Adventures in Leadership

I have newfound appreciation for anyone who has been in a leadership or administrative role for a significant amount of time.

They must have gonads made of steel… Because people are the freakin’ worst.


I hate people who want to meet in person without letting me know at least roughly what it is that they want to meet about. These people always want to manipulate me; they want to ask something of me that they know I would not normally want to give or do, which is why they don’t want to disclose the topic. They want to put me on the spot, catch me off guard, and force my hand into an action of their choosing, while making sure I don’t have the time to think it through and counting on my (and many other people’s) propensity to avoid direct confrontation.

I hate having my niceness, or the expectation of niceness on account of being female, exploited like this (by men and women). I am too busy to waste time on meetings that will result in me being someone’s pawn. Therefore, as of a few months ago, I have started refusing to meet. Very politely, I get back to the person, asking for clarification as to what the discussion is to be about and offering to talk on the phone or continue via email.

I recently made someone quite angry (actually, to quote, they were “disappointed”) by iterating over email that the in-person discussion they requested with only the vaguest and most opaque of hints as to the topic was  likely a discussion that would need to include some other people, too.  The person got more and more agitated and aggressive with each iteration, changing their hints as to what the topic of the conversation was supposed to be, and finally in a huff deciding that things were blown out of proportion and they did not want to meet with me any more. (I know this person fairly well, and I am willing to bet good money that what they wanted to discuss was to get me to do something they preferred even though I had said ‘no’ multiple times.)


Along the same lines, I hate it when people say, “I prefer to meet in person, as email can be misunderstood. It doesn’t convey the body language etc. ”

This is bullshit. It always seems to be used by the people who totally meant to convey whatever passive aggressive/angry/irritated/otherwise negative crap they did, but since the recipient called them on it or actually got offended, they are now backpedaling and attributing it to email. It’s not email’s fault.

I dislike meeting in person precisely because of the body language. I have a short fuse and conveying that my veins are about to pop is not helpful. This insistence on  in-person communication always seems to be by the people who are confident in their ability to keep their cool, because they rightly believe they have the upper hand as they actually have all the pertinent information while the other party (me) does not and is thus in an inferior and precarious position.

I love email as a mode of communication because it helps me craft exactly the message I want to convey. Especially if an issue is sensitive, I can edit until I have achieved what I feel to be the right pitch. I can be nice, helpful, and funny; I can be formal or casual; I can be passive-aggressive or plainly aggressive… I can be who I want or need to be. I can respond, rather than react.


Recently, I was put in a position of being yelled at by a higher admin; this was my first one-on-one conversation with this admin. Luckily, it was over the phone, and it solidified my conviction that sometimes not seeing the other person’s face is best. I was not told what the discussion was to be about, but I thought I knew based on some earlier information. It turned out the conversation was about something else, and I got yelled at for doing something I hadn’t done and for not having done what I had been supposed to in this person’s view, even though I had done precisely what I had been supposed to according to the job description. I pushed back fairly hard and the person backpedaled. Then another admin called me two weeks later to explain that the first one had been yelling not because of why he had been yelling (better not, because I hadn’t done anything wrong), but because of some other underlying stress and perceived grievance that dates years back and has nothing to do with me.


A third person got all huffy because I pointed out that they hadn’t done a good job on something important and they needed to redo it. The person was all upset and told on me to the admin above (which prompted the aforementioned yelling); they said I was wasting their time (trust me, I wasn’t). This person is now redoing what they were supposed to and is going to miss the first deadline to turn it in. They are now upset with me anew. Why? Because I am not flexible and permissive enough to allow them to miss the deadline  (which would put everyone who needs to do the follow-up work in a terrible time crunch), but rather I told them to shoot for the next deadline that is only weeks away.


Is it that people are a$$holes in general, or that interacting with a woman or me in particular makes them particularly a$$holish? If instead of me there were someone with more Y chromosomes in a position of some leadership, would people be less likely do double down and become aggressive when told that no, they cannot have what they think they are entitled to?


I work hard and I believe I have a good sense of what is fair and just. I really dislike it when reasonable rules are bent and when other hard-working people are taken advantage of by those who think they are owed special treatment on account of nothing at all.

Where does a request for reasonable accommodation end and a high-maintenance primadonna status begin? When what you want puts undue burden on those around you, when it creates unnecessary work for them, when it messes up their lives. When you require ridiculous scheduling gymnastics from many people in order to accommodate your very special circumstances that are not special at all, as everyone else has them, you are just being an a$$hole about them.


That colleague who said once that I didn’t have the right personality type for administration was correct. I don’t. I can’t deal with people. Many are self-serving and irrational, and it affects me profoundly. I lose work time; I vent to my husband (which is probably not helping his longevity); I clutter the blogosphere with screeds of fire and brimstone.

I also suffer from chronic self-doubt, probably inextricable from the impostor syndrome. Even when I rationally know that I did all that I could and that I am not wrong, somewhere deep inside there is this seed of doubt, making me wonder if I am at fault, if I am the reason that there is a conflict, that things are not smooth, that people around me seem unhappy. Unfortunately, insecure people are always vulnerable to manipulation. Luckily, my husband is my trusted voice or reason and reassurance.

It seems that the most effective admins are those who are somehow able to not take the $hit personally at all, while being able to be nice and smooth enough to make everyone feel like they are being heard and appreciated, and who then go do what they wanted to anyway. I don’t know if one can develop this tough hide or one is just naturally less emotional, with a  really cool temperament… But not getting ruffled by personal attacks in the context of the job seems to be critical for long-term leadership or admin success. My response to people giving me $hit is always, ” I soooo don’t need this. Why am I doing this? I have papers and grants to write.”

Emailer, PhD

Today, I received 156 non-junk, directed, relevant-to-me work emails. I composed and sent out 102 distinct emails. I booked three trips for myself (panel, invited talk, program review), made itineraries for two visitors coming in the next couple of weeks (which included herding faculty cats to meet, as well as booking restaurants for meals and rooms for talks/meetings with student groups). I rescheduled a meeting that was very complicated to move because it involved many very busy people. I assigned about two dozen tasks for the committees I am chairing, emailed regarding the interview postmortem for the faculty search I am involved in, and discussed the procedures for the disbursement of certain department funds.

My typing speed is becoming enviable while spiders are spinning webs between my idle neurons.


Annorlunda Books has a new release — the novella Caresaway! Go check it out!

From Rebecca Schuman, the contemporary American university in seven emails (here, also here).

I have been reading “The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your PhD Into a Job” by Karen Kelsky. It’s interesting and very engaging, and I believe it is an invaluable job-hunting resource for people in the humanities and social sciences. (Some of the wisdom translates well to the physical or biological sciences, but much does not, as the cultures do differ.) The book has been reviewed extensively on Amazon, so I won’t do it here. What I wanted to highlight is a rather personal essay by Kelsky from her website “The Professor Is In” on how her successful business as an academic coach and the accompanying book came to be (she also writes a column at Chronicle Vitae). She completely left academia after ~15 years; at the time she held the position of department head at a Midwestern R1. She cites two key reasons for leaving, one of which was that she felt that her soul was dying because of the culture of the place. The essay describes elements of the culture that is common at research universities and that I recognize at my place of employment. The issues she discusses are exacerbated for expat academics away from metropolitan areas: the locals are indifferent to or even uncomfortable around foreigners (or perhaps certain kinds of foreigners), so that non-church and non-work friendships are exceedingly difficult to forge, yet work relationships are usually just “colleagueships,” i.e., situational friendships at best but usually just decades-long civil coexistence. If our family were to pack up and leave today, my kids’ friends might be sad, but not a soul would truly care about either DH or me leaving (beyond a few being irritated that my massive teaching and service now have to be covered by someone else). But, it is what it is, I suppose; it makes me cherish our little family and the connections I do make, IRL or online.

Speaking of connections, here’s an interesting story from Louie CK.


Happy New Year & Delurkpalooza

Welcome to 2017!

Sadly, this year WordPress won’t be producing the lovely annual report we have come to expect from them (see last year’s and the one before), as it is apparently too demanding of their resources. They promised to come back in 2017 with an equivalent that requires less manpower.

So I have assembled my own report, based on WordPress stats and a bit of data mining.

General: The blog had 194,296 views; 63,616 visitors; 140 published posts; and 989 comments. 


The most read posts: A Good Little Girl was viewed almost 24k times! It’s likely the most widely read piece of writing I have ever produced.)


Visitors came from all over the world!


Top referrers are:


Top 2016 commenters and the number of comments they posted in 2016 (this info was nontrivial to extract, and it may or may not be entirely accurate):

nicoleandmaggie 46

prodigal academic 36

alex 34

gasstationwithoutpumps 33

jojo 33

artnscience 31

lyra211 29

Nicoleangmaggie won for the 3rd year in a row — congrats, nicoleandmaggie! They will get to enjoy some free caffeinated beverages, as in the years past.
If you are among the above top commenters and would like a copy of Academaze, please let me know via email (xykademiqz at gmail). Even if not, thank you very much for commenting!

Further 2016 honorable mentions in the commenting category go to  Anon (fe******@gmail), gwinne, Cloud, pyrope, grumpy, Rheophile, qaz, and Cherish.

Additional prizes: 

Sadly, the Academaze game gained very little traction so I am assuming we won’t have any other takers. So far, the two people who played and who thus won are:

Alyssa G, with 4 points

Clarissa, with 2 points

They are both entitled to their prizes, as discussed here.

Aaaaaand, last but not least… The first week of January is the International Blog Delurking Week (Jan 1-7, 2017)!


Please say ‘hi’ in the comments, whether you have ever commented or not — don’t be shy! Tell us a few things about yourself, what you hope to achieve in 2017, and/or what you would like to read about at xykademiqz in the coming year.

Thanks to everyone who has read and commented in 2016! I know blogging is considered “sooooo 2010” and much of the action has moved to Facebook and Twitter, but I don’t think the blog, as a medium, is going anywhere. It remains a great outlet for the people who prefer to write and read longer pieces. So thank you all again for the support, and I am looking forward to another year of xykademiqz!

A Pop of Pop Culture, The New Year’s Eve Edition

Happy holidays!

Here are some bits of (mostly) pop culture that I enjoyed or that made me think over the past few weeks.


Arrival is wonderful. It moves slowly and Amy Adams is luminous. The movie explores the importance of language in how we view the world. I highly recommend it.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story — I liked it. It’s more hard sci-fi than fantasy in space. Like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the acting in Rogue One is much better than what is typical of Lucas’s Star Wars movies.

TV Shows

I binge-watched all three seasons of the SyFy show “Defiance“. You can find all of it on Amazon Prime. Essentially, an alien star system (the Voltanis System) collapsed and multiple alien species came to Earth… The show brings us to a new Earth, years after aggressive terraforming and the Pale Wars. The show starts when two main characters, human Joshua Nolan and his adopted alien daughter Irisa, come to Defiance, a Wild West town built on top of what used to be St. Louis, in which humans live alongside aliens. If you enjoyed Firefly, I think you will like this show.

I am looking forward to the return of The Expanse (season 2 starts in February), Killjoys and Dark Matter (both coming back for season 3 sometime in 2017).

In the meantime, I will watch Star Trek: Enterprise (4 seasons) on Amazon Prime, since I never saw the whole show.

DH and I have been watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and I highly recommend it. It’s musical comedy and it’s hilarious — the musical bits are really smart and funny, and might be the best part of the show! DH is not one to binge on TV, so we are not watching this show nearly as intensely as I would if it were just me. We just started season 2.


By way of Dame Eleanor Hull‘s comment on Clarissa’s blog, a few weeks ago I came across a classic bit of feminist writing: the short story “To Room Nineteen,” written by the Nobel laureate Doris Lessing. There is a stifling banality to everyday life that is felt acutely by those who had to give up their individuality to become solely a caretaker. Many women will feel a chill of recognition as the story unfolds.

Skyping Your Way Into (or Out of) a Faculty Job

I have been on a cross-departmental search committee, and it’s been a ton of work. Over the last few weeks, I have taken part in a number of Skype interviews, and it blows my mind how poorly the people who look really good on paper perform on these interviews. While my department alone hasn’t done Skype interviews in the past, I am going to strongly advocate that we start. The main reason is that Skype enables us to see in person many more candidates than we otherwise would, which is really important, since so far the best ones have been those you would not necessarily put in the top 3-5, but would in the top 20-30. Being able to access a broader pool before doing the more expensive campus interviews has the potential to do wonders for obliterating the pedigree bias.

The interviews we do last about 15-20 min, but can go up to 30 min, and I think that’s a very good duration.

Here are some common pitfalls.

1. I know some people don’t like it when I mention this, but it’s important for all non-native speakers of English out there trying to get a faculty job in the US (or any other job that requires specialization and/or an advanced degree, especially if it pays well):

You have to work on your English. I know it may be hard and it’s much easier to converse in the native language, especially if you are in one of the labs where your advisor is from your home country and all your advisor’s collaborators, postdocs, and other graduate students are from the same country, too. I can understand that it may feel like speaking English is unnecessary… But that’s a dangerous lie. Such labs fail students in a key aspect of professional development to a degree that I feel is abusive — what else do you call a situation in which an advisor prevents his or her students from acquiring critical skills necessary for success?

It is not enough to be “sort of” fluent. You have to be able to express yourself as well as you would in any other language. You have to be so fluent that you can make strong, succinct, and grammatically correct statements; you have to be so fluent that you can use idioms, and make jokes, and understand jokes, and perceive nuances in the response of others. You have to be able to be your complete self in English; if you are excited about research, you have to speak English well enough, with good enough diction, that the brilliance and enthusiasm can effectively come across, rather than struggle to break through the barrier erected by your lack of facility with the language.

You have to be completely fluent. Both your vocabulary and your command of grammar should be comparable to those of a native speaker with the same level of education, because that is who you are competing against; today, it’s for faculty jobs; tomorrow, it’s for grants and awards. 

So work on your English tirelessly, from the minute you arrive in the US. Devour written and spoken English, and dissect it like the scientist that you are: Why did this native speaker say that? What does this idiom mean and when should you use it? Are your verbs and yours nouns/pronouns in agreement? Do you use punctuation correctly?

You may not be able to completely get rid of your accent (I imagine I have less of an accent than I do; only when I hear a recording of myself is when I do hear that some of my sounds are sharper or otherwise a little off with respect to what they should be in American English). However, becoming more fluent means that your diction will also improve, and you will get better at enunciation overall. The quest to improve your English should never stop.

2. This faculty search is broad enough that, for many candidates, I don’t know the technical nitty-gritty of the research projects, but you bet I can tell whether the person answers precisely and succinctly, whether they are at the top of their game, and whether they are persuasive enough in their communication to be able to get recognition for their work and effectively raise grants. When you drone on, in painful monotone, about the technical minutiae during your Skype interview, so that most of the committee no longer looks at you but at their phones or laptops, you are dead in the water; you are never getting that campus interview.

(Bonus: Do not freakin’ read your research statement to us straight from the computer screen, pretending that you are answering a question. Yes, we can tell you are reading; remember, we see your face blown up to 3 feet tall on the conference-room screen. We can tell by how your eyes are moving from left to right, by how unnaturally even your speaking tempo is, and by the sharp drop in the quality of your spoken language when you go off the script.)

3. Many people could not articulate what they had done in the past that was important. They couldn’t tell where their work had made an impact and how. Some did not understand what we were asking (even after three committee members took turns trying to rephrase the question somewhat; see the need for facility with the language) or were pretending not to understand in order to bide the time while figuring out what to say. Others were only ever able to talk about the minutiae, showing that, while they are good as “doers,”i.e., as someone who can execute the grand vision of others, they are not likely to develop a vision of their own.

4. Many people could not articulate what their plans were for the next 5 years beyond “I will do this (one paper’s worth), and then maybe I will do that (another paper’s worth).” They could not tell how they would be different from everything that their postdoc and PhD advisors did.

We are not interviewing your advisor, or you as a postdoc. We want a person who can stand on their own two feet, who has scientific curiosity and drive, and who has enough maturity to understand what this job entails. You need to have thought about who you want to be, and what you want to do, and what you need to get there.

The other day we interviewed a guy who didn’t seem to take this job application business seriously at all. He had no clue where he would apply for funding, didn’t seem to be able to see past the next couple of papers, overall conveyed  that he had no idea what the job would actually be, yet seemed quite confident that he’d be coming to an on-campus interview (as in, “I will ask all my questions during the on-campus interview”). We were all amused by how clueless the candidate was.

You have to take the job search — any job search — seriously.

5. You have to be able to answer why this job, assuming you want it, is a good fit for you. Which facilities would you be able to use, what equipment would you would need to buy? Who are your potential collaborators on campus?

6. You have to have some questions for the interviewers. The prepared candidates asked perfectly reasonable questions about the startup package, tenure expectations,  teaching load, and advising students from different departments (my campus is great about that, barriers to interdepartmental or intercollegial advising are really minimal). Depending on the duration of the Skype interview, you may or may not have time for all of these, but be prepared to ask something. If you are serious about the job, you will naturally have questions.

A good PhD and postdoc advisor will be able to help you prepare for interviews, but this is your job search, you need to be proactive about finding information. My PhD advisor did comment — once —  on my research and teaching statements, and gave me some advice when I was comparing competing offers, but everything else I learned on my own, using resources from the web. There are plenty of resources. There were certainly enough online resources even when I was applying for jobs in late 2003 (interviewed early 2004), over a decade ago. There is a ridiculous amount of information available now (like here!). There is no excuse to be uninformed.

As I said, many of the people who looked best on paper ended up interviewing poorly. Those who rose to the top and will be coming to campus in January were not all native speakers, but were certainly perfectly fluent and had no problems with listening comprehension. They were able to answer the above questions clearly and persuasively, and came across as enthusiastic, energetic, and just ready to conquer the world. The ones who rose to the top were the ones with whom the whole committee was engaged throughout the interview; they conveyed their infectious love of science and cut the time-wasting bull$hit.

Good luck to everyone on the job market!