Month: March 2014



Shockingly, I am in DC. Again.

[For my non-professorial readers, NSF (National Science Foundation) provides funding for basic science research across all disciplines. NSF panels meet to evaluate grant proposals. A lot of work is involved in reviewing other people’s proposals and serving on panels. A lot.]

This post was brought to you by the crappy overpriced hotel wireless. The cartoon was drawn on a clear back page of someone’s proposal printout.

Interview Season Fatigue

I am fortunate to have a faculty job at a great public R1 university. Owing to the high research activity, there is always someone here to give a talk. There are three seminar series, associated with three departments, that I usually attend (generally biweekly), and another 1 or 2 where occasionally an interesting seminar comes up. (Which begs the question: what’s the ideal seminar attendance frequency? Too many, and you infringe upon your work time, too few and you start getting out of touch, missing potentially important info about trends somewhat removed from your immediate expertise, which is where juicy inspiration for new projects comes from!)

On top of that, we are interviewing for multiple parallel searches, so we have been having 2-3 guests every single week over the past few weeks. Considering that I am involved in the search, I am supposed to not only attend each talk, but also formally meet with every candidate as part of the committee.  And let’s not forget that candidates have to be taken out to eat, several times per visit. I know I am supposed to enjoy department-sponsored meals at nice restaurants and the chance to talk to smart new people, but I am mostly just resentful. My family doesn’t care for me repeatedly staying out and disrupting their evening routine either.

The face-time fatigue during interview season is brutal for job seekers, but if it makes you feel any better, it sucks pretty fiercely for the people on the other side who are  involved with the search. As exciting as the prospect of bringing in bright new colleagues is, all the meetings and chit-chat and the extra seminars are simply… exhausting.

Good luck to all who are interviewing! If an interviewer dozes off or their eyes start to glaze over, don’t take it personally.

The 7-Year-PhD Itch

Over the course of the past few weeks, the topic of average PhD duration at different institutions came up. I am in the physical sciences; it is normal to expect variations among fields, but in a single field you’d think the PhD takes more or less the same amount of time across different R1 institutions. In reality, it turns out not to be true.

One colleague tells me that, at his (elite) institution, a PhD in the same field as mine lasts 6-7 years. At my institution, it’s about 4-5 years. The 2-year difference is essentially equivalent to keeping the student on student pay but working as a postdoc. These students, when they graduate, have massively long publication records and are very competitive for prestigious postdoctoral appointments and academic positions. At the end of their 7-year PhD, these students are better trained than those after 5 years and have longer, better-looking CVs, which definitely helps with getting academic jobs.

Yet, the prevalent sentiment on the internet is that simply having a student do a PhD in your group is somehow exploitative and that the student should be allowed to graduate as soon as possible and go into the mythical real world. The sentiment is that the PhD training is this unfair, torturous ordeal, which the student has to endure in order to get the PhD;, that the learning, doing science, writing papers, and giving talks are all dues that the student pays grudgingly in return for the piece of paper that is the PhD diploma; advisors are for some reason evil to insist on these dues being paid, as if it were somehow possible for a student to receive a PhD without doing  the work.

Federal tax dollars pay for research. They literally pay for the student to go to school and get training and in return it is expected that research will be done. So it pisses me off when people say that someone is being a tyrannical advisor for not letting the student graduate whenever and without papers. Graduate school costs money, and it’s federal money, and scientific papers are the product that is expected in return.

So, how much work is expected to be done for a PhD? I had a double digit of journal papers from my PhD, nearly all as first author. I was motivated, I loved doing science, I had an advisor who was willing and able to give me free reign rein (thx to Spellmeister PhysioProffe), I liked writing papers and I wrote them fast. I really, really don’t expect my students (a majority of them) to do that or to even want to do that.

Students want to be all treated fairly and equally, but I am not sure they realize these are not synonymous, as students all want different things from their PhDs. One wants to just get out of here and get a job in industry, so I say three papers and you can go. Then another one says he wants to get out with three papers too; I say, sure, but you also want to be a professor, and with three papers you are not particularly competitive for postdocs. Why don’t you stay another year and really cash in on all the nice work you have done so far, really crank some papers out now that everything is working? But he wants to get out because the other guy did, and then when he’s not competitive and gets buried in a dead-end postdoc it’s somehow my fault. (The thing with grad students is that they are young and often don’t have the right perspective; ironically, the most talented ones are often the most stubborn ones and think they know better than the advisor, so they often end up undermining themselves.)

I understand why people keep a student 7 years and not 5. You invest so much time in a student and by the time they finally reach some level of competence, they want to leave, and you are back to working with untrained folks all over again. I can totally understand wanting to keep the good person around and actually get some useful work out of them. I understand that it seems selfish from the standpoint of the average student, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that it’s good for the enterprise of science to be done by fully trained people and not people in training; some academically inclined students don’t actually seem to mind staying a little longer and getting the few extra papers out. One asks why not just pay them postdoc wages? Maybe the advisor is being cheap, but maybe it’s the fact that it actually does not look very good to stay at the same place for a postdoc, it looks better on the CV to be a grad student a little longer, then go elsewhere for a real postdoc.

If you are in a field like mine, essentially all your students are paid as RA’s the entire time. That means each student is probably a very poor investment of federal funds in the first 2 years, but they have to pay the rent and eat the entire time. So it seems to me it’s not inconceivable that the student should do a lot of work in years 3-5 to actually make the whole investment worthwhile from the standpoint of the funding agencies. I really don’t understand the people who say it’s swell to have your school and stipend paid for for years and then also have the gall to insist to graduate without papers.

So I don’t know. I know this will get me no love online, but doing academic science , while being to a great degree about training (how much exactly depends on the funding agency), is really not primarily about training; it’s about doing science professionally, with a mixture of trainees and career scientists. Funding is there to do the science, it’s not a gift or  a handout or a guarantee for anyone. In many fields,  such as humanities, people would be extremely grateful to be paid to do the research on their dissertation. I really don’t think publishing research papers in return is such as horrible thing to require.

Anyway, I will keep saying “You can graduate with 3 papers from your dissertation, but if you want to go to academia, that is simply not enough, you have to have more.” If they listen, good; they will stay longer and have more papers, If not, they graduate with 3 papers and we unleash them upon the world.


* For the young’uns, here’s where the title came from



Benevolent Spam

You know, I sometimes longingly reflect upon the good old days of hard-core spam email. Viagra and penis enlargement ads always brightened my day. Incidentally, this $150, 26-pound gummy python comes to mind.

These days, my inbox is as cluttered as always, but the annoying part is that most of the email comes from people who have legitimate access to my email and whose job, in some interpretation at least, actually requires that they send out these supposedly informative mass emails.

Let’s just look at some of the most recent pearls from my inbox.

1) Two emails from some campus teaching resource admin, an email abut an event and a correction-to-the-date-in-previous-email second email. I have never in my life expressed interest in any of them, and the nice lady is quickly headed towards by blocked senders list.

2) A researcher from a social science field from another university wanting me to fill out a 15-min survey so they could do their research. While I am sympathetic, who are you again? And how do I know you’ll do whatever you say you’ll do with the responses, even if I were willing to spare the 15 min?

3) Member benefits bulletin from a professional organization I belong to. Because that info is totally not online already for those who need it, and all of the hundreds of thousands of members wait for the professional organization to offer them term life insurance instead of going about it like normal people.

4) 403(b) retirement consultation events, forwarded by our payroll person (can’t really block her email).

5) Email from admin from another department who sends at least 2-3 emails per day on all sorts of idiocies  information of limited importance. Among other things, she sends like 5 reminders per student PhD or prospectus defense. I had to block her, even though occasionally I am interested in the mailings, when I realized that I am, at any point in time, much more cognizant of random people defending something in another department than I am of my own upcoming haircut or dental cleaning appointments.

6) Another campus-teaching-network announcement. I have no idea what they are about.

7) 8th solicitation for nominations or self-nominations for various university-level committees. I get it, they need nominations. Bonus points for getting forwarded through various group mailing lists, like one that I nominally belong to but never attend, even though it combines women, physical sciences, and cake, all of which I usually like.

8) Someone is asking me to write a book for them.

9) Many, many emails inviting me to participate in weird expensive symposia overseas that have nothing to do with anything that I do. Just blocking all of their emails and domains is a full-time job. It gives me a creepy glimpse at all the unsavory places where my poor unsuspecting email address dwells.

10) Many, many emails that go directly to junk, from vendors wanting to sell me microscopes, biomedical supplies (?), wanting me to take their webinars on everything from biomedical research ethics (?), technical writing, taxes, project management, entrepreneurship…

Honestly, in an ideal world, this is the complete list of people I want to get emails from through my work account: department colleagues (faculty and staff), my grad students, undergrads I teach, people who give me money (fed agency program managers), editors of journals where I usually publish (it’s OK to ask for a review), and colleagues from other departments or institutions. I am OK with an occasional personal email with a fun link or cat pic. I am also OK with an occasional mass email with some important information circulated, e.g. that we got a new university president or something.  But the vast majority of the mass email information is unbelievably freakin’ useless. 

Yet the useful stuff is buried and inaccessible. For instance, I just found out some very important information about changes to grad admissions, which are supposed to happen in the fall, have not been circulated at all. The only way I found out was from my student who was going to do something (take advantage of an aspect of grad program) and was told that as of the fall it would no longer be an option. I would have liked to know about the change, a part and parcel of larger-scale changes to grad programs university-wide, but apparently they didn’t circulate it yet even though it will be implemented starting this freakin’ fall. I want to know about this stuff and I want people with unlimited access to email lists to use good judgement about spamming everyone; the vast majority of the stuff I receive is pure crap and makes you desensitized to the stuff that might potentially not be crap, if anybody actually bothers to communicate the non-crap to us.

Stupid benevolent spam. At least penis enlargement was always good for some giggles.

Tenure Denial

Have you ever noticed how certain words or certain phenomena seem never to be on your radar, you may even be completely oblivious to them, only to show up repeatedly over a very short time span?

I remember a few years back coming across the word sinister, not exactly a word frequently used in daily communication, probably five or six times in a single day from as many different and unrelated sources, only one of which was a Disney cartoon where the adjective qualified a villain. Another example, at a much more serious end of the spectrum, is a particular fetal malformation of which I had previously never heard, only to find out that two women whom I knew ended up losing their babies because of it within a few weeks from one another.

For some reason, I have heard of three cases of tenure denial over the past couple of weeks. My department is low-drama in that regard, people get plenty of feedback and generally know if they are doing well or not, so surprises are rare. My own tenure case, while anxiety-inducing, was objectively a slam-dunk and was approved unanimously at every level. There were no issues with tenure of the several colleagues who are junior to me, so I sometimes forget that getting denied is a very real possibility.

When things look really bad, you can usually see the signs well before tenure and ideally the precarious situation is communicated to the junior faculty member early enough that they can decide whether to do something about their performance or choose a different career path. We have had a few people who left after their 3rd year review because it was clear that there was little that could be done to change the unfavorable disposition of the department. In two of those cases, the candidates were not listening to advice as to what they should do and decided they knew better. When during your 3rd year review it becomes clear that not only have you received no grants (that can happen, everyone is aware of the funds getting scarce), but the reason is that you were in fact not applying at all because you decided it was not important and you were to focus on research as that’s what you wanted to do (I am not making this up) or because you waited for the world’s largest amount of ironclad preliminary data to even begin writing, that’s a really really big problem. That’s how you don’t get your contract renewal after the 3rd-year  review.

All three cases of tenure denial that I came across recently (R1 schools, different physical science fields) were borderline. In each case the decision could have justifiably gone the other way, but it is not clear that the departments had made a mistake, I can see why they wanted to deny tenure. All three candidates had independent funding and published, but less than optimally; one had issues with equipment, which is very unfortunate, and a corresponding publication gap late on the tenure track. Another had basically very, very few publications, and while the field is such that the publication rate is not high and the candidate ultimately published some very high-impact work, it was simply too little and too late for when the tenure dossier was submitted and I presume that, as far as the tenure-case letter writers were concerned, the record was really weak.

Tenure track is short. You cannot embark on a single lofty goal during this period. If you really want to do this far-reaching, high-risk work, you absolutely have to balance it out with shorter-term, sure-payoff projects. The papers that will count have to be published by the end of year 5 on the tenure track, and ideally earlier, so that there’s enough time for people to come across your work. I have seen more than one case where the all-eggs-in-one-basket ended up royally backfiring, even though the seminal finding was eventually published somewhere prestigious — it was just too late.

In this sense, tenure track is about strategizing, career engineering if you will, as much as it is about ideas and technical execution. You have to learn the job fast enough and show others that you know how to do it, that you can raise money, teach, advise students, publish papers and give talks, and make a name for yourself — on time. Tenure track is usually not the time to devote all your energy to a project you have always wanted to do; sure, you can do it, but you also have to do something else, otherwise leave it for after tenure. Many people do their best work post-tenure anyway; the key is to do what you need to do to actually get tenure first.

Academic Service, Take Eleventy

I have been thinking recently about what we, as professors, owe the department and the university where we work in terms of service. Let me start by stating that I understand we all have to do service, and that doing very little is extremely uncollegial. With teaching, it is clear that we have a duty to students to teach them to the best of our abilities. Unlike teaching, service is a necessary but highly variable and plastic aspect of our work; it is sometimes rewarding and sometimes necessary, but both the rewarding and the necessary aspects are considerably less common than ideal. Slacking on some service aspects has the potential to ruin a department, such as  mishandling recruitment or promotions, or how the funds are disbursed; systemic issues with personnel or funds have the potential to wreak havoc across a whole university. Not slacking on service, however, in cases when a committee mission is poorly defined or the committee appears dysfunctional has the potential to drain you of a will to live and has negative effects spilling over onto your research and personal life.

When it comes to department or university service, I prefer  fewer but larger and more substantive assignments, where the workload may be considerable but where I understand what the mission of the committee is and I think it is important. I have been on the search committee for two years in a row, there is little that is more important than making sure we bring in good people. I was also on a pretty intensive university-level committee tasked with disbursement of intramural funds for research. I may spend the next several years on a committee that is a critical hurdle in the tenure and promotion process.

But there are some things that I simply won’t do because I feel they are not a good use of my time and energy, and often I don’t think they are a good use of the department’s time or money either.

For instance, we have annual recruitment days for prospective graduate students. These students, however, are all domestic students only from the neighboring several states. I used to participate in this event as a brand new assistant professor, but have decided to start ignoring it a few years in. I have never been able to successfully recruit a student through this event; the very few I do like and who might be a match end up going to better-ranked schools. So I realized that my time and effort are completely wasted on this event, and I also don’t think the amount of time and money invested by everyone is warranted: the best domestic applicants won’t come here no matter how good the snacks and entertainment are,  so spending all this money on travel and lodging to either kiss up to those who never considered us seriously to begin with or to court so-so applicants just because they are from the neighborhood is a complete waste. Our best and brightest remain international students, and I would much prefer that this money be used to fund a few department fellowships open to excellent international applicants. I have mentioned my thoughts to the powers that be several times, but to no avail; apparently there are enough people who think our recruitment day applicants are awesome and that it’s the greatest practice ever. So what I can do is just save my time and energy and not participate.

Also, this year the faculty search has been so drama-fraught that I don’t think I will be on a search committee in the near future if I can avoid it. It’s been the case of musical chairs — we can hire N people but there are N+1 subareas who claim priority in hiring, and it’s all been extremely unpleasant. Being on the search committee is an overwhelming amount of work even under the best of circumstances, and this additional tug of war is making me regret that I ever agreed to be on it.

I feel myself withdrawing from department life, not because I don’t care, but because I do care, a lot, and I feel frustrated and helpless by all the things that could and should be done differently. Maybe things look different once you are in a department leadership role, you realize you have to balance all sorts of competing interests. But at this point I find that I largely just don’t want to participate because the aggravation isn’t worth it.

I know people often talk about those who don’t participate in the life of the department as selfish. Maybe that’s true and maybe I am selfish. But I am becoming increasingly aware that at least some of those people who withdraw from department life, perhaps periodically, do so out of self-preservation. There are likely those who can argue and yell and then go back to their offices or their homes virtually unfazed. Perhaps they are a majority. Perhaps they are a majority of men. But whatever the demographic, there are those of us who can’t, and for whom the aggravation over department politics or inefficient spending spills over into other aspects of our lives. If I have an altercation in a meeting, I will be fuming over dinner, I can’t work in the evening and perhaps for a day or two afterwards. So instead of cuddling with kids or working on a proposal, I expend energy on disagreeable colleagues. That is not in my job description.

Service is important, but it is not more important than teaching or research or my peace of mind. Considering that the bullshit/importance ratio for service tasks can be unbelievably high, I have decided that I am within my rights to blow off the service tasks for which the ratio exceeds a certain value in order to be able to tend to the activities with a much, much lower ratio. I owe the department and the university the benefits of my expertise, teaching, research, and good citizenship. I do not owe the department enormous effort just so I could be heard. I do not owe the pigheaded colleagues the energy and time that my children and my students need instead.

Professorial Hypertension

In STEM fields, a graduate student works on supervised research and is part of a research group led by a professor. Learning how to write up technical papers for publication is one of the most important parts of PhD training, so the student will typically be tasked with producing the first draft of a manuscript, which then gets heavily edited by others involved in the work, most of all the professor. This practice, however, is not without danger