styles don't mesh well), I am better off not having them join my group.
  3.  My current students are the best recruitment tool. I try to do a good job as a mentor, and help my students be successful. If I am doing a decent job of it, my students are happy and excited about their work, and convey that to new students looking for a group. Many new grad students are not all that sure about what they want to work on, so having exciting research with good results paired with a happy and productive group is more effective at recruiting than any flashy presentation or web site. 
  4. Success builds on success. Probably true everywhere.
So my approach now is to try to have a good conversation with incoming students, show off my latest results, describe what my students actually do in terms of techniques and methods and then send them off to meet my current students if they are interested in hearing more.  After a few years on the job, I am hopefully better at selecting students I can work with (when it doesn't work out, it is very, very painful). I've developed this more laid back approach in the past couple of years, and so far, I am pleased with the results.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Students and vacation

I have had the same vacation policy since I started my group at ProdigalU. My students can take 3-4 weeks of vacation per year as they see fit, as long as they remain productive while they are supposed to be working. I do not formally track their vacation time, though I keep the emails with their requests so I have a record if needed. Since starting, I have never had to deny a vacation. When my students are not being as productive as they should, they know it, and don't ask me for much time off. I once had to tell a student that if they planned a long vacation for the holidays, they would need to start being more productive, but other than that, I have found that my students are quite responsible in taking care of it themselves. In fact, I have told my students that they should not work on manuscripts or literature searches while on vacation, since it is supposed to be vacation!

When I was a student, there was a group that was notorious for not being "allowed" to take vacation. The group policy was 2 weeks per year maximum, not during mid-summer or winter break, since grad students were supposed to be in the lab more when classes are not in session. This always struck me as ridiculously stingy and likely to lead to burnout and resentment.

One of my colleagues has a kind of unusual problem--one of his best students is traveling too much. Part of it is conference travel, which also takes time away from the lab. Part of it is the desire for vacations to visit family as well as vacations for time off (since not everyone finds family visits recharging). But it is an odd problem for an ambitious student to have, since slowing down on progress delays finishing the PhD, and ambitious students usually recognize this.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Prepping new classes

At the beginning of each semester,  I always have high hopes for what I will be able to do in my classes. I have ambitious plans about have I will make things better. Maybe add demos or videos, or perhaps integrate in some of the modern literature to basic courses. Once the reality of the semester hits, many of those plans go by the wayside, and I mostly stick with the tried and true, updated each year for clarity and with better examples.

It is worse for a new course. Before I start prepping, I have all these goals about what I want to do. But then the reality of just how much work prepping a new course is hits, and I just try to make it as good as I can and still stay on top of things. For my first class, I had a whole bunch of lectures prepped ahead of time, and I still barely managed to be two lectures ahead of the class (so I could post notes in advance of lecture).

I am better about time management now, but it is still a struggle to prep lectures efficiently, especially because the first time through, I have no idea how quickly the class will move through the material. With a year in a course under my belt, it is easier to make timing adjustments on the fly, depending on how the class goes.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Socializing with group members

This issue came up a bit at Portrait of the scientist as a young woman a few weeks ago. I am not really one to socialize with my group and never have been. Research is hard enough without personal issues getting in the way. I am not really all that social to begin with, and I like to keep the personal separate from the professional. I think it can be hard to maintain an appropriate degree of professionalism when personal relationships get involved (this is human nature). It gets worse when this leads to "Golden Child Syndrome", where the more social/better connected group members get more resources or professional opportunities than everyone else.

Although I never socialized much with my own research group, I can see the temptation for a new Assistant Professor. This has played out in our department a few times. A new professor is probably in a new city where they may not know anyone. They spend a lot of time with their research group, and may be fairly close in age if they got a TT position after a two year postdoc (2-3 year postdocs are the norm in my field, but I was older after my time at National Lab). As students and postdocs, our life experience is that we find friends in the groups we spend a lot of time with. It is a new experience to be suddenly in a position where making friends this way also involves a power differential. In my experience, this seems to be much more of an issue with new Assistant Professors, and seems to fade as the age gap between professor and student increases and the new professor makes local friends outside their research group.  I've also seen it lead to powerful resentments between the first cohort of students, who helped set up the lab and were friends with their advisor, and the next cohort, who came into a working lab and a situation where the PI was not actively searching for friends. Even so, some of my colleagues remain pretty social with their research groups.

My own students don't seem to socialize with each other as a group (I can't be certain, because I don't discuss personal lives with my students unless they bring it up). I wonder if my anti-social nature has caused this, but I don't have a problem with it. Some students seem to prefer a more social group (I say "seem", because I haven't discussed this with any students, and the power differential makes it unlikely to ever have such a conversation), but others don't, so recruitment-wise, I think it all balances out in the end.

One of the reasons I am kind of happy to not have a very social group is that I am not sure that the decision to attend group social events is ever really truly voluntary. In particular, someone from a different culture may not experience this as a choice at all. I think it is particularly problematic when the invitations come from/are issued on behalf of the PI, which can make the social event feel like a group obligation. Even absent the PI's direct involvement, if someone regularly chooses not to attend group social events, it may have a negative impact on their working relationships with group members, since people naturally gravitate towards helping people they are close to at the expense of people they know less well.

Worse when group social events perpetuate inequalities or send the message that only certain types of people are welcome in the group. At conferences, I've been in a group of attendees who decided to continue discussions at Hooters (yes, really). I've seen people at meetings organizing mixed professional/social outings to strip clubs and other non-inclusive venues. Such outings would really be problematic in the context of research group social events. Even things like research group contests can be exclusionary. It is one thing to set up an NCAA basketball bracket pool, where anyone can fill out a bracket just for fun even if they don't follow college basketball (or want to bet for money). It is another to organize a research group fantasy sports league which requires a large time commitment to following a specific sport for a long time.

I am not sure students consider the social atmosphere of the group when selecting a group to join. I wasn't very social as a student, so a group that met up every weekend would not have been a good fit for me. As a student, I spent a lot of time in the lab, and enjoyed time away from my group, though we all had pretty good working relationships. I had some friends in my group, but we did not socialize as a research group much outside of work. As a PI, I am probably too much in the non-social direction. We don't do much more than an annual group lunch, but so far it has worked for me.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

What would you tell your kids about a career in science?

The ProdigalKids are too young for career plans, but would you discourage your kids from pursuing a career in science? In academia? What about a BSc/BSE with no plans for academia?

This came up in a conversation with some colleagues, and I was surprised at the split. About half said they would strongly discourage their child from getting a science degree, because they think future prospects for such careers are poor, and the other half saying they thought it was a good idea. After reading all the nay-saying online, I was actually surprised to see that so many of my colleagues are supportive of the idea. What shocked me the most actually was that a couple of my male colleagues said they would discourage a daughter but not a son because sexism. I really wanted to say "Newsflash--your daughters will experience sexism no matter what degree they get", but I didn't.

Most of the nay-sayers are worried about future job prospects, but I am not sure what other career paths they think would be better. I totally get that there are many more PhDs who want to do research/development/something very science-y than there are positions for them, but the overall unemployment rate for PhDs remains lower than the general unemployment rate (even if some/many(?) of those PhDs are in jobs that really don't require one). I believe people try to do what is best for themselves, so I am all for people (even my own kids) taking known risks for desired rewards. The keyword is 'known' here--I think it is really important to make sure people have access to information about career prospects and paths BEFORE they make long term decisions.

The science nay-sayers would discourage even a BSc or BSE, and that I don't really understand at all. Does it really matter a few years after graduation what you majored in as an undergrad? What does it say about someone if they would try to prevent their children from earning a degree they are encouraging their own students to continue? A few people said they would not discourage a science degree, just an academic career. I can kind of understand that, but I don't think pursuing an academic career and ending up somewhere else is a great tragedy. Life is long, and there are many chances to start over or try something different.

Personally, I actually think a science degree is good prep for a wide variety of possible career paths, and would be happy if the ProdigalKids wanted to pursue one. I would even encourage my kids to go into academia, if they had the ability and the inclination (while giving them all the caveats and downsides, and making sure there is a strong plan B). I don't think it is a bad thing to desire a research career, since there are many options if it doesn't work out. If the job market is poor for scientists, it is likely poor for most other choices as well. I don't want to discourage a dream just because the odds are long, as long as my kids are aware of the long odds, and have a reasonable plan if it doesn't work out.

For the most part, I love my job. The downsides would either be present in pretty much any career I chose (sexism, old boy's network, bureaucracy, politics) or are outweighed by the positives (the proposal chase is tedious, but I like being able to work on whatever I can get funding for, the long hours can be draining, but the flexibility is hard to beat). I completely understand why so many people try for TT jobs--it is a great life if you can get it. My own parents encouraged me and my siblings to have a goal and work towards it. They offered their opinion on whether that goal was a good idea or not, but once we were out of high school, they wanted us to make our own decisions about our futures (even if they thought it was a bad idea). They had faith that we would be able to figure out how to make a living. True, one of my siblings changed career tracks a few times, but we all evolved into independent adults capable of supporting our families. I think this is a good idea, and hope I have the stamina to implement it myself. It is really hard to watch your kids make mistakes!

Friday, July 15, 2016


They are the bane of my existence. As hard as it is to get funding for new equipment into the lab, it is even harder to get funding to maintain what I've already got. At least there are some mechanisms for bringing in new equipment.

At current funding levels, the vast majority of my grants are spent on paying personnel costs. What doesn't go to pay the people in my lab barely covers the materials and supplies they use. A $5000 repair bill means a choice between starving my lab of consumables, or living without an important piece of equipment. It keeps me up at night.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Requests for a postdoc

Do you respond to them all? Like most PIs, I receive many requests for postdocs, especially from India and China, but also from other places. Most of these looks like mass mailed form letters, but I suppose some of them might not be. I actually respond to every postdoc request I get. I've only met one other person who says they also respond to them all. I figure it can't hurt, and I would like to be respectful to job seekers, since I know how much it sucks to be blown off. In truth, I am not actually looking for a postdoc right now, so I am declining all such requests, but I think "no" is better than no response.

To be honest, though, I actually have two sets of responses. I have my email client set up so that I can send a response with 3 clicks. This is the reply the letters that look like mass mailings get. One form letter deserves another, I suppose. Things that trigger this response are:
  • "Dear Sir" (really, there is a photo of me on the dept website, and my name is pretty much only used by women in English)
  • research interests in a completely different field or sub-field
  • different fonts/colors/sizes between my name and the rest of the letter
  • huge list of recipients on the email (hello bcc!)
  • nothing about me or ProdigalU in the letter body
I realize that I may consign some non-form letters to the trash, but at least I send something. I get many, many more form letter requests than personalized requests, and while I think it is a good thing to respond, I don't want to waste my time. Thus, if it looks like a form letter, it gets the canned response and a delete.

The other sort of response is a non-canned personal response. I send these to people who look like they are legitimately interested in my research/my group, and I keep these emails in a folder in case my situation changes (read: I get a currently pending grant funded), and I need to find a postdoc relatively quickly. Sometimes I have had nice conversations via email with these jobseekers, and sometimes I have been able to steer them in the direction of someone who is actually looking for a postdoc. It is definitely easier to network your way into a position, since if you come recommended by someone known to the PI, it is better, but I know many people who have cold emailed their way into a postdoc.

So I guess when it comes down to it, if you are looking for a postdoc and want to be taken seriously, Google is your friend. You should be able to use the correct gender when referring to me (or stick to the gender neutral Dr. or Prof. as an address). You should articulate quickly and clearly WHY you are interested in a postdoc with me. Even better if you can articulate HOW you think you will benefit from and/or provide benefit to my group. If you are coming from a different sub-field, you should acknowledge this and explain why you want experience in mine. Your letter should be clear and concise--it is by far the most important thing when cold emailing for a postdoc. More important than your CV, which I won't even open if my interest is not caught by your email. I like helping people out, and dispensing advice (hence the blog), but it is only worth it if I think the request is legit.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

How do you sabbatical?

This was the most common question I heard from junior faculty. At first, I thought that they, like my colleagues, were interested in the mechanics (what arrangements I made, how I planned a sabbatical abroad with a family, etc). For thoughts on planning a sabbatical, see here. But what they actually meant was "what exactly do you do on a sabbatical?" After a few seconds of thought, I realized I had no idea either (before I went and did one), so without further ado, here is "What Prodigal Did on Sabbatical":

ProdigalU more or less doesn't care what we specifically do on sabbatical, as long as it is professional development (especially for the first one). We do have to apply, and there do need to be plans, but the application is a year before the sabbatical starts, so no one will hold you to what you write. I got an old application from one of my colleagues, and used it as a model. When we're back from sabbatical, we have to write a sabbatical report, but I am not sure anyone actually reads it.

I decided I wanted to go abroad, and then worked from that premise when planning. So what did I actually do?

1. Wrote
A lot. Really. It was really nice to be away from my office and all of its distractions. I had long uninterrupted blocks of time for the first time in a long time. When all was said and done, I submitted 6 manuscripts and 3 proposals, and wrote detailed outlines for 2 more.

2. Email/paperwork
There is no escape. Being in a different timezone from ProdigalU meant that I had many work hours free from emails, though.

3. Traveled
Both personal travel around Sabbatical Location, as well as professional travel. I went to meetings I would normally skip due to the expense (far from ProdigalU) and I invited myself to give a few seminars so I could meet with some people in my field I only knew as names on papers due to the distances involved. This is surprisingly easy, btw. A simple email with "Hello, I am Prodigal, and I work on ProdigalResearch. I admire your work. I am at location X for the next Y months, and would love to meet up with you in person. Are you available?" often results in a seminar invite.

4. Read
I actually had time to read literature for pleasure, rather than as a targeted search for a manuscript or proposal. Before I got overwhelmed, this was a great way to spark new ideas and research directions. I found this so beneficial while on sabbatical, that I am trying to keep going with this, and at least actually use my RSS feed ToCs again.

5. Interacted with my host group
It was actually really interesting to see how a different group works (dynamics and all) after setting up my own. This was fun--the stakes are lower, since I am not actually responsible for these students, so I just had fun discussion things (science, professional stuff, whatever) with the members of my host group. I attended groups meetings and other group events as well. One of the goals of my sabbatical was to deepen my collaboration with host group, and this was successful.

6. Learned a new technique
One of the reasons I picked my sabbatical location was because I would have access to an instrument I would like to set up in my own lab. It was great to see how it actually works in practice, and to see how the experts do sample prep and data analysis.

7. Electronic meetings with my group
Very important--email works pretty well, but checking in and discussing things in real time is important too. I had meeting with each student once a week, for 10-90 minutes, as needed.

8. Thought big thoughts
I spent quite a bit of time just thinking about my field, where it is going, and what I think my group should be doing in the next 10 years or so. Also thoughts about science in general. Very important, I think, but one of the first things to drop when pressed for time.

9. Relaxed
I worked fewer hours than normal, for sure. Part of what I needed to do was recover and recharge after the push for tenure. Being away from my "normal" life and routine was really helpful for that.

Things I didn't do:
  • Work in the lab (ha! I had big plans for that one--I do miss labwork sometimes)
  • Attend any regular meetings other than my host group meeting
  • Service at ProdigalU (I still did some reviewing, but said no more often)
  • Visit ProdigalU for the whole time I planned to be away (and I didn't even feel bad about it either)
So that is what I did on sabbatical. I enjoyed my sabbatical immensely, and have no regrets about going abroad.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Interdisciplinary science

This study in Nature looking at grant success rates for the Australian Research Council's Discovery Programme over a 5 year period confirms with data what has long been suspected--interdisciplinary projects are less likely to be funded, and the effect is stronger the more interdisciplinary the proposal is. This is an issue not only for those of us who do a lot of interdisciplinary science (who of course want to be funded), but also for science in general, since more and more modern science is at the interface between disciplines.

Anecdotally, what is true for proposal evaluation also appears to be true (for me at least) in getting manuscripts published. My more interdisciplinary work needs to be shopped around a bit at different journals, sometimes 3 or 4 times before even going out for review. In contrast, my work that fits into a "traditional" discipline is apparently easier to match to a journal, since it tends to go out for review straight away (even if it isn't accepted at the first journal).

It is much harder to find appropriate reviewers for interdisciplinary work--I often end up recommending a list half in one field, half in another. Even so, referee reports often come back with serious misconceptions about the parts of the manuscript that are obvious out of the referee's area of expertise. The system of using 2 referees means that if I am lucky, I will get referees with 2 different areas of expertise. Alas, more often both reports are from reviewers in the same general "traditional" area, who then either ignore out of area issues, or don't appreciate the novelty, difficulty, or significance of the out of discipline results. It is hard to know how much of this is caused by my issues (writing style, not a strong enough introduction, lack of clarity, too much in love with the data, etc) and how much is lack of core knowledge in the referee at times.

If this is the case for manuscripts, it is almost certainly also the case for proposal evaluation. Moreover, I suspect that interdisciplinary proposals have a harder time attracting a strong advocate who can sell the research to the rest of the panel. Having served on panels myself, if a proposal does not attract a champion, it can be easily overlooked even if the science is top notch and the writing is clear.

Unfortunately for me, the problems I am interested in and the methods I use to solve them are highly interdisciplinary in nature. I often collaborate with colleagues in other subfields and departments. A long time ago, I realized that many people would be extremely skeptical of some aspects of my work. I am confident that the research I do is exciting and important--the problem is in getting others to see it, of course. To counter out of hand rejection of some of our admittedly very unusual research combinations, a good cover letter is crucial. I also find that it is extremely important to attend conferences and have student attend conferences so that potential reviewers see the work presented BEFORE they get a manuscript or proposal to review. Hopefully, that little bit of familiarity helps establish enough benefit of the doubt for people to read the work with an open mind, rather than dismissing it out of hand. With the increasing number of manuscripts and proposals submitted, there is less and less time to consider a manuscript/proposal, so snap judgements are important. As an aside, a side benefit of doing unusual research is that we don't worry much about being scooped on our very interdisciplinary stuff no matter how much we talk about it prior to publication.

I am not sure what to do about the problem of evaluating interdisciplinary work, but this will be an ongoing problem for the scientific community. Anyone else have strategies for helping others appreciate the novelty/beauty/significance of their work?

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

More on Katze

If my rant about UW wasn't enough, dr24hours has a great post on the worship of brilliance and how it enables abusers like Katze.

It seems to be human nature to condone the abuses of the powerful and gifted in order to bask in their glory (hence all the "shocking" stories of abuse from athletes, artists, actors, politician, the superrich, star PIs, etc). Dr24hours is absolutely correct that if we don't excuse the first unacceptable behaviors, future abuses could possibly be avoided. No one is so irreplaceable, so talented, or thinks so differently that they can't be expected to treat fellow human beings with the respect and civility they deserve, and held to that standard. At the very least, we need to stop hiding and accepting abusive behaviors no matter how much we like the abuser or desire the use of their talents.

Friday, July 1, 2016

UW, you have some explaining to do!

And another one bites the dust. I have to say that I have been pleasantly surprised by some of the progress that has been made in trying to remove serial harassers from their lofty perches. When I was an undergrad visiting potential grad schools, almost without fail one of the female students would pull me aside and tell me who not to be alone with. At the time, it was understood that nothing could really be done about it, so there was an informal network to try to warn potential victims (obviously an imperfect system at best).

But holy cow! If even half of this about Michael Katze is true (and I have no reason for any doubt), I am actually shocked at the depths to which UW has sunk. According to their own spokesperson:
“There seemed to be a pattern of, I almost want to say, abusive behavior,” Norm Arkans, the UW spokesperson, told BuzzFeed News. “Starting back in 2006 and then over several succeeding years, those were dealt with with letters to him, admonishments, etcetera. But did somebody miss a pattern of behavior? Likely.”
  and also
(Katze had been accused of financial improprieties in 2007, when an employee sent an email to the School of Medicine’s dean’s office saying that Katze had approved outrageous fees for work unnecessarily outsourced to a company whose board he sat on. According to the UW spokesperson, the university did not investigate those allegations.)
Keep in mind that Katze got tenure in 2009. So before giving him tenure, UW knew that 1) Katze was an abusive sexist, racist jerk and 2) Katze was at least accused of financial shenanigans. Shouldn't these things have been looked at prior to granting tenure? All ethical considerations for protecting students and employees aside, the man was a lawsuit waiting to happen, and UW said sign me up? Not in 1979 or 1989, but in 2009 (you know, when social media exists, making secret keeping more difficult)?

Granted, in 2009, no one would have guessed that science culture would change enough that when UC Berkeley tried to give Geoff Marcy a good scolding instead of actual punishment that his own departmental colleagues would publicly demand more action. Or that Caltech would actually suspend Christan Ott for sexual harassment. Or that Jason Lieb would resign from the University of Chicago before they could get around to punishing him (of course, UChicago has its own explaining as to why they hired someone in 2014 with multiple red flags in his file in the first place).

Lame statement from UW here

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Things "everybody knows"

You don't have to look far on the Internet to find people complaining about peer review and all of its frustrations and flaws. My peer review frustration of the day is when reviewers come back with "everyone knows this" or "this is the expected result" and don't back up the assertion with any form of reference or previous literature. If there is something that "everybody knows" AND it is actually backed up by experiment (and not something people just assume), then it should be easy to provide the authors with a reference to prior work. If the result is something people have assumed for years, but is not (yet) backed up by data in the literature, then the experiment is possibly worth publishing, assuming the methodology and analysis are sound. I find this situation annoying both when I am the author and also when I am one of the other referees and the editor sends everyone the reports (something I whole-heartedly support--a good way to help calibrate reviews, and I often learn something from reading the opinions of people with complementary expertise).

I see this most frequently when the work is interdisciplinary, or when someone publishing is new to the field. New researchers don't have the biases and inherited wisdom of their predecessors, and are in a good position to question assumptions. They may also be bringing new tricks to an older problem that illustrates things taken for granted. In my own reviews, I try to provide at least one reference when I comment that a result is not new, or is expected based on previous work. Yes, the authors should do a thorough literature search, but sometimes people miss things, and if a result really is widely known, it takes less then 10 minutes to pull up an appropriate reference.

In my own research, I find that pretty much whenever I move into a new area, there are things that "everybody knows" that follow most people's science intuition, but are completely unsupported experimentally. Sometimes those things are trivial, and no one really cares, other times they are foundational to interpreting results or designing experiments. Probably 9 times out of 10, the results of an experimental test will mostly align with the expectation. But the real fun comes when the results are completely unexpected, and that is why we do the work. Confirming or denying a hypothesis is what research should be all about. As a reviewer, call that 9 times out of 10 result incremental if you want to (which often it is), but don't say it isn't a new result, even it is something "everybody knows". Now we have experimental confirmation that "everybody knows" something that is actually correct.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Faculty websites

Why are so many faculty websites so bad? Most "getting started on the TT" advice includes the advice to get a nice looking webpage up as soon as possible (FWIW, I agree with this advice--as a newbie, this is your simplest and most efficient recruiting tool until you have a lab in place). But it isn't enough just to set up a webpage. It is counterproductive if your site turns people away. If you aren't going to keep your information up to date, DON'T include "news" or "recent publications" or anything else that requires regular updates to maintain! There is no rule that you need to put those things up. Your favorite photo from 20 years ago doesn't help, even if you really like it.  An obviously out of data website is worse than no website.

Even more irritating is when the site is so fancy that it obscures basic relevant information. Yes, a slick website can impress potential students and wow visitors about the wonders of your research. Just keep in mind, though, that some of the people looking at your site will be your peers who are looking for reviewers for manuscripts/proposals or speakers for seminar/colloquiums. It is really annoying to search around for an email address and/or a mailing address. Your website is there partially to convey information about you. That information should be easy to find! If I have a choice and can't quickly find an email address, I move on to the next person on my list. When you are a new PI looking to become known, this is a big problem.

With modern tools, maintaining and updating a website is pretty easy once it is set up (that part is very tedious and time consuming--most of my colleagues paid a student or a company to do that for them). I used to roll my own, but the tools provided by ProdigalU are so handy and easy to use, that I switched to their system and haven't looked back. Now, I poke at my website once a month or so to keep it updated as part of my periodic CV maintenance. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

Updating the non-academic science career information aggregator page

I've started updating the non-academic science career information aggregator page once again. This time through, I've checked all the links to remove dead ones, and added some new things I've found since the last time I updated. If you have suggestions for things I should add, please send me an email or comment here. Hopefully the information is still useful.


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Things I wish I could stop discussing at conferences

I am the kind of person who is usually happy to give advice (obviously, or I wouldn't be blogging!) However, there are many things I wish I didn't have to continue to talk about in 2016. Back in the dark ages when I was an undergrad, I had hopes that the people who followed me would have a better experience, because after all things were getting better, right?. I am more pessimistic now. Here are questions I am often asked as a recently tenured professor when one-on-one with younger women scientists at meetings:

1.  When you interviewed, did you mention ProdigalSpouse? When did you bring it up?

Really? People still feel the need to hide the fact they have families? I am not surprised, just disappointed. I used to think that many of the prejudices that blight our society would be solved by funerals, but unfortunately, I now know that this is not the case. There are plenty of young bigots to go around. I guess it is a sign of progress of some kind that I recently was asked this by a man for the first time.

2.  Do you think it is better to have children pre-tenure or wait until after?

I've never been asked this by a man. I've never seen any sign that men consider this question, actually (including my friends and colleagues).  I always tell people the same thing: "There is no good time to have kids, so have them when you are ready. Your life will change in unpredictable ways if you become a parent--there is no way to plan for everything." Your life is not your job, and it shouldn't have to be. There are always other jobs if work/life balance can't balance where you are.

3.  How did you ask for parental leave?

This question makes me sad. Short answer: I didn't. At National Lab, I told my supervisor I was pregnant, when I was due, and the tentative dates that I would be out. At ProdigalU, I told my Chair that I was pregnant and when I was due. Without batting an eyelash, my Chair started discussing my planned teaching in the projected timeframe, and how it could be covered. You shouldn't have to ask for leave (i.e. it should be assumed you will take some), but if you do, just be matter of fact. Show up with some understanding of your institution's rules in case you need this knowledge.

3b.  Did ProdigalSpouse take parental leave?


4.  Do you take your kids with you when you travel?

This is actually a good question, since folks considering having children need to think about things like this ahead of time. Short answer: usually no. It is easier to make childcare arrangements in Prodigal City, where I know people and have contacts than someplace I am traveling to. When I do professional travel, I am working, often for very long hours. My kids would be a large distraction, and I wouldn't see them much anyway. Sometimes, if I am traveling someplace we would like to spend time in as a family, ProdigalSpouse will come with the kids (either with me, or later) and we spend some vacation time together after I am done. Vice versa for ProdigalSpouse's professional travel.

5.  What happens when your kids are home from school?

When I am asked this, I always wonder if anyone asks this question to male professors. After all, an academic schedule is considerably more flexible than most other jobs, and would therefore suggest that this should come up for academic fathers as well. In my case, ProdigalSpouse and I trade off staying home, depending on our schedules. If there is no other way (like we both have things we can't get out of), I've taken the ProdigalKids to meetings/classes, but stick them someplace out of the way with something quiet to do and instructions to only interrupt if they are bleeding or on fire.

You'll notice that all of these questions are about family life. I am sad that this is still primarily an issue for academic women. I suppose that younger men might ask these questions of male academics, but I never really overhear this sort of conversation between men, while it is common for one or more other women to join this sort of conversation once underway.  I am also asked about TT job searches, setting up a lab, my sabbatical, and other professional issues, but women tend to ask about life balance first. I would much rather discuss the work part of work/life balance.

When I was a child, I was told I could do anything, that I could be successful just by working hard and doing a good job. When I found out that wasn't exactly true, I felt betrayed. Now I am just resigned. I know that there is no such thing as a true meritocracy, and that things really are (SLOOOOWLY) getting better for many people with respect to bias, but we are not as close as I hoped we would be by now.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Submitting manuscripts

When I first started at ProdigalU, I had a pretty good sense of where I should send my work to get it published quickly (or at least reviewed), primarily from my experience at National Lab. We had internal review there, so I was involved in many more manuscripts than just my own work. Now, though, I find that it is hard to say what will go in quickly, and what will need to be shopped around. Definitely part of it is the huge rise in the number of submitted manuscripts. There are so many submissions that an editor has to process each one quickly. As more and more countries improve their science infrastructure, this will only get worse. A complicating issue is the huge increase in the number of journals, particularly specialty journals muddling the scope of older, more familiar names.

I actually don't care much about the name of the journals I publish in (especially now that I have tenure), as long as the journal is indexed in the most important databases. I find that my work is still cited at the around the same rates, even when I publish in lesser known journals, with the exception of journals with extremely high impact (like the Nature babies). However, my students are in the stage of their careers where names on CVs matter, so I still contribute to the problem of "impact hunting", and submit my manuscripts to the most "prestigious" journals that might actually accept it. Sometimes, I find myself submitting along a chain of 3 or 4 journals before review. Most are quick (a few days), so there isn't that much of a delay, but it is inefficient, and demoralizing to the student.

I tell my students that rejection prior to review is just one person's opinion, and that even after review, it is just 2 or 3 people's opinions. I remind them that my most highly cited manuscript was rejected 3 times prior to publication. When we are preparing a manuscript, I make sure they understand that the target audience is more important than the impact factor, that publication in a society journal is often the fastest and most appropriate way to get their work seen by others, and that citations are more important then impact factor. I also make sure they know that if they plan to stay in science, they better get used to rejection.

One of the issues in targeting a manuscript with all the new journals is in looking to see if our work will fit. There are so many journals, that even the best library can't possibly subscribe to them all. We tend to stick to journals ProdigalU subscribes to, even though I never really have problems getting any particular paper (whether we subscribe or not). The problem comes when I want to look at a few issues to check out how the scope plays out in practice, or to get a sense of the style.

I don't have much experience with open access journals. It is not common to publish in such journals in my field, and I can't really afford to pay thousands of dollars in publication fees anyway. Most journals may as well be "open access" with the rise of SciHub and other methods to get copies of papers. To be honest, off-campus access through ProdigalU is so annoying that I often just Google the title, and can usually find an accessible pdf somewhere. James Heathers has a great post about just this topic. I don't think the current publication model is sustainable, and all these ruminations are part of the reason why.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

How to not support your students

I am at a meeting now, and observed this incident. A prominent scientist gave a featured talk, and at the end went though the acknowledgements as follows:

"The work I presented was done primarily by Postdoc A and really talented Students B and C. Student C is here at the meeting and will be presenting a great poster on this topic in tomorrow's poster session. You should go talk to Student C to hear more about this research aspect and for some detailed discussions. The poster is tomorrow."

The speaker went on thank funding agencies, and talk about Postdoc A's new position. Just before concluding, the speaker looked at the list of research group members and then said "Student X is here too. With a poster."It was said so fast I didn't catch the name, and the speaker had already put down the pointer.

I am pretty sure both Student C and Student X were in the audience. This struck me as really unfair (I too was in a group with a Golden Boy). I mean, really, would it have killed the speaker to at least announce the times of both posters and point to the names of both students?

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Things I wish I had known while planning my sabbatical abroad

I was speaking with a colleague who is planning a sabbatical for next year. With all the ink spilled about other aspects of an academic career, I am actually surprised by how few resources are available for sabbatical planning. After our discussion, I decided to post a quick list about 10 things I wish I knew ahead of time:

1. If you plan to take school aged children abroad, you need to start planning as early as possible. You will need to know what documents to bring and how to enroll your kids in school in sabbatical country (the ProdigalKids went to the local public school when we were abroad). ALSO you will need to make arrangements with your kids home school as to what the rules about about missing a year/part of a year and how to get them back in! If you need docs translated, the sabbatical country's embassy might have a list of local translators you can use.

2. Duolingo is an awesome app for language learning. It is good for kids too as long as they can read. We started the ProdigalKids on sabbatical language for 15-30 minutes a day 6-8 months before we left, and it made everything go much more smoothly.

3. A sabbatical abroad is freaking expensive. Double what you think you will spend. If you plan to apply for a fellowship, check the deadlines as soon as you have a target country.

4. The Internet is your friend. I had better luck with local online real estate sites than with my host University's international office (for housing--for everything else, they were awesome). Google translate works well enough to figure out apartment listings and communicate with landlords. Find out local norms about what is included in an apartment rental!

5. Health insurance is a bitch, Make sure you know what you need to do (local laws in sabbatical country may require additional insurance), even if your University/home country plan will cover you abroad.

6. Planning your sabbatical will take over your life. The logistics of taking a family along will make you want to stay home. Motor through--it is worth it in the end!

7. Time differences are more annoying than you think they will be, especially if it is 3 or more hours. You will need to plan carefully to talk to people, especially if you have to drop off/pick up kids. Make sure you've attempted whatever communication system you will use with your students ahead of time. I used Skype with my students, and had a scheduled weekly meeting with each one.

8. You might need a local bank account--start researching ahead of time to find one that will meet your needs when you have no local credit and no local income. Getting money out of the US sucks--the cheapest method for us was to take money out via ATM (no Forex or ATM fees from our US bank) and then deposit the cash into our local bank account. YMMV. Getting money into the US might be similarly difficult.

9.  Look for conferences/meetings/workshops near sabbatical location that would otherwise be too expensive from home country. Keep looking periodically. Your schedule will full more rapidly than you think, and you may need to schedule around school requirements if you have kids.

10. If you are in the US, whereever you go, odds are that the local cellphone network will be better. Cancel your cell contract if you can and go local. In particular, pay as you go services are often much, much better outside the US. If you are doing a sabbatical in the US, mobile services are probably not as good as home, so be prepared!

Bonus tip: Everyone who says don't overplan the working part of your sabbatical is correct! Being crazy ambitious is not the point.