Month: November 2021

From the Archives: Ponderable: People Are Different

Originally appeared here.

Apropos nothing, I remembered a post by a frugality/early-retirement blogger who is of some note in the early-retirement blogging community. She and her husband have achieved financial independence and are now homesteading somewhere in the Northeast.

What matters here is her post on when she knew she’d marry her husband. The pair dated in college. In their senior year, she was taking a women’s studies/feminism course that she really enjoyed, so she kept talking about it to her boyfriend with great excitement. Lo and behold, one day she showed up to class, only to find her boyfriend sitting in the audience, grinning. He had rearranged his senior-year schedule (he was majoring in a technical field, very different from her humanities major) in order to enroll in that class with his girlfriend; he did not speak to her about it first, he just did it.

She thought that was super romantic and showed her that he really listened to her when she effused about the course. They seem happy, so good for them!

In contrast, when I read her post, I thought her then boyfriend was being creepy and boundary-violating as all f*ck. When I was young, if my boyfriend had done that, I might not have broken up with him, because at the time I didn’t believe I had the right to many of the things I wanted or needed, including my own boundaries, but I know for a fact that I would’ve freaked out and felt very, very uncomfortable.  Today’s me, if I were that girl in college, would likely break up with the guy and drop the class.

It’s nice that the blogger’s boyfriend was interested in what the girlfriend had to say. But don’t freakin’ hijack her experience! Maybe that’s just me. Apparently, my creepy and boundary-violating is someone else’s romantic, committed, and paying attention. But I generally need a lot of space, seemingly more  than many people. DH gives me space, and I am really grateful for it.

Dear reader, what are some ways in which you feel that you are—at your core—different from many people around you? 


Aaaaaah! Been too busy today. No time for a long post, but likely tomorrow.

In the meantime, Twitter links!

And a pic of Josh Duhamel just because:


Time Flies: Blogging Changes Over Ten Plus Years

Reader asks:

Your posts from previous years have led me to some questions: How do you think your writing (on academia) has changed from when you started blogging? I’m sure changes in academia have affected your writing style and content, but are there any major differences you’ve noticed in your blogging, things like tone, length of posts, narrative, etc.?

This is a good question. The short answer is yes. Both have changed. 

I hadn’t looked at the old Academic Jungle posts in a long time, and when I stopped by to rummage through the archives there  (after having spent an embarrassingly long time trying to remember which gmail address that blog was associated with — I officially have way too many), I was struck by how strange the writing seemed. The topics, the tone. There were more earnestly goofy posts as well as more earnestly preachy posts. Like I really thought I was informing people of something important. This makes me feel both wistful (ah, the days of bright-eyed blogging) and condescending (ah, you stupid, misguided, naive child) toward my younger blogging self. But the tone is definitely different, in a way I could probably analyze in detail, but it’s November, and who’s got the time? 

Some of it is probably (or at least was) by design. I distinctly remember having started blogging in 2010 because I wanted to share hard-won wisdom with junior faculty. (I remember telling my husband I was thinking of starting blogging and him asking,  genuinely confused, “Who’s going to read that?”) Over time, as I got more senior as a faculty member, I both felt that those issues from early career moved further from my mind and that I’d already said what I had to say on most early-career topics. However, over the course of a long blogging career (10+ years — can you believe it?) readers come and go; most who read today didn’t back while I was still on Academic Jungle and would probably benefit from many of those topics being revisited. (Shameless plug: The best of my blogging 2010-2016 has been compiled into Academaze. Check it out!)

I do rant here on xykademiqz as I did on Academic Jungle, but the rants, too, have changed, or at least I think they have. I did get into a few kerfuffles early in my blogging career, which has affected my writing. Mostly I stay out of trouble these days, in part because I censor myself more, and in part because the academic blogosphere has all but vanished (actually, largely moved to Twitter, near as I can tell). As there aren’t many academic blogs anymore, this is now more of a private blogging space, with personal and academic topics. I think what I post these days are more opinion pieces than lectures. Hopefully I come across as less sanctimonious than before? But I definitely shy away from some topics I wouldn’t have avoided before. I often start writing and say ‘nah, I don’t have it in me right now to do this in a way that it needs to be done, so I don’t inadvertently step in some shit’. It’s easier to stick to more innocuous topics or just more personal ones. 

As for academia, maybe ten years isn’t long enough to note significant systemic changes, but maybe it is. We definitely have less admin support at the department level than when I just started out. I have a mountain of service, which has definitely ballooned over the past decade and not just because I had become more senior. We have service-happy dean and department chair, and it’s a serious drag on faculty time. Students are the same, adorable and wonderful and energizing for the most part. I’ve been steadily adding to the roster of different courses I teach, which keeps things interesting, if busy. Funding rates have progressively gotten worse and worse for single PIs and small teams, and chasing grants is the aspect of my job that fills me with utmost despair. 

What do you think, blogosphere? Those of you who’ve read my work awhile, do you think it’s changed (and not just in posting frequency)? Do you think academia has changed? Are there academic topics you wish I’d discuss but haven’t, or haven’t recently? 


From the Academic Jungle Archives: Probably Handy Fun

So I dug through my old posts over at the defunct Academic Jungle (*cough-cough* that electronic dust is killing my sinuses). 
This one from 2012 (!) makes for some fun Saturday content. Btw, Smurf is now 10 and is left-handed, like his oldest bro. 

Having kids, especially little ones, is a source of enormous joy and tremendous exhaustion. There are many activities that are not particularly fun for anyone involved (e.g. projectile vomiting and associated cleanup) or are fun for the kids, but not so much for the parent (e.g. watching Teletubbies yet again with the 3rd kid, making it roughly my 11,678th viewing. I hate Tinky Winky and Dipsy with the burning passion of a thousand suns. Lala is still cool, though.)

Surfing the web on my phone or simply thinking about work are my favorite passtimes during protracted mind-numbing activities. This morning, while I was nursing Baby Smurf but — alas! — did not have my phone handy, I started thinking about the fact that Baby Smurf seems like he might be left-handed, although it may be too soon to say with certainty. He usually likes to hold two things at the same time, one in each hand, but he is much more likely to drop an old object and pick up a new, more interesting one with his left hand. Our eldest son is a left-handed, our middle one right-handed. Of course, all this leads to some cute probability questions. [1]

Here is what we know: let’s say that 1 in 8 people are left-handed (quick googling puts the percentage between 8 and 15%, and I remember a few years ago and reading somewhere that it’s 1/8=12.5% , so let’s stick with that). [2]

1) What is the probability that a family with three children will have a left-handed child? (meaning at least one)

2) What is the probability that a family with three children will have exactly two left-handed children?

3) What is the probability that a family with three children will have (at least) two left-handed children?

4) What is the probability that someone’s first and third child will be left-handed? (The only assumption is that the person will in fact have at least 3 kids.)

5) If my first child is left-handed and my second child is right-handed, what is the probability that my third child will be left-handed?

6) (added this one a bit later) If my first child is left-handed, what is the probability that I will have (at least) another left-handed child out of three total?

Have fun!

(I will post the solution in a day or so, although I am sure we’ll have the correct answers before that.)

[1] I admit this post was inspired by this one at Bad Mom, Good Mom, found through a link at Cloud’s.
[2] As badmomgoodmom says in the comments to the original post, handedness is not a completely random trait. Here, however, I just wanted us to have some fun with probabilities, so let’s assume handedness is a discrete random variable, with values L and R having the probabilities of 1/8 and 7/8, respectively.

From the Archives: On Moving in Academia

Originally appeared here.


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? 

Academic Prophecies

AssProfLyfe asks

Wondering what your thoughts are about the future of academia overall – this comes up in casual convos with seminar speakers when they come through the department. The bloating admin, the less number of college-age students available to attend, the steady paylines of grants that don’t scale with inflation and increased payroll for students/postdocs (which is needed/deserved!). As an assistant professor, these really make me question of if I can have long-term stability in the academy. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on what you think academia will look like in 20+ years.

I think this is somewhat field-dependent and definitely differs between smaller, primarily undergraduate institutions (and even there, small public campuses differ from elite SLACs) and big research schools. My perspective is that of someone at a big public school, and I will share what I can given the limitations of what I know. 

I am not very optimistic, to be honest. I admit the job (faculty job at a big university) isn’t what I had envisioned, and the constant grant grind and overwhelming service are getting the best of me and basically spoiling all the enjoyment and efficiency of doing the other parts. During a semester like this one, when I am teaching a new course, I could easily spend 100% of my time on teaching, grant writing, and miscellaneous service. I love teaching, and I love the idea-generating and even the writing part of grant writing, but it is a struggle to find the time to meet with my students and even more so to write papers, and the stress associated with needing to get grants funded in order to keep going is just punishing. 

I know that graduate students in my subfield don’t want to pursue academia. Maybe I am not a good role model as I am clearly exhausted by the grant race. But who can blame them? Doing a PhD, likely years of a postdoc, just for a chance to compete? In my subfield, you can get well-paying jobs with big, successful companies and do really interesting work with brilliant collaborators. Unless you really put a premium on not having a boss (as I do, but it turns out that most people don’t), industry jobs really do offer a lot of benefits.  

There will be big closures or cuts to the small campuses of state university systems. It is happening already, so I’m not being particularly prophetic here. Schools are competing for enrollments, and, with dwindling state support, low enrollments will mean closures. 

There is increasing competition for donor dollars, and that affects all layers of administration. The roles of department chairs and deans include plenty of schmoozing with those who have big pockets. There are multiple new positions sprouting that are devoted to publicity and fundraising. There are also higher-admin positions being added to deal with students, diversity, etc. while, perhaps unsurprisingly at least from the budgetary standpoint, the positions dealing with students and faculty at the department level, where they’re needed, are being rolled back. We have 1/2 or even 1/3 of the department staff we had when I started out (nearly 20 yeas ago — JFC, it’s been a long time).  

Don’t get me started on the ridiculousness of grant math. Grant sizes have been stagnant during my time as faculty, while the overhead rates have steadily climbed and student and postdoc salaries, as well as grad-student tuitions have somewhat more slowly but still steadily climbed. We can literally do less science per dollar than a decade or two ago. Moreover, funding rates have dwindled to single-digit percentages, in part because people write more because one grant supports less than it used to.  

One thing that worries me about funding in my field is that big funding mechanisms (centers) seem to have overtaken agencies. There is far less money all around for single-PI or very small teams (2-3 PIs). Having been part of these centers, I can tell you I don’t like their politics and hierarchy, and I don’t think they are a good use of many PI’s time or talents. 

Overall, well-funded people and center leaders at big, prominent schools will continue to do well, probably better than ever. Smaller players everywhere, be it PIs or smaller schools, will continue to face an uphill battle to keep the lights on. Admin will  continue to proliferate and eat up resources. Undergrads will continue to be educated, if they are lucky, by dedicated faculty or permanent instructional staff, or else by grad students or underpaid adjuncts. They will pay ever more for that education. The best and the brightest among graduate students, except for those with impeccable PhD pedigrees, will not be pursing academic careers.  

What say you, blogosphere? How do you envision the (near) future of academia? 

From the Archives: Abandoned Manuscripts

Originally appeared here.

A few weeks ago, a colleague’s postdoc sent out a draft of a paper for comments. I looked at the paper and thought, “Wait, haven’t we published everything we had on this topic years ago?” To put things in context, I had an undergrad honors student working on the theory part of this project. Since the last publication, the undergrad had graduated, attended graduate school elsewhere, and is about to defend his PhD. So yes, it’s been a while.

Honestly, I almost completely forgot about this project; I certainly don’t recall any of the details. I would first have to go reread what we’d published before I can intelligently comment on this new draft.

Which really brings me to the topic of today’s post: When are you really done with a project? And how do you decide if an abandoned manuscript deserves resuscitation or if it’s best left to die?

I know people who more-or-less work on the same problem, or within the same narrow field, their entire careers. This approach doesn’t generally bode well for funding prospects in many fields in the US, but I admit that some who’ve pursued this strategy have been funded and productive on account of being the highest authority in the niche.

Most people do switch topics, or, more precisely, they slowly drift away from an old focus and toward a new one. As they do so, they might maintain some activity in the original area. I personally like to make more of a clean break after I’ve said what I had to say. At any point in time, I run several fairly disparate research thrusts; each will be active for maybe 2-3 grant cycles, which is usually enough for some nice results and papers and about as long as my interest can hold before I itch to do something else, after which I move on while downsizing and often completely shutting down the work on the old thrust. This does result in always feeling like an outsider in a new field — scary, but also invigorating.

I focus on getting papers out as fast as possible and don’t really have a history of sitting on manuscripts for no reason. However, I admit I currently have two papers that are semi-abandoned.

One I simply can’t bring myself to submit, because my gut tells me there is something wrong with it and I don’t want us to look foolish. The paper disputes the work of another group, which is led by an excellent scientist. Our argument is that the other group missed something fairly basic, and I honestly can’t believe that they did; instead, I fear it’s us who might be in the wrong and that the issue is far more subtle than it seems at first (my former student insists that it is that simple), but I just haven’t been able to devote to this problem the time and attention it deserves in order to convince myself one way or another.

The other paper that I have on the back burner was going to come out of a former student’s Master’s degree work; the student was supported during the study by their employer, a national lab. (The student was completely disinterested in getting a paper out of the work and only wanted a degree; I  generally expect one paper at the level of a Master’s, but it’s not a formal degree requirement.) This paper would be a very small contribution, but would have a head and tail and a clear pitch, and I think it might review well in a suitable minor publication venue. The question is whether writing up this little nugget and the hassle of getting the approval to submit from the national lab are worth my time, when the contribution is incremental and well below the standard of novelty I like to set for my group.

Other than these two, everything else I have in the pipeline is quite fresh.

The colleague whose postdoc sent me that manuscript is not a procrastinator; he’s usually good about submitting papers, but does seem to have a number that are five-to-ten-years old yet haven’t seen the light of day. I was really surprised that we had anything left unpublished on that particular topic, and it’s interesting that this work is being resurrected right now.

Dear readers, do you have any unpublished manuscripts that have been in purgatory for far too long? If yes, why do you think they never got their chance at submission? How long has it been since the first draft? Do you think they will ever be submitted? When do you think a manuscript is officially past its expiration date (assuming no one’s scooped you)?

From the Archives: Membership in Professional Societies

(This post originally appeared here.)

Show of hands: How many academics actually consider professional-society memberships to be useful?

I recently renewed my memberships of two professional societies. They were not cheap.

For one of the societies, I do not remember ever having had a real use for the membership. Ever. I understand that for people outside academia these memberships perhaps provide a way to stay current with the technical literature, but for this particular society I fully admit that I renew because sometime in the next few years I plan to go up for fellow, which is expected of a reputable academic in my department and at peer institutions. I have done service for the society, again mostly to help with the eventual fellowship application. I don’t like to publish in their journals (slow and don’t have high impact factors). I engaged with them in the past (the year Smurf was born) about the conference I was organizing, but they did not make anything better, easier, or cheaper — quite the contrary. Further involvement of the society would’ve resulted in vastly higher conference registration fees and far too much of a trade-show feel, both of which I wanted to avoid. So never again.

For the second one, my main reason for renewing is, also, that I eventually plan on applying for elevation to fellow. However, I am also more engaged with this society, as I like their journals; I both publish in them and review for them often, but I could do that just as well without the membership, if we’re being honest. The membership does offer benefits for the attendance of certain meetings, including a massive annual one, but far less now than when I was junior. The membership costs less than for the first society, so I don’t get quite as grumpy when the time comes to renew.

Overall, I keep renewing grudgingly every year because it is expected, but I don’t actually see the benefits, not in my daily work or meeting attendance. Again, I understand there are benefits for professionals outside academia.

Blogosphere, what are your feelings about professional-society memberships?

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