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.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

When students graduate

I've been pondering this since my first set of students finished. How much effort should I put in to keeping in contact with my former students?

Like others have said, my students' PhD defenses were bittersweet. I was so proud of how much they accomplished, of how they had matured into capable scientists, but I miss them. And I am not the kind of PI who socializes with my group much outside of work. My first students set up my lab with me, (hopefully) spent longer in the group than anyone else because of it, and helped me actually learn how to be an academic PI. For me, it went as smoothly as I could have hoped--my senior students finished and left, and my newer students took over where needed without a hitch. But even now, it is still weird to me that I won't see my first students in the hallways or labs.

It definitely makes me wish I kept in better contact with my own advisor. My students have a very different relationship with me than the relationship I had with ProdigalAdvisor, but now I think it would have been nice to send an email more than every few years. So far I have been in regular contact with all of my former grad students except one, and I hope this continues. I really want to know what they are up to and how things are going.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

On Sabbaticals

Sabbatical is one of the nicest perks of academic life as a tenured professor.  In April, there were a lot of electrons released about "meternity leave", that is maternity leave without the baby. Anyone who has ever had children realizes that what Meghann Foye (author of the novel about a woman who fakes a pregnancy to get a maternity leave) really wants is a really long vacation, which is truly an opportunity to rest, rejuvenate, and have time to think (unlike maternity leave, which is anything but restful, though both involve taking a long break from work). It was kind of annoying, though, how my family (all non-academics) assumed that I would be on vacation for a year. Kind of like how people who actually needed parental leave got annoyed at the premise of Meghann Foye's novel.

A sabbatical is not a really long vacation, though it can be as beneficial as one. During my sabbatical, I was more engaged in some aspects of my job then ever, while taking an extended break from others. Unlike on vacation, I still had responsibilities to my students, my department, and my University (when I go on vacation, I do not work other than checking email). I still had deadlines and paperwork and bureaucracy and professional travel and loads of other things to do. The main benefit of my sabbatical was in taking me out of my normal life and normal routine, enabling me to think about my research and my career in a different way than I ever would or could without it.

After I turned in my tenure dossier, I then had to play catch up on all the work I had pushed aside, while waiting an entire academic year before finding out the final results of my tenure decision. None of that was particularly helpful in recovering from the massive stress and overwork in my push for tenure (described in a previous post).  My sabbatical following all of that both helped me recover and reignited my interest in my research and teaching. The opportunity to step out of my regular life and go someplace else for a short time broke up all of my normal rituals and gave me the shock of an abrupt change that enhanced and restored my creativity.

I am really grateful for the opportunity to take a sabbatical, since the grueling schedule I fell into in the chase for tenure was unsustainable and unhealthy. A change in location let me reset things in my daily routine to something more reasonable. But I still did lots and lots of work while I was gone!