Month: November 2017

Sunday Smorgasbord

To editor of a scientific journal: After you’ve been sitting on my manuscript for over a week after the reports had come in, without making a decision, I may not take kindly the fact that you wrote to me to hurry up with my own review of another manuscript in your journal.

Favorite time of day: The 10 min I spend in my car after I’ve parked it in the garage at work. It’s 10 min of listening to the radio, browsing the web on my phone, sipping my Venti Pike Roast with nonfat milk, bracing myself to get out and face the day.

To anyone among the readers who’s also a writer: If you have a writing group or writing buddies who are helpful, how did you find them? I do ask some people I know for feedback on occasion (thank you!), but I know I’m imposing. I would like a reciprocal critiquing framework.

By way of Wandering Scientist, a great article on the global profile of birth-control use and abortion practices.

Easy bread pudding

A cat trying to pet a bird

Brilliant Student

Emily asked:

A problem I’ve been having recently. I’m newish faculty (in my second year!) at an R1, and one of very few women in my department, which makes it hard to go to other people for advice on this.

I have a new student this year, and she’s, well, brilliant. I think of theory as really having two major components – there’s the technical stuff, which you can learn in classes, and there’s the more intuitive part, which is how people learn how to ask good questions, and is how you get a ‘feel’ for data. I’m good enough technically, but I have a career because I’m very good at the second part. It’s also worth noting that I’m in a subfield where good theory is usually close to experiment, and where mathematical frameworks don’t really exist yet.

Anyway – my new student. She worked in the field as an undergrad, and it turns out that she has a better understanding of the literature than most postdocs in our department. She’s technically not great, but she’s solidly at the top of her classes, so I expect that she’ll be at a point where there’s not much I can teach her in that respect in a year or two. And most importantly – she asks REALLY good questions. She’s been here for two months and I’m already planning on writing a grant based on something she brought up! And no, I spoke with her old undergrad advisor, these aren’t things that she lifted from his group and is pretending to have thought of, even accidentally.

I don’t know what to do with her. I’m encouraging her to spend a lot of time on classes and get her technical skills up to par, but beyond that – I don’t know how to help her. If I were to honestly advise her I would tell her to find someone else to work with – she’s going to be a better scientist than me very quickly. Or I can graduate her very quickly. Or I can just give her a lot of independence while keeping tabs on her, and treat her like some combination of a 20 year old and a senior postdoc?

Anyway, help?

I think it’s awesome you are looking out for the student and recognizing her potential.

There are several aspects here.

Don’t assume that just because a student is talented that they will necessarily quickly surpass you. You still have more experience, and I know that I always have plenty to teach even the most brilliant students. Also, first impressions are first impressions; it’s guaranteed that there are things she lacks or could be better at on account of simply being human and thus not perfect. Maybe she needs help with writing. Maybe she has trouble finishing what she started. You’ll see.

Your field is male dominated, math/computation-heavy. I cannot stress enough the importance of a good, supportive PhD advisor (hint: you!) who is also a role model.

You might think that the student deserves someone better, someone more famous, more flashy. That’s your impostor syndrome talking. I was the same with the first student who I’d thought was very talented when I first stared out; I thought I was unworthy of such a good student and was going to encourage him to move to a more hotshot prof so I wouldn’t ‘ruin’ him! Luckily, the hotshot advisor gently told me that I would be a fine advisor for the student, and that I should be a little selfish, and actually hold on to the good ones. Note: Hotshots are usually a little (or a lot) selfish and it serves them well. Learn from them.

Work with the student to the best of your ability, give her freedom, but also give her as many tools she doesn’t yet have and the full benefit of your expertise, whatever you can. Prepare her for the big cold world that may not be will definitely not be as welcoming to her genius as you are (because female geniuses are always qualified, doubted, or put down). Sending her to someone more famous might end up working out great, but it might also completely squash her if she has to battle someone’s ego, potential sexism, or plain advising neglect. Caring, as you do, it priceless. You can be a good coach even though you think that your player might have more raw talent than you.

And help her work on her weaknesses. Everyone has them, it’s an absolute guarantee. Sooner or later, as you keep working with her, you’ll figure out that she’s only human, there are things that she doesn’t know or doesn’t do very well, and you can help her. I’ve had several students where the initial reaction was “Wow, this kid is way smarter than me!” It turns out I invariably have plenty to teach such kids, mostly because my mix of abilities is different than their mix of abilities, plus I have more experience in work and life.

So forget about doing the student a disservice. Be grateful for the opportunity to work with her, advise her in the most creative and selfless way you can, and try to inoculate her, with your devoted advising, against the indifferent, cruel work of academic science that awaits her after she leaves your group.

Blogosphere, what do you say? 



Thoughts on Moving on the Tenure Track

lyra211 had a question after a recent post on moving in academia:

Do you have any sense of whether similar advice applies for lateral moves between liberal arts colleges? I genuinely do love my current department, and would be sad to leave, but there’s pretty much squat for job opportunities for my husband where we live, and I know there’s an impending retirement in a department at a similar liberal arts college in a more desirable geographic location — it would be a significant step up personally, and a lateral move professionally (there are pros and cons of the two institutions that more or less balance each other out). Should I talk to the faculty members I know there, let them know I’m interested, and ask them to keep me in mind? Is it better to wait until they have a job ad out (which will probably be after I have tenure, since I’m in year 5 now), even though it would probably be an ad for an assistant prof and I’d be associate?

There were some good comments after lyra211’s post, go check them out.

Here are some of my thoughts.

Is your department healthy and generally supportive of you? Do you feel they are invested in junior faculty? Are you certain that you’ll get tenure and that the department would work hard to keep you in the face of a competing offer?

Or do you feel that your tenure is uncertain, or that if they heard you were leaving, they’d say “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out”?

My department is of the former kind, and we really work hard to make sure junior folks are happy and productive. I can say for a fact that nobody would begrudge a well-performing faculty member for leaving, especially if there’s a personal reason. It happened a few years ago; a nearly tenured faculty member had to leave as there were no opportunities here for his wife, even after the department, college, and the provost’s office have tried everything under the sun. (In fact, there were options, but she wouldn’t settle for a career downgrade, and kudos to her, so the husband moved to the big city where she had plenty of business connections.) It was a bit sad, but everyone understood and was supportive in the end.

A few years ago, we brought a pre-tenure faculty member in from another institution. She did get a retention offer from her original place but didn’t take it. Both places went out for tenure letters for her at the same time. A few years later, a senior faculty member from the original institution wrote nice letters for awards for her. Successful people appreciate other successful people and understand ambition, as well as other reasons for which people move.

I’ve also been on searches where a current assistant prof applies because he/she wants to upgrade or get access to certain facilities or collaborators. It’s common in the cover letters of applications to ask the search committee not to disclose to the candidate’s current institution that the candidate is looking elsewhere  until or unless he/she becomes a finalist. I personally like to see applications of successful people on the tenure track, as they ideally already have some papers and grants under their belt.

However, if you feel that your department has ill-willed, vindictive folks in it, or that for whatever reason your tenure is not a shoo-in, it might be a good idea to wait until after tenure.

But, in any case, there is no harm in discreetly and non-committally talking with friends or trusted colleagues outside the institution about how your department is great, but that the opportunities for your husband are limited, and that in principle you’d be open to thinking about other schools somewhere down the road that would solve his career problem. You can also say that you are up for tenure and don’t want to jeopardize that, but who knows what future holds. I am hoping they’ll get the hint. I don’t think anyone is naive enough (although maybe some are evil enough) to go ask your current colleagues about you unless you’ve given an OK to contact them.

Overall, it really depends on how the department culture and your standing within it are.

If you are a superstar, the department is healthy with many successful people, then they’ll see your desire to move as a natural career step. They will try to keep you because you’re a valuable colleague and an asset to the department, but people should not take it personally, as some sort of treason, that you have your own life and decisions to make, which might take you elsewhere.

If the department has a cult-like feel (you must belong… or else…) or for whatever reason you are made to feel that your tenure isn’t certain, I’d wait till tenure (since you’re already close) and then promptly split. You probably don’t want to stay in this type of department longer than necessary anyway.

But other people should know to be discreet, or should if you explicitly tell them; if they are not, they are most definitely not your friends.

Random Links As I Have to Grade

Grading and some reports tonight, so I will be back tomorrow with a regular post and a response to the questions that people have posted in the comments today… Also, I have received several new cool requests for blog topics, so those will be coming over the next few days… But not tonight.

Instead, random nonacademic (or are they?) links:

The Pushcart Prize is a big-deal small-press annual prize. Small presses are nominating their own best from this year, so here are some nominee lists. These should all be very good stories:

Also,go read a random flash from Ellipsis Zine:

After the Pause latest issue:


And a reminder to us all:



On Moving in Academia

LTR asked: I’ve heard that men get outside offers all the time, but women rarely do, leading to huge discrepancies in pay and prestige at R1s that go all in on retention and poaching. At least that’s what our provost says. How does one solicit outside offers? Especially if one kind of wants/needs to leave…

Related: I’ve also seen people switch departments at various places I’ve been, usually from a dysfunctional one to a better one in an overlapping field. How does that happen? Dry appointment first?

Are these things different pre- and post-tenure?

I wrote about this a little bit a few years ago here. I know there were other posts, too, but I can’t be bothered to look now.

I am not sure that women get fewer offers than similar-quality men, but it may be that they don’t really advertise all the offers or jump to take advantage of them like men do.

A few years ago, I was on the merit review committee that went over all annual reports. I have seen a number of male faculty report as “outside offers” what I would never imagine of reporting—unofficial feelers from various institutions, where they basically throw it out there to see if you are at all amenable to moving. It would never even occur to me to mention it in an annual report unless I could document the interest (e.g., invitation to apply to a chair professorship or similar). Yet, some other people routinely mention these non-offer offers to powers that be in order to build the appearance of being a hot commodity. It does work. Deans and provosts seem to be very sensitive to a perception of being a flight risk.

There are certainly differences between hotshot and not-so-hot faculty, but I don’t think these split along gender lines. In fact, I’d say that a female superstar in a male-dominated field is likely to receive frequent offers to move. We have a couple of such women, and they do not lack attention. I don’t consider myself a superstar, yet I get pinged reasonably often, but I don’t want to make everyone spend weeks or months on my retention package when I never intended to move for real. But my department is quite proactive about showing people love preemptively (merit raises, professorships, etc.), so that definitely helps.

If you want to leave, it depends on seniority. Right after tenure is a great time to leave, especially if you’ve been very productive, as is anything before year four on the tenure track. Afterwards it gets harder, and effects of kids and house and family are more of a hindrance.

If you are junior (on the TT) and willing to move, apply, similar how you did the first time around. Ideally, with an invitation, but not necessarily. I see many applications from good second or third-year profs who want to upgrade or simply find a better match.

If you are close to tenure, and your record is not obviously awesome, some people might think you’re applying because you think you won’t get tenure. Not a great situation. But before year 4 on the TT and after tenure is generally OK. Even years 5-6 on the TT are OK if your record is strong, and some people apply to sweeten the deal or rush tenure at home. (I personally hate anyone who wastes everyone’s time to get a real, full offer as leverage, without ever seriously considering moving.)

After tenure, if junior, you can certainly still apply cold, but it’s always better to have an in through a trusted colleague. Use your network of colleagues and collaborators. Let them know informally that you are movable and would be interested if there were openings in your area. When you go to give talks, communicate your interest to the hosts. Most ‘feelers’ come when you go somewhere to give a talk. People will let you know if they hear something.

And never badmouth your current department. You can always say it’s not the right fit and you are looking for a better one, that you’d like more options for this or that. Generally, never cite a negative reason (e.g., things are bad) but instead a positive reason (e.g., you are looking for growth, improvement, opportunities).


Related: I’ve also seen people switch departments at various places I’ve been, usually from a dysfunctional one to a better one in an overlapping field. How does that happen? Dry appointment first?

I have not seen people switch tenure homes completely from being 100% in one to 100% in another one, but I have seen them be hired into something like a 25-75 position, then move to a 50-50 or 75-25 split in their duties over the course of years. I would assume it’s possible to start by having an engaged, enthusiastic zero-time appointment, which then becomes a nonzero percentage, i.e., includes some real commitment to teach or do service. The new department would be willing to give up a faculty line or its fraction for you, whom you already have on campus, instead of bringing in someone else. I think it’s doable, but has the potential to sour the relationships between departments, so how lightly one has to tread really depends on local politics. The good news is that people are often willing to do more to help assistant professors in dysfunctional situations than they are for senior folks.

If I were to summarize, it would be that you have to use your network to gather information informally, feel the lay of the land, and then proceed quickly and as dispassionately as you can.

Blogosphere, what do you say? 

Random Bits of Sunday, Now with Morals

Today I went to see Thor: Ragnarok, for the second time. DH and I saw it a week or so ago, as a date; today, I took Middle Boy (MB) and two of his buddies. The movie is great! It’s really funny, on top of all the expected cool action and the always welcome displays of Chris Hemsworth’s musculature.

Seriously, whenever you feel bad, borrow someone’s kids and go do something fun with them. It’s amazing how much joy kids get out of pretty much anything, as long as they are doing it with their buddies. Perhaps the biggest benefit of public education, accessible to everyone, it that kids get to choose their own friends, without parental meddling. They pick the people who are good for them, not necessarily who you as a parent might imagine would be good for them.

Moral: Kids are awesome. Thor: Ragnarok is awesome. Watching Thor with kids is awesome squared.


As I picked up one of the kids, his mom was in her pajamas and all apologetic about it… But I had only changed out of mine 5 min before I started the kid pickup, so now I think I want to be her BFF…

Moral: One person’s slob is another person’s pajama-clad kindred spirit.


You know that story for which I was soliciting people’s input on the sound of kicking a heavy bag? Well, the story turned out freakin’ amazing—I mulled it over in my head for weeks, sat down and wrote it over two days, edited on the third, and submitted to a very cool literary zine that had previously rejected three of my stories. The magazine took it after only four days, with a glowing comment below that may or may not have gone into my head:

[…] is a wonderful character, and her story is really feel-good-making, without ever slipping into sentimentality. It’s an awesome balance.

As I abhor sentimentality and try hard to purge it from my writing (and life), this praise struck me directly into my Grinch-sized soft and gooey center. Darn you, feelings that are not rage!

Moral: Sometimes, everything aligns. Also, write the stories that only you can write. The weirder, the better.


The sparkly speedy acceptance was on Friday. Of course, lest I get a gigantic head, I received a rejection on Saturday, and then another one on Sunday, both for the same story (many magazines allow simultaneous submissions). That story is good, but might end up getting retired if three additional submissions I have slated for it don’t work out. I fear it’s topically not different enough from much of what my demographic writes.

Moral: Sometimes, everything aligns. And sometimes, you give something your all, but it simply isn’t meant to be. Or you are a boring, middle-aged woman, with middle-aged thoughts and experiences. No one wants to read that. At least not without a really fancy package that makes it look like you’re far more hip and crazy than you ever were.

Addition: Of course, I got an acceptance of this story first thing this morning. That’s an enthusiastic acceptance in a cool literary magazine, after 12 rejections. 

Moral 1: (Mostly to self.) Do not whine on the web about your stories before it’s been far more than a dozen rejections. Do not whine on the web, period.  

Moral 2: It really is about finding the right home for your story. Or your technical work. If the piece is solid, someone out there will love it. 

Moral 3: Number 13 doesn’t seem to be such a bad number. Today is the 13th and the 13th try was an acceptance for this story. (I also got a great acceptance last month, on Friday the 13th.)

Also, a link:


As you know, I am editing for a flash magazine, mostly to learn and improve my own writing. Usually, if I get a story and really like it, I will accept promptly. Also, there are some that are a clear no, which I reject promptly. But there are many that I am not crazy about, but I can’t really put my finger on what’s wrong (and I need to, as we are committed to giving personalized feedback), so I leave these for later. I have noticed that I am considerably less grumpy and more likely to be favorably disposed toward a story early in the morning than later in the day; it is really hard to impress me after a long day of work. The short flash pieces make it easy to read each several times over several days. However, if others are like me, and there is no reason for them not to be, this means that trivial consideration like what time of day your manuscript or proposal gets reviewed, is it early in the morning  or before lunch/dinner etc., results in drastically different fates of your intellectual products. This seems so unfair. So much effort, so much noise in the process.

Moral: Don’t rush to negative judgement, especially when a lot rides on it for people. And get enough sleep.

Saturday Slump: Sweet & Savory

We had guests over. It’s a couple I’ve known since my college years, and they’d  ended up within a two-hour drive from us. Their visit means a whole-day cooking extravaganza for me and cleaning for DH, even though we tried to take it easy this time. The couple and their kids had just spent a lot of time back in Old Country, and we got together so they’d share their impressions. It was fun and a bit surreal.

Lots of Old Country food was prepared and consumed. No alcohol, though—our guests don’t drink, so it’s not much fun for DH and me to do it alone, especially since, owing to our ever more advanced age, alcohol bothers us—red wine gives me headaches and all alcohol bother’s DH’s GI tract. We are such party animals.

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

How to Tell If Someone Will Be Productive, pt. 2

When I was an assistant professor, I was very anxious about every new hire, because so much rode on every group member—money was scarce and the pressure to produce NOW was immense.

I did have to let go several students in the first few years, of which in hindsight only one might have been a mistake. Everyone else was well justified and I would do it again.

I don’t think there is a foolproof way to determine if someone will work out or not. There are ways to get better at it, but I think the first step is making peace with the fact that sometimes things won’t work out. Either the student won’t be what you thought they would be, or you won’t be what they expected, or grad school itself wouldn’t be what they wanted. So it’s a good thing to try and internalize that hiring people into the group is an imperfect process and will sometimes fail without anyone being a monster.

When it comes to hiring international students sight unseen, if I have anyone in the group from that country and that university, I definitely solicit their input on the application. Often they will be able to interpret the grades and even sometimes the comments in the letters of recommendation and put the university rankings in appropriate context. For instance, there are schools where a grade of 14 or 15 out of 20 is a top grade in the class, and a student with 17-point-something GPA is considered absolutely awesome and the top of their class,  whereas the equivalent 4.0-scale GPA would be 3.4 and I wouldn’t consider it impressive from a US institution. I also solicit opinion of my colleagues from the same country if I don’t have students from there.

Also, I hand-pick students and have so far always selected from among those who have contacted me to express interest. I never go rummaging through the application pile to see who’s available; I always find suitable candidates via email first, then go look at their applications. This has served me well. That initial contact email conveys a lot of information about interest. Usually, the people who find me because they understand what I do and know that’s what they want end up working really well. So if there’s one bit of advice I would give, it would be to wait to be approached and then select from among those whose interest rings true.

There are also three other things that really helped as I progressed through the career.

a) What is the worst thing that could happen if you got to work with a bad student? You would have to let them go. Figure out what the procedure is, if there is any, to let students go. Your university should have something like a Dean of Students who should be able to help with this. Also, senior colleagues help. I found out that it is expected that the student would be told what they are failing at, in writing, given directions for improvement and a deadline, in writing, and do that perhaps twice, at which point you are OK to terminate.

Understanding how I am to act and that there is a way to be both humane and practical definitely took a lot of the pressure off, and helped me realize that it’s OK to give a few chances and sometimes people do shape up. But sometimes they don’t, and then your conscience is clear.

b) I have also become much better at advising, in that there is a much broader range of workable situations than I would have initially envisioned. With appropriate selection of topic, frequency of oversight, and generally time and mentoring invested, the range of student abilities, interests, and backgrounds that would yield a productive student who progresses well over time has expanded dramatically. So I am now not really afraid of bad apples because I know that most of them aren’t really bad (although a few are); maybe they won’t be eaten raw for lunch but could become caramel apples, or apple sauce, or apple cider…

c) I have also become better at having difficult conversations. Most difficult conversations are really of the kind where I lay out what I think I see, I say why that doesn’t bode well for a future in the group, and ask the student to tell me what they think about it. Usually I talk along the lines that if they are not happy and productive in my group, they should think about continuing elsewhere, no hard feelings. Often the student will take a few days to think about it and then we talk again.

I don’t think anyone should be miserable in my group, and that includes me. At some point, if either of us dreads meeting, we should definitely talk. I am much better now at initiating these conversations ASAP.

One interesting observation is that every student I have ever had to let go has been negligent when it came to attending group meetings. (We schedule group meetings anew every semester, after everyone’s got their schedules, so the time slot is something everyone can nominally make.) In my experience, blowing off group meetings is highly correlated with not working out in the long run.

I realize that this whole post, so far, has not actually been about predicting if someone will be productive. So here goes:

1. Look at the GPA, test results, letters of recommendation. Put those into culture-specific context (experience helps here, too). I personally look for people with high grades in math and physics and a high quantitative portion on the GRE (and a high score on the GRE subject, if applicable).

2. Prioritize consideration of students who took the time to do research on your group, understand what you do, and have contacted you with what what appears to be well-founded, genuine interest.

3. Try to get a feeling for what the person is like through a 15-to-30-min phone or Skype interview (to the extent possible). What you will likely learn is how good their English is, and only if it’s decent and not a barrier to the conversation will you be able to learn other things, such as if the person is energetic or not, naive or not, interested or not. I always ask if they have questions for me. They need to have questions. Not having questions means a lack of interest. But there are also cultural barriers here to which you have to be sensitive.

Basically, do all the expected things. If a person checks out and there are no red flags, boldly offer to bring them in.

4. Be aware that things still might not work out. Be prepared for it, and be confident that you will be able to deal with it if it arises. Arm yourself with the knowledge of the procedure, the belief that your gut is not wrong, and that if your gut says things are not working out, then you should have one or more difficult conversations. The more you wait, the worse things get. Do not wait for the problem to go away—it will not. If you think there’s a problem, then there is a problem, get on it ASAP. Try to fix it or part ways, but sooner is always better than later. With time, you will get better at fixing things, but parting ways is not the end of the world if done with the understanding that the student is usually not more thrilled about the match than you are.

5. Sometimes, to ensure a humane exit for the student, you might waste some money (e.g., fund student till end of semester or until they start with a new advisor). I have done that a few times. I consider that the cost of doing business. It comes out a wash, or, for me, I think I am in the black, as I have taken in and successfully brought to graduation more students who were first with someone else than there are those who were first with me and then went elsewhere.

For assistant professors out there, I wish I could give you a magic formula that would ensure you don’t have any unproductive students who increase your already high stress level, waste your startup funds, and leave you with nothing to show for it all. But there isn’t one. If you are at a top place, the chance of a random admitted student being great is higher than at a non-elite R1, but there are excellent students everywhere. Some need a little boost to become confident, and can get fired up and work out really well despite a wobbly start.

To me, one of the biggest lessons in teaching is that you get the students you get, and you need to find a way to teach those students, as opposed to some idealized super-motivated students who may or may not be a fantasy clone of yourself. The same holds for advising—with experience, we get better working productively with those we do hire, however they are, so we no longer have to strive to fulfill the pipe dream of flawless, prescient hiring.