Month: December 2015

Droppings 5: Leaning Out, Grey’s Anatomy Style

Leaning Out, Grey’s Anatomy Style

Grey’s Anatomy is a long-running ABC drama about surgeons. The main character is Meredith Grey, hence the title, which is also a twist on the medical school anatomy “Bible”, Gray’s Anatomy. We have followed Meredith since she was an intern in season 1, all through residency and the past few years as an attending physician at a Seattle hospital that has changed names several times since the show’s inception (originally Seattle Grace). Meredith’s deceased mother, Ellis Grey, was a brilliant general surgeon, but also an absentee mother who, Meredith believes, always resented having had a child.

Along with Meredith, we have followed her intern cohort, of whom only two characters are still there. One of them is Christina Yang, Meredith’s best friend and a prodigy cardiothoracic surgeon. Christina has always wanted to be a surgeon and has been fiercely dedicated to her craft. There were two important romantic relationships she has had on the show, one of them leading to marriage. However, surgery has always been the most important thing in Christina’s life and she never wanted children; in fact, Christina even had an abortion after she had accidentally gotten pregnant with her husband a few seasons ago.

Meredith is depicted as an excellent general surgeon and we have no reason to doubt her skills. At least we haven’t until the episode “I Bet It Stung” (season 10). Meredith and her husband had adopted a girl a few seasons ago, and Meredith just had a baby boy. In last week’s episode, Meredith has just come back from maternity leave. She is lactating and sleep deprived, but eager to get back into an OR. For some strange reason she also does something that no sane working mother would do, and that is promise her daughter a princess tea party at 3 pm on a work day (?!), apparently not wanting to be the uninvoled, disinterested mother that her own mother had been. During the episode, we see Meredith and Christina about to do a heart-liver transplant together, but Meredith is unprepared, her daughter falls and cuts her head open, and also there is obsessing over the princess party thing. Predictably, Christina calls another physician on board and does the transplant, Meredith is pissed and…

Meredith: “I am every bit as competent a surgeon as you are.”

Christina: “No, you are not.”

Christina then proceeds to tell Meredith how she (Meredith) had basically leaned out, slowed down a few years ago and they are in different places now. How Christina respects Meredith’s choices and her focus on family (can we say BS?), but that they are in different leagues. I am paraphrasing now, but you get the picture. Complete devotion to work or a sentence to a life of mediocrity.

Now, I have no idea about surgery, but, especially in the US, it seems that work will easily expand to fill every second of your life if you let it. European scientists I know have, at least on the outside, a much better work-life balance: they go out, have personal lives, bike, hike, ski cross-country, bar-hop, and whatever else goes as a culturally pervasive passtime. I know European colleagues who have said that if you work non-stop, people think you are stupid because otherwise you would be able to finish the work during normal hours. Here, in the US academia, you have to literally hide any time you don’t spend crushed under a mountain of work.

I have no idea if you really have to be 100% in to be a surgeon. If that’s true, I don’t see how that’s sustainable over the whole career. I mean, doesn’t it start getting boring? I bet most surgeries are more or less routine no matter what the specialty.

All I do know is that, in academia, most of us are really hardly irreplaceable: if we leave science, science will go on just fine without us. Several people have retired since I was hired. Six months or perhaps a year after their departure, and none of the department colleagues think about them any more, as if they never existed. You could have put your heart and soul into this place, and rest assured you would have been forgotten in a heartbeat anyway.

I am sure this is midlife crisis talking, but as great as my job is — challenging, working with young people, flexible, secure, well paid — from where I am standing it is not worth sacrificing everything else in the life for. There is a female professor whom I know from my grad school days. In her youth she worked non-stop, married, no kids. Then she divorced, got ill, and her professional standing dropped considerably (it’s a bit sickening seeing how people have subtly but surely started discounting her). While she has had an OK career, I would not say that her career appears to have justified the enormous personal sacrifices. I don’t know if it’s worth it to the people who are stratospherically successful, but I cannot think that it would be: most of us scientists are useful in an indirect way, through industry, and very  few achieve wide prominence in their lifetime. In contrast, as I remember hearing in a BBC documentary, “Happiness is the experiences we share with the people we love.”

I am not leaning out, far from it. But I am looking for an inner balance and trying to focus on professional aspects that matter to me — doing interesting, difficult work, which challenges me and my students and could not be done without us — as opposed to ubiquitous fad-chasing. I want to make the most of the little time each student spends in my group, as they are smart and kind and it is a joy to talk science with them. As my PhD advisor said, students are my product, my professional legacy.

More importantly, I want to enjoy the precious short years that my kids will be with me. To everyone else I am more or less replaceable, but not to them; to them I am the one and only Mom.

Anyway, I am glad leaning out got on prime-time TV in some shape or form. I don’t know if it’s true that real-life Christinas are miles ahead of real-life Merediths; I am guessing each one of us would choose a Christina when it’s time to cut us open, but maybe it’s just surgery. I wish it were really possible to have it all — a family and a demanding career — without slowing down or leaning out even a little bit. I hope Meredith can get back to the full swing of things after the baby is a bit older. But mostly I hope she realizes she already has everything she needs to be happy.

Droppings 4: Your Poor, Poor Man

MOWM 5: Your Poor, Poor Man

The other day I saw “The Five-Year Engagement“. I thought it was really funny and I enjoyed it.
But, a few days later, I actually caught myself thinking about some aspects of the movie (not something I usually do with comedies) and I realized that the movie was full of annoying stereotypes. Sure, you’ll say, stereotypes are what makes movies funny! True, but not when they hit close to home.

If you haven’t seen the movie and plan to, stop reading now.

Tom and Violet live in San Francisco and get engaged at the beginning of the movie. Tom is a chef at a fancy San Francisco restaurant, while Violet seems to be a PhD in psychology, awaiting an offer of unspecified type from UC Berkeley. Instead, she gets an offer from the University of Michigan to go do a postdoc; they move and it all but destroys their relationship.

Let’s put aside the fact that research in Violet’s group is presented as a total joke; in the light of that, it makes it hard to believe Violet when she says she’s worked so hard to get to the top of her field and that she would not want to quit now, that academia is her life… In my opinion,  all academic life is, almost invariably, depicted very inaccurately in movies. But, that is a topic for another post, or perhaps a series, and is not what I want to talk about…

First, very stereotypically, going to Michigan is portrayed as the ultimate in LAAAAAAAME. I am really sick of seeing how life is worth living only in New York, LA, or San Francisco; move anywhere else and you might as well blow your brains out, ’cause your life is totally over. First, Tom can’t find a job except at a sandwich shop (’cause there are a total of 5 restaurants in Ann Arbor and there are presumably no other restaurants in the Detroit metro area, home to 4.2 M people. People are allowed to enjoy food only in coastal cities.) There is a scene where the whole crew at a restaurant gathers to laugh at Tom for having had a job in San Francisco and having left it to move “here”.

The people Tom and Violet meet are fat, bearded, ugly, and terribly dressed. One of Tom’s new friends is a male spouse of a University of Michigan faculty member; the guy complains about being a stay-at-home dad, talks about being emasculated by his position (within 10 seconds of meeting Tom at a party), and takes up knitting of the most hideous, misshapen sweaters known to humankind (apparently, that’s what people wear in Michigan. ‘Cause it’s that lame.)

But what got me the most is how downtrodden Tom became about leaving his fancy restaurant job in SF, moving to the seemingly ueber-lame Ann Arbor. He has unkempt facial hair, starts hunting deer with his hideous-sweater-sporting buddies and makes all-deer meals, looks like he doesn’t shower, and is generally just a pathetic mess. All this because his job at a sandwich shop (which by the way several people in the movie say they love) is such an unbearable step down from the fancy restaurant he worked at before. And let’s not forget all the snow, which we also know makes life unworthy of living.

This is what completely disgusts me: it’s totally OK to ask women to leave their careers and dreams to follow their partners, and nobody bats an eyelash. Violet’s sister lectures Violet how she, the sister, who by the way got knocked up accidentally by a total doofus, is now happy and fulfilled being a stay-at-home mom to the doofus’s two kids and has given up her aspirations to be a kinesiologist, and that’s totally the way to go.  But when a man follows a woman’s career, then he invariably must turn into a useless, pathetic, smelly ballast. Forget about supporting your female partner, or showering and shaving for that matter. Passive-aggressive petulance FTW!

* end of spoiler*

This movie reminded me of an encounter at a conference that I had gone to a little while before I graduated with a PhD. A senior professor from another university asked what I planned on doing when I graduate, I said I wanted to be a professor, and he told me I should not do that, that I should let my husband find work, and I should stay home and take care of the kids. If looks could kill, that man would have been struck by lightning and pulverized on the spot. I don’t know what I said, it was to the effect that I didn’t do a PhD do be a housewife, but I was very visibly pissed, so much that he hastily excused himself and left.

In the coming years, I encountered several people who basically told me “Your poor husband!” when I informed them I was taking a faculty position and that my husband would be joining me (his staff job placement was part of my offer). Sure, my poor, poor husband; it totally sucks to have a job in your field waiting for you at the place where your spouse also has one.

I think my husband is probably the person with the highest job satisfaction that I know. He looooves his job. He does a combination of lab work and teaching, the job is not a high-stress one, and he can quit at 5 pm, come home, and not think about it till the next work day. I cannot imagine he could find another job that he would love quite as much. Implying that we would both be happier if he had to be the sole bread-winner, working in a very fast-paced industry, while I were at home with the kids, is completely ludicrous; such an arrangement would have destroyed us both.

News flash: not every man wants to be a corporate drone, and not every woman wants to be a stay-at-home mom. There are many men who are perfectly happy as stay-at-home parents or in jobs that are less high-powered than those of their female partners. Implying that men are incapable of being supportive of their spouse’s careers or the family in general without turning into a quivering, whiny pile of guilt-inducing crap is nothing but misandric patriarchal bullshit.

Droppings 3: Refereeing Adventures

Some posts that didn’t make the second-to-last cut for the collection I am working on.

Tales of Author A$$holishness

I review a lot of manuscripts. I think it’s an important service to the scientific community, and I feel that I don’t have the right to expect prompt and thoughtful reviews unless I am willing to provide them myself.

When I am the author, I spend a lot of time thinking about the responses received and do my best to address each comment and incorporate appropriate changes in the manuscript as much as possible. Very rarely, a comment is truly baseless or the referee is in error, but I still make sure I address said comment politely. Overwhelmingly, referee reports are useful and interesting, and result in a better manuscript, one which will be better appreciated by the scientific community.

In my experience as a referee, I find that most authors seem to be like me: they carefully address each item raised by the referee, if they disagree they do so very politely, and generally try really hard to incorporate changes and appreciate constructive feedback.


There are always jerk authors who think their work and presentation are beyond reproach, who act dismissively  towards a thoughtful and well-meaning referee report, or even insult the referee. I have an “Author Hall of Shame” with the names of authors who have been exceptionally  a$$holish when responding to one of my referee reports. No, actually I don’t, I am too lazy to do that, but I would lie if I said I did not remember the names of some of the worst offenders, in order to ensure that I never ever review anything of theirs again.

The unchallenged champion  a$$hole authors were those on a paper I reviewed a few years back. It was a technically solid, very long manuscript submitted to a society journal. I said that I liked the technical part and that the results were interesting, but that the presentation needed work. My comments were to shorten and tighten up the abstract, to distill some of the key points of the paper (it was all over the place, and it was really not clear what the novelty was until you really carefully went through the very long paper), and I requested that a broader introduction be made, emphasizing that this work may connect to such and such areas (stupid me, actually wanting to help them make the paper accessible to a broader audience).


The response I received was this flaming 6-page diatribe in which they argued how it was trivially obvious that points 1-5 were the novel aspects of the work (none of what they claimed to be novel was obvious, only 2 or 3 out of 5 became obvious to me after a careful reading of the initial manuscript, and they didn’t rewrite the paper to make anything clearer or more obvious), that one of the papers I suggested for them to cite had a huge abstract so there was no need for them to shorten theirs (again, idiot me for trying to suggest an improvement in information retrieval and readability), and overall the authors spent a tremendous amount of time basically trying to argue that I was full of $hit, that the paper was absolutely perfect, and that none of the comments had any merit.


I wrote back that I had never in my life received such a disrespectful response and that the authors should have spent the immense amount of time invested in the response letter on improving their manuscript instead. I was pissed for a week after that.


The paper then went back to another referee, who basically reviewed the correspondence and told the authors that they had gone too far with their response letter to me, and that none of what the authors insist on being novel was obvious at all from in the abstract, introduction, conclusion, and to anyone who did not read the paper in detail. After this arbitrator’s response, the authors made the requested changes and the paper was published. (I saw all the correspondence after the paper had been accepted and I felt vindicated after the other referee had basically seconded my concerns.)


Fun fact: This paper was, coincidentally, authored by two women. I can only imagine what the editor thought (“Catfight!” “PMS!”) reading the correspondence between two female authors and a female referee. I don’t know if the corresponding author got the memo that us lady scientists are supposed to be even better behaved than male scientists, because we always run the risk of being labeled emotional/hormonal/crazy…


Today I received another a$$holish response to one of my reports (not sure still if it’s “Author Hall of Shame” material), so I am fuming on the intertubes instead of working on a manuscript of my own. I basically recommended publication after minor revisions, but noticed that the authors cited themselves disproportionately much and it skewed the view of the field. I asked that they add more references (did not ask for any specific ones) that put their work in the broader context of the field and connect their work  to some of other closely related fields that are very active.


I get a response that they are puzzled by my assertion that there are too many of their own references, and that the connections to the other areas are interesting but that the subject is too broad to reference (so presumably they didn’t want to bother looking any up). Yes, referencing  a double-digit number of your own papers (although technically clustered under a few references, each reference containing multiple papers) is totally not too many among  a total of  twenty-ish references (the other ones being mostly single-paper references, and largely written by  people you list in the acknowledgments). Yeah. A youngster picking up your paper will totally get a balanced view of the field.

When  a nice  referee asks that you add some references to more broadly represent the state of the art in the introduction, just fuckin’ do it! I did not make anyone perform new and expensive experiments, or even run new simulations, just spend an afternoon on the Web of Science. DO IT! It’s for your own paper’s good. More often than not, that way you will discover some interesting papers you probably should have discovered previously anyway. Knowing the literature and where the state-of-the-art is in your subfield and closely related ones are important. Ignore them at your own peril.

I have to say one thing: among the authors who are jerks when resubmitting, Europeans make an overwhelming majority (I go by who the corresponding author is, or who signed the response letter, if applicable). In particular, there is a specific country in Europe that seems to breed surprisingly bellicose corresponding authors. Not sure why that is.

WTF people. I invest my time and energy to review manuscripts, and do it for free. If you are dismissive or disrespectful, next time I will simply not review your paper. And if our paths cross at a conference, I will go out of my way to not talk to you because I have it black-on-white that you are an ass.

I welcome you to share your own stories from the reviewer trenches.

Droppings 2: Lean In

Some posts that didn’t make the second-to-last cut for the collection I am working on.

Book review: “Lean In,” by Sheryl Sandberg
I have read the much discussed book “Lean In,” by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and I can say it is clear that the vast majority of people bashing her have not, in fact, read the book.

I loved it. First, it is very well written, no doubt thanks to Nell Scovell, the professional writer with whom Sandberg partnered. When you read through the acknowledgements, you see that there are many people who really wanted the book to happen and who lent their time and editorial expertise to this enterprise.

I really enjoyed the book and could not put it down. Trust me, this is really high praise, because I am extremely impatient and I readily drop a book if it starts to bore me; god knows I have abandoned many more books in recent years due to sheer boredom than I have finished reading. Sandberg shares many anecdotes from her life, and feels authentic and quite vulnerable at times.

There is so much more to this book besides the “lean in” paradigm. For those of you who have somehow managed to escape all the chatter about Sandberg’s TED talk or the book, she argues that, in order to make things better for all women everywhere, there must be more women at the top, and, in order to get to the top, women have to “lean in” to their careers. She posits that women make many small choices along the way in which they don’t go for the most professionally rewarding route because they feel it is incompatible with their families, often well ahead of actually having a family or even a partner. Sandberg argues that families take time and sacrifice, but the time to step back is when the kids are there, not years ahead. Career women should keep the pedal to the metal for as long as possible, in order for the best opportunities to be available to them after they are ready to return to work. Having a rewarding and challenging job to go back to is the best way to ensure that you really want to go back after having kids and feel it’s worth it to leave them with someone else. As Sandberg says of a woman in the book, “[she] now refers to herself as a “career-loving parent,” a nice alternative to “working mom.”

The paragraph above summarizes, I feel, what almost everyone else has been arguing about in regards to Sandberg’s book. I personally agree with her, and feel too many women are holding themselves back, in addition to facing significant institutional obstacles. (There are people who disagree with the “lean in” premise, who think she has no right to say anything to anyone let alone write a book because she’s wealthy or variously privileged or simply female so how dare she be successful and/or give advice, or they think that she’s ruining her children etc. I have no intention to get into it here. Nicoleandmaggie have alink aggregator that  leads to some depressing, vitriolic comment threads elsewhere.)

Bottom line is that most people actually seem to discuss the material from Sandberg’s TED talk and basically just Chapter 7 in the book. But, there is so much other goodness in this book that you would never hear about because the loudest mouths out there don’t seem to have read it. So here’s the table of contents.

Introduction: Internalizing the Revolution
1. The Leadership Ambition Gap: What Would You Do if You Weren’t Afraid? 
2. Sit at the Table
3. Success and Likeability
4. It’s a Jungle Gym, Not a Ladder
5. Are You My Mentor? 
6. Seek and Speak Your Truth 
7. Don’t Leave Before You Leave
8. Make Your Partner a Real Partner
9. The Myth of Doing It All
10. Let’s Start Talking About It
11. Working Together Toward Equality
Let’s keep talking…

Like Laura Vanderkam, I felt I wanted to underline this book on  many pages. But, I don’t like to underline books,  so I will rely on my faulty memory. Sandberg presents really nicely (with ample references throughout the book) the main issues that prevent women from reaching their potential, such as women facing the “double bind” — when women are ambitious, they are less likable, because they act agentic (stereotypically male) and thus deviate from the societal expectation that women are communal (care for others, stereotypically female). Success is positively correlated with likeability in men, but negatively in women. Sandberg lists some strategies for success, such as advocating strongly for others, which shows a woman as both competent and communal, and that this is another reason why many women advancing is a good thing because they can be each other’s advocates (apparently it worked for four female senior executives at Merrill Lynch). There is also a  wonderful analogy that, for women or anyone else who wants to have a life, the career path to the top is not a ladder, which would imply only one way up and really waiting for a long time, staring at someone’s butt, but instead a jungle gym, where you can get to the top via a multitude of different routes.

The chapter on mentorship (Chapter 5) was a real eye-opener for me. Sandberg says that women have received the information that having mentors (people to advise you) and sponsors (people who will champion you) is important, but  “…Searching for a mentor has become the professional equivalent of waiting for Prince Charming… Now young women are told that if they can just find the right mentor, they will be pushed up the ladder and whisked away to the corner office to live happily ever after. Once again, we are teaching women to be too dependent on others.”

“Studies show that mentors select proteges based on performance and potential. Intuitively, people invest in those who stand out for their talent or who can really benefit from help. Mentors continue to invest when mentees use their time well and are truly open to feedback…” Graduate students, take note.

“We need to stop telling [women] “Get a mentor and you will excel.” Instead, we need to tell them, “Excel and you will get a mentor.””

“Few mentors have time for excessive hand-holding. Most are dealing with their own high-stress jobs. A mentee who is positive and prepared can be a bright spot in the day. For this same reason, mentees should avoid complaining excessively to a mentor. Using a mentor’s time to validate feelings may help psychologically, but it’s better to focus on specific problems with real solutions. Most people in the position to mentor are quite adept at problem solving. Give them a problem to solve.” This part really resonated with me, because, in the past, I have certainly been guilty of expecting too much from my mentors and often felt disappointed.

In addition to being smart and driven, Sandberg had mentors, luck, and help along the way, all of which she readily acknowledges. She comes across as honest, warm, and wise, and the book is both funny and inspiring. Pick up a copy and enjoy!

Droppings 1: Service and Manuscript Review Questions

Some posts that didn’t make the second-to-last cut for the collection I am working on.

Academic Service, Take Eleventy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manuscript Review Questions

Among comments to the previous post, Nick and Mizumi asked two questions that warrant a longer response.

Nick asked: I was not given a chance to review the paper post changes. Is this normal? As an author I just assumed that my responses always went back to the reviewer for final approval, but I guess not? If the flaws are major enough, do I request to see the authors’ response prior to final acceptance? 

I am speaking here from an author’s perspective, and some of the responses may be field specific (I am in a hard STEM field). Those of you who are editors or simply in a different field, please chime in and correct/add.

If all referees requested minor revisions, it is likely that the editor will just look over the resubmission letter and make a decision without a second round of review. If the review featured a mix of minor and major revision requests, the resubmission can go back to all reviewers or it can only go back to those who requested major revisions (whereas they are sometimes asked to make sure the authors considered all the suggestions in all the reports). Indeed, when you request mandatory revisions, the resubmitted paper will most likely come back to you for a second round of review.

However, it is possble for you, as a reviewer, to request mandatory revisions and still not get the paper back. The scenarios in which this happens are the following:

(a) the other referee convincingly argues that the paper is beyond salvation, so the editor rejects it flat out and does not encourage resubmission;

(b) the other referee requires major revisions or recommends rejection, the editor does encourage resubmission, but the authors decide the reviews are so negative that it is not worth their time to try to fight it and never resubmit. They may go to another journal, but if they are smart they will take your review into account before submitting anywhere else.

(c) same as (b), but where the authors decide to wait a couple of months to resubmit. Due to the delay, the paper is considered a new submission and assigned a new set of reviewers;

(d) your review was so negative that the authors argued you were needlessly hostile and/or not objective, and they requested that the paper not be sent to you any more but that another referee be chosen. The editor was convinced and complied, so you as a referee are supplanted at resubmission. (FSP has a postthat describes this scenario.)

I would say that (a), (b), and (c) are fairly common. I don’t know if (d) has ever happened to me as a reviewer, but I have been on a team where we were the authors in a (d) scenario; once or twice we actually did get another reviewer.

As for final acceptance, the decision is ultimately in the hands of the editor. You as a reviewer are really advisory to the editor, and editors usually follow the reviewers’ recommendations, but the final decision is the editors’. I am sure, though, that if a decision has been made on the paper you reviwed, you can shoot the editor an email and ask for a status update. I might have done that once or twice, and the response each time was that the authors never resubmitted.

@ Mizumi: Are there opinions on what is “fair” number of reviews to accept? Over the past few years as a PhD student and then postdoc I’ve maybe drawn 8-10 reviews per year. Does that mean 8-10 is a good number to take on, so at least I am not a net drain on reviewer resources?

Mizumi, how many papers to review per year is really a question of how much time you have and how much you like reviewing papers. It’s an activity that is fun to do every so often (after all, it’s the fun science you get to read and help improve), but it does become a chore if you are under constant siege. One paper a month, which is approximately what you have been doing, is likely feasible even for very busy people. Would you be able to do one review every two weeks? How about one review per week? I think more than one a week (~ 50 per year) is difficult to accommodate. Unfortunately, the higher you are on the totem pole, the more requests you get per unit time — easily multiple requests per week. My goal is to hover around 1/week, but I will usually end up having 2 or 3 on my desk at any point in time, and another one or two which I have delegated to my students or postdocs. For instance, I review papers from multiple journals, maybe 8-10 journals fairly regularly. So even if each journal sends you a paper once a month, that’s still plenty.

As with most things in life, start on the lighter side — 1 or 2 papers per month are certainly a good service to your community, and the load will likely not smother you.

I am curious to hear how much of a review load other people have (please state career stage) and, from our readers who are also editors, how much refereeing load they think is appropriate.


On Chasing Dreams, or Not: A Post Devoid of Coherence

So here I am, watching Dinosaur Train with my 4-year-old. He’s sitting with me, or, more precisely, on as well as around me, in a big armchair. He keeps moving around and poking me with his elbow, as he repositions and props himself up.

I learn about new dinosaur species. Scott the Paleontologist — who reminds me of one of my former students, and appears to be dying his hair these days — ends every episode by prompting the viewers to go into nature and make their own discoveries. In this episode, he tells the kids about what  paleontologists do. He says that maybe they will become the next generation of paleontologists.

My first thought is, “Yeah, right. Like you can actually get a job working as a paleontologist. How many jobs are out there?”

Eldest’s high-school swim season is in full swing. There was an alumni meet recently, some former graduates came back and swam against the team. One of the most impressive alumni swims in college. During his high-school time, he was not only a state record holder in multiple swimming events, but was also a decorated track-and-field athlete. Some people are just born for sports; there is no amount of hard work or grit can make someone with no natural ability become comparable to a guy like this one. And he’s probably not even elite-level, Olympics material. But it sure was amazing to see how he cuts through water like a knife. A very fast knife.

We seem to believe that elite-level sports and arts are the province of only the supremely talented, who can then become great with proper training and hard work. But when it comes to academic pursuits, it seems to be a very bad idea to suggest that some people just don’t have enough talent to pursue certain fields of study.

I am not saying that everyone can’t learn some basic algebra, but let’s face it, you may have done OK as far as high school math goes, but that might be your limitation; maybe you should not be majoring in a field that requires a lot of math. Yet, it seems nobody is allowed to suggest that. As that student of whom Scott the Paleontologist reminds me said once upon a time, it’s very un-American to imply that someone cannot do something. It’s totally fine to say that, as long as professional sports are concerned and I suppose the arts, but math and physics are inherently learnable, arbitrarily well, by everyone? Puh-leez.

Being middle-aged is apparently a universally grumpy age. I hear Scott the Paleontologist calling out to young bone excavators, and the first thing I think about is how there are no jobs. On the one hand, that is true. There are no jobs. On the other hand, the world would be a crappy, crappy place if everyone played it safe and became hospice nurses, as that’s a pretty sure bet as far as jobs go, with all the aging boomers.

We spend a lot of time in the blogosphere lamenting how PIs don’t discourage their students and postdocs enough away from pursuing PI-dom. But here’s the deal: some people can and will become PIs. They mostly come from top schools, but there are good and successful people everywhere.

I am vacillating between wanting to be responsible, discouraging people from pursing what is for many an unattainable station, and not wanting to be condescending, not pretending to know what people want and are able to do better than even themselves.

But let’s face it. There are folks who don’t have what it takes to make it in a competitive and selective career. Sometimes, what they lack is talent. Other times, it’s the things that is attained by privilege or luck. Let’s at least tell them that it will be very, very hard.

There is a young faculty member in my department who came with a ridiculously fancy pedigree. He’s a great guy, smart and creative, and quite funny. The other day he was musing on how students should all TA (I agree!) so that they would see if they like teaching (I agree! Also, to become better at presenting in front of an audience!), and if they do like teaching, then they might want to become professors. I almost peed myself with laughter, metaphorically of course; I poker face held and I said nothing. What I wanted to say is that he thinks the only thing that stands between someone and a faculty position is the love of teaching because he came from the upper echelons of academia, recommended highly by the leading lights in the field. His own graduate students will not have such a pedigree. It is not impossible, but is certainly not a given that, just because his student likes teaching, they will become faculty. And let’s not bullshit ourselves; this is a research university, whether or not you can develop an independent research program and raise money is nearly all that matters. Whether or not someone enjoys teaching is an afterthought. It shouldn’t be, but it is.

Competitive endeavors are competitive. Professional trajectories are described by highly nonlinear differential equations; initial conditions matter a lot.

But talent matters in everything. Let’s please not trivialize intellectual pursuits as something that can be mastered with enough grit.

I remember a friend from college, who spoke several languages fluently. Initially, the friend majored in theoretical physics (same as me), but left the program after the second year, “Every A in the major takes me so much effort, while the languages and the writing are so effortless.” The friend went on to learn several more languages and is a freelance journalist living abroad.

Very few people succeed at anything competitive. They have the combination of talent, training, mental toughness, and luck. If holds for sports, it holds for the sciences. Please, please let’s not encourage the people who don’t have much talent to major in the areas in which their talents don’t reside.

But we have to have people pursuing dreams.

Perhaps the worst disappointments come when you are almost elite, but not quite. When you are better and more talented than so many, and everyone thinks you will make it to the top, and you give it your all, but you fall just a little bit short of the golden ring. Many kids swim in high school and happily so, knowing there is no competitive future for them beyond the team. My son is among these kids, and enjoys every second of his time on the team. He gets physical fitness and great memories. It’s the kids who win golds in high school but are never offered swimming scholarships, or those who start swimming in college but realize they are now out of their league and quit, or those who go to the Olympic tryouts but never quite make it.

The endeavor needs enough people starting out, so that enough good ones could almost make it and enough great ones do.

Chances of not succeeding at anything competitive are much greater than of succeeding. It’s heartbreaking to fail. But is it always the best idea to discourage the people from even trying? Should we as PIs at good but non-elite schools actively try to stomp out every inclination of all our progeny to even dream of a professorship because the chances are really slim? I try to let my students know as much as I can about what the job is; for most, that’s enough to turn them off. But there are some in whom I see the fire and the combination of skills and determination, and I think they could, with coaching and some luck, make it. Should I tell them to forget it just because, even for them, the odds of not succeeding are high?

Maybe grumpy disillusioned farts like me should not be in the business of squandering dreams. ‘Cause if no one has dreams and aspirations, we are all screwed.

Stephen King’s “On Writing”

I had never read a Stephen King book until I picked up his “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft,” which Eldest had borrowed from a friend and left on the dining room table. I can tell why the man has sold millions of books. “On Writing” is part memoir, part writing advice, and I couldn’t put it down! I can only imagine how his actual thrillers must read.

I had never read anything by King because I have always had this vague impression that he’s the horror guy, and I really cannot either read or watch horror; if I do, I can’t sleep for days; I am like a total baby. I saw the movie Carrie at some point and I am sure a few others of his (like the show Under the Dome), which only solidified this preconception that his writing would be too creepy for me. Plus, in the interest of full disclosure, I have heard from several people close to me that his books are shallow. I think I will have to re-evaluate both my own snobbery and that of the advice givers.

King grew up lower middle class, but both he and his brother were apparently highly intelligent and finished college. He was raised by a single mother and knew nothing about the father. While they struggled financially and King worked a number of pretty grueling, low-wage jobs starting in high school and well past college, into his family-building years, he always had the support for his craft at home, since an early age, which is indicative of his mother having been an open-minded and educated person.

It’s interesting why he wrote this book. The answer comes from a conversation with his friend and novelist Amy Tan, who said that popular writers like them were never asked “about the language,” i.e., about their craft. As if penning a story that sells is orthogonal to good writing; as if being able to connect with millions of people, book after book, is not an extraordinary gift worth understanding.

It turns out King is very passionate and very serious about his craft, and has a lot to say about it. He insists on lots and lots of writing and lots and lots of reading, and himself writes daily with a 2,000-word quota.  He subscribes to the Strunk and White “adverbs are evil” mantra and has strong feelings about grammar and vocabulary. He connects writing a story to unearthing a fossil. I was amazed to read that he doesn’t plot; the throws the characters together and sees what they do. (I found this liberating, because the biggest obstacle I have in venturing into writing fiction is doubting that I can come up with a clever enough plot. Maybe I should just get over myself and let the plot develop organically.) King also says he doesn’t believe in a traditional muse; his muse is a grouchy middle-aged guy with a beer gut, whom you need to teach that he has a job to show up to daily, during your regularly scheduled writing time, and eventually he will. King insists that a lot of damage has been done by people insisting that substance abuse is inextricably connected with creative work — he posits that that maybe there is a higher incidence of abuse among the creative types, but that it doesn’t matter, as everyone looks equally disgusting puking their guts out. He had a period of near-constant drunkenness and drug abuse, which ended shortly after an intervention by his wife and friends. By the way, through the book, his love and admiration for his wife, writer Tabitha King, shines clearly and brightly; it is quite sweet and was thus unexpected (to me), considering his propensity for the grim and the gruesome.

Let me wrap up with a few insights that are pertinent to a life in academic science:

  • Once on a project, he doesn’t stop unless he has to; otherwise the characters go stale in his mind. I can totally relate to this, but it seems this is not an option for us academic writers at all, or anyone who’s not self-employed. There are many situations in which I wish I could go on writing papers or proposals, but other work and family obligations require I drop it. Ah, the gift of large blocks of time.
  • “If there is any one thing I love about writing more than the rest, it’s that sudden flash of insight when you see how everything connects.” Need I say more?
  • He recommends writing the first draft with closed doors and quickly, fueled by enthusiasm and fast enough to outrun any self-doubt. When the first draft is done, have your Ideal Reader read it. Then leave it for at least 6 weeks and go work on something else. And then read, edit, and only then send to a larger pool of no more than a dozen friends and colleagues. This is excellent advice for paper writing but especially for grant proposals. If I could write a proposal and then have it sit for 6 weeks before it’s time to submit and if I could routinely count on friends to read proposals and give me feedback (instead of never, now that I am a grownup scientist), I bet that would be amazing.
  • Perhaps the best insight from the text has to do with King’s desk. For years he had this massive desk in the middle of  his study and was drunk and stoned behind it. After he had gotten clean, he got rid of the desk, purchased a smaller one and put it in the corner. The rest of the room was then furnished as a family area, where his kids would come to hang out with him. The desk size and placement are a methaphor:  Life is not a support system for art (or science). It’s exactly the other way around.

Theory and Computation Carnival (Repost)

(Originally appeared here.)

A few weeks ago, with his post “What do theoretical physicsts actually do?”, Thoreau inspired me to write a post about what my work entails. But, theory and computation are certainly not the province of physics, and an idea for this carnival was born. I am very excited to share with you a wonderful set of entries from scientists at different stages in their career, from academia and industry, and spanning a number of different fields.

Thoreau at Unqualified Offerings describes his career trajectory, from becoming a theorist in a somewhat unconventional way to being a physics professor. He discusses the multiple facets of his work and shares the joys and excitement that come from cracking a really important longstanding problem.

HFM left a comment, which I reposted as a guest post for easier reading. HFM is a graduate student who considers themselves a “semi-theorist” in that they interface closely with experimentalists but can speak the pure theorists’ language well, too. HFM considers making sense of complex data their strength, and writes about the likes (variety) and dislikes (not belonging anywhere, hard to find a postdoc) of their daily work.

Bee who blogs at Backreaction is a theoretical physicist who works on the phenomenology (a part of theory that makes connection to experiment) of quantum gravity. She writes about her field in accessible terms and discusses what it takes to make a successful model, one that addresses certain experimental features while maintaining mathematical consistency. She also shares that, when working on a paper, she will frequently communicate with others in the same field, travel to conferences or organize a workshop.

Miss MSE over at Periodic Boundary Conditions tells us about her work employing the molecular dynamics technique. She studies interfaces between polymer and nonpolymer systems, systems where “there’s no good way to study them experimentally without fundamentally changing the structure, and therefore the properties, of the interface.” She loves how broadly applicable the technique is, talks about here code-development experiences, and emphasizes that everything she does is informed by experiments.

Anonymous Mad Scientist in a Strange Land writes about his work on first-principles quantum-mechanical calculations used to look at interfaces of materials in systems previously computationally inaccessible due to their complexity. He also shares how he’s always wanted to be a theorist, and how his career progressed so far, leading him to his current position as a postdoc in France.

Dr. Sneetch of The Sneetch Blog is a mathematician who enjoys crossing the boundary between pure and applied math seamlessly, following her work. She feels that, with mathematicians, you cannot separate the person from the work, that “Mathematics sustains and nourishes us as much as we sustain and nourish it. There is no distinction between the person and the mathematician and perspectives matters.” Dr. Sneetch also talks about the singular focus necessary to do research in mathematics.

Pika from Academic International writes about her work in a pseudonymous field of Beachinformatics. She says that she’s always been interested in applied mathematics and discusses several aspects of her work, such as data mining and visualization, that are inherent in dealing with complex data systems.

In her daily work, Rebecca from Adventures in Applied Math helps scientists of different specialties with their computational woes. Rebecca wrote an interesting post that emphasizes how computational techniques cross the boundaries between fields very well: scientists in many different specialties all need to solve partial differential equations, eigenvalue problems, or simply need their codes to run faster or parallelize better.

ScienceGirl from Curiosity Killed the Cat writes how being a computer scientist focused on scientific computing enables her to satisfy her great curiosity in all fields of science, as she says “Performing computation in a smart way to do unprecedented science. I don’t really care what science – physics, climate, medical research, all are important and all fascinating. So I know I’ve chosen my trade well – as a computer scientist, I get to have my fingers in any of them!”

Cloud from Wandering Scientist brings the perspective of “a scientist and a techie” with a career in the biotech industry. For example, she likes the variety of her work, the intellectual challenges, and when wearing a project manager’s hat, “figuring out how to bring all the pieces together to get a project to complete successfully- it is like a big logic problem.” She is not too keen on some of the corporate politics and the industry’s volatility.

Nauromath contributed a guest post. His field is theoretical neuroscience, and in his work he tries to understand how the brain works by studying in detail the environment we live in. He also discusses how his work addresses some of the limitations of experiments and reveals a great passion for his work, because, as he says “brains are very cool,” and there are many open problems where the theoretical approaches he develops are the best bet for a solution.

A related guest post was contributed by Dr. Cow, who is interested in “human cognition, specifically developmental cognitive neuroscience.” Dr. Cow discusses why computation is useful in this line of research, and cites reasons such as inability to run experiments directly “either because of a gap in methodology or due to ethical considerations” and the ability of computational methods to “define the complex and dynamic relationship between the neural structures and behavioral outcomes.”

Gasstationwithoutpumps contributed a post on his work as a bioinformatician. In contrast to, for instance, computational physics where typically one uses a computer to solve a mathematical model, his work is not model-driven but data-driven. He says “It is rare in bioinformatics that we get to build models that explain how things work. Instead we rely on measuring the predictive accuracy of “black-box” predictors, where we can control the inputs and look at the outputs, but the workings inside are not accessible.” He also talks about the research path he took to his current field.

Thanks to all the wonderful bloggers who took the time to contribute to this carnival and share what it is that makes us, theorists and computational scientist, enjoy our work so much. There is a great deal of passion for their craft that radiates from each one of these posts and I trust you will find it contagious. Enjoy!