Month: June 2015

Question from Reader: Difficult Relationship with PhD Advisor

A reader — PhD Student — has recently written to me, asking for advice about the situation with her PhD advisor, which has become very difficult:

I’ll start off with some background about myself.  I’m a 25 year old female PhD student.  I left just shy of my master’s degree at another university so that I could switch fields and accept an offer for a research assistantship elsewhere.  The new school is a tech school, so is mostly engineers and has an overall (including undergrads and business majors) boy to girl ratio of 3:1. I am technically a transfer student as I transferred a couple of my classes over so that I could take less classes here.  From the very beginning, I have felt intimidated and nervous around my advisor.  I feel like he doesn’t listen to me.  He will ask me a question in front of people, and then cut me off mid sentence.  I’ve had him call me “high maintenance”, simply for asking what time a luncheon will be held.  I’ve also had to deal with him being bros with the guys, but calling me “unprofessional” anytime I try to join the conversation.  He’s constantly critiquing my personality and telling me I need to read professional etiquette books.  Well, what is my personality?  I’m very friendly and can be quite talkative.  I’m easily excitable and I love pure academic research.

When I first met him, he seemed friendly but he definitely made me nervous.  I didn’t think twice about it as I was there for an interview, so it was natural for me to be nervous…but I didn’t get the same feeling with anyone else I met during that visit.  He seemed very upset when I asked him for some kind of informal email of my offer so I could have something in writing.
I’ve dealt with some severe anxiety, partially due to my interactions with him. In terms of research, the two of us never seem to be on the same page.  I always seem to misunderstand him, and have to do things over and over and over again.  I’ve also had moments where he specifically tells me to do something…I do it…and then he asks me why I did it, as if I did the wrong thing.
Last October he chewed me out (no warning) and told me that the door was open if I wanted to go. I didn’t. He kept saying that I needed to trust him.  He was upset that I was still nervous that I was going to regret leaving my other university without finishing my master’s degree.  I love what I do and I want to work on this project. I started seeing a counselor, who has helped with my anxiety.

I had an important conference (my university was hosting) that I needed to present at, and I couldn’t seem to get my advisor to give me feedback at my presenations (x2) and poster that I wrote. I ended up having to submit the presentation with him only taking a glance at it, and the poster without him seeing at all due to the deadline for the printing. Well, I finally went into his office to ask for feedback directly, rather than just through email. “Did you see my poster?” I asked. “No,” he shrugged. “I hope it’s good.” I literally then specifically asked him to pull it up on his computer. He was in a very weird sing songy mood and kept insisting that I listen to music with him, telling me it was important, rather than looking at my poster for a conference taking place the following week. I found it quite odd, but tried to brush it off.

I asked another professor to come to our group meeting that Friday… flash forward…that Friday during our group meeting where I scheduled myself to present for a practice run…I was so excited and it a great mood because I finally got some feedback about my project. I’m very passionate about my project and I love presenting, so anything to learn more about the project and improving presenting made me very happy. I took careful notes and was sure to thank those who critiqued me: my lab mates, advisor, and other professor that I invited.

Flash forward again. Tuesday, day of my presentation. During a break from all the presentations, I walked up and started talking to my advisor. Right away, big mistake…I’m a first year student and didn’t realize that he doesn’t like to talk to his students (only network with others) at conferences. He started giving me advice about my presentation, that was at 2 p.m. “Just tell a good story,” he said.  It was currently 10 a.m. I was afraid I looked nervous…pale, shaking, sweating…or something…and so I said, “I’m not worried; do I like worried?” He replied, “I don’t want to talk about this right now.” And he walked off. I tried to shake it off. I figured maybe he was just upset that I had interrupted his networking. Or maybe that he had somehow misunderstood what I had said.

Well, my presentation went very well and ended up being one of the top ranked presentations. People were very responsive and I felt like things were going great. I had a lot of people come up to me and tell me how much they enjoyed my presentation….with exception of my advisor, who seemed to be avoiding me. It felt odd, but at the same time I just figured he was….networking. He can talk to me anytime, why talk to me at a conference when there are people there he can only see twice a year?

Things seemed good. That night, after dinner, my advisor suggested we go to the local bar. So conference participants went to the bar. After having had a few drinks at the conference, my advisor drove a university vehicle over to the bar, where he proceeded to have a few more drinks and seem quite buzzed.  I had a couple of drinks as well, but was  driving my own vehicle and have always been quite the heavy weight when it comes to liquor.  He joked around with the male students, going so far as to make a joke with one about the student picking his female officemate’s dirty underwear. I tried to fit into the conversation, and I awkwardly mentioned that one of my labmates had initially thought I had a different sexual orientation than I do. Conversation seemed to flow, and everything seemed fine.

The next morning was when I found out that something really was wrong. I volunteered to swing by the hotel were conference participants were staying to make sure there was enough room in the university vehicles for all of them and their luggage.  If needed, I could take some of the guests or luggage up to the airport.  My advisor almost backed into me, so I honked at him. My car was backed into recently, and I definitely wanted to make sure that didn’t happen again. That being said, it was a school vehicle he was driving so I didn’t even know he was driving it. I jokingly told my labmate that he almost backed into me…trying to make light out of the situation….when he actually got out of his vehicle and started yelling at me and cussing. He swore that he had seen me and that he was backing up to make room for my car (makes so much sense right?) and that honking was disrespectful. At first I apologized, not wanting to upset my boss. But the more I thought about it, I’m glad I honked. I did the right thing.

There were several awkward encounters the next day, and I just tried to avoid him. After the conference was over, I thought that I would be able to avoid him and just let things die, but he scheduled a one-on-one meeting for the next day.

At this meeting, he proceeded to tell me how horrible I am at networking, because I scare people and that I talk too much. (I know I talk a lot, but I figure that some people don’t so it balances out). My talkative, excitable nature has been a life long battle, and I feel like we all have our quirks.  He did apologize for yelling at me after I honked at him, but maintains that I shouldn’t have honked, as honking is “disrespectful” and he saw my vehicle. He told me that my interactions with people are inappropriate (despite his comment about picking up female’s dirty underwear). (And I should just mention I was just trying to follow his lead). He told me that during my practice run of my presentation, I had seemed unreceptive and ungrateful to his feedback (despite my constant begging for feedback) and that the other professor who had come had felt the same way (despite me specifically inviting him for that reason…his feedback). He told me he feels like he can’t mentor me, and that he avoids me because he feels I cause drama in the workplace.

Lastly, he told me that I need to make an effort to cover up more, and pointed to his chest. I was wearing a shirt that’s collar line went up to my collar bone. He told me he had a hard time looking at me in the face because of the way I dress. Despite the fact we have no dress code, and that I wasn’t dressed badly anyway.

I didn’t know what to do. I just took everything he said and apologized for him feeling that way about me and told him I would work on things. I was shaken that day, but fine until I cried myself to sleep that night. I have felt worked up and intimidated by this man since I started last year. I love what I do, and I’m not going to change projects on his account.  Right now, I’m seeing an intern as my counselor is out of town. She recently found out about a support group in the diversity office for grad students with issues with their advisors. She hinted that I should make formal complaint against him, but I definitely fear retaliation and I know that no good will come of the complaint. He’s tenured, and things haven’t gotten bad enough that anybody would do anything. And, as it’s a small department that I’m in, he would even know an anonymous complaint was me.  I also feel like any complain that I make would burn the “bridge” (if there is one) between the two of us, and it would mean that I would have to switch advisors and projects.  I am also tired of trying to talk to my labmates, who at one second seem to support me, but the next tell me that I’ll find his advice will help me in the long run, even if it’s hard to hear.

I spoke with the other professor who I invited to our group meeting and specifically told him thank you for taking an hour out of his day to listen to my presentation.  I told him his feedback meant a lot to me, and that I was glad that he gave me some good advice for the presentation.  He didn’t seem to think I was unresponsive to his feedback or anything.

It’s now been a month since this all broke out.  I’ve tried to push it aside.  I’ve tried to make a lot of changes so that I could work with this man.  I’ve started wearing turtlenecks on days that I know that I am going to see him.  I avoid him as much as possible because I don’t feel like being intimidated and chewed out further.  Because he finds me unmentorable, unreceptive, and ungrateful despite me trying to get his feedback and communicate with him, I’m so nervous to talk to him at all.

I was gone for the past couple of weeks at a workshop at another university, 600 miles away.  My time at the workshop was really what showed me that I need to come up with some way to report this situation.  I had the opportunity for networking and was able to get close to another couple of girls within my field.  At first I noticed how different their experiences seemed with their advisors than mine.  I barely even mentioned mine, and right away these two girls told me that what was going on wasn’t right.  I hadn’t even mentioned anything close to everything that was going on, nor specific details.  I was shocked at how they reacted knowing so little of what was going on.  I was really careful not to bad talk him as everyone seems to think he’s such a great guy…and I don’t want to be gossiping.

My breaking point started coming when I needed to compose a couple of emails to my advisor.  I realize I was so shaken that I kept having to ask friends to proofread my emails to him.  I was going to bed, sick to my stomach because I figured I was probably going to get chewed out.  I had an abstract due only two weeks in the future.  As I wasn’t on campus, I had to take care of things via email.  I started to realize that I felt like I was playing a cat and mouse game.  I was trying so hard to every little thing my advisor wanted.  Since he chewed me out and called me unreceptive to his feedback…I’ve felt like he’s wanted me to blindly do everything he asks…make every single change to my abstract without even questioning it…I’m trying to get my PhD…doctor of philosophy…not blindly do everything this man says.  Then, to make matters worse, some of the changes he finally made to my abstract involved lying about the research we’ve done.  It wasn’t a huge lie, but one I wasn’t comfortable with.

I understand that he has a PhD in my field.  I understand that he knows (or should) more than me about the research.  But I’m trying to learn.  I’m not trying to dispute him.

And now that I’m back from the workshop, I realize I can’t do this anymore.  This anxiety I’m dealing with is gonna break me.  I can’t do this for four years.  So, I need to figure out what I can do about the situation.

… any advice you can give me is much appreciated.

A PhD Student (PS)

In a nutshell, my advice (given to PS over email) is to get out of there (I will chime in more later, in the comments). The dynamics between PS and her advisor has elements ranging from poor communication and personal incompatibility, to downright sexism and inappropriate behavior, including verbal abuse.  (N.B. Honestly, when someone throws a fit because you want them to provide some sort of tangible proof that they indeed gave you an offer, that’s a huge reg flag and you should run away as fast as you can.) The situation is damaging her health and well-being, and she needs to get out.

What say you, blogosphere? Please give advice to PS. 

Beyond My Advising Expertise

Not having been born or raised in the US means that there are cultural aspects that I don’t understand as viscerally as someone who grew up here, went to school here, and had their formative experiences here. I am white, and I understand that it confers considerable privileges to me in this society; being foreign-born means I also lose some. I am not going to claim that I have no biases, but I probably don’t hold the exact same ones or don’t hold them in the exact same way as someone who looks exactly like me, but who grew up right here. I am also sure that I do not have a very good grasp of all the challenges that people of color face in the US; I am reading and learning, and I do understand that the issue of race in the US is still very, very painful.

An undergraduate researcher who just started a summer project in my group is among our top undergrads, extremely smart and talented for the type of work that my group does,  as well as a really great person. She is a young black woman from Africa. Today, she came to ask for advice regarding where to go to graduate school, because she doesn’t want to stay in the US. I asked what she didn’t like about the US, and she said she wanted to go somewhere where her skin would not a big deal; she felt race was all that she was hearing about in the news these days, and she wanted to go someplace where it’s not going to be an issue.

My first though was, “Dang… I don’t think there’s a place like that in the West.” My second thought was, “I think I am totally unqualified to give advice on this topic…”

We talked for a little while. I think I understand some of what she is feeling — she is facing the racial tensions in the US, and even though much of it seems like it should apply to her because of her skin, she does not really feel like it does. She is new to this country, she is black but not African American, the complex and painful history of racial conflict in the US is really not part of her heritage. She is black, but she has not grown up black in America.

I told her that I thought she was very smart and talented and that she really could do great in her chosen field. I also told her that she was female and black and that it’s probably going to be a double minority whammy going forward, with role models few and far between.

As a woman, I told her that people sometimes commented that I had gotten something based on my gender. I told her she was likely to experience such comments herself, both on account of race and gender, especially as she progressed through her career. These comments would make her question her worth, and I said that, to be successful, she would need to find a way to not let those comments have her doubt herself for very long. I said people sucked, but luckily not all of them , and that there were great people everywhere who would support her and she needed to surround herself with them.

We went on the web and I pulled up the pages of several black professors we have in the college, and some who came to mind at other schools, whose proposals I remember reviewing and who I thought did really great work.

I also told her that, strictly as an immigrant, she might never be as comfortable anywhere as in her home country, regardless of skin color. I am as white as they come, and I still live with perpetual low-level discomfort of being other. If I were a person of color, I am sure it would suck much more to live where I do now.

I wish I could have told her more, but I am not sure what. I hope I at least clearly conveyed that I thought that she’s really awesome, that she belonged in this field, that successful people who looked like her existed even if they weren’t numerous.

She said I’d given her a lot to think about. I wish I could have given her more or better advice, that there is this utopia where she can just be her awesome self and kick butt while getting her advanced degree.

Is there a country in the developed world where it sucks less to be black than it does in the US? My experience with Europe is that it’s more closed off and xenophobic than the US; every European country seems to have its own dark-skinned ethnicity to hate.

Is there something important that I missed? Should I make sure she talks to some of the faculty of color in the college? I would like to help but I honestly don’t know that I am even qualified to give advice on how to navigate her future career as a woman of color in the physical sciences. Maybe she is right to look outside of the US, maybe there are countries where she’d be more comfortable. Should I have recommended looking at cities where young black professionals seem to be doing well, like here or here?

I feel like I should have said something more, but I am not even sure what that would be.

Maybe it’s one of those issues where I should just follow her lead and talk when she needs to talk, otherwise leave it alone.

I just hope she knows she is really awesome.

What say you, blogosphere? Any advice?

It would be really great to hear from readers of color about what they think might help my student. 

Let It Flow — Part 2

— continued from here

Thy Paper Shall Have a Story

Papers for publication are different from proposals, and they are also different from reports or theses/dissertations. (This insight brought to you by Captain Obvious.)

Before you write a paper, you first have to ask yourself:

a) Do you know what you did?
b) Do you know why you did it?
c) Do you understand what you found?

Most students know what they did, which in a paper goes somewhere in the methods section and is often easiest to write.

However, most students, especially young ones, don’t actually know why they did what they did (other than that the advisor nudged them towards it). Why you did what you did is what makes your introduction and it is a very important part of the paper.  Often, writing a poor introduction means not really understanding where you work fits with the state of the art, which in turn means that you have to go back and read the literature more broadly, and you have to talk to your advisor more.

Understanding what you found goes into the results part of your paper. That’s “the meat.” Students have an easier time writing the results than the introduction, but often I find the results to be written trivially, just reading trends of graphs. That’s generally not enough for any reputable journal.

Your paper has to tell a story. It needn’t be the world’s most complete story, but it has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. In other words, it has to have the Why (Intro), the How (Methods), the What (Results), and the So What, a.k.a. how it all fits with what we know or don’t know (Results/Conclusion). This is the paper skeleton, and it’s a good idea to not start writing the full paper until you are comfortable with it. (Again, you and your advisor should be talking about the skeleton  several times.)

Once you really truly understand the why, the other parts are easier to write. The intro needs to connect between setting the stage for the reader to recognize where your field is and what the important open problems are, what you do to address an open problem and how, and what you found and why it’s important.

Introduction (each of the paragraphs can be more than 1 if lots of material)

Paragraph 1: Open with an overview of the state of the art in a broader area and perhaps note applications relevant for your paper.

Paragraph 2: Recent developments in a closely related subarea; what is known (who measured/calculated it), what is still being debated (who said what, if there are competing experiments/theories)  or what is relatively open (any relevant work, perhaps on related systems), and why it is particularly important that we find an answer to some of those questions. (This paragraph also mentions briefly, some of the common experimental or theoretical methods, as you discuss the work of others).

Paragraph 3: “In this paper/letter, we…” State concisely what you did. It needs to connect to the open problems you just discussed as important in the previous paragaph. State what you did, how, and what you found, and how it answers the question(s) posed in Paragraph 2.

Paragraph 4: When writing comprehensive papers in the physical sciences, there is this “Table of Contents” paragraph, where you say things such as “This paper is organized in the following manner. In Sec. II, we present the methodology, …” Many people keep it entirely generic (Sec. II Methods, Sec. III Results, Sec. IV Conclusion), but I like to put in more detail and use this paragraph to show how the main thread connects my story (“In Sec. III A, we show the vibrational properties of vibranium obtained using neutron scattering experiments… In Sec. III D, based on numerical simulation, we reveal that these unique mechanical properties of vibranuium make it an ideal material for intergallactic warfare.”)

The Vomit Draft

The whole paper — the material you put in and the order you put it in — is in the service of presenting your story.  The story should be reasonably clear in your head before you start writing. However, sometimes, after you start writing, you actually go and look some stuff up and think of things another way and, all of a sudden, you may need to change parts of the story somewhat, or even dramatically. This is natural — it happens in technical writing as well as in fiction — and is perhaps the most fun part of writing: the fact that writing helps clarify your thinking. Which brings me to the common saying that you make figures first, then write around the figures; this is true enough, but is hardly gospel. I say have a skeleton first, a decision on what the paper will be about (informed by dozens of figures you and your advisor already went through before writing), then make the figures to best support your story, and then write the results section around the figures. My students and I redo figures many times during the writing-editing process, as we distill our message.

However, you have to start somewhere, and that somewhere is a reasonably clear concept of your paper’s story. (Sheesh, have I said it enough times already?)
Then you start writing a rough draft, also sometimes colloquially referred to as the vomit draft, because it hints at people vomiting the inside of their heads onto the page; like vomit, the product is generally misshapen and not pretty, but is usually not smelly. [If your vomit draft actually smells like vomit (eeww!), stop spilling food all over your keyboard. You are gross.]

Now, I know there are folks in the blogosphere who will tell me that some people don’t write the rough draft but their sentences come out their heads perfectly formed right away. If you are like that, more power to you, you are a freakin’ unicorn — I bet the horn focuses your thoughts! However, most people need a rough draft, which they then edit, and for them it’s good practice to separate writing as things come to mind (which helps with the flow) from editing (which ensures that horrible grammar, spelling, and punctuation are not unleashed upon the world, or worse — your advisor’s desk!).

So, with a clear outline of the main story in your head, just start typing things as they come to mind, as you would tell them to another person. Imagine yourself giving a talk… unless giving a talk is even more terrifying than writing, in which case imagine you are on a beach, in a hammock, talking to a really hot hammock neighbor about your research project over some margaritas. At this point, please don’t worry about grammar at all. Just write how you think about your story.

A trick that helps is to start writing amidst a block of already existing (unrelated) text, so the whiteness of the page isn’t daunting. I always cite Finding Forrester and how Forrester helped his young protege by having him type on top of an old story. This trick has helped many a student. In my group we use LaTeX, so everyone starts learning LaTeX by working from someone else’s paper anyway, which provides examples of LaTeX commands and of semi-related existing prose wherein you can nestle your draft.

The point is to start; once you start, just dump the contents of your mind onto the screen. Write as things come and, as long as words pour out of you, don’t stop… unless you are starving, have a bladder that’s about to burst, or can barely keep your eyes open; in any of those cases, please stop; you will be able to get good flow later, I promise. I hate it that in the popular culture the ability to write is conveyed as some sort of mystic, hard-to-replicate experience (and nobody ever shows editing); a recent offender is the movie The Words I just saw on Amazon Prime (the movie is so-so otherwise).

Don’t worry about “the muse” in technical writing. You will get good chunks of text out of you on multiple occasions. Just write. It needn’t be pretty, it needn’t be super organized, just write. Consider it a chance to reveal your thought process and your knowledge and your excitement to other scientists. The more you write, the lower the barrier to writing.

Edit later

But when is later? When the flow stops. When you are done with a few paragraphs. When you are having a hard time getting the flow started. When you are almost done. When a few days has passed since you finished a draft. When office mate asks you to look at their paper. When it’s either edit or check references. Basically, don’t edit at the level of every word or every sentence you produce, but you can do it paragraph by paragraph or page by page or section by section, depending on personal preferences, available time, and editing stage.

Good editing means careful reading, putting yourself in the reader’s shoes, and — more often than not — murdering your darlings, so your other darlings can go on and get reviewed well at a fancy journal.

Don’t be afraid to let some grammar rules slide if they ensure good flow: e.g., sometimes long sentences are justified and work better than shorter ones, which can be choppy. Don’t be afraid to use punctuation in the service of your point: I use commas, dashes, and parentheses, which can all help separate a minor clause, depending on how closely it’s tied to the main clause. I love the semicolon and use it a lot in technical writing; it provides closer coupling between successive sentences than a period. Things like that. (Sadly, ellipses and exclamation points are not welcome in journal papers.) Proper punctuation will help pace your reader.

What say you, blogosphrere? These were lengthy posts, so I am a little (okay, a lot) out of steam, and I am sure I forgot a whole bunch of things. Please let J know what your favorite tricks for ensuring good flow in technical writing are. 

Here are also links to related posts on Academic Jungle and here on xykademiqz

Happy vomit-drafting! 

Let It Flow — Part 1

Reader J asks how to ensure good flow in technical writing:

I’m going to be a graduate student soon. I follow your blog, especially when you talk about writing, because I’m not good at it. A problem I have had since middle school is that my sentences and paragraphs don’t flow well. My papers are “hard to read.” As a non-native English speaker, I also have to edit manually for parallel sentence structure, comma splices, and prepositional phrases. I have some good references for sentence structure and phrases, but how do I write smoothly?

First, I want to commend J for being conscientious about writing well so early in his or her career. This will make J’s advisor very happy!

Before I start dispensing wisdom, a disclaimer: I am (obviously) not a professional writer, editor, linguist, grammarian, or anyone who has any degree or certificate that would attest to any sort of formal qualification whatsoever to speak of good writing in English; in fact, I am not even a native speaker. What I do have are 10+ years of experience of being a professional scientist, publishing independently, writing grants, and training others how to report science in written form. Also, between Academic Jungle and xykademiqz, I have been blogging for what is now over 5 years! Considering that the readership appears to include people who are not related to me by blood or marriage, my blog writing may not be entirely hopeless.

I will try to share what I do, and if I know why I do it, I will try to share the rationale. Sometimes I do stuff simply because I think it works (I am sure there is literary theory on it, but I don’t know it). So please renormalize your expectations accordingly!

Now on to play a smartass…

Technical Writing: Not Entirely Unlike a Competitive Sport

In general, technical writing is relatively formulaic, and you can write passable research papers even if the prose is stifled. However, the quality of writing — good versus excellent — will make the difference between getting published in a middling versus very good journal, or between getting denied and getting funded. So I highly recommend working towards getting as good as you can. The good news is that you can become considerably better at technical writing — especially in regards to aspects such as composition, flow, and writing speed — by practicing in a medium such as a blog or a personal journal, where you can experiment with breaking the grammatical and stylistic rules (e.g., playing with punctuation, emphasis, choppy versus lengthy sentences, or how the choice of a synonym changes the tone). If you were an athlete, you’d be cross-training (swimmers lift weight and run, for instance); consider blogging or keeping a journal a form of cross-training for your main sport, which is technical writing. 

What’s flow?

Grammar and proper sentence structure should never come before good flow, good tempo, proper word choice, and whatever else it is that you need to get your main thing across, where in technical writing the “main thing” is your point, i.e., your main finding. In non-technical writing, the “main thing” may be to convey your own or your characters’ mood or emotions, for example.

So please don’t let yourself obsess about grammar, at least not in the initial  stages of writing; that’s something you worry about once it’s time to edit (more on it in Part 2). I will take a student’s draft with poor subject-verb agreement or repeated adjectives any day if the text flow is good and if they write in a logical and persuasive fashion.

What’s good flow in technical writing? You essentially want the reader to follow your train of thought, starting from certain easily grasped or widely accepted facts/laws/phenomena, through linked statements, to your “main thing.” Good flow means that a member of your audience can keep a relatively constant pace of reading, without having to pause or reread a cumbersome construction or to skip boring, trivial, or redundant paragraphs. Ideally, the only places your reader stops is where you want them to stop — where there’s a figure, or an equation, or a place in the text where something is being emphasized. Flow means you are holding the reader by the hand, so they walk comfortably beside you and have enough time to notice and enjoy the flowers; you should not be lagging behind the reader (means you are redundant or spend too much time on trivialities) and you should not be dragging them behind you (which means having to go back and reread hard-to-parse constructions). [Notice the redundancies in this paragraph? I could totally cut the last metaphor, for instance.]

In technical writing, good flow also means that you will recognize the places where your reader may ask “Wait a minute, what about this?” You will ask that question for them in the text, right at the point at which they would ask it themselves, then you will give them a satisfying answer right away. Good flow means your reader can be sort of lazy while enjoying the fruits of your intellectual labor.

What helps with good flow? As with all things writing, what helps most is reading. By reading a lot of technical papers, you will find those that you feel have been particularly well written. Pull them aside and dissect them, apply the scientific method: ask why you think this paper is so well written, what makes it so appealing? Try to figure out what the moving parts are (trust me, it’s way easier to do this for papers than for grant proposals; I am still convinced that good proposals must contain magical pixie dust).

Also, read your own writing. I like to reread my own papers and proposals (blog posts, too!), even after they are published or submitted. I read them many times during the writing and editing process, and these rewrites and rereads  help a lot with flow. Sometimes I think my students don’t read their papers at all before sending me drafts, because I can’t believe they would not have caught how constipated some sentences sounded if they had actually read the thing. Read your writing, people!

Be aware of your weaknesses; they need not be your undoing

If you are a non-native speaker of English, you might be self-conscious about your command of the language. My university has pretty good English-as-a-second language courses aimed at graduate students, and these do help correct gross errors in writing and speaking. But, you ultimately want to write at the level similar to that of a comparably educated native speaker, which means that you should not be happy with just not making egregious grammar mistakes, but rather continuously refine your spoken and written English.

I know that my big grammatical issues are the use of the definite and indefinite article as well as prepositions, because the information that is conveyed through articles and prepositions in English is conveyed through the use of cases (forms of nouns) in my mother tongue. For example, my Chinese students sometimes have issues with tenses and the use of gendered pronouns, again because the information about the when and the who is conveyed differently in Chinese. Students with different backgrounds have other systematic problems when they write, depending on the language of origin.

For me, articles and prepositions are issues in the sense that if write and don’t edit carefully, I might mess up, and I probably mess up in spoken English, especially if I am nervous or tired. Also, trying to talk and write as an educated native speaker means using idiomatic English; I like to experiment with idioms and even funny novel constructions, such as puns, which means I get things wrong. I have certainly flubbed an idiom (or a hundred) in my day, but you have to boldly use them in order to get better. Make a habit of paying attention to how native speakers use idioms; I always note when someone uses a construction that I probably would not have used or that I don’t really know the meaning of, and make sure to look it up later.

Finally, don’t assume, just because someone is a native speaker, that they are automatically a superior technical writer. I remember in grad school, I was getting ready to apply for faculty positions and had my two best American friends check my research and teaching statements. The two were not consistent about what they wanted fixed, not even at the level of whether a noun needed an article or not in front of it. So don’t that you suck just because you are not a native speaker; conversely, don’t assume you’re automatically golden if you are a native speaker (your non-native-speaking advisor will thank you).

Another thing, which holds for native and non-native speakers alike, is that people seem to have certain personal stylistic tendencies that are not ideal. For instance, I tend towards too many transition words, sentences that are too long, and I tend to repeat myself (I do that when I talk as well, say the same thing twice for sure; not only do I enjoy hearing the sound of my voice, apparently I like rereading my written words). Here, on the blog, I edit more or less thoroughly, depending on the mood and available time; some posts are better than others. Sometimes I leave the redundancies because I am lazy or because I liked a paragraph and just didn’t want to cut it — blogging is a hobby, after all, so I allow myself to get messy and self-indulgent. But, in technical writing, which is my professional mode of communication, I am very serious about cutting redundancies, removing the superfluous moreovers, therefores, and howevers,  and shortening sentences for maximal clarity.

All this is done at the editing stage, though, which means you already have a rough draft…

— continued here —

Sexist Logorrhea

Apparently, a septuagenarian Nobel laureate thinks women are a distraction in the lab and cry a lot; calls for gender-segregated labs. The Internet erupts.

Whatever. I am actually relieved every time something like this happens. I am relieved that occasionally someone is actually stupid enough to say out loud what many think and act according to anyway.

Over the past several years, I have been a witness of pretty serious discrimination of other women by people considerably younger than Hunt. These men would fight you to the death if you even hinted that they were sexist because of course they don’t think they are; yet, their actions speak differently.

  • We have enough women,” said in earnest by a colleague in a faculty meeting discussing hiring. Women make <20% of faculty.
  • L is not a real candidate,” said by a colleague about a female candidate. The colleague and I were on the recruitment  committee together, I know we ranked all candidates, top 20 were all stellar, L was ranked 3, and we interviewed 5. She is not a diversity candidate, she’s a highly qualified candidate who also happens to be female.
  • A few years back, some colleagues and I went through serious diversity training in preparation for serving on the faculty recruitment committee. I remember finding the training illuminating. That’s where I first found out about how women are expected to act communal and men agentic, and how women are penalized if they act insufficiently communal. I saw the examples of recommendation letters and the difference in the language people use for men and women, how letters for women always veer towards too personal, with comparatively less focus on achievement, excellence, competence, and with different adjectives used for women and men. The male colleagues went through the motions and, when it was all done, said it was all pointless bullshit and a waste of time. We all saw examples of those letters of recommendation; they completely shook my world, but apparently did nothing for my male colleagues. You truly can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.
  • At the university level, we reviewed three candidates from the same general field (different subfields) coming up for tenure. If you just looked at the number of publications and quality of journals where they appeared, the number of  citations, the number of grants, the woman was the best of the lot. But if you looked at external evaluation letters, you’d be appalled by the language. According to the letters, the two men were superstars in the making (not made yet, with writers bending over backwards to attribute lack of citations to the fact that the candidate is a visionary), while the woman’s achievement were downplayed, with statements to the effect that she must have come up with some of her most heavily cited findings by accident! It was disgusting. I read about these instances happening, but it was blatant and real and clear as day. These letters then led to the committee dissecting the woman’s record with a scalpel and a fair bit of skepticism; everything worthwhile she did had to be qualified, while the men were fine just on potential and the letters.  (You bet I was vocal about it.)
  • Being a member of the program committee for a conference in my field, it routinely happens that there are no women suggested for invited talks unless I suggest some. It’s amazing how I can think of 3-4 women easily, and the other 15 dudes together cannot think of single one.

That is not to say that there aren’t men who really and truly are the champions of women. They exist (thank you, guys!), but are definitely a minority. For instance, I have the good fortune that some of my department colleagues, including the chair, are really genuinely supportive of women,  really put their money where their mouth is: they advise female students and actively support female colleagues. However, I would say that less than 20% of men in my department are true diversity champions, who believe a diverse workplace is a better place for everyone. The rest, a vast majority, make allowances for exceptional specific women (“Of course, you are awesome! You are much better than other women!”) but do not see why there is a need for diversity; science is fine just the way it is! They consider all our “hysteria” about women in science to be tiresome political bullshit that has to be catered to when writing about broader impacts in NSF proposals. They will often say things such as “We hire the best candidate, not an affirmative action candidate!” To everyone who ever said that I want to say the following: it sounds like you have no freakin’ clue how it is to objectively evaluate candidates for anything very competitive. There are always MANY highly qualified candidates, any one of them would be a good choice. Now the question is how to pick 1 or some other small number from among these uniformly excellent men and women. I am disgusted to see that people think all of these few spots belong (!) to “real candidates,” i.e., men. The fact a woman is just as good as any of them still does not make her a real candidate in the eyes of some, even fairly junior colleagues with professional wives and daughters.

So I don’t understand the outrage that another sexist a$$hole suffers from the foot-in-mouth disease. Because, really, it’s not a big surprise. It’s just how things are.

In my experience, many men in the physical sciences, even among those who think very highly of their own enlightenment, don’t really think that science needs more diversity, but rather that’s it’s simply something women want and are very loud and annoying about and should be accommodated on occasion to stop the whining (or to snatch the rarely seen unicorn-female-superstar-real-candidate).  They consider all efforts to promote women as a nuisance that gets in the way of doing science as they are used to. My European colleagues can be a special brand of offender here, as they often see (and speak of) the quest for promotion of women as an American problem and not something relevant to where they live and work (this from a colleague who works on a large team of about 50, with a single woman, a student). It is very hard to change people’s minds when they think they are blind to sexism and that all they see is merit. Trying to convince them that much of the merit is really in the eye of the beholder would be positively quixotic.

On Positivity, Vulnerability, and Culture (with a Touch of the Coriolis Effect)

Cloud, who blogs over as Wandering Scientist, posted a review of Laura Vanderkam’s “I Know How She Does It“. I have not read Vanderkam’s book and I have to say it is unlikely that I will. I occasionally read her blog, I have read a couple of her previous books, and I think I have a pretty good idea as to what I might find in the book.

What I want to discuss here stems from one of Cloud’s comments about the book. Namely, Cloud says that Vanderkam’s book gives a nice counterbalance to all the stories of gloom and doom that accompany a woman’s choice to have it all (family and a satisfying job) in that it shows, on a number of examples of high-earning women, that the time requirements of raising a family and keeping a career going are not incompatible with one another, and that people don’t actually work as much as they say they do. In essence, Cloud feels Vanderkam’s book counters a lot of negativity surrounding the talk of balancing career and family.

Lefou, I’m afraid I’ve been thinking… A dangerous passtime! I know…

I have been thinking about what the positive and negative really mean in our lived experiences and in how we choose to present them to others.

As someone who didn’t grow up in this culture, I think I have a much higher threshold  than the US mainstream for what constitutes annoying whining and complaining, and a much lower threshold for what constitutes unfounded optimism or bragging or drumming up what are essentially non-achievements. So much of what is considered whining in the blogosphere, for instance, simply registers as relieving pressure or being honest on my radar. But optimistic and clean definitely trumps honest or messy in the culture that the middle class consumes; even after having lived here for 15+ years, this is one of the cultural aspects that I can only deal with intellectually, while every fiber of my being wants to scream “Bullshit!”

Most books that I have read in recent years and that were published in the US completely fail to elicit any emotional response from me, except annoyance. They don’t make me think or feel anything, they don’t dazzle with the beauty of the writing, they just kill time, and not very effectively at that. At this point, I think I am almost entirely lost to contemporary fiction as a genre, as a majority of even critically acclaimed books I find just… disappointing. I have become a very timid reader, deciding on getting a book as if I am approaching a hornet’s nest.

So I have found myself gravitating towards the books where I am at least guaranteed to be entertained: science fiction (I don’t care for fantasy) and when I travel I often pick up what I would call comedic autobiographies. It turns out, when I strive to be entertained, I sometimes end up being surprisingly moved or led to think. It goes to show that sometimes the best writing comes from the people who do not take themselves too seriously. (Or, as with many things in life, the key to happiness is low expectations.)

I read Tina Fey’s “Bossypants” a few years ago, and I didn’t dislike it. Recently, I read Caitlin Moran’s “How to Be a Woman,” and I really liked it. On the surface, the two books are very similar — funny women talk about growing up and how they developed into the feminists they are today. And the two books, to me, show a stark contrast between what I would consider a vcoice that is marketable in the US versus what is a more European (specifically British) take on the same topics. I am not going to speculate how much of the difference comes from the writers versus the editorial process. I will just say that Tina Fey is a celebrity, and “Bossypants” was meant to be a big seller. Caitlin Moran is a virtual unknown in the US, so “How to Be a Woman” would, I am sure, not be expected to appeal to nearly as large of an audience. I think these considerations probably play the roles of importance comparable to each woman’s facility with the metaphorical pen. 

Put simply, “Bossypants” has been sanitized for your protection. While she writes about growing up and all the trials and tribulations that accompany it, there is really no emotional component to the writing. It feels very much removed from the experiences, as if someone else’s story was being written. The words are there, the stories are there, the connection… is not there. 

In contrast, Caitlin Moran’s “How to Be a Woman” is messier. Sure, there is profanity, but I don’t think that’s all of it. “How to Be a Woman” actually manages to stir up memories of teenage years, the writing feels very real, it makes you laugh and reminisce and nod in recognition. For instance, when you are a teenager, you do all sorts of things because you are totally convinced that you know what you’re doing. Of course, you don’t, but they feel urgent and important and right. Moran manages to powerfully convey that sense of importance and urgency that colors much of teenage years, and I felt I could completely be there with her, really and truly in her teenage shoes. Fey, in contrast, never lets you forget that she is all grown up now, and the mess is downplayed; some vulnerability is shown, but it’s really only in retrospect, so you almost pity the poor soul. I was a teen once and did things that in hindsight were ridiculous or degrading, but only in hindsight; then, the actions were fueled by curiosity, lust, and lots of energy that just needed to channeled somewhere. Moran reminds you of how the hurricane of teenage emotions feels. Fey tells you how it all looks to a mildly concerned adult who is shadowing the teenager.

Which brings me back to the comment that Vanderkam’s book is a good counterbalance to all the negative messages young women receive today about how hard it is to have work and family.

I actually think there is not enough genuine whining about this topic, or any other. I am drawn to blogs and articles where the authors sound like real people, warts and all. That means joy sounds like joy (rather than as a commercial for antihistamines, with families in pastels frolicking through the meadows) and where sadness/anger/irritation sound like those emotions (rather than as the Hayden Christensen Star Wars attempts at portraying them). Because I absolutely do not believe that there are perfect people, but I do believe that there are some people who lack in self-awareness, there are some people who are control-freaks and who do not believe in letting even a sliver of genuine vulnerability show through, and there are simply many people who have firm boundaries between their presentation to the world and their genuine selves and are extremely careful about whom they allow to peek into their inner sanctum. However, I feel that there is no real friendship until and unless you have shared some of your vulnerabilities with another person (I would say that Brené Brown agrees). Everyone else is just a friendly acquaintance.

A colleague from another department, whom I considered a friend (he and wife have been our dinner guests many times), asked a few weeks ago how my semester was going, and it was truly going awfully; I was exhausted, with way too much service, too large of a class I was teaching, conflicting deadlines, and generally just being stretched too thin. For a moment, I forgot he’s a born-and-bred WASP and instead told him, as I would a friend, that I was very tired and briefly why. He retorted with the sarcastic “Wow, why don’t you tell me how you really feel.” I was very close to telling him to fu*k off. Later I wrote him an email faux apologizing for the negativity and pledging to endeavor to be unfailingly sunny in the future (in overly bombastic language), but he seems to have taken it seriously.

Maybe I am just a curmudgeon, by nature or by how I grew up, but it boils down to this: while my colleague finds negativity off-putting, I can’t help but find unrelenting positivity to be disingenuous. Of course, people who are happy and positive are nice to be around, but if you are too positive all the time around me, I assume I am irrelevant to you, i.e., you choose not to actually have a meaningful relationship with me.

My point is that what I feel we need — in real life, in books, and the blogosphere — is more people talking and writing in their genuine voices, rather than simply more people being relentlessly upbeat or even blandly non-negative about things. If people are genuine, then you see the good and the bad, which is the spice of life, but I suppose being genuine is scary, bad for business, and potentially dangerous (yes, you bet I blog under a pseudonym).

Barring a revolutionary cultural shift (ha-ha), I will keep working on suppressing my inner curmudgeon, so I can be a fountain of joy the next time I run into my so-called friend and not ruin his day. As an example of this upbeat attitude that is stereotypically American (indeed, I have never met anyone who grew up in Europe or Asia to be so happy and exuberant all the time) I shall endeavor to emulate Destin of “Smarter Every Day“: this great two-video project on the Coriolis effect can cheer up even the grumpiest of nerds.

Summer Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked Profs

This weekend I finally gave myself a permission to not work, as I had worked nearly non-stop through last weekend because of a deadline and ended up quite exhausted.

Last weekend, Middle Boy had his best friend over. We love the little boy and his family, and I know the mom pretty well. She is very cool, well traveled and educated, and overall open-minded and progressive; she works for the school district. I talked with her many times about what my academic job at our big university entails, how research never stops, the quest for grants, service, all that stuff. She always said she understood, and that she also had a sibling who was a social science professor.

When she came to pick up her boy last weekend, she asked what I was doing, as I had my laptop out amidst mountains of paper associated with the large centers proposals I was reviewing for a federal agency. I told her what my weekend had been and she was really shocked by me working over the weekend during the summer (not sure if it was the weekend, the summer, or both that was surprising).

As Cage the Elephant say, “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked”

doubtless talking about university professors who don’t receive pay from the university over the summer, but work their butt off anyway. Professors might draw summer salary from grants, if they have managed to receive any given the ~10% funding rates. (By the way, CTE do a good job live, I heard them last year as the opening act to the Black Keys. They are touring, catch them if you can.)

Anyway, I was surprised and disappointed by the woman’s reaction. It’s not like I haven’t spent a lot of time already talking with her about my job, this should not have been a surprise at all. This incident leads me to believe that one of the following is true: a) I did a horrible job explaining, b) I explained just fine, but she didn’t understand, c) I explained just fine and she understood, but she didn’t believe me because of pre-existing notions as to what professors do, probably affected by whatever she perceives her sibling does.

This bothers me greatly, especially in the light of some recent conservative legislation. This woman has access to information from the horse’s mouth and she still does not understand what this job actually is. I am not saying it’s her fault, it could be my inability to convey what I do; still, she must know more than most people. If she is incredulous about me working weekends or summers  (by the way, her husband works weekends all the time), what chance do we have of people who don’t know any academics actually understanding what it is that we do? What people see are publicly available salaries, think that all we do is teach one course per semester and figure that’s 4-5 hours per week tops, and we even have tenure! That certainly sounds outrageous. Most people employed by companies work  long hours at lower salaries and with no job security. If I thought someone were getting away with a high salary, minimal work, and perfect job security, I might be livid, too. Moreover, people seem to believe their taxpayer money pays these outsize salaries of these lazy professors, whereas in reality only a small and ever-shrinking contribution comes from the state (presently 10-15% of the whole university budget is typical for state universities).

If Middle Boy’s friend’s mom doesn’t know what professors do, what chance do we have with the general populace? How are we supposed to convince people that professors are not lazy layabouts, that being a professor at a university doesn’t mean being an overpaid and largely idle version of a K-12 teacher? (No disrespect to K-12 teachers intended.) How can we get it into the heads of the public that we are not the enemy, that yes, our jobs involve teaching their kids, but on top that we conduct research, which in the sciences has many elements of running a small businesses: competing for funds, paying personnel, managing them, distributing the products (papers), but first giving between 1/3 and 1/2 of all the funds raised to the university in terms of overhead?

Americans are very hard-working people and have a great work ethic, which are some of the things that I really like about the society. But they hate intellectuals, much more than I could say for any country in Europe or Asia that I have familiarity with (I don’t have enough experience with Latin America, Africa, or Australia/Oceania). For instance, even in the rural areas in my home country, people would tell you that being a university professor is a distinguished vocation, alongside doctors and lawyers. Here in the US, doctors and lawyers are fine, as are corporate executives, but not professors. While I am sure few people actually know what it is that CEOs really do, they don’t seem to begrudge CEO salaries. But those shifty university professors? They are certainly overpaid, never mind the recent data on salaries at very-high research activity schools, or the breakdown of public versus private 4-year schools. It’s amazing that people don’t mind the outsize compensation and bonuses of certain individuals or people in certain careers, because those are somehow perceived well deserved or earned, but as soon as the public thinks it’s paying you through their taxes (no matter how small a percentage in reality), you are never considered to work enough to justify the investment. The distrust of intellectuals and of the government appear to go hand in hand, as the country gets ever more conservative.

I don’t know what it is that we can do to convince the public that we do an important job, that most of us would make considerably more in industry and that tenure is a way to attract talent, and that research at the US universities is an important economic engine [because we can’t speak of broadening people’s horizons (bad! blasphemy!) or instilling critical thinking skills]. We can’t say “Whatever, let people believe what they want,” because this public opinion is a base for squashing research funding. So we can’t stop trying to get through to the people around us about what we do and why it’s important. I just don’t know how to do it in a way that actually matters.

Irksome Internet

The Internet has been getting on my nerves lately.

There are several blogs that I often read but from which I will have to give a break, perhaps indefinitely.  On an intellectual level, kudos to the writers; I wish them well, and I hope for their continued success.

Viscerally, I mostly just want to punch them in the face. I just cannot take all the perfection and all the thoughtfulness and all the balance.

It goes something like this.

You know this thing that the society says women can’t have or usually don’t have?
Well, I have no idea where that comes from, because I totally have it in oodles. I have never even had a problem with getting it. My balance has never been better; here’s a pic of all the balance. 

I have been trying to figure out what irritates me in such posts, because I agree that women get put down a lot and I should not be contributing to the putting down, so I don’t. But the grumpiness remains, and I think it’s probably the same thing that irritates me about some of my perfect colleagues, male or female: nobody is that perfect, and the fact that someone wants me to play that game where we both pretend they are flawless is an insult to my intelligence and a waste of both our time.

I read a lot of blogs by professional women, and I don’t care what they write about, as long as they sound like actual real people. What that means, I suppose, is that I can recognize my own life in their writing or that I can somehow identify with what they go through. I don’t mean to imply that people have to bitch and moan and vent. Some people are more into venting than others. But I suppose I want to see some undoctored emotion, something genuine — joy, pain, anger, anguish, laughter, snark, something.

I simply cannot connect with the writers whose every post seems like a thinly veiled ode to their perfect selves. I don’t know if that’s on purpose, or if they are unusually fortunate/privileged/detached/oblivious, or if it’s a branding thing, or yet another US regional thing that I don’t understand, but I am really developing a deep distaste for blogs that are supposed to be kinda-sorta personal, but really aren’t; instead, what they present is a highly manicured persona. I also can’t identify with the writers (perhaps that’s just a failure of imagination on my part) who present their personal lives as such an antiseptic utopia that even the nominally chaotic parts get bleached into blandness, with prose that is completely devoid of sharp or rough edges, hinting that even the chaos is an endearing part of their masterful plan.

Tangentially related, these days everyone seems to have a Twitter feed and it’s a strange, strange land. Clearly, many people spend a lot of time on Twitter and I am sure they find it fun or useful or something, but to me it seems completely terrifying. I find the people who are active on Twitter to be like the explorers venturing into uncharted jungles that are populated by cannibalistic tribes — it seems to be only a matter of time before you get eaten alive, so I can’t seem to understand why anyone would subject themselves to it.

Sometimes I think I would like people more without the Internet.