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?