Professorial Vignettes

Breaking news: Professors procrastinate!

There is a book chapter that I need to work on. I really don’t want to, but it’s one of those things that you do because you promised, and you promised because you want to do a favor to the person who asked, but in reality it’s a lot of work, it’s boring work, it has a deadline right when you have family visiting, and it has a very low impact-to-effort ratio.

On the upside, I suppose I know a lot of people, and I do favors for a lot of nice colleagues. On the downside, it’s still fuckin’ boring and I don’t really want to do it.

The first draft is not great. The student who wrote it is smart and competent, but far from producing wonderful first drafts, partly owing to poor command of the language. The deadline is in three days, and I have a ridiculous amount of work to still do on it.

I really, really don’t want to do the work. Obviously, I MUST blog. NOW.

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That proposal that ticked me off a week or so ago.

The most infuriating comment that I got, which I sometimes/often do, is that the reviewer doesn’t believe that I can do what I say I can do, despite preliminary data and/or published papers demonstrating that I know how to use the technique, and clear pointers to these markers of my expertise under “Technical Approaches.” The critique is basically along the lines of — these are great, awesome ideas, and you are attacking this problem from several different directions. But I cannot believe that you are actually qualified to attack from all these different directions with all these different techniques, because most people use just one or two techniques. You cannot possibly be able to use all of them. I am unconvinced that you are an expert in all of them (I am), and it would be much better if you got yourself a really strong postdoc or better yet a collaborator to make sure you can use this very complicated technique (that’s not all that complicated, but I bet is the technique the reviewer is most familiar with).

So I need a freakin’ chaperone. I need to find a collaborator who does one of the techniques that the referee doesn’t believe I can do, and I likely have to give that person money (a subaward) to join the proposal and do the work that I know can be done in my group.

This is bias, and my gender is part of it. I have papers, I have preliminary data, I have a great proposal, and all the referees say that the questions posed are very exciting and important. But one doesn’t believe I can possibly know how to do all that I say I will do.

Sometimes I see this type of comment when reading reviews for a centers grant that I have been on for years. Sometimes people tell us that our ideas are literally too big for us, that if those same ideas came from MIT or a place like that they would be fine, but they don’t believe that here, at a state university, we have the chops to execute our vision.

Which reminds me of…

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… A Young Whippersnapper with a great pedigree lamenting how everyone here seems defeated. How people are tempering their expectations, how people don’t believe that they are worthy of top students, or top journals, or top recognition. And how this affects our science, and how it is a disservice to our students because it instills in them that they are unworthy, too.

He is right. He is also wrong.

When you have been brought up in the creme-de-la-creme of academic environments, you see greatness, you are part of greatness, and you expect greatness of yourself and for yourself. It’s like being inoculated at academic birth against the curse of impostor syndrome.  (Being a dude helps. It seems that the vaccine is particularly effective in dudes, especially when surrounded by other dudes.)

But there are some real (i.e., not imagined) limits to achievement here. There are students who pass up this place for more highly ranked ones. There are faculty candidates that refuse our offer to go elsewhere. There are undergrads who work here, are happy to have your help in getting an NSF Grad Research Fellowship but then take that money with them to a better-ranked school. There are papers that don’t get accepted to the top journals from here. There are grants that you don’t get because reviewers don’t actually believe you can do on your own the things you say you want to do, as it’s just too cool for you.

It leaves a mark. I don’t know what happens to Young Whippersnappers after a decade or two here. Maybe their inoculation never expires, and they never stop believing that greatness and accolades and the highest of achievements are their academic birthright, because they are so damn awesome. Maybe they are indeed awesomer than the rest of us.

But I didn’t train in a top-echelon environment like the Young Whippersnapper did. There was definitely a level of journal where my well-known and well-respected advisor still thought it was a great achievement to publish. I too have journals where I think I am a shoo-in, but there are definitely others after which  I think I can go only rarely and only when I have really good stuff. In contrast, I know colleagues who think every turd-nugget they produce is gold, and shoot for the moon with every single submission. Ah, Dunning-Kruger, where are you when I need you?

The Young Whippersnapper thinks that the likes of me make students doubt themselves, so the students never rise to their full, partly megalomaniacal potential. He may have a point. You have to believe you are awesome to go for the big rewards.

I don’t know how I can teach that to my students when I don’t believe it myself. I think that being able to eat comes first, then lofty goals, such as publishing in N@!ure. My students are smart, very smart; some are extraordinarily smart. But, as I often tell them, this is not MIT and I am not famous. My name does not magically open doors. (Well, it opens some, a fair number it seems, but there’s no magic there and not all of them are the doors to the Kingdom of Awesomeness). I can promise them we will do good, rigorous science, we will write good and interesting papers, I will teach them how to write, present, review, and generally do everything that a professional scientist has to do, I will give them opportunities to network and develop skills beyond their major so they can increase employability… I will basically help them get ready for Plan A, whatever their Plan A is, but also for Plan B, so they can actually get a well-paying job if Plan A falls through.

But pragmatism, being ready to fail, is the antithesis of greatness! You must never suspect you could ever possibly fail!

I think that type of self-delusion is not accessible to (most) women in science. I have been smacked down so often and so hard when I have tried to do work that is too cool, or submit it to journals “above my station,” that I would be really, really stupid if I didn’t learn to correct my course for how people perceive me.

Rule #1. Published in a lower-tier journal is better than unpublished (or delayed due to battle with referees for months or years). Because once you are published, people can read the work, and cite it, and build upon it.

Rule #2. Funded is better than not funded. Even if you have to tack on a collaborator that you don’t necessarily need to do the work, just so you can placate the biased reviewer and show that you understand and accept the account of your own incapability, and have brought a real expert on board. Because once you are funded, you can actually do the work, and bring your really cool ideas to the light of day.

Maybe we should give all the faculty posts everywhere to pedigreed Young Whippersnappers. Oh, wait. We already do.
Never mind.

******

I keep telling myself that grants are not a measure of a scientist. Grants are a means to do science.

It would take some serious delusion to believe this in my college, where perceived merit strongly correlated with funding.

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What replenishes your scientific well? Especially when all you have been doing is putting yourself out there (grants and papers) with zeal, but fatigue and constant criticism are wearing you down?

******

I need a serious vacation. After a student graduates, and mom leaves, and another paper goes in, and I spend a few days working non-stop in Washington, DC, I will take a week, maybe two, to just stay at home and watch Netflix.

Which brings us to this classic, which is yet again oh-so-appropriate:

ComicAug042014_PerceptionSummer

9 comments

  1. Alas, next sabbatical is not for another two years. My first and so far only sabbatical was 5 years ago; I spent it caring for a newborn, organizing a major conference, and writing grants… Some time off the treadmill would be great, although when you have students and grants, you never really get to take a break. And with small kids and a spouse who works, it’s not in the cards for me to go anywhere for an extended period any time soon. But it would be really nice in principle.

  2. At UC we can take a quarter off after 9 quarters—more frequent shorter sabbaticals seems to work well. Actually, it is possible to do more frequent ones if you don’t mind less pay—you can trade in sabbatical leave credits and any rate from 1/9 salary (using up one credit) to full salary (using up 9 credits). If you could afford it, you could do one quarter on, one quarter off. Can’t work elsewhere during sabbatical leave, though.

  3. That’s great! Here the sabbatical is once every 7 years, either 1 semester off at 100% pay or 2 semesters off at 60% pay. I would not mind more frequent sabbaticals.

  4. Sorry to hear about that reviewer comments. Incredibly infuriating. Hope you do get a week or two to relax. Sounds much deserved and needed.

  5. Also, thanks for reposting your summer / faculty plot. I was just about to go looking for it to post on social media.

  6. appropriate time to post that comic – I was just looking at it forlornly yesterday in “Academaze,” thinking about my failed writing goals for the summer :/

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