Month: January 2014

Academic Job Search — Some Things That Perhaps Shouldn’t Matter But Do

Over the past few weeks I have been looking at tenure-track faculty applications. Most candidates are on their first postdoc, with some who are about to finish graduate school and some on their second postdoc, or even further in their career. As I have written before, most applications are unfortunately not competitive and will be eliminated during the initial screening process. What we look for is a fairly high publication rate in reputable journals, with clear evidence that the candidate themselves is very strong, as opposed to just having been carried along by a productive group. In general, that means we look for a number of good first author papers (ideally, we know the papers and what’s in them and how influential they have been, but in the absence of direct knowledge of the content, the journal reputation often serves as proxy in determining the approximate quality).

For candidates who look strong and productive on paper, we want to see what the people who know them have to say. Once the list is down to about 20 applications, we send out requests for letters. It’s customary to have the list of references as part of the application package, usually in the back of the CV. Typical faculty search ads ask for at least three references, and all candidates have at least as many. However, on the one hand you have a candidate with three names, either all professors from the candidate’s graduate school or the postdoc advisor, PhD advisor, and another grad school prof. On the other hand, you have a candidate with 5-6 names, of which two are the usual-suspect postdoc and PhD advisors, but there are also 3-4 other faculty, all big names from various universities  around the country. Who do you think gives off a better impression when you glance at their reference list?

What I have noticed is that US-born candidates from strong groups are much more likely to have these numerous and varied connections, whereas foreigners have fewer on average. I am sure it’s partly cultural, perhaps stellar candidates who grew up in the US have had longer to absorb the need to network and have worked on it, many of them having started to do research and present their findings at conferences as early as their undergraduate years. When I see a foreigner with a great publication record but a very brief list of references, I wonder why those advisors haven’t pushed the candidate to network more. Being a good person in the lab is great, but not enough for the junior candidate themselves. I feel that certain faculty are happy to keep a junior person in the lab, cranking out data, and don’t offer (or better yet nudge!) their apprentice to develop other aspects, such as build their own collaborations and connections. If the candidate is perhaps unsure of their English and not crazy about giving talks at conferences, or the candidate cannot travel for other reasons, such as having young children (obviously, this holds for US and foreign-born people alike), then you have a potentially great person who has not received enough exposure or had the chance to develop their own reputation as a rising star, and despite all their potential and hard work they will not do as well as they should on the faculty job market.

Then come the letters. Much has been written about how letters from the US are all glowing, gooey with superlatives, while those from Europe and Asia are more terse. In my experience, terse Europeans are perfectly capable of conveying strong support if they are so inclined, they just take fewer pages and fewer adjectives to do so.  Moreover, American letters are longer and more wordy, but they too convey their intentions just fine — there are the sparkling but generic letters of an emotionally uninvested letter writer versus those that are strong, specific, and reveal a deep personal interest in the candidate’s success.  It seems that letters have gotten longer in recent years — a strong letter these days is 3 pages long, and very uniformly so across a large sample. I hear that 3 pages used to be the considered too long, but not any more. Shorter letters are fine from the people who are a little at an arm’s length from the candidate, but your advisors and close collaborators better have a lot of specific stuff to say about you. So it really makes a difference if you work for someone who knows how these things are done and can write a convincing  letter of support, versus someone who is unaware of what is perceived as strong these days or is simply less effective at conveying their support in written form. We see that the letters from top-notch groups look top-notch, no doubt because the candidates are great, but also because these big names are aware of what people are looking for, which gives their students and postdocs yet another advantage on the job market.

So not only does your PhD or postdoc advisor’s capacity to “play the game” affect your training, i.e. your ability to do and publish important work while being funded for it, but higher-order effects, such as writing you a strong letter or ensuring you form your own network, are of considerable importance for how you fare on the job market.

Tread Lightly

Academia is often referred to as ‘the ivory tower’, where ‘ivory’ presumably conveys nobility while ‘tower’ hints at unattainability. This moniker is not helping the view of academia in today’s increasingly anti-intellectual and anti-elitist US. By many, the concept of tenure and the job security it implies are viewed as an undeserved perk that nobody else has so the no-good elitist academics shouldn’t have it either. Unsurprisingly, I am a strong supporter of tenure, for reasons that range from self-serving to objective and warrant a whole other post. Let’s just say that, in STEM fields, tenure should be thought of as part of the benefits package, a part that enables universities to recruit and keep stellar researchers who would otherwise make much, much more money in industry.

I love being a professor. I really do. I have never really thought about doing anything else and I am fortunate that things worked out so I was able to land a faculty position at a great R1 university. This is my 10th year at this place and, while I have had ‘feelers’ from other institutions, due to the family being deeply rooted where we are it’s unlikely we’ll be moving any time soon. Indeed, owing to the scarcity of jobs, extreme competition, the ability to achieve the job security of tenure at one place coupled with the generally reduced mobility after tenure, changing jobs in academia happens considerably less frequently than in ‘the real world’ (another term that I find both sad and hilarious, because it further emphasizes how surreal academia and academics are considered to be by the ‘real people’). The low mobility means you are stuck with the same people for years or decades, and in my opinion this is the primary reason why tenured folks — who could in principle raise hell and challenge administrators and fight the forces of evil such as underperforming colleagues, decreasing state support, increased overhead rates, incompetent staff, and ballooning prices at the local coffee shop — just don’t do as much as it seems they could or should. It’s because a majority of those colleagues (as well as many administrators and staff , and perhaps even some baristas) will also be around for a long time.

Walter White (Breaking Bad), a meek chemistry professor turned terrifying meth king-pin Heisenberg, is not to be trifled with.

Before you reach tenure, you keep your mouth shut so as not to aggravate the people who will vote for your tenure case. After tenure, you realize that “OMFG I am not going anywhere, but neither are they…” So there is a great emphasis on treading lightly during conflicts. I know, it sucks. At my advanced age, I have finally started to realize that maybe, perhaps, incidentally, there is an off chance that there may be some smidgen of truth that biting the opponent’s head off in a full frontal attack may not be the ideal plan A for resolving interpersonal conflicts at work. Dang.

When you get tenure, you get the dubious honor of being assigned more service tasks. I personally prefer to be on committees that may be work but at least they have some tangible impact, such as faculty hiring. These committees where the stakes are reasonably high are an excellent way to study human behavior, as I get to observe colleagues who are very skilled  versus those who are considerably less so go at it during conflict, utilizing the full arsenal of expertly crafted rational arguments alongside backhanded compliments, thinly-veiled sarcasm, and a variety of fascinating passive-aggressive maneuvers.

Here is an example: These days I am privy to some serious elbowing in terms of whom we get to interview. Let’s just say that a person from an area that should not be hiring is trying really hard to convince us that their candidate would actually fall under the areas described in the ad. The arguments go along the lines of “We have the green light to hire a candidate in the field of bunny hopping. We should bring in this candidate who works in the area of squirrel cloning, because he could also clone bunnies, and without enough bunnies nobody can investigate bunny hopping!” The truth is that bunny hoppers need the hire as they have lost some people and the prospective hire the squirrel cloners are pushing is nowhere near  what the hoppers need; the cloners need to back the eff off and let the hoppers hire just as everyone in the department had agreed on. In an ideal world, a bunny-hopping representative — or better yet the department chair — would just say “Back off!” to the squirrel cloners and we’d get back to work looking at the bunny-hoping candidates. Instead, many long emails and a lot of wasted energy are a result of the hoppers fending off the cloners’ encroachment, without anyone admitting to taking offense or starting a counter-offensive. I am on the search committee but in neither field, so I am just a fascinated spectator, on my 17th bag of popcorn while taking notes on how to tread lightly and fight without fighting in the name of long-term peace and collegiality.

Pileup

A colleague once remarked that, past a certain point in one’s career, one could easily spend all of one’s time just reviewing other people’s papers. Truer words have seldom been spoken.

There are several venues where I like to publish and, as a rule, I will accept referral requests from them as long as the manuscripts are within my expertise. I consider it my duty to give back what I expect others to do for my papers. I have long ago stopped reviewing papers from journals I don’t submit to. I know someone has to review for them too, but I simply don’t have the time.

Even so, I always have something waiting in my mailbox. I was down to one referral and was looking forward to having a clear “Papers to Review/Pending” email folder early in the coming week. Then, within three days, I received the following requests that I couldn’t really refuse:

1) A request from a journal where I occasionally publish, for a paper that is well within my expertise and where I know and understand the authors’s work really well.

2) A request from a Reputable Society Journal where I publish very often and from an editor with whom I interact a lot, as he is also the editor on many of my papers by virtue of being the one in charge of that particular topic.

3) A referral from the journal where I am an associate editor. The associate editor making the referral is a senior colleague whom I know and respect and who has been very supportive of my career. The paper is a little more abstract than the average submission, so I can see why he sent it to me and understand he may not have a huge pool of people who could review it.

4) A referral from a journal in which I publish infrequently, but the associate editor is a peer and a friend.

So within 3 days I went from almost having a break from refereeing to now having 5 papers in the queue…  I am hoping there will be at least be some karmic brownie points in all this for me, because otherwise I suspect I may be a sucker.

Cited

Google Scholar is a wonderful service that tracks citations of individual artricles around the web. In contrast to the ISI Thompson Web of Science Citation Index, Google Scholar is not only free, but it collects citations from a much wider variety of journals, as well as from sources like books, arXiv, PhD and MS theses, and conference abstracts; in my opinion, these are all legitimate citations. It also seems to do corrections for double counting, at least to some degree, i.e. if the same-titled paper on arXiv and in a journal cite you, the citation won’t be counted twice.

One great element of Google Scholar is the ability to setup your own Google Scholar Profile, with a pic and summary of papers and the corresponding citations. Part of Google Scholar Citation profile is that you can set up alert (i.e. follow) to your own or someone else’s record. Here is an example:

EinsteinGoogleScholar

Scholar calculates the ever-important Hirsch or h-index (if you have N papers that have been cited N times or more, then your h-index equals N). Increasingly, people are looking up citations when evaluating job candidates. Unfortunately, one thing with the h-index is that we must never forget that it scales with the size of the field. For instance, h-indices in the biomedical sciences tend to be higher than in many physical sciences simply because there are many more people working in these areas, so more papers are published per unit time. For instance, a brilliant mathematician may not have a high h-index simply because there are few people working on these problems and each publishes maybe 1-2 papers per year, so the publication rate of the whole field is not very high.

I work on theory/computation in a  pretty fast-moving field. I have papers that I think are very original and technically complicated and of which I am very proud. Then I have papers that I think are good and solid but, technically, they are nothing earth-shattering, and some of them happen to be in currently fashionable areas. Which ones do you think get cited the most and pick up the citations most rapidly? *waiting for 5 seconds with bated breath* Exactly. I periodically look at my profile and I see these hot-area papers quickly shoot towards the top of my citation list; they do so because there are many other people who read them and build on them, as the topics are in vogue. In contrast, the papers that are very complicated and that may represent a real technical breakthrough get citations much more slowly. While I am well respected for these results in the communities where people understand them and I get recognition through invited talks, these communities are smaller and produce relatively fewer papers per year than others I am associated with, and the citation rates scale accordingly. 

My poor beloved technically complicated papers — so great, yet so underappreciated. But at least they are a constant reminder that, when I evaluate others, I should not be lazy and rely solely on the easily obtained numerical metrics.

Which ones of your papers are your personal favorites and why? Are they also the most widely accepted and cited?

Automatic Reply

Dear colleague on sabbatical,

I hope you are enjoying the time with some relief from teaching. For many of us with small kids or working spouses, traveling for extended periods of time is not an option. But even an at-home sabbatical is more than welcome, as it helps us catch up on all the papers that have long been awaiting submission, and maybe we even try to learn something new. So with all my heart I wish that you make the best of your sabbatical.

What I don’t understand is the need for your automatic reply email message. Every time I send you a  new email, I get the autoreply that your response may be delayed because you are on sabbatical. Then of course I get the actual response from you pretty soon thereafter. We have some projects together so we email each other a lot, which means I have received this automatic “on sabbatical” message hundreds of times since September. It’s really  REALLY getting old. I don’t understand the need for this message in the first place — it’s not like you are somewhere without electricity or *gasp!* broadband internet — you are down the hall, doing work pretty much the same as always, responding to email as promptly as ever. The only difference is that you do a little less teaching and perhaps a teensy bit more travel.

So please, for the love of IMAP, don’t contribute to the endless stream of spam that clutters our mailboxes 24/7 and turn off the completely unnecessary goddamn autoreply. Otherwise, I will have to resort to walking to your office every time I need to talk to you, and we’ll see how you like that.

Sincerely,

Xykademiqz

Flippping the Bird Classroom

The powers that be have recently started “encouraging” us to adopt “novel paradigm-shifting teaching strategies” (doesn’t the bullshit syntagma make your skin crawl?),  specifically the flipped classroom. While I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad idea, the zeal with which the concept is being pushed is making me want to dig my heels in, in protest, and never change anything.

The (presumably right-side-up) traditional classroom involves a teacher who lectures to the class, then the students go home and do the homework. The upside-down, flipped classroom implies that students first view prerecorded lectures and perhaps do some quizzes before coming to class, and class time is used for activities. Thoreau has a number of nice posts discussing the flipped classroom.

Whether it makes sense to flip a classroom really depends on the discipline, the type of class that is being taught, the class size and level (e.g. undergrad freshmen class is different than a grad level one). In many STEM fields, undergraduate courses have discussion sections in which a TA helps the students with the homework problems. To me, honestly, the great administrative love for flipped classrooms seems a little too much like another creative way to cut costs: get rid of TA’s and have the professor do the TA/tutoring job. Interestingly, nobody is mentioning any tuition reduction.

Look, there is no doubt that I am a priori uncomfortable with the prospect of a drastic change in teaching largely because it is a change. Perhaps the change is necessary because things are broken, somewhere, somehow, or could simply be improved. But I don’t I really see a reason to change things just to change something. I am an experienced teacher and have practices that work well and keep the students engaged and learning, so I am unconvinced that a “paradigm shift” is entirely necessary. Students are not failing, they are doing reasonably well. They could do better, which means we should probably think about slight rather than paradigmatic shifts in how we educate them. 

The point is, in STEM, someone needs to explain the concepts to you or you need to read the book (or ideally both) and then you need to work on problem sets. Nothing really can replace the deliberate practice that a student gets through doing the homework problems. We can make the problems more fun or whatever, but if we are serious about teaching, then students have to do the work. Perhaps by flipping the classroom we are somehow trying to make this work seamless or painless, because it’s not done at home but rather in class, with the instructor. I am not sure that’s possible; as the saying goes, no pain no gain. Moreover, homework problem sets in STEM fields often take considerable time to do, more than the 150-min per week that a typical 3-credit course would allot for the homework-in-class activity; students would still need to work at home. 

With a flipped classroom, considerable work that needs to be put in by the instructor ahead of time in order to record all the lectures. I talk fast, so I am sure many students would appreciate being able to go back and rewind my lectures; this point is not lost on me. However, I am really uncomfortable with the prospect of my lectures being recorded for posterity; I make silly jokes and generally goof around with students to add a bit of levity to class, but I am not sure I would be crazy about my performance being freely shared on the web.  (The ability to view myself teaching over and over again would also yield boundless fodder for obsessive self-deprecation.) Moreveor, I really like the ephemeral aspect of teaching; the lecture is a fleeting performance, always unique. I don’t think I have ever taught things in the exact same way twice — with different kids in class, the pace is different, they ask different questions, there can never be the exact same situation. I really love that aspect of giving a lecture.

Thoreau makes a good point that our society has issues with experts in general. Anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism are pervasive, and many college students, ironically, actually respond poorly to the “sage on stage”, lecture-style class because the lecturing is enforcing the expert, elite status of the teacher.

For many students, more and closer interaction with the instructor is key; that’s why MOOCs will never be a substitute for the college experience (although I think they can supplement it). Such  people learn well from others and really benefit from enhanced interaction. But it’s many students, not all of them. When you, as a teacher, ask a question in a lecture, usually a handful of students respond. The number increases as the course progresses and as you actively try to include other students. Still, there will always be students who don’t want to engage. Some are just not interested. Some are not following; these students would likely need additional help. And some are interested and following just fine, even doing great in the course,  they are just not the engaging types. I believe that too much interaction in the classroom can actually be quite torturous and perhaps even counterproductive for introverted types. When I was a student, I always appreciated a good lecture and a good lecturer. For me, the lecture was the first prompt, the efficient first introduction to the material,  and the chance to hear concepts laid out with a clear emphasis on what’s important. During the lecture I would listen, take it all in, and then process everything on my own. I personally don’t think I would have liked at all constantly having to interact with the teacher, or peers for that matter. And can we say ‘bias’? I am not sure that women and minorities in fields where they are underrepresented necessarily benefit from increased exposure to both the teacher (who grades them!) or other classmates while being in the trying-to-get-things, working-on-homework state. Imagine all the added opportunities to be told how “girls can’t do math”!

There is something I don’t doubt, though: frequent assignments and frequent refreshers, such as quizzes,  do wonders to keep the students working continuously and overall aid the retention of the course material. There are great ways to use technology to create online assignments and quizzes that help achieve this goal. Also, I think the students should be given ample opportunities to interact with the instructor, and then take it or leave it. For instance, the instructor can help by holding multiple office hours, perhaps in a classroom if the office is too small. I had 6-7 people in my office hours at any given time last semester; if you are approachable and available, they will come find you if they need you.  

So instead of upright traditional or flipped classrooms, I would advocate for a “buffet classroom”: offer the students a number of options for interaction (lectures, frequent office hours, discussion with TA, email, forums) and let the students take what they will. Top off with carefully crafted assignments and tests (paper and online), and finish with a dollop good, old-fashioned caring.

Academic Job Search — Surviving the First Cut

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Prof. Xykademiqz gets ready to screen tenure-track applications

I am on a faculty search committee again this year. It’s a lot of work, but as far as faculty service obligations go, this one is really worth it because you have an influence over who your future colleagues will be and where the department will go in the long run.

Here, I will be talking about a physical science field and a research-intensive institution, one of the so-called “very high research activity” or R1 institutions according to the Carnegie classification [also referred to as a major research university (MRU)]. While the process somewhat varies between disciplines and types of institutions, many aspects are probably universal and therefore  worth sharing.

The committee work involves sifting through hundreds of applications in order to choose 3–5 who will be invited for an on-site interview. We don’t do phone or Skype interviews. Our committees consist mostly of people with expertise in the targeted area within the department, but also one or two people from other areas.  In my department, everyone on the committee sees every application;  I am sure there are committee-to-committee variations, some may split the application piles so each file is seen by only one person.  The process of selecting interviewees usually involves several steps. The first cut is done by every committee member on their own. This is the most drastic cut, which the vast majority of applications don’t survive, as the several-hundred-application pile is reduced to a few tens — the long list. While each committee member has their own, it’s actually surprising how much overlap there is among different people’s long lists. Input from others in the department may be solicited at this point. Then the committee meets once or twice to discuss the people on the long lists and reduce the number to a short list of 3–5, with perhaps a couple of alternates. These 3–5 need to get approved by the department executive committee (all tenured faculty) and the college dean to be invited to an interview. Therefore, the candidates have to have some pretty apparent markers of future promise that are easily defensible in front of the colleagues and the dean.

You, the applicant, need to survive the first cut and make the long list of at least one but preferably several people on the search committee. If you make no one’s, it is highly unlikely that anybody will give your application a second look.  This process is not unlike panel review of proposals — someone has to notice you and want to champion you, or you don’t really stand a chance. 

When I have hundreds of applications to sift through and the search is defined pretty broadly, there are three things that I immediately look for: your area of expertise, where you did your PhD and postdoc, and your publication record. Which first brings us to…

Documents: Different searches request different paperwork, but every search will ask for a cover letter and a CV. Some will ask for research and teaching statements. Some will ask that the references send letters right away, some just want the names of the references and will ask for letters if you are nearing the inclusion on the short list. Always, always, submit a cover letter, a CV, as well as research and teaching statements. Even if the ad does not explicitly ask for the last two, submit them anyway. Why? Because others do, and even though your application must technically be considered if you submitted the minimal required paperwork, once you are nearing the  inclusion on the short list it helps if people know in a bit more detail what it is that you actually want to do and how.

However, in order to survive the first cut, your past record is key, so your CV is the most important document. During the first round of screening, I only look at the CV, along with a few quick glances at the cover letter. The following information gets retrieved during the initial screening:

Area of expertise: Have it prominently somewhere in both the cover letter and the CV what your subfield is, or what your 2-3 broadly defined areas of interest are. I am grateful if within 5 seconds of opening your application I know what it is that you are an expert in. Here’s the rub — sometimes the ad is vague on purpose in terms of the area, because the department wants to cast a broad net and just hire whoever looks best. Sometimes it is vague because the department did not decide ahead of time what the priorities are. Sometimes there are well-defined priorities, but they are not in the ad for all sorts of reasons. All you, as applicant, can and should do is apply if the search appears to be even remotely receptive to your expertise and then keep your fingers crossed. There is no point in trying to guess what is behind an ad. Ads are crafted as much (or more) by HR as by the department and language often leaves much to be desired. Faculty job ad craftsmanship often brings to mind the proverb “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” 

Pedigree and publications: Where you come from — your pedigree, your PhD and postdoc institutions and groups —  this is all very important. We all believe that people who went to top schools must be very smart to get in, they get quality education, and they have reputable people vouching for them, so it’s hard to deny that pedigree matters.  However, it is not enough. It is very, very important how your publication list looks. If you have a PhD and postdoc with many first-author publications in reputable journals, you are the person I want to see. So, if you are serious about an academic position in a science field and you feel you have what it takes to do that job, but you are getting a PhD at a good but not top school , then you have to publish as much as possible as a grad student, more than a person from a more prestigious school. If your field requires a postdoc, then you also need to try to get into a good, productive, and if possible prominent group at a better university, where “better” generally means “better name recognition.” And keep publishing like your life depends on it. I know, this is easier said than done, as postdoc advisors are not be the world’s most nurturing demographic, especially those who are very successful at cutthroat places.  Also,  a bad match with a postdoc group pretty much effs you over for good, which is why you need to be as careful and and as informed as possible when trying to find the optimum combination of productivity and pedigree boost. And it doesn’t hurt to be a  little lucky. 

Finally, it may seem like the first cut during a faculty search is made somewhat crudely. However, among hundreds of applications, the truth is that the vast majority are simply not competitive at all — these applicants will never get a faculty position. I am probably wrong about a handful of them, but not about most. In an ideal world, someone would tell these people that their applications don’t look competitive for the type of position they seek. But then again, all sorts of unconscious biases can creep up into this type of advice, so perhaps it’s better to just let people apply. But you, as an applicant, can certainly try to talk to your PhD and postdoc advisors and find out what a typical record of a recent tenure-track hire looks like. You can also go online and look at the websites of assistant professors at institutions where you envision  working, count their publications and see how you measure up. Good luck!

Schroedinger’s Blogging

While it would be totally cool if we were to reveal that Erwin Schroedinger, one of the fathers of quantum mechanics, had been a proto-blogger of some kind, I am afraid no such luck today.

Schroedinger’s cat is a well-known thought experiment that emphasizes how critical the concept of measurement is for “knowing” things in quantum mechanics. The setup is the following: inside a closed box are a cat, a radioactive atom, and a bottle of poison. There is also a mechanism which, if the radioactive atom decays, opens the bottle of poison and the cat dies. As long as the atom hasn’t decayed, the cat is alive. The decay of the atom is a stochastic process, you can only talk about probabilities that the atom has or hasn’t decayed, and therefore about probabilities that the cat is alive or dead, unless you open the box. The part that is relevant to this post is that you don’t know for certain if the cat is dead or alive until you open the box.

If you have no interest in physics, you can skip this paragraph and the next two (start reading again after the cat pic) but I can’t help but geek out a little bit. There are a number of issues with this thought experiment, so I am just briefly going to sketch some that come to mind. People talk about the cat being in a superposition of dead and alive states; superposition is a term used to denote a linear combination of vectors.  For instance, let’s look at the vectors in a plane, call it the xy plane. We will use x and y to denote the unit vectors along the corresponding axes. Any vector in the xy plane can be expressed as a linear combination of x and y. For example, vector v=2x+5y is a linear combination of x and y,  with 2 and 5 being the coefficients in the linear combination; the coefficients tell us about the proportion of x and y that we have in the mix that is  v, as well as about the total length of v. So imagine you can introduce a “unit vector” akin to x or y, but which corresponds to the cat being alive and denote that vector by |alive>. Similarly, introduce another vector that corresponds to the cat being dead and denote it by |dead>. Then the cat “state”, a vector telling us about cat viability, might be written as |cat viability>=coeff_dead|dead>+coeff_live|alive>. Now, the two coefficients have to do with the probability of finding the cat dead or alive: the magnitude squared of each coefficient is the corresponding probability, so the squares of the two coefficients add up to 1. These probabilities, and thus the coefficients, would really be obtained by having many identical boxes with many cats and atoms, and having them sit there closed for the same amount of time, and then opening them and counting all the dead cats. This would obviously be a serious PETA issue. Luckily, we know enough about the radioactive decay of atoms that a cat genocide can be avoided. Basically, if the atoms have a characteristic lifetime τ, then, after time t, exp(-t/τ) of atoms have decayed while 1-exp(-t/τ) have remained undecayed. So depending on how long the lifetime τ is and for how long you have decided to keep the poor cat in there, the probability of finding it alive versus dead is quite different. This is in contrast with people ubiquitously putting the two coefficients above to be 1/√2, which really does not hold in general.

Moreover, in quantum mechanics the act of measuring does in fact disrupt the system and causes the state of the observed system to “collapse” into one of the possibilities. In this thought experiment, you do open the box, but you don’t actually do anything to the cat — its liveliness is exactly the same at a certain point in time regardless of whether you open the box or not. An example that might better capture the spirit of what a measurement really does to the measured system would be that, instead of the atom, you have a mechanism where opening of the box rolls a die, and if the number on the die is 1, 2, or 3 the cat lives, whereas if it’s 4, 5, or 6 the mechanism somehow kills the cat. So the act of opening would now affect the irreversible “collapse” of the cat viability wave function (although, in all biological fairness, only the dead cat outcome is truly irreversible). Anyway, a lot has been written about Schroedinger’s cat, so I leave it to your powers of googling to look into it more if so inclined.

As great as Schroedinger’s contribution to physics has been, he will remain in history as one of the first who has realized a grand, culture-traversing truth:  cats make everything both memorable and funny.

Source

Anyway, quantum mechanics musings aside, it is true that you don’t know for sure if Schroedinger’s cat is alive or dead until you look. 

While I am new to this space, I am not new to blogging, an activity with which I have long had a pretty torrid relationship. I really enjoy writing, and the experience of blogging has really made it clear for me. Often, there are many things on my mind that feel the need to write down. I can certainly open a Word document or a grab a legal pad and just jot it all down. I can write unabashedly, whatever I want and however I want. While the cathartic effect of writing alone is enough is some cases — especially when I am enraged to the levels of blinding, white-hot fury — usually it’s not enough. The downside is that nobody but me reads that stuff so writing just for myself lacks the sharing aspect and makes the effort feel somehow incomplete.

Often I think that writing a blog is inherently exhibitionist and therefore a bit skeevy. (But then again, I am not on Facebook or Twitter, and I blog pseudonymously, so perhaps I am just an Internet prude.) Does that mean that anyone who has ever written anything with the intention of others reading it online or in print should also be referred to as an exhibitionist to some degree? I can’t honestly decide if it’s okay to put one’s thoughts out there for others to read and perhaps think about, or if one should just keep one’s thoughts to oneself because the very act of wanting to share in a public forum is just plain crazy. So, to me, it’s the never-ending struggle of wanting to share versus not wanting to get exposed.

I am always torn between writing what and how I want, and writing things to be read. When I write for myself, the impetus to edit and clarify is diminished, and the sharing and commiseration is missing. When writing for others to read, I am more compelled to work on the language and flow, but I can feel uncomfortably exposed, even though it’s nice to be connected, to read about others who share in the same trials and tribulations.

When I have an essay in me, it’s as if the unwritten text is in a superposition of for-me and for-others states. The act of writing is like a measurement. Once a piece is done, there is no going back — once the essay is written with qualifiers, tempered down, and cleaned up for an audience, it is no longer the raw essay it used to be inside my head. More importantly, after having written it for an audience, the essay can de facto no longer go back to its raw, idea-only self. Once out, it takes on a form, but its form and substance are so tightly interwoven that I cannot go back and write another related piece one just for me: the process of writing with others in mind  irreversibly changes how the essay looks in my head, its existing form erases how it might have looked if written just for me.

So I keep struggling with what I want the writing to be — the solitary, journal-like experience achievable in the absence of an internet connection, or a more public, shared experience through a blog, where writing for others improves the clarity and form, but dulls the edges, tempers, and qualifies. Once the writing starts to take form, the more I have one but not the other, akin to very slowly opening the box to reveal the life or death of Schroedinger’s cat.

Academic Job Search — Tales from the Other Side

We often read about the trials and tribulations of academic job seekers.

But it’s not until you are on the other side and a few years into a professorship that you start seeing how a faculty search looks from the standpoint of your future colleagues.

The first aspect is what goes on in the department. There may be a more-or-less formal mechanism by which the department decides when new hires are needed. How this is done depends on the department culture and size. In mid-size (20-40) and large (40+) departments, there are probably multiple people in several subareas, and it’s sometimes a tug of war to decide which subarea gets a new candidate or has the highest priority for hiring. It helps if the department administration in functional and keeps a record of who hired last and how successful recent searches in different subareas went. Also, some areas have the potential to bring in more money than others — it should not matter, but it does. Some areas are considered to be the department’s great strength, and some places like to be the best place to do A and B, rather than just another place to do A through F reasonably well. As a result, they will hire more in the subareas where they are already strong. The larger the department, the more large subareas as well as strong personalities there are. Things can get gory…

Assuming the department can get its act together and decide on what it needs, a case has to be made with the higher administration, which generally means the college dean. The department may or may not get to hire, depending largely on the college budget, but also on the college strategic plan (I shudder at the sound of this bit of bullshit jargon, but there are such documents and people do rely on them), how recently the department last hired, if they had retirements or faculty leaving for other institutions, and the general standing of the department in the college pecking order or the dean’s list of favorites. 

If things go well, the department will get an OK to hire in early fall and will be able to advertise in October-December and generally interview as early as late January, but more typically February through April. Getting an interview is the hard part, yet it never ceases to amaze me how poorly many candidates actually perform during the onsite interviews (we don’t do Skype or phone), but I would say that’s fortunate as it helps the search committee decide.

I am on the search committee second year in a row and it is a lot of work. People are really looking hard for the best candidate but also one who is likely to want to come here. This is an interesting twist, especially at places that are not MIT, Stanford, or the like — the über-tippity-top-5-school-ultimate-pedigreed candidates who don’t botch interviews tend to want to stay within their creme-de-la-creme echelon. Every year there are one or two such hot commodities on the job market, whom everyone interviews and everyone gives an offer to, which I think is silly — each  is only one person and each of them having 20 offers is good for their ego, but schools should really think whether such candidates are realistic hiring prospects.

I know, that means the department admitting that they don’t consider themselves to be tippity-top, so the collective self-consciousness of the department comes to play. Do we pretend we are more awesome than we are and go for the fanciest candidate, but then get turned down? Or do we potentially sell ourselves short and not go for the fancy, but rather for one who is both very good and likely to accept?

I suppose there’s a dating metaphor here: do you ask out the hot girl you really, really like, but so does everyone else, or do you ask the the not-quite-so-hot girl you like as well, but who’s not on everyone’s radar so your chances of her going out with you may be higher? I would say, in dating, definitely go for the girl you really like, because the heart wants what the heart wants, and she may like you more than you know. My Spouse would say to go with maximizing your chances. In academic hiring, things are a little more straightforward; after all, you will not be longingly looking on as the hot girl walks into the sunset with another dude and curse yourself for not having had the guts to ask her out. In fact, if you are lucky enough to have two candidates the department likes, they are both generally pretty awesome and either one would make a great colleague. Eliminating one based on super-hot-commoditiness (I really should lay off of making up silly words) is as good a reason as any.

New faculty searches are quite draining for existing faculty. A lot of emotional energy goes in it — we all want to hire someone good, we get excited about promising candidates, we get irritated by those who have failed to prepare or look downright disinterested. Candidates (understandably) don’t realize how many meetings each of us faculty have in regards to each search, even without the time needed to talk to the candidate. When you are on the search committee, you also have the higher-than-average obligation to take candidates to lunch or dinner, on top of having to attend every talk, meet individually with each candidate, and partake in debriefing meetings after each visit. After the 3rd or 4th candidate, the time commitment alone does get fairly tedious.

After the interviews are over, there is the potential lack of consensus as to who the best candidate was. In my experience, in very strong, high-performing subareas, people tend to reach a consensus as to who performed best pretty quickly. In others, you have more of a strong-personality interference, territoriality (someone senior but inactive people blocking the hiring of someone junior who is perceived as a threat), and other considerations that may result in the most promising candidate not getting the offer.

I am in a large enough department that I have seen all sorts of scenarios play out. We are lucky to have a smart chair who has the best interest of the department at heart, as well as considerable political savvy to pull it off and forward our agenda while not irritating the college administration. Thank god for those soft skills, heh?

As for advice to faculty candidates: apply anywhere you appear to be a reasonably good fit, with “reasonably good” and “fit” interpreted very liberally. If the call is vague, that often means the department is open to seeing who’s out there before deciding on a subarea to prioritize. If you get an interview, congratulations! But even if you think you did great, you as a candidate have no idea about what is going on in terms of the internal politics, so it’s best not to obsess about it as there is nothing you can do. There may be some who liked you when you interviewed, but if the department priorities or loudest mouths are elsewhere, you are toast. I know this hardly sounds as a consolation, but it is what it is. All you can do is try to do your best. You’ll get better at interviewing with more practice, and you’ll get better at realizing what it is that you want in a potential home department. 

Good luck!