Sabbathing

I am on sabbatical this year and it is glorious. I have time to exercise every day, so I’m walking, running, and back to my biggest love — kickboxing! I’m feeling human again, and not just human, but like a grounded, rarely salty, and — dare I say? — moderately energetic human.

I’m not teaching or doing university service, but all the research is still here, as is all the other professional service, being that I’m now apparently a scientific elder states(wo)man (associate editorship of journals; reviews of papers — how am I the tie-breaker referee all the time these days?; reviews of so, soooo many proposals; membership on boards overseeing all sorts of scientific activities).

I was really busy last year, with teaching overload and really labor-intensive department service, but I think I’d gotten reasonably well rested by the end of the summer, and I am really, really grateful that I don’t have to jump back into teaching again.  Instead, this year will (at least in theory) be the year of getting the backlog of publications out to journals and bringing my largely newbie grad students up to speed. Also submitting more grant applications.

This doesn’t sound particularly restful or rejuvenating, does it?

I should be using the sabbatical to do even more science, newer and more exciting science, but it’s hard to be all gung-ho about it when a lot of energy keeps being spent on maintaining continuous funding and getting papers out while training students, all of which are in line with incremental work and orthogonal to making big, rejuvenating leaps.

Anyway, I do have some trips planned in the spring, and some talks scheduled with new communities, where I will hopefully hear some interesting talks and get some cool ideas. Other than that, I think I want to simply spend more time on my creative writing, which has been going well, thanks for asking. 🙂 I am contemplating between, on the one hand, writing a novel — which everyone says I should do, and this free time is a unique opportunity I will not have again for the next 7 years, but I’m feeling meh about it, and even though there are 3-4 stories I wrote that were really well received and could kick off a novel, I don’t crave to spend 80-100k words with any of those characters — and, on the other hand, simply writing more short fiction, poetry (yes, there’s poetry now, too, and not all of it is garbage, at least I don’t think it is), and — newsflash! — screenplays. The latter is what I’ve been gravitating toward, even though, as an endeavor with any kind of payoff, it’s probably far more futile than writing a novel.

How’s your September, academic blogosphere? 

10 comments

  1. I’m on leave until January—working on my textbook and getting some exercise. I’ve also decided to sit in on a modern physics courses, since I’ve never understood quantum mechanics and thought it was about time I made an attempt to do so. (I was a math major and a computer science PhD, so I never had to do physics—I only did calculus-based physics when my son and I learned it together as home schoolers.)

  2. That’s funny. I’ve started with screenplays and am now going towards prose. I like screenplays because to me they are the most scientific among all non-scientific writing. So structured and within a confined format (both in terms of acts and not too many action lines and the choices about what to show visually and what to convey in dialogue, etc etc etc). Love ’em.

    Talking about prose: any idea where I could send a short story with a scientific twist? Let’s say it’s about life but then the guy/gal obviously thinks like a scientist, formula’s included. I’m getting good feedback but am not yet finding it a home (it’s flash fiction).

    Other than that my September is the September from hell with people quitting and some colleagues acting like with-friends-like-that-you-dont-need-enemies. I know one thing: If I ever go on a sabbatical I am going to GO. Like making sure I am GONE from the lab/university to regain some sense of zen.

  3. BioBrains, re your story, feel free to email it to me (xykademiqz at gmail) and I will take a look. Also, let me know where else you’d sent it already. From the brief description you gave, you could try any general fiction flash venue. It depends on how literary the story style is, how funny and/or scary it is, if there are speculative elements. When I see it I will be able to give you some recommendation (for example, if the story is actually about life of a scientist, that would be lab lit and you could send it to lablit.com). Also, let me know if you care whether the venue pays and/or how fast they are to respond.

  4. September is a freight train — I’m just along for the ride right now. I’m still pumping (too) many times per day, so my time is divided into useless little chunks. Barely hanging on while teaching one class and two seminars, advising the women in science group, chairing a committee for my national professional organization, and trying to keep my research group running… plus I just agreed to be on the ad hoc committee for my university that is seeking to reform how we evaluate teaching (a topic near and dear to my heart). Weekends with two kids under the age of four are a sprint — fun, but constant craziness! This past weekend involved hot-glue-gunning it up with the 3.5-year-old to make his Halloween costume (because Halloween festivities start next week around here!) — he wants to be a light purple crane (crane as in the type of machine you would use on a construction site). It also involved a trip to the ER with the baby, who suddenly and inexplicably broke out into full-body hives at the playground (he’s fine). I would prefer a bit more time for rest and contemplation, but overall life is FULL and good right now. Can’t wait to join you on sabbatical in the spring — getting some sort of regular exercise is one of my goals as well!

  5. I don’t mean to hijack the conversation with my bitterness, but I am reeling from seeing a manuscript get accepted to a maximally glamorous journal a little under two months after I had reviewed it (on time, after its first submission) and recommended that some “important issues in the analysis and interpretation be addressed.” I suggested major revisions overall. I had seriously questioned the sensitivity and specificity of the assays and the handling of error, and also argued that one subheading-level claim in their results was totally unsubstantiated and overreaching. I pointed out some other hand-wavy sweeping distortions and asked the authors to get precise about what they were really showing. I hadn’t heard anything since I’d submitted my review. After getting the notification of acceptance, I asked the editor if I had missed correspondence, since I was surprised to see the acceptance. She said no, the manuscript had been revised and sent back to the other three reviewers, who had raised “technical concerns about the paper’s experimental procedures and data,” and everyone was now pleased. I saw none of this.

    She said my review was helpful to the authors and the journal, especially with respect to presentation. I reread my review and am surprised she missed the technical concerns. I feel like any practicing scientist would see the seriousness of the challenges right away, although I wasn’t using particularly ominous language. This was the first time ever I listed my concerns in the order in which they appeared in the paper, which I stated I was doing up front (after saying there were “important loose ends”, and following with an “In sum, there are important issues…”). This meant that the less and more important points alternated somewhat, but it was not a long list. I’ll nonetheless never do that again.

    I’ve asked nicely if there was some way in which my review was perceived as less helpful or misguided. No reply yet.

    I’m upset I spent valuable time during a busy period–nearly two days–to work on this review, only to be blown off. I have spent a lot of time thinking about these authors’ methods and questioning them on said methods, i.e., since well before reviewing the manuscript, and will be pleasantly surprised if the accepted version actually deals with them appropriately.

    This reminds me of a similar scenario a few years ago, for the other maximally glamorous journal, in which I objected to the dissenting reviewer’s claims, effectively arguing in favor of the authors. It was stuff I knew stone cold, and the other reviewer clearly didn’t. Professional editor sided with dissenting reviewer. Pretty sure I know who it is from consistent arguments made by person since. The manuscript was eventually published in first maximally glamorous journal, it has totally reshaped the field, and research since has proven dissenting reviewer wrong.

    I simultaneously vacillate between wondering if I am worse at things than I think or if I’m being unfairly discredited. I wonder if gender matters (I’m female, and stats shows most reviewers for these journals are male).

    Deep breaths, then back to grant writing. Congratulations on your sabbatical. You continue to inspire me.

  6. @associate prof. It sound like you were reviewing for Nature or for Science, two journals that have very high retraction rates, because they favor startling results over rigorous methods. If I were you, I might write to the editor saying that since they do not value your contributions as a reviewer (not even sending you the second round of reviews), that you will not referee for the journal for the next 10 years. Then refuse all referee requests from them, with a one-sentence explanation that “since the last review you did for them was ignored, you will not referee for the journal again until 2029.”

  7. @gasstation, that is something I am considering. Of course, it is still so stupidly rewarding to get published in said journal (and I have not as a professor yet, and I am not a full professor yet, and I don’t have tons of talented prospective grad students or postdocs banging on my doors yet) that I am afraid of the consequences of alienating the editor. That said, my chances of getting published there are exceedingly low anyway, so the cost might be nil. Incidentally, editor said she’d reply next week when she was back from her travel, and she thanked me again for the helpful review. Maybe she did find my review nonetheless without merit somehow.

  8. @associate prof: I would advise against doing something so self-defeating as writing to the editor formally refusing to review for that journal for the next however many years. You can simply not review; no need for proclamations. Such proclamations would likely hurt no one but you, because, unless you’re some super famous big shot, the editors don’t particularly care that they might’ve offended you — after all, they ignored your counsel already.

    Mostly I think you don’t really know what happened. In some fields, authors can request that a referee whom they deem unduly hostile be removed from further review and a new one be assigned. I have sometimes been that removed referee. I have also been the one occasionally requesting removal. I guess men are more likely to do this (request that a referee be removed; when I get a referee who is unlikely to be appeased, who is so hostile to what we present, that there’s nothing we could do sway them, I usually take the paper elsewhere).

    Now these unswayable referees, in my field, are much more common in high-profile journals. The unswayability rarely has to do with the technical correctness of the work but rather the perceived novelty and hotness of the work, which is really nuts if you think of it. Basically, not everyone is worthy of being admitted to the upper echelons.

    But I digress. What I assume is that, in your case @associate prof, the authors are someone who has more pull than you. They requested that your further counsel be disregarded, and the editor weighed the word of famous authors to a less famous (yes, being female doesn’t help) referee and decided to side with the more famous ones. It happens all the time, unfortunately. It happened to us a couple of times in the other direction where someone who was clearly throwing their weight around was being completely unreasonable in what he required us to do in repeated revisions, always finding something more.

    Basically, talk to the editor and try to get to the bottom for why she might have done what she did. Hopefully that will be closure enough.

  9. Well, the editor didn’t reply to me this week as she’d said she would. I still have no idea what is going on.

    It seems unlikely to me that the authors would have tried to discount my review, as I said I found the main claims of their paper generally convincing. My suspicion is that the editor simply didn’t recognize the remaining “important issues” I raised as actually important, as she contrasted my review with the other reviews that included “technical concerns.” I’ve had another academic read my review and agree it is clearly raising non-superficial technical concerns.

    But the apparent disenfranchisement doesn’t stop there! This week, I finally received the first round of reviews back for a manuscript submitted 3 months ago to a journal that claims to be doing peer review better by mandating discussion between the editors and the reviewers. I kid you not, the editor’s decision letter partially confuses our paper with another, referring in places to our results and in other places to results, data, and figure parts from a competing paper that was never submitted to that journal. (I am friends with the authors of the “competing” manuscript; we timed our submissions, and theirs is already in press elsewhere.) There is no question about the confusion, but at least three people (editor and two reviews) didn’t care enough to catch it. FFS.

    I am so angry. Is this normal? Should I take this as an indication of my reputation or something in the field?

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