Month: November 2015

Academic Nuggets

There should be a special place in academic hell for:

  1. Expat academic scientists who only talk with, advise, and collaborate with people from their own home country. This is wrong on many levels. I know quite a few such specimens, from several different locales.
  2. Professors who work at research-intensive, PhD-granting institutions, yet cannot be bothered to train graduate students. They can only work with postdocs because their work is “too complicated” (as opposed to everyone else’s simplistic work). The fact that somebody else had to train all those postdocs, from baby graduate students to the level at which the are professional PhD-holding scientists, doesn’t seem to enter these people’s minds.

Any other candidates for eternal academic damnation?


Benevolently Sexist

One of these days, I will have to have a talk with a colleague, who has an administrative role in a physical science field. His heart is in the right place and he is one of the men who really support women and their advancement in the physical sciences, as evidenced by him propelling his female colleagues and students. However, I think he might have inadvertently gotten lost in the thick forest of benevolent sexism.

For probably several years now he has been spearheading this notion, backed by research but not in the literal form he seems to espouse, that we need to pitch our field as the haven for those people who want to help others and that we need to do it specifically so that we would attract more women students.

One the one hand, I understand what his real motivation is. Being head of a department, his role is to bring in students, because high enrollments mean high importance to the college and the university. In that sense, one cannot begrudge him for wanting to cast a wider net by any means necessary.

On the other hand, there are several things that are sexist about this attitude. First, it assumes that, deep down, all women want to be nurses, and that one has to appeal to a smart woman’s inner nurse in order to bring her — nay, trick her! — into the physical sciences. It also assumes that while men are naturally geeks, women could not possibly be real geeks or like the physical sciences for the same reasons as men, or for any reasons unrelated to their inner nurse.

I don’t know what one has to do to get this through people’s skulls: There are women geeks. Honestly, they exist.  *raises hand to be counted* There are women who like and are very good at math, physics, chemistry, computer science; who play video games; who like science fiction and fantasy.

Women geeks and men geeks do not necessarily look and act as the stereotypes. One can be into math, physics, chemistry, or computers, and at the same time also look perfectly presentable and be perfectly socially adjusted. One can be into math, physics, chemistry, or computers, and also have long hair, boobs, and/or lipstick.

Not all women are motivated by helping those around them. In my choice of career, helping people didn’t figure out one iota. I like what I like because it’s intellectually challenging and fun. If anyone had come to pitch math or physics as a means of helping people when I was young, I would have probably run away from them as fast as I could. (Women can be misanthropes, just like men.)

Not all men are motivated by the same things, either (shocker, I know). There are plenty of men who want to help others. It boggles my mind that we as a society seem okay with stereotyping men as robot-loving geeks. I bet there are many boys who went into premed majors and whom we could have perhaps swayed into the physical sciences with the “physical sciences — because we are all about helping people!” pitch, the same one that supposedly mesmerizes the ever elusive girls into majoring in STEM.

There is a variety of reasons why people choose to do what they do. We should try to understand the reasons and expand the appeal of our field as best we can when we to try to attract more students. But please let’s do that in a way that does not enforce gender stereotypes.

Let’s not insist women don’t come unless you appeal to their inner nurturer. Some girls simply like computers and robots, period. Pitching soft as women and hard as men only further perpetuates the ideas that women are not real physical scientists. It also pushes away the men who may care about their fellow human and would be motivated by the human-centered aspect of the physical sciences. And it also makes many men resentful, because they perceive that the field is being softened and moving away from its essence because of those darn women.

The physical science fields are what they are. Let’s be honest as well as open-minded when we report about the opportunities the fields offer (good job prospects, anyone?). But let’s also be honest about the skills and interests that are required to succeed, and let us enhance the appeal without benevolently perpetuating the stereotype that women could not possibly be capable of swallowing the bitter science pill without the sugarcoat of nurture.

Back to the Jungle with an Exciting New Project

I have been blogging since early 2010, for about 4 years on Academic Jungle and nearly 2 years (!) here on Xykademiqz.

For a while now, I have been mulling over the idea of collecting “The Best Of” or something along those lines into a book, simply because I think I have done some nice writing over the years. However, I can’t imagine this material would be of interest to a major publisher. I also don’t want to go the self-publishing route, mostly because I don’t know the first thing about marketing (and have too little time or inclination to learn).

So I contacted a long-time bloggy friend, Melanie R Nelson of Annorlunda Books (she sometimes comments here under a pseudonym). Annorlunda Books is a new publishing company that specializes in short pieces, but Melanie said she’d be happy to work with me on what promises to be a larger collection and is OK with me using a pseudonym. How’s Xena Y. Kademiqz for a pen name? (Am I even allowed to use Xena? I wouldn’t be surprised if it were copyrighted by the warrior-princess folks.)

Melanie also offered a bit of a warning: even though I already have the material, the editing will end up considerably more laborious than what I might expect.

Melanie was right.

The first thing I did was go to see how much material there was, and there was a lot. In a typical blogging year, I apparently write 60-80,000 words; to put the numbers in context, a good-sized novel (say, Scalzi’s “Redshirts”) is about 100,000 words. Therefore, I have the amount of text worth several novels that needs to be read, pared down, and edited (I have a PDF of 700+ pages with all the material pasted in a tiny font).  *gulp* It doesn’t help that I have an all-consuming day job…

It seems that we may do a series of shorter, novella-length (Melanie says <50,000 words) essay collections, which can be purchased individually or all together; I really like this option.

But the first question is one of focus, and this is where my dear readers will hopefully come to the rescue!

There are essays that I would definitely (edited: likely?) not include, such as anything too personal (talking about kids), anything too ranty, general immigrant experiences unrelated to academia, or any fluff posts (such as those including pics of produce or links to videos). I think that I would like to include the comics (some probably redrawn) to illustrate the sections, as appropriate. But I want to focus on the academic life and the specific challenges in the sciences and at research-intensive universities, because that’s what I know and because I seldom find what mainstream outlets like the CHE have to say on the academic life to be relevant to my experience. Academia is simply too large and too diverse to address everything. I am not trying to minimize the plight of adjuncts or the many ways in which some academics are exploited or mistreated (we have no adjuncts in my college; the few instructors we have don’t have PhDs, all have long-term contracts and benefits, and are well compensated). I will simply focus on the corner of academia that I know.

Below is a totally stream-of-consciousness list of possible foci, grouped in a way that is totally redundant and will certainly be rethought roughly many times:

  1. What we as professors do and how not to suck or be miserable at it:  teaching and grading; work with graduate students/advising; research (writing, getting grants, publishing, doing peer review), which perhaps deserves its own collection; presenting work at conferences; service
  2. Tenure: why it’s important, what it means, what is expected at research universities, what happens if you don’t get it, what happens after you get it
  3. Advice for graduate students and/or postocs: what you need to do to be successful in grad school, writing tips, job hunting advice (academia and beyond), why advisors do what they do
  4. Academic politics: job hunting from the search committee perspectives, working with colleagues/collaborators, service and actually finding something you want to do, saying no, making service  meaningful
  5. Women in science: challenges, success strategies, sexism, impostor syndrome, work-life balance

What say you, blogosphere? Would you want to read the book? Would you consider getting it for a colleague or a junior colleague? What would you most like to read about? Please leave a comment and/or vote in the poll here or on the side bar. 


Academic Once Bitten, Twice Shy

Bad blogger, went back on own promise to blog daily. No excuses… Just shame. (No, not really. OK, maybe a little.)

A few examples of academic once bitten, twice shy:

  1. When I was a wee assistant professor, I had a single-author paper at the pearly gates of a high-profile journal. I made a stupid mistake of dismissing (i.e., not carefully responding to) some of the referee’s comments, because I thought I got it made. Turns out I didn’t.
    Since then I am the kind of author who carefully and painstakingly responds to each and every reviewer comment, even the stupid ones. Never again did I ignore a criticism and never again did I get a rejection after a reasonable request for revisions.
  2. I will be very, very, VERY careful when hosting visiting researchers. The first and only I have had so far ended up being a complete flake and went MIA upon arrival. He had money from his institution and apparently decided to vacation here. Being that he was a foreign national and I invited him, I could have gotten in a lot of trouble. I can’t see myself hosting anyone from abroad in the near future.
  3. I will be very, very, VERY reluctant to ever again take on students just because they come with a fellowship. (To paraphrase: Don’t take for free what you wouldn’t be willing to pay for.) I am just dealing with the results of a recent mistake; the student came with a fellowship to do an MS. The student is considerably weaker than my other students and the fellowship requirements were such that I ended up having very little time, less than what I had originally been told, to try to teach them something. The weak student on an unreasonably short clock was supposed to produce a thesis, so I ended up crafting and supervising what I would call a very minimal project, something the student could actually do. The whole ordeal was a very, very poor use of my time. Now I am stuck correcting the thesis, which contains an infinitesimal amount of novelty but innumerable writing infractions…
    Which brings about… Writing rant number 3,875,621!
    OMFG, why is the writing of some graduate students who are native speakers of English so unbelievably atrocious? I am pulling my hair out now with run-on sentences, no commas to save a life, the same verb or noun three times in the same sentence. What is it that they spend time on in their English 101 or whatever it is that they are required to take in college? Or is it that our humanities colleagues try their best, but it all falls on deaf ears? Doesn’t anyone read anything, FFS? Doesn’t anyone reflect upon why some writing doesn’t suck and why their own writing does?

What say you, blogosphere? What are some things in your profession that you will never ever do again?


This topic has been popping in and out of my mind for months now, but I never seem to have the time to jot anything down before I forget again… So today is the day!

Professors, do you go commencement ceremonies to hood your PhD graduates?

I did it with my first PhD graduate. While I am sure it meant something to her, it was loud, crowded, and just a pain in the butt for me. Then several students following her didn’t attend their ceremonies, so my hooding services were not required.

Last spring two of my PhD students “walked.” They were talking about their families coming for the ceremony, and they seemingly casually asked if I would be attending with them, but I cited a conflict and that was that. The truth is, if I had wanted to go, I would have made the time, but I didn’t and admit to feeling a little guilty about it. I am not even sure where my cap and gown are, probably in the office; wherever they are, they need ironing and/or dusting since they haven’t seen the light of day in years.

I really don’t like crowds and will avoid them in every way I can. So a big ceremony is really unpleasant for me; however, once could say that I should suck it up and do it for my students. My PhD advisor went to hood every one of his graduating students (obviously, including me), but many of his colleagues never did. Many of my colleagues don’t seem to go hood anyone ever.

DH, who fortunately has enough of a celebratory and holiday spirit for both of us (else our kids would never know the consumerist joys of Christmas or Halloween), thought it was very uncool that I had weaseled out of hooding my students this spring; I know he has a point that it’s the students’ once-in-a-lifetime celebration and do feel a little bad about not playing my part. But I just couldn’t stomach the idea of hours of ceremony, and hanging out awkwardly with the students and their families. We did have a small party to send the students off, with the whole group, several hours before the ceremony; I bought food for everyone and the parents were there as well. I generally make a point of feeding everyone when someone graduates (I buy lunch or dinner for everyone), so it’s not that I don’t want to celebrate my students’ success. I just don’t like the craziness that are the crowds of thousands of young’uns and their extended families in a huge arena for hours on end, and I don’t care for the shared captivity, with the ensuing awkwardness, with my soon-to-be former group members.

What say you, blogosphere? Professors, do you hood your PhD students? Graduate students/postdocs, do you care about the hooding ceremony and your advisor being there? Everyone who’s received a PhD, did you elect to go to the ceremony, and do you have any feelings whatsoever about it today? 

Haters Gonna Hate… Not?

It’s that time of year again, when undergrads start enrolling in their spring semester classes. I am scheduled to teach a large undergrad course, let’s call it A, one that’s required for majors and offered every semester, and it’s nearly full to capacity. I looked at the roster and there are probably a couple of dozen students whom I had last spring in another large required course, B. What’s interesting is who these folks are: some of them I could have sworn didn’t care very much for my teaching of B last year at all, and they could have easily avoided having me again by taking course A this semester, with another teacher. Yet here they are, willing to subject themselves to another semester of my teaching, seemingly on purpose.

It’s not uncommon that I have students who take 2, even 3 courses with me; usually those are the students who meet me in a lower-level class, do well, and then try to take electives when I offer them; this is a point of pride.  There are definitely a few kids who I know enjoyed course B, so I am not surprised by them taking A. There are also a few students who did very poorly in B, but with whom I had good rapport nonetheless; I thought they might avoid me, because I am tough, but they are back. There are a few with whom I didn’t have a lot of interaction so I couldn’t tell one way or another if they particularly liked it or not; maybe they were indeed ambivalent, but it’s better the devil you know, and they do know me.

But there are a few who I could have sworn hated my guts with the burning passion of a thousand suns, and now they are back for a second helping? One student, who received only half a grade lower than the maximum, was quite displeased by it and sent me a lengthy email about how that’s the most unfair thing that had ever happened and how what I required in class was unreasonable and inhuman; you guessed, that student is back. My husband, always ready to  mess with me, hypothesized that the student was there just to psych me out through the intervening months, and will drop out as soon as the semester starts.

The point is: I suppose we may not have a very good idea how we are perceived by students. We do on average, but not necessarily on an individual level. It’s entirely possible to be genuinely disliked by the people who act very sweet and interested in the material, but who are just kissing up; I am in fact quite sensitive to that. In contrast, it has happened more than once that the people whom I had no idea I had positively influenced, who seemed quiet or even glum in class, actually turned out quite appreciative of the experience.

Never a dull moment in academic land…

Evolving Workstyles

There is a colleague, considerably senior to me, with whom I don’t interact much; we are in different fields and have offices on different floors. But I occasionally run into him on my way out of the parking garage, and when I do we always have a brief but pretty cool chat.

This last one had to do with funding and the need for it. The colleague is in applied math; I am a theorist working in applied physics, so nominally we could have fairly similar work styles and funding needs, but we don’t. The colleague works alone or with students who either TA the entire time in grad school or come with fellowships, but he generally does not even write grants any more and cherishes the time he has to do his own intellectual work. He asks why I don’t do the same, and that’s a good question. I am now in the full managerial mode, with students doing the technical work, while I am providing the big picture, which project we get to do, how and who will be involved, I write grants to get the projects funded, and I do a lion’s share of writing and editing of the papers and I do check the students’ derivations. But I no longer write big codes; there simply isn’t the time for that.

I suppose how I work now is somewhat similar to having a lab, in that there are multiple projects that require manpower and the volume is such that I just can’t do all the technical work on my own. Even if I would be faster than a student on any given project, I still cannot do the work of 8 students. Having a big group means all those students have to be continuously funded, which is stressful. And I spend a lot of time working with (and funding!) untrained and inexperienced people.

Even though I don’t bring in as much money as experimentalists, I definitely bring in a substantial amount and more than, say, a theorist in most pure math or physics fields is expected to raise. In my department, if you lose money, you lose respect. Money is paramount.

When I was in the throes of writing multiple proposals simultaneously a week or so ago, someone close to me lamented, “Why don’t you just stop working with students? You can do the work on your own, don’t have to waste time training them, you can write the papers as you like instead of pulling your hair out while editing students’ drafts.” Sometimes, this idea sounds heavenly. Not writing grants would be awesome! But I think as painful as grant writing is (actually, grant rejections are the painful part), it forces you to keep fresh and relevant. And if you pay students, then you can recruit the good ones. And working alone means I would only be able to do 3-4 projects at the time, as opposed to 6-8 that I am involved in now, or more like 10 that I would ideally like to do. A shortage of ideas is not my problem; it’s only a shortage of time and money.

I oscillate between wanting to be a total pariah and do my thing, and enjoying work with students and the social aspect of doing science. Perhaps that’s as it should be.

But I do wish I had more time to think and do the technical work myself. Maybe I just need to carve out a small side project, no students involved… I try to ignore the guilt pangs over “Why are you doing this instead of editing your student’s paper and helping him graduate?”

And completely unrelated: The Oatmeal was really a/an [insert expletive] with yet another “Babies suck and the people who have them suck even more” cartoon (here’s an old one, with bonus;  for some reason it still brings people to this post). But then he posts this and I just can’t hate the guy.