Improving the World, One ‘Not’ at a Time

As it turns out—at least for a pain in the a$$ such as myself—not doing things brings about more benefits to everyone involved than actually doing things.

  • Not firing off most composed tweets because people on the web don’t need to be subject to my every thought; most of my thoughts, for that matter.
  • Not firing off 50% of composed emails because people in meat space don’t need to be subject to my every thought; most of my thoughts, for that matter.
  • Not sending an email to a collaborator in which I tell him to clean up after his student. 

    We are working on a manuscript. The collaborator and his student drafted it, then sent it around for comments. They said the paper was ready to go and gave everyone a week to respond. The paper is meant for a prestigious journal that takes letter (short) papers. Unfortunately, this ready-to-go paper looks like a headless chicken—freaky and hilarious, as it runs around aimlessly, hitting points at random. The writing is surprisingly bad (the colleague and the students are both American). Someone’s gonna break a neck after tripping on one of the many dangling participles. Overall, the paper is far, far from submittable.

    I sent in my extensive comments and the student is incorporating them. But that’s not enough. This is the student’s first paper and I don’t think he can do this by himself. He needs to be taught how to write a short manuscript for a prestigious journal. I wish my collaborator were more hands-on here. And maybe he will be, eventually. I wrote an email asking the collaborator to get more involved in the writing because so much is missing; that the student is too junior to do this on his own… And then deleted the email. I wouldn’t appreciate receiving such an email, in which someone’s telling me how to run my group, so I decided not to be an obnoxious prick for once, and keep my mouth shut.

  • Not accepting to sit on an NSF panel (I was in a bit of an existential crisis refusing this one, but last year it was so much work and the then-current program manager was behaving shittily, so I said never again).
  • Not accepting anything to review over the past month.
  • Not accepting to sit on student defenses unless I am already familiar with the work.
  • Not accepting to write any more lukewarm form letters of recommendation for random undergraduates.

Things I wish I could just not do, but have to do. Not doing them would make me happy, but the other people involved might feel differently.

  • Review two PhD dissertations (for my own graduate students).
  • Write three letters of recommendation (for my own group members).
  • Respond to a major revision request for a paper that bores the hell out of me. They took twice as long to send us the referee reports, right before the holidays, and of course they now want major revisions immediately. Well, no. FU. I asked for an extension until the end of January.
  • Edit and submit a paper from my group with a former student who left in the spring. (I am bored with that material, too.)
  • Submit yet another proposal on an accelerated timeline because the staff member who is  supposed to click ‘submit’ is leaving for the holidays early.

Basically, I want to not do anything that’s not reading books or watching TV, and maybe working on some fiction.  I really hope that, for once, I won’t have to work between Xmas and New Year.

I need a vacation. A long one…but a paid one. And no one is allowed to come with me, except for some books, a laptop, and maybe a few Costco-sized bottles of Bailey’s.


  1. I hear you on the needing a vacation. But still have 5 metric tons of grading to do and a proposal to write this week. Ugh

    I hope that you don’t have to work at all between Xmas and New Year. I’m really hoping to do the same!

    I’m working on figuring out healthy ways to channel the not doing of things… Not sending an email to your collaborator about their student must have been really hard. I really don’t get what would be going on in somebody’s head that they’d think an approach like that is ok. The first paper (or 2 or 3) are hard, and particularly so when they’re short format.

    Good luck!!! Almost there, almost there:

  2. As a PhD student, I find it frustrating that my and my friends’ advisors often let us know (in many subtle ways) that they dislike having to waste their time reviewing our dissertations. Yes, I understand that profs are busy and have many other commitments, and in the grand scheme of things our dissertations matter very little to them. Still, though, they matter a LOT to us, and it’s not as if we can do anything about the fact that we need our advisors’ help and input on them. Sigh…

  3. I think dissertations are a remnant of the past. No one reads them as all the info is in peer-reviewed papers. What you hear (grumpiness/unwillingness to read) stems from the recognition that it’s a lot of work for something that no one will likely ever read. An additional issue is that there’s always some drama or a time crunch with dissertations because the student is moving on or already moved on. For instance, with one of my students this year, because defense/moving/etc., I ended up having to review ~150 pages directly in PDF (as the student will deposit remotely as they had already moved) on a very short clock. This student is not a native speaker and I have many corrections on *every single page*. I worked with this student as much as I could, we wrote papers together, I sent them to ESL courses, but at the end of the day their written English still sucks and reviewing their dissertation is a cruel and unusual punishment to me, which will result in a lengthy document that no one ever reads. I know I have to do it and I do it, but I admit I hate every second of it.

  4. I totally agree that no one will ever read most (all?) dissertations, and I guess I can understand that professors would be reluctant to invest much time into them as a result of that. Still, that begs the question: why hasn’t the format of dissertations changed into something more useful (something closer to a short, publishable article)? Why make students slave for years over something neither their advisors nor anyone else will care about? (Yep, I’m currently in the throes of dissertation-writing hell, in case it’s not obvious…)

    On a marginally related note, one of my professors once mentioned that with the current publishing climate in our field (where non-significant and/or unpredicted results are basically not publishable), the only results he ever believes in are those he reads about in theses or dissertations (since the methods have been pre-approved and it’s obviously impossible to claim you had a certain hypothesis posthoc). This has stuck with me…it seems sad that the reason that dissertations are not valued is probably (at least in part) because they are often full of non-significant or unpredicted results.

    Regarding the non-English speaking student, why did you bother to make so many corrections on every page, when–as you say yourself–no one will ever bother to read the thing? What difference would a few grammatical errors make?

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