Month: November 2015

Peer Review Blues

I am really disillusioned by peer review today. No, it’s not my paper that got rejected. And no, it’s not the first time an incident like this happens.

I just got a notice that a paper I had reviewed for Prestigious Society Letters got editorially accepted for publication after 1st revision.

I reviewed the original manuscript but never saw the revision, although I said I wanted to see it (there is a check box to that effect).  The editor appended the full correspondence to today’s email, following the paper’s acceptance. I can also see online the full timeline of the requests to various referees, when they submitted their reports, etc. My gripe for today is nestled between what was written (the correspondence) and when it was written (the timeline).

I was Referee 1 and recommended transfer to another journal (Reputable Society Journal, same publisher as Prestigious Society Letters). I raised several points because of which I did not consider the paper to be suitable for Prestigious Society Letters. Referee 2, who reviewed at the same time as me, liked the paper and said it should be published in PSL.

The paper gets revised and resubmitted. I never saw the revision, and I am guessing (based on the timeline) that Referee 2 didn’t either.
The revised and resubmitted manuscript gets sent to a tie-breaker Referee 3, who agrees with me (i.e., Referee 1) that the paper is more suitable for a more specialized journal and should be transferred to RSJ.

Now, for mortals like myself, that would be the end of the review process in PSL. 

But no, not here, I am guessing because the lead senior author has the ability to throw his weight around, or something.

Let’s recap. After two rounds of review and Referee 3’s tie-breaker recommendation, basically 2 people are saying transfer the paper to RSJ and 1 is saying it’s OK for PSL.

I have had several papers in the same situation and this was always, 100% of the time, the end of it.  If it were my paper, I would have to transfer.
I have also had papers in PSL where 2 referees liked the paper but one didn’t, and it was still rejected more than 80% of the time, with words such as “the reviews have failed to converge after two rounds of review.” (Occasionally I appealed, but the appeal always found in favor of the original editorial decision. These days I don’t waste my time and go elsewhere.)

What happens next is infuriating. The editor apparently didn’t like Referee 3’s report. The next day,  the paper gets sent out to Referee 4, who eventually says the paper is OK, that the authors had responded to my comments adequately, and the paper should be accepted in PSL. The editor happily obliges.

Let’s summarize what we have learned about the peer review process based on this anecdote:

  1. If you are deemed a big-enough name, your paper gets reviewed in prestigious venues, bringing in as many new referees as needed through as many rounds of review as needed until the number of those who like the paper is at least equal to the number of those who don’t, at which point the paper is accepted. 
  2. If you are plebs, all the referees have to be convinced the paper is great in no more than two rounds of review, otherwise the paper is rejected. 

Not cool, PSL, not cool. I review a ton for you, but it seems that I should stop wasting my time.

There Are Humans in Academia

This post, ill-formed when I started writing, has been motivated in part by an email exchange with a former undergraduate researcher of mine, now in grad school at Fancypants Uni, and in part by a recent online interaction with another blogger.

I am not even sure how to articulate what it is about, but I guess it has to do with how our students and postdocs perceive us, their advisors; how little most students and postdocs care that we as advisors actually are humans and thus may have limitations, even though they want their own work-life balance respected and accommodated.

The undergrad worked in my group for nearly two years. He was stellar and, unsurprisingly, got offers from several top universities to go to grad school. He ended up at Fancypants Uni, in the lab of my occasional collaborator, Prof. Younggun. The student reports he is very happy in Younggun’s group and how, even though the group is large, Younggun still manages to meet with everyone weekly 1-on-1.

Rationally, I don’t think the student meant to imply anything by this comment other than that he’s happy where he is; somewhat less rationally, I felt this was not just a praise of Younggun, but also a criticism of me.

I don’t meet with group members 1-on-1 weekly. We have biweekly group meetings and frequent brief updates via email.  The individual-meeting frequency is adjusted to what’s going on: sometimes there is a need to meet several times a week, and sometimes a meeting every 2-3 weeks is fine, as a larger chunk of work needs to be done. I know what everyone is working on at all times and I leave them alone until they finish or get stuck and then we troubleshoot. Usually, a student says, “I am almost done with such and such, I think I will have some data early next week,” and then we schedule to meet on Monday at 3 pm or whatever. Or a student sends an email, ” I have been stuck with this and that, when do you have some time?” and then we usually meet the same day or as soon as possible thereafter.

I hate standing meetings, as I have said many times on this blog. I will much rather meet with a student for as many hours as needed when it’s needed than have an hour blocked out every week just to touch base. Also, I have to say this: I have a limit on how much face time I can take. If I have to interact with too many people, I then need time to recuperate. A day full of meetings leaves me not wanting to do anything at all the next day. I suppose these are my own personal limitations that spill into the professional sphere.

Another aspect that students usually don’t think about and generally do not consider are the finer aspects of how a professor’s home life affects what they can do at work.

For instance, Younggun is not much younger than me, maybe a year or two. He is, however, a DINK. He can spend as much time as he wants at work (and he does spend a lot) and when the takes time off work, e.g., on the weekend or in the evening, he probably gets to rest and recharge. Someone like me, who has responsibilities for little people at home (I am guessing it’s the same if you care for elderly parents), goes home and that’s where the second shift starts. Finding the time to rest and recharge is really challenging.

Now, when I say things like these usually someone comes to tell me that it’s my fault that I chose to have kids and that of course the people focused on the career are going to be more successful and whatnot. I am not begrudging Younggun; he’s smart, pedigreed, ambitious, and successful. I wish him all the best in his stratospheric ascent, even if I am a little envious.

What’s I am aiming at here is the fact that I am pretty sure many (most) of my students don’t actually ask themselves how their advisor lives, what he or she is motivated or limited or propelled by.

For instance, for my former undergrad, his new advisor probably seems awesome, as he manages to meet with everyone frequently and regularly; I am probably not awesome because I meet irregularly; he therefore might think that I must be a disorganized mess. The fact that Younggun and I have different personalities and live very different lives probably doesn’t enter the student’s mind at all; after all, we  both belong to the Professor genus.

I often mention this example from graduate school, where I was able to communicate very well with my notoriously difficult advisor upon realizing what makes him ticked off (losing face), avoiding triggers, and communicating on tough topics via email. I have friends from grad school for whom our advisor is still a mysterious beast, as opposed to a senior person with his own hangups, regrets, insecurities, and career path, but also someone who can be their big professional champion.

In the academic blogosphere, we often discuss how we as advisors need to be understanding and permissive of graduate students. But I think the communication might further be improved if the junior people tried to extended similar courtesy to the senior folks. I know it’s harder for junior people to completely put themselves in a senior person’s shoes, largely because it’s hard to empathize when you haven’t actually had many of the older person’s experiences.

Also, I wonder how much of it is socialization across gender lines. I see my DH and Eldest, and they spend vanishingly little time thinking about what anyone else is thinking or feeling; they don’t want to hurt anyone, but they go merrily on their way, doing what they want, until someone complains. I see it in my male colleagues, too, even very junior ones. I was a complete ball of nerves and insecurity when I was a junior professor, nearly paralyzed by a combination of the fear that I would mess things up because I didn’t know what I was doing and the fear that I would be inconveniencing people by asking them for advice. My junior male colleagues are much more bold (even when they objectively ought to ask for advice) and much more unapologetic about requesting help (or anything else they need). They are laser-focused on what they need and want, and perhaps only in the rear-view mirror they occasionally glance at the effect they might have left behind. In contrast, many female colleagues and I spend enormous amounts of energy wondering if we are entitled to do what we want or even need, and who might be inconvenienced or upset by our actions. I bet this stupid energy-drain channel is a major cause of burnout.

I just had a Master’s student, after I had signed off on their MS paperwork, simply declare in a group meeting they didn’t want to fulfill what we had agreed they would do before the end of the semester (generate certain plots so we could write a short paper) because they are “busy with their classes.” DH says he doesn’t think the student is a bad person but that they don’t understand that they have violated our agreement; they are just happy they get to finish their degree. The thing is, if the student tried to for a second not think about the MS being 100% about their own experience and me just being there in the service of it and tried to put themselves in my shoes for a microsecond, they would realize that the whole thing was not worth my time at all unless they completed what we had agreed on. (I don’t really need the stupid little paper, but I certainly don’t like being made a fool of.)

I suppose one reason for me writing these essays that have to do with student-advisor interactions is to try to hopefully get some junior people to view their advisors as people. I know there are bad advisors and generally bad bosses around, and nobody should tolerate being disrespected or abused in any way. This is not about bad advisors. I really think that most advisors are normal people, which means they are human, and as such they are neither omniscient nor clueless, neither omnipotent nor helpless, neither 100% selfless nor 100% selfish. Or, in the words of Corpsman Day from Guardians of the Galaxy, nobody is 100% a dick:

Professors are human, they have limitations on time and energy, and are not there in the sole service of the student’s educational experience. PhD and postdoc advisors are people who have their own career interests (which overlap to a great extent, but not 100%, with the student’s career interests) as well as their own personality traits and private lives. For everyone’s benefit, we should keep it professional, but should also try to have empathy and it goes both ways.

In a group like mine, most students (being young, unencumbered, and male) have no frame of reference for the life that I lead and the constraints it puts on how the group operates. I wonder if they all leave thinking that they spent years working with a complete alien.

Xykademiqz Cooks for Thanksgiving

I have been in the US for well over a decade. About 2/3 of all Thanksgivings we spent at other people’s houses, and the rest we either didn’t celebrate very much (e.g., I’d cook some turkey breasts, but not the whole bird), or we simply had a nice, but nontraditional meal (Thanksgiving is often close to DH’s birthday, so I cook his favorite dish, which is from the home country and quite labor intensive).

The last three years we went to friends’ Thanksgiving party. This year our hosts are indisposed, and we decided to stay in and not invite anyone over. Aside from Smurf, the world’s pickiest (and cutest) eater 4 years in a row, the family includes DH and myself, adult carnivores; Eldest, a teenager who swims 4 hours per day; and MB, an 8-year-old who eats (and expends energy) like an NFL linebacker; I figured we needed a whole turkey. Therefore, I decided to attempt a small-scale quasi-traditional Thanksgiving celebration, where “quasi” comes from neither DH nor me having been exposed to this tradition growing up,  all our knowledge thus stemming from what we saw in other’s people’s houses or on the web. However, I generally consider myself a decent self-taught amateur cook (most people are), and with cooking, as with math and science, it you have a solid foundation in the basics and an understanding of how the fundamental building blocks interact, you can confidently embark on a variety of new fields of exploration.

I bought one of the smallest turkeys I could find, about 12 pounds. Since it’s just the family, I didn’t go crazy with the number of side dishes. Below is a picture of the meal (store-bough pumpkin pie and whipped cream we had for dessert not depicted).

NomNot bad for a first-time Thanksgiving cook, huh? The whole meal took 4 hours  to prepare (+/- 5 min), from when I turned on the oven to preheat it for the turkey, until the moment I took this picture.

The turkey turned out heavenly (simple roasting,  after having been coated in 3 sticks worth of melted butter; the cavity was filled with herbs, carrots, apples, and onions). The gravy (we obviously don’t own a gravy boat) was absolutely perfect in both texture and taste, and is probably my favorite part of the dinner; all that butter made for a phenomenal base. I don’t care for stuffing and have never understood the appeal, so I didn’t make any. The cranberry sauce was very simple and delicious, and a big hit with Eldest and DH. The mashed potatoes and stir-fried green beans are dishes I make often, and the gravy nicely played up both. The roasted yellow-flesh sweet potatoes with onions were OK, but would have probably been better with yams (in case you didn’t know, both sweet potatoes and what we call yams in the US are just varieties of the sweet potato, while true yams are something very different). MB was excited, “Finally, we have a normal Thanksgiving meal!”

Overall, it was yummy and we have enough left over for dinner today, and possibly a day or two beyond with some additional items. Aaaand, the cooking took about as much time as I usually spend when we have another family over, which is a great plus considering that I get no pleasure from slaving away in the kitchen for hours on end.  I consider this little experiment a tasty step in DH’s and my continued assimilation.

Body of Work

Over Thanksgiving break, I will devote some time to the Academic Jungle/Xykademiqz project. There is a lot of material and I started by downloading everything and organizing according to year, paginating, and estimating the total scope (about 400k words); that was in August and greatly aided by jetleg-induced insomnia. Yesterday, I went in detail through 2014, as evidenced by all the Post-its  (see pics below). Some material got chucked, but the rest was separated into one large body and four smaller ones. Again, I did this just for 2014 which was a fairly material-heavy year, and the hope is to have everything annotated and separated into these 5 text bins by the end of the break.  Some of the comics will be used for illustration and may have to be redrawn or at least rescanned, but I will do that once I m happy with the draft of the text. Serious editing will commence mid-December, after the finals.

At this point, it seems there will be a book aimed at academic scientists at different career stages (job hunt, what the job entails (teaching, research, service), career management, networking, politics, colleagues and collaborations) and another one aimed at graduate students and postdocs (interactions with advisor, motivation, technical writing tips, networking, job considerations) with some overlap between the two. In the pictures below, the professorial material is annotated in hot pink, the student one is annotated in Martian green;  as I said, there is a fair amount of overlap, and at this point there is a main text so I will edit only once, while the student file currently contains only the posts that are student-centric without being necessarily relevant for the professorial cohort. After the editing, the student book will be augmented by the overlap material. These two are the 1 large and the 1 out of 4 smaller text bins.  There are 3 additional separate categories: women in science issues (annotated in warm yellow below; likely will be part of both collections),  expat academic (pale yellow), and rants/travelling grouchiness/generally goofy or irreverent stuff (orange). What I would like it for the product to be something highly modular, so that perhaps you can buy smaller chunks in electronic form but if you want the paper book, then we will have two larger collections. Some of it (likely the rants etc) I would perhaps even offer as a bonus or a teaser or promotional material of some sort. We’ll see what Melanie of Annorlunda Books can pull off and what makes sense to try and do from the financial and marketing standpoints.

But here’s a quick look at the magnum opus (all the text inside is in 11 pt font, two-sided):




Pleasure derived from work is directly proportional to the number of colorful Post-its required.

Happy Thanksgiving to US readers!

Grad School Recommendation Letters

This week I wrote graduate school recommendation letters for two students whom I don’t know very well at all. One received an AB and another a B in the classes they took with me.

When they asked me for letters (they did so separately and are in no way connected),  I explained to each that I didn’t know them very well and that I usually didn’t write for students who hadn’t gotten an A in my class. The thing is, they each have one professor who knows them well, but need at least 3 letters for their applications. I make a point of remembering everyone’s’s face and learning their names  (it’s doable even with a 100+ people in the class, but requires some work), so I guess they came to me because they were at least sure that I knew who they were.

How many undergraduates really have 3+ professors who know them well? A couple of my former graduate researchers come to mind, but they were stellar (it helps with getting remembered if you do great in someone’s class), engaged with a research group for over a year, and having college-level extracurriculars. But most students aren’t superstars; even if they do research, that advisor is likely the only professor who knows them well enough to write something specific.

Why do undergraduates need 3+ letters to get into graduate school? Couldn’t we say, “At least 1, and make it substantive?” When I look at applicant’s letters, there are always lukewarm ones from the people who clearly don’t know the student. At best, these letters add nothing of substance to the case. At worst, they make the applicant seem weaker through the well-known “damning by faint praise” effect. Students from large universities cannot be expected to be well connected with multiple professors the way they are at some smaller schools.

I wrote the letters that are as specific and as positive as I could. The B student is switching majors, and is passionate about the topic he is about to pursue for his Master’s more than the one he’s received a Bachelor’s degree in; I knew as much and focused on his motivation and ambition for the new field. The AB student is actually very bright but I would say somewhat lethargic; I focused on his capability and how it manifested itself in my class.

I told both students that I would write the letters, but that they would be fairly generic. I said I would try to make the letters as positive as I could to the extent to which I knew the students, which isn’t much. They were fine with it.

I did what I promised and I wish them success with their applications.

Adventures in Mansplaining

(To men who are not mansplainers: I know you are out there and I promise that this is not about you. But, there are many dudes whom the shoe fits. )

  1. A while ago, I met with a visitor who had come to give a talk in a department I am affiliated with. Last minute, a new faculty member from the same department, whom I hadn’t met before and who is also a compatriot and an acquaintance of the visitor, decided to join us. I should have just canceled, but I didn’t know they knew each other and it was also last minute. Unsurprisingly, I ended up being the third wheel; while the visitor was nice and polite, the new faculty member ignored me and spoke to the visitor without so much as glancing my way. I am sure they would have preferred not to speak in English, but had to on my account. The visitor asked about some data about the campus and the city (e.g., population, size of the student body, largest department) and the new colleague either volunteered information or, whenever I managed to get a word in edgewise and provide an answer, he rushed to correct me. Not that I was incorrect, mind you, but I don’t think that mattered; he simply had to have the last word. Being new, he cannot possibly know better than me, who has been here for a over a decade, the data about this city or this university; this is  textbook mansplaining, certainly aimed at impressing his friend.  I am too old for this $hit. What a giant waste of my time.
  2. This is my all-time favorite mansplaining anecdote. Last year, I was watching a swim meet. Next to me sat a guy who was in charge of the team’s parents’ electronic communications. We spoke a few times and he identified himself to me as “a computer guy,” but never expressed an interest in what I did (likely assumed me a Hausfrau). The meet we were watching was a high-level meet for high school boys. Generally, the first six places get scored, and the scores count towards the team total, which is very important. This man’s son had just tied with another boy for first place (which is really remarkable because they time to a hundredth of a second), so I asked if they would both get the number of points for the 1st place or if they would split the scores for the 1st and 2nd place (this was his boy’s 4th year on the team, I figured the dad knew about the scoring practices). The man proceeded to teach me, speaking veeeery slowly, on what the average of two numbers is, in a language suited to 2nd-grade children, “Yes, they will both get the average of the 1st and 2nd place score, which means the two scores will be added together and divided by two, so they will both get less the 1st but more than the 2nd place.” This was so hilarious that I wasn’t even offended; I mean, what does one even say to that?