Supporting Junior Faculty

Profdirector asked here:

What is the best advice for more senior folk to support the junior faculty as they start?

I am going to focus here on what one particular faculty member can do on their own, and not the systemic issues of department culture or tenure process that can indeed make or break a junior faculty member’s career, but over which any one senior academic  typically has little influence.

So, what can one senior professor do to help young professors?

Do not underestimate how overwhelming it is to be a new faculty member these days. The requirements for funding and publishing are quite steep, and the funding rates minuscule. From a junior faculty member’s standpoint, the colleagues are there to help, but also to evaluate, so it feels like a precarious situation, and it’s unclear who should be trusted. As a senior person, you should try to reach out to junior faculty and help make them comfortable — in the department and in your presence. Take them to lunch or coffee. Ask if they have questions. Offer to help. (Everything in moderation, though. Don’t waste their time, but do offer a respite. Pay attention to body language. If they keep looking tense and uncomfortable around you even after several outings to coffee and/or lunch, perhaps it’s best to leave them be.)

If you have wisdom to share, especially if it’s something that you think a junior faculty member should hear (like something you noticed they might need help with), it is easiest to convey it obliquely, through a story centered on some unspecified third party or, better yet, through a self-deprecating anecdote. Alas, many of my senior male colleagues wouldn’t be caught dead sharing a truly embarrassing story (within the confines of the professional, of course) or a story otherwise showing vulnerability or weakness. They share humblebrag stories, where it seems like there’s chaos or confusion, but ultimately they come through as superheroes who did superbly while somehow bumbling along . I think on some level the assistant professors expect it, this impenetrable shield of invincibility, and don’t feel comfortable sharing doubts or asking questions. It ends up being an unhealthy game where both sides pretend they are far more awesome than they really are. If you can suspend your ego a little and try to connect with your junior colleagues as real people, it will be beneficial for everyone involved.

Remember yourself as an assistant professor and how clueless you were. Remember all the new and disorienting details pertinent to starting a faculty job. Assistant professors, out of a completely justified fear of being negatively evaluated, tend to hide the fear and the cluelessness. Try to be that safe (but really safe) person whom they can ask questions that reveal cluelessness. For example, maybe the course management system is complicated, so they can’t figure out how to use it at a level above the very basic; this is important to address as it affects student perception of the assistant professor’s organization in a negative way. Point them to the right resources for creating a compelling lab website; this is important for student recruitment. The junior professor probably doesn’t know all the things that go into a new grant, or who can help with this or that, or what the hell data management plan is. I know most of this stuff doesn’t require a PhD to master or teach, but there’s no one else. It’s not like you can assign staff or students to help assistant professors with all these issues (maybe some, but not all). It’s us more senior folks who have all the  bits and pieces of knowledge about the crazy tapestry that is our job, so we are the ones to teach.

Seriously, assume that your junior colleagues might be (at the outset, at least) too self-conscious to ask you “trivial” questions or don’t want to waste your time. Ask them if they know how to do this or that, tell them you will be happy to show them and that they should feel free to ask you things anytime.

People align based on interpersonal chemistry. I had faculty mentors assigned to me when I was an assistant professor. I was afraid of one of them and never asked them anything, and the other one was nominally helpful but in practice took three weeks to answer my emails, so I took the hint and stopped asking them for help. How did I get help? I asked a senior collaborator from another department with whom I had good rapport. I asked another grouchy and hilarious faculty member from my own department, who did eventually replace one of my mentors on record.

If you do have good chemistry with an assistant professor, use it to help them. They are more likely to become relaxed with you, and you can really do a lot of good if they trust you (or, sadly, you can do a lot of damage, so tread lightly). Be accessible. If they have to wait three weeks for you to answer a question about some student-related drama, you are useless. We all make time for what we find important. Show them they are important by being there for them when they need you. Yes, that means you will be inconvenienced sometimes. That is the price of really helping someone.

Send good students their way. I get more interest from good students than I can reliably accommodate in my group. I forward those, with introductions, to junior faculty.

Share best hiring strategies. How do you vet students? This is a very nontrivial process with a lot of room for error, and striking out with recruitment carries a steep penalty for junior faculty. Help them bring on good people.

Share your teaching materials. Share everything generously. They may or may not use what you share (I always make everything on my own, but even glimpses of how someone else organizes a course are very helpful). You can save someone a huge amount of work.

Elucidate what their priorities for tenure are. Be honest about the real relative importance of research, teaching, and service at your school. I know at my place we wring our hands about teaching and service, but a person who brings in money and publishes papers will be tenured with middling teaching and service. It’s simply true. My particular department cares about teaching more than most, but I know other departments really don’t. If this is true, make sure that your junior colleague knows how to apportion their limited time.

Help them choose (and fight for them, if necessary) courses that are well aligned with their strengths and interests, service roles that they might be passionate about. Encourage them to seek balance in their lives, to take care of health and their families. Go to bat for them when it comes to lab space or teaching assignments or crappy teaching schedules that conflict with family rearing.

What say you, blogosphere? How can Bluehairs and Graybeards be most helpful to junior faculty? 

Of Birds In Hands and Bushes

Graduate-student recruitment season is upon us, and the inboxes of faculty who work at institutions with graduate programs are again filling with emails containing “prospective student” in the subject.

I will be bringing on several people this year, so I started interviewing early. I have pretty much decided whom I want to recruit  already based on the students I’ve already seen, and I’ve given unofficial offers via email. However, there is still more than a month until the application deadline, and some of my other colleagues apparently wait until after said deadline to peruse the candidate roster for the first time.

I have almost always recruited from among the students who contacted me before applying and whose interest and experience in my subfield seemed genuine. That additional step needed to contact people tells me they have the requisite initiative and have done due diligence. In the past, we’d email a few times and then talk over the phone or Skype. These days, we meet over Zoom.

(One thing that’s new — and I don’t think we can blame videoconferencing alone for this, because this is the first year it’s happening and we’ve had Skype  before, but perhaps everyone wasn’t quite so comfortable with presenting over video as they are now — is that some students want to speak at length about their undergraduate research, more so than they want to ask me about how the group is run, what projects they might be working on, or things about the university. It is always desirable to discuss undergraduate research, to a point. These grad-school interviews are meant to gauge personality and fit, both ways, and the prospective graduate advisor is generally not interested in the minutiae of the student’s undergraduate project, but rather the general background and skills and analytic thinking the student can bring to the new lab. I do mention, when we set up the interview, that if they wanted to they could tell me briefly about their work, emphasis on briefly, through just a few slides, but that it’s not required, and that they should come prepared to ask questions. Recently, however, there was a kid who prepared a thirty-slide presentation and — despite me telling him I could not listen to a full talk and that he should pick a few slides worth of highlights — he proceeded to give the full talk to the point that I had to interrupt him, not once but twice, because it ran way too long. I ended up being fairly irritated. Do not disrespect people’s time like that.)

Anyway, the above is more of an aside to the main topic of today.

I like to make contact with interested people early and try to lock them in. In contrast, a colleague says you never know who else will be in the applicant pool, maybe better people will come along. I personally go by the proverb that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. There may be better students later, but there also may not. Excellent students who apply later and don’t show a particular interest in my group are also not very likely to end up in my group. Yet, I have certainly lost good students in the past because I had to wait for funding; by the time I got to perusing the whole applicant roster, those kids already had advisors (at comparable or even lower-ranked places) lined up. So acting early has definite benefits.

Anyway, that’s me. When I know I will recruit, I do it as early as possible. To graduate student applicants out there, if you know you want to try someone’s group, get your CV, unofficial transcript, and personal statement in order sooner rather than later, and contact the professors you are interested in well in advance of the application deadline. They will tell you whether a) they aren’t taking new students, b) they would love to take new students, but are waiting to hear about pending grants (by far the most common outcome), or c) they have money and are recruiting. If b) or c), and your background and interests align with the professor’s, they will set up an interview. Come ready to discuss your research experience, but the technical details of that particular experience are less important than the perspective and transferrable skills you acquired through it.

What say you, blogosphere? If you work at an institution with a graduate program, what are your grad-student recruitment strategies? 

Repost: Rummaging Through Archives

Original post here.

This was a busy weekend, with student paperwork emergencies, grading the midterm, helping out kids with some schoolwork, and also DH’s birthday, for which I did some extra special cooking (no guests, just us, but it’s nice to mark the occasion).

I’m feeling a bit 😩😩😩😩😩 and there’s still grading to do, so, without further ado…

*fanfare*

I give you some of the most-read posts from 2019!

In Which I Feel a Kinship with Bruce Banner

The Anointed

A Lifelong $hit-Eater Develops Intolerance to $hit

Grant Gnash

Attitude and Aptitude. Alas

In Which Xyk is Called Cynical and Perhaps Rightfully So

An Open Letter to a Kondo Kultist

Reader Question: Funding Strategy for Pre-tenure Faculty

Administration Ministration

Recently, I attended a workshop that discussed faculty transitioning into administrative roles. It was very well run, with engaging and, honestly, very impressive panelists. I did not think I’d ever be able to appreciate one of these event, but it was probably the double whammy of me being amenable and the workshop being well run — a right frame of mind, right event kind of thing.

Why would I do this to myself, you ask? And what did the panelists talk about? Fear not, dear reader, for I will discuss it all.

I occasionally muse about how I am a bad fit for administration. I don’t necessarily believe it, but I also don’t not believe it. Early in my career, a female faculty colleague literally told me I didn’t have the personality for administration, and this comment did something to me. This person is someone who is currently in administration and has held several posts of increasing prominence (yet I have always found them lacking in personability or charisma, something one might think precludes a person from working in a people-facing role, but what the fuck do I know). Objectively, I don’t think I am a deficient human being, however, I do run hotter than many, I have a big mouth (which I control much better now than I did when I was younger) and I tend to say exactly what I think, all of which seem like bad traits for an administrative position, especially in the passive-aggressive Midwest.

However, I also hate being told I can’t do something. And I hate even more not trying to do something because I am afraid of failure. I will take on new stuff to a fault, just to show to myself that I can. This stubbornness has served me well for the most part. I think it’s psychologically harmful to be too risk averse and make choices from a position of doubt, fear, or insecurity. I feel doubt, fear, and insecurity, of course, usually on a daily — nay, hourly — basis, but more often than not, especially when it’s just me versus a challenge, all my doubt, fear, and insecurity are overridden by my outsize contrariness and I will go for the challenge (even though, honestly, sometimes my time would better be spent doing something else). Bottom line is, I don’t ever want to choose to not do something from a position of fear or doubt. So I keep picking at the scab of that old injury to my ego because I am trying to figure out if I really don’t have what it takes. Intellectually, I think I am capable of learning to do almost anything well, so I resent the implication that I am somehow incapable of doing a job so many already do. Emotionally, however, I always wonder if there is truth (or how much truth there is) in the colleague’s assessment, and if I am just as ill-suited for administration as I am for, say, a career as an opera singer.

This is why you shouldn’t discourage people from doing stuff. You don’t know how they’ll take it. It might have been an offhand remark for you, but it might’ve caught on a deep-seated issue of theirs and caused some actual damage. Praise when you see potential, but don’t actively discourage when you don’t. I have several examples where I predicted someone would not do well, but then they did; or I predicted they would do great things, but the person ended up unremarkable. There are many more cases where my prediction aligned with the outcome, but there are enough exceptions to remind us that success is such a multifaceted problem and that is hinges on technical savvy, multiple personality traits, and luck. So do encourage, but don’t actively discourage if you can avoid it.

Anyway, I am contemplating administration because it’s one way to get a significant salary boost. But I don’t think I’d make a good dean or probably even chair. Working with peers frustrates me and I can’t kiss ass of higher-up admins and alumni donors to the extent needed. I simply can’t. However, I excel at working with younger people, either teaching or mentoring students and junior faculty. And I think I do a very good job as an evaluator (proposals, papers, tenure cases, etc.) because I extract relevant information swiftly and I am quite decisive.

A few years ago, I chaired a major committee and that role broke me. It took me a couple of years to recover, and I’m not joking. Overall, if you ask the people on the committee, I did a great job, but it definitely didn’t feel like that to me at the time. We had a challenging year. There was pressure from one particular dean in the direction that would have violated faculty policies and procedures, so it was up to me to push back, and keep pushing. There was one committee member who made my life hell because I wouldn’t accommodate their ridiculous travel schedule (this was way before the Zoom boom) as such requests had not been accommodated by any of the past chairs. We had several departures because people got jobs at new institutions, and I intellectually knew these had nothing to do with me, but it felt like all of these things converging were somehow my fault, and that I was the cause of the collapse. In reality, nothing actually collapsed, things worked quite well actually, it was just a challenging but ultimately successful year. Yet, I felt like I fucked everything up.

Which brings me to something I feel holds: That there are people whose egos insulate them from guilt even when they are objectively responsible for something. These people are probably the ones best mentally suited to endure long-term administrative roles. Then there are those like me who internalize everything because they can’t help it, and if you hint to us that something is our fault even though it isn’t, it fucking devastates us (thanks for this, Mom). It is so exhausting to use the intellect to constantly override these emotional vulnerability pathways, and it’s not even effective 100% of the time. So you end up having a miserable committee chair who vows never again.

And yet…

This is how I got to be in the workshop, and some of the insights I took away include:

a) Try to chair a major committee first (ouch)

b) The best leaders want to make the department, unit, or institution a better place. The worst, most harmful ones are those who are in it for their own ambition or agenda (we all know such folks, don’t we?). These people are never thwarted by feelings of guilt because they don’t feel it

c) Jump on opportunities. Also, make sure people see you and notice you beforehand, so you’re at the forefront of their mind when these opportunities arise

d) Trust your gut and don’t be afraid. There is no ideal timing for a major career change, so you just have to go with what feels right

e) There are many different leadership styles, so a myriad personality traits can be beneficial to leadership. Think instead of relevant skill sets that can be developed with effort and experience

f) No matter what, there will conflict and figuring out how to deal with conflict resolution will be a big part of the job

g) The ability to communicate clearly is paramount. Never stop working on this particular skill

This left me feeling much better and more hopeful about potential administrative roles. I don’t think I will ever want to be something like a dean or even department chair (honestly, I don’t mind running the department, but interfacing with the dean and dealing with alumni and donors makes me want to gouge my eyes out). However, I might take on a role that focuses on student issues and experience, or on junior faculty. I think I might enjoy that.

Then again, perhaps a better path to increasing my income is to double down on my fiction and start selling novels. Hubs is far more in favor of me becoming a part-time novelist than a part-time (or, god forbid, full-time) admin. And when I write, the only people who raise my blood pressure are fictional.

What say you, blogosphere? Have you thought about administration? Leadership in general? How has your path been toward or away from administrative roles? 

Repost: Kindred Spirits

Original post here. 

A couple of weeks ago, I took an older colleague to lunch. He’s in a different area so we’d never interacted too much, but to the extent we had, I’d always thought he was pretty cool. Anyway, he’s 70, retiring, and moving cross-country to take up a research-only position elsewhere. I’d missed his farewell party, which is why I took him to lunch.

The colleague is healthy, active, still believes his best work is ahead, and is quite excited about the next step — his zest for work and life is truly inspiring! But a big reason that made me wish I could’ve hung out with him more is that, as it turns out, we have similar personalities, professional values, and modus operandi. It’s been a long time since I’d felt so understood. Most of the time, I feel like a fish out of water among my colleagues, among my scheduled-to-the-gills, calendar-and-list-wielding, networking/schmoozing/grant-savant peers.

As I talked with this older colleague (who btw is very accomplished in his math-heavy field), he articulated the key elements of how he likes to work and they are exactly what I strive for. And it’s amazing that he — likely by being an old white guy — doesn’t seem to think there’s anything wrong with working how he works or prioritizing the things he prioritizes, even though they are not the norm. In contrast, I — likely in no small part because I’m not an old white guy — keep existing in a state of mild anxiety over not fitting here, over not doing things the way they are supposed to be done, over being weird along far too many axes.

A key aspect of the professional MO that came up is leaving room for spontaneity: having enough time that isn’t blocked off by recurrent meetings that you have the flexibility in when you see grad students; being free to go grab lunch or coffee (alas, with whom, when everyone else is so busy and ruled by the calendar? I tried going to lunches and coffees with colleagues in the first year or two on the tenure track, then just gave up);  being able to devote large blocks of time to projects that grab you, when they grab you.

As I wrote before, schedules and lists and detailed plans give me hives (see here and here). While it seems that schedules, lists, and detailed plans relax most people by giving them a sense of control, the likes of me (who are apparently fairly rare) find it demotivating and stifling (producing a very real impetus to flee).

We ended up having a very lively two-hour lunch and I left feeling quite cheerful.  There’s nothing quite like feeling understood and making a genuine human connection to lift one’s spirits.

Levity

Things Senior Male Faculty Might Want to Know

>>NOVEMBER 2022: If you have a question you’d like me to answer during Nov 2022 daily blogging, please leave a comment to this post.<< 

Another question by Profdirector, originally posted here:

What not obvious thing do you wish the old fully promoted men in your department knew?

I’m going to assume this question ends with “about the lives of their female colleagues” and not about, say, fantasy football. ‘Cause if it’s about fantasy football, I’ll be the first to admit my own cluelessness.

Seriously now, this is a question that I often mull over, and my answers have changed over time. I will say that most men I work with, and those in my broader technical community, really don’t hate women and don’t want to exclude them from the profession. I am sure this wasn’t the case decades ago (although, seriously, I was hired two decades ago, which blows my mind, so maybe whenever I want to say twenty years ago, I should start saying fifty years ago). I believe that most of them believe they are enlightened and supportive and treat women as equals. And if you are a well-performing woman, especially of some professional note, senior men (at least in my field) will generally support you.

However, there are many issues that I feel like they could and should know about, but typically don’t. And part of this lack of knowledge is philosophical, in that people are fundamentally unknowable and those of different genders have really different everyday lives, so how much can senior male professors really ever know about the realities of their female colleagues? Sure,  there are fundamental barriers to knowing, but I fell we are nowhere near them, and most men could definitely know much more than they typically seem to.

For one, most senior faculty men have “civilian” wives (I know there exist single men and gay men, but a majority in my field are married to women), i.e., wives who aren’t faculty and who either don’t work at all or work, often part time, in a career that is less well paid that the husband’s. These women are focused on the family and on supporting their husband’s career, and if they are happy with their choices, more power to them. But the husbands don’t understand that their female colleagues lead very different lives from them (the men), because, in a vast majority of marriages, women are still the household managers and spend a ton of time and energy on family and home regardless of what they do outside the home. These men don’t really understand their female professional colleague’s reality because they are not very knowledgeable about (or interested in) the workings of their own household.

I am not saying that women faculty’s husbands are lazy layabouts, not in the least. What I am saying is that they are more often than not employed in a career that is as demanding as a faculty career, or even more so; that when two people work full time in demanding jobs (in contrast to one of them not working or working part time), each one of them is going to be stretched thin in a way the employed spouse in a single-income household typically isn’t.

I know plenty of male faculty with kids and they seldom say they can’t meet at 8 am or at 6 pm because of kid pickup/dropoff, so clearly the other parent is doing the kid handling. Well, I am the one who can’t make these meetings. In a vast majority of marriages, women spend more time and energy on kids. That seems like it won’t change anytime soon. I personally don’t want to not take kids to school just because someone wants to meet at the crack of dawn.

I wish my male colleagues knew that female faculty do their (the men’s) exact job plus a lion’s share of the men’s wives’ job. I don’t really know what the colleagues would do with that information, but perhaps it might lead to more empathy.

The most supportive colleagues are those who are either married to a woman faculty member or to a woman in another demanding career. Even if they don’t have kids, these folks see first-hand how busy their spouses are, the shit they are likely put through in a career that’s coveted (and thus likely full of men), and it really opens their eyes.

I can see a difference between my husband now and when we first met in terms of how much he knows and understands the issues women face. He used to be supportive in an abstract sense, but after seeing real issues and hearing about them from the horse’s mouth for two decades, he now gets more incensed about gender-related injustices and ready to fuck someone up than I do. Alas, there aren’t enough women in highly paid careers to educate every man through marriage.

Now, as for young faculty women versus old faculty men. Honestly, with my pregnancies during the tenure track (baby No 2, a.k.a. Middle Boy, now 15) and after tenure (baby No 3, a.k.a. Smurf, now 11), several of my male colleagues were extremely supportive and genuinely excited for me, much more so than the two senior women (we have many more women now, but they’re all junior to me). However, there were also two men who I remember making comments that were supposed to be jokes but were, in the one case, indicating the colleague was resentful that a woman having a baby might get teaching release (and someone else picking up the teaching slack) and, in the other case, that using a tenure-clock extension (actually getting it automatic, but actually using it is not) means the woman is a “weak link” (direct quote). I don’t think this is happening very much anymore, in part because we’ve had more women since then, but, for example, in the case of the newest announced pregnancy, it turned out that many men had no idea whether or not we had any formal university-level pregnancy/birth accommodations (we don’t; it’s left to the departments to handle, and our department has been great about it). I’ve had this information for years, but I guess people only seek and retain information that’s directly relevant to them. Given that a lot of young women are mentored (formally or informally) by older men, it sounds like men should really make an effort to learn about how the faculty life looks from the standpoint of their female colleagues (hint: it’s not the same as the men’s), which includes knowing about the accommodations for birth and adoption that are relevant to all people of procreation age, regardless of gender.

I sometimes wish dudes could get a movie-type body swap with women, for like a month, just to see what a different world it is. For instance, I’d like male faculty to see how much emotional handholding for students female faculty have to do on the regular, and how it skyrocketed during the pandemic; how we had to keep our shit together for students and our families and be everyone’s rock, knowing that we ourselves didn’t and wouldn’t have much of an outlet or help from anywhere. I wish they saw and could really understand the amount of emotional labor we all do for the benefit  of the all the different people in our lives. This labor is huge but mostly invisible to men, because people don’t expect men to do it and don’t even approach men with demands for it.  And this labor is on top of, not instead of, everything else that men do in their jobs as faculty.

I wish they could see that women faculty are so fucking awesome, it’s actually pretty scary.

What say you, blogosphere? What not obvious thing do you wish the old fully promoted men in your department knew?

The Money Needed to Not Need Money

Welcome to daily blogging in November! In the spirit of NaNoWriMo, there’s an old blogging tradition known as NaBloPoMo, national blog posting month.

I will start with a question from Profdirector, originally posted here:

Navel-gazing subject: what amount of yearly money could your research survive on? I.e. what annual budget would allow you to stop writing grants and just do science?

This is a question with a very subfield-dependent answer. I do theory and computation, so my grants generally cover some travel, minimal supplies (including computer upgrades every few years), but the vast majority of expenses are personnel salaries. As long as I could somehow pay my people, I’d be pretty much set. Most experimentalists cannot say this. Also, my nine-month salary is paid on hard money (university operating budget). Soft-money scientists can’t really envision not raising grants.

My ideal group would be one postdoc and four PhD students (actually, one research scientist and six PhD students, but let’s not be greedy for the purpose of this exercise). Given the current fringe benefits, overhead, and graduate-student tuition at my institution, that means that just for the salary for one postdoc and four grad students funded as RAs, I currently have to raise roughly $95k+4*$65k=$355k per year. That’s three concurrent NSF grants or similar, and I am not paying myself any summer salary, or have any money for travel. (Going to a research scientist and six PhD students would raise it to about $550k per year, which is about 4.6 concurrently funded NSF grants or similar.)

No endowed professorships I know provide this level of support. It’s usually in the low tens of thousands per year. Those discretionary funds do help bridge funding gaps and help pay for travel and such, but aren’t a long-term solution because they’re small and they don’t last that long (usually five-year increments), even thought the professorship title is forever.

If I were to go to completely bare bones, with no external money whatsoever, I think I could go down to 2-3 grad students on TA-ships and me with no summer salary ever, and that would probably enable me to do more science that I am actually interested in rather than optimizing for fundability. I could do more challenging long-term stuff, rather than always being under deadlines and having to produce at a steady rate because reports are due and I’m always planning for new and renewal grants.

However…

With no research money, I couldn’t recruit the students I’d like to recruit. It would be very, very hard given we as a school guarantee funding to PhD students.

I would be required to teach more, and with more teaching, the research time and available headspace and energy all get reduced.

The loss of standing” in the department would probably be quite demoralizing (in my department and college, money is king; if you’re well funded, you’re OK; if you run out of money, you are considered a has-been and peers do look down on you; I wish it weren’t so, but it totally is), as would be the inability to recruit people.

I don’t actually hate writing grants. Writing grants is a creative process that forces you to distill your ideas and think in advance about what you want to do and what issues you will likely face. It’s the necessity of raising grants to be able to do virtually anything, the enormity of time that has to be spent to be successful, and everything grinding to a halt if you are not successful that make the grant game so stressful.

So being without grant money is really not an option. People have funding highs and lows, but everyone’s aware that writing and submitting are a must. Those who don’t take to the grant game hard and early tend not to get tenure in my and similar fields. This criterion for tenure and promotion has only been getting more prominent over time.

However, if I could somehow magically be awarded a small grant that would support my group forever, where I’d be able to bring on a new student every so often and supplement with TAs, I’d say $100k per year would be awesome. It would give me the ability to get people on and off TAs, recruit new students, etc. So if some STEM benefactor wants to throw some funding my way over the remaining 20 years of so of my career, I will not turn up my nose at that gift.

For experimentalists, the funds are actually much greater, depending on the type of lab, user fees at shared facilities, etc. However, there are, at least in my field, many more opportunities for long-term funding from DoD available to experimentalists than they are to me.

Academic blogosphere, what do you say? How much hypothetically would you need (from some hypothetical patron of scholars) to stop writing grants and just do science? 

Simplistic

The other day, I came across this tweet (screenshot below):

SimplisticWriting

I started fuming, but that’s neither here nor there, since I fume a lot, on account of being a perimenopausal woman and the world generally being a steaming cauldron of irritating shit. Still, upon closer inspection, I realized this was a very specific kind of fume, the kind I reserve for annoying takes about writing and/or STEM.

I replied to the tweet, then promptly deleted it, because life is too short to be aggressive on Twitter, but just the right duration to be passive-aggressive on a personal blog.

It could be that the author never had in mind STEM technical writing, but was instead interested in popular informative writing, academic writing in the humanities, etc. That may well be, and in that case what I am about to expound upon perhaps doesn’t hold (even though I totally feel it does). Still, the tweet sounded like its author was someone who was tasked with training struggling academic/informative/technical writers how to write better. Given how utterly useless academic-writing coaching is at my institution — no, it’s worse than useless; it has negative usefulness because it overrides some of the students’ best instincts that they develop naturally through reading technical prose — I feel more than a little aggravated that generations of unsuspecting new academic writers somewhere will be taught by someone who thinks they are all simpletons with fourth-grade vocabularies.

You guessed it: The thing that irritated me in the tweet was the reference to plain or simplistic writing. First of all, even when it comes to reading fiction — and I read a ton of it, across several genres — I am absolutely fucking allergic to purple prose. By that I mean overly ornate prose whose job is usually to obfuscate and distract from the absence of an interesting plot and/or character development.  There is no such thing as “eloquent” and “elegant” that doesn’t detract from clarity at least a little, plus eloquent may as well be an antonym of succinct. But the worst thing is that a person who thinks that the tenets of writing in the technical genre make such writing “plain” and “simplistic” clearly holds the whole fucking genre in low regard and should not be given the job of teaching other people how to write it.

You have to know, respect, and appreciate a genre before you can write it, let alone teach someone else  how to do it. You can’t think that those who write it are idiots. If you can’t stomach the absence of florid prose, then do not read or write academic or technical texts. Those are not the places to get your literary fix, FFS.

The point of academic or technical writing is, first and foremost, to convey ideas. The beauty, elegance, and excitement come from ideas. Not language. IDEAS. The language can help, but it cannot be used to polish a turd the way it’s sometimes (over)used in fiction. The underlying ideas have to be solid. They have to be technically correct, as proven by data; they have to flow logically from prior art and from one another; they have to have a purpose (addressing an open problem that the community agrees is open and needs addressing); they have to do it in a way that is ideally novel and creative, but first and foremost correct.

The language used to convey ideas must not obfuscate the need for the solution, the established tenets of the field, the new ideas and how those flow from prior art, or any of the logical pieces presented in the paper that connect the parts into a coherent whole. Correctness, accuracy, and clarity come before all else. Then we can talk about stylistic elegance, to a degree.

But what is it about writing that makes a paper read well? The same ingredients that make any thriller read well. An engaging opening. High stakes. Logical jumps that connect successive revelations in the puzzle. That heady mix of not knowing what comes next yet having enough information that you feel like you *could* guess what comes next.

Besides, plenty of literary techniques and devices do, in fact, get used in technical writing. Varying sentence length works well in any genre. Technical writing relies heavily on parallels, contrasts, and analogies. Maybe we do not use metaphors outright, but we often use similes. We use antithesis to elucidate contrasts. We use amplification to emphasize the most important findings, and the very structure of the paper, where the key insights repeated in the abstract, intro, and conclusion, serves as a giant amplifier — a veritable resonant cavity for the main takeaway! We use euphemisms to convey our  disagreement with the possibly erroneous prior work without outright offending our colleagues. We use foreshadowing in the early parts of the paper to hint at the exciting meat in the Results section. (Me saying “meat” and you understanding I mean “important results” is an example of a metaphor.)

At the risk of being overly dramatic, I will paraphrase James Baldwin’s quote, where he says that black children cannot be taught by the people who despise them.

Fledgling academic and technical writers cannot be taught how to write by the people who despise the relevant genres, who don’t understand or appreciate their tenets, and who consider the genres’ practitioners to be inferior writers producing “plain” and “simplistic” prose.

Fledgling academic and technical writes should be taught by the people well versed in those genres, who have mastered the art — yes, art — of writing in a way that is informative, first, persuasive, second, and engaging, third. It is no mean feat, and there is nothing simplistic about it.

RBOC

NOVEMBER 2022: If you have a question you’d like me to answer during Nov 2022 daily blogging, please leave a comment to this post. 

I have a new pen name/email/web domain for the new (to me) genre in which I am writing a novel. This brings the number of different email accounts to seventeen gajillion. I know this sounds silly, but this all makes the endeavor more real, like I’m truly committed to it (which I am). I am feeling energized to get back to the novel (I have about 50k as of July, but haven’t been able to work on it very much since, on account of, you know, day job and stuff). However, I am hoping to put down some more words during the rest of this month and especially in November.

Speaking of November, I usually blog every day, following the old-timey NaBloPoMo tradition, and will try to do it again. It will likely be a mixture of reposts, new posts maybe 2-3x a week, and the rest  links/Twitter silliness posts. Which, to be honest, is how previous Novembers mostly went, too.

If you have a question that you would like me to answer, please submit either via email (xykademiqz at gmail), or leave a comment to this post. There will be a new post like the one on the RHS for the upcoming November. I will try to answer as many as I can, and if I don’t get to yours, it usually means I planned to, but it slipped my mind. Just ping me again sometime in the future.


The following is definitely a feature of the job, but it still sometimes strikes me how constantly critiquing people’s work erodes my joie de vivre. Even if my opinion is 100% correct, it still takes something from me to have to submit even the most tactfully crafted negative opinion, to recommend declination of a proposal or paper, or to decide to reject a paper as editor. These are all actions that, even if justifiably, hurt other people, colleagues who usually put a lot of time into the work, and I have to the person who tells them ‘no.’ Saying ‘no’ is always fraught, and so many people take it way more personally than they should — the judgement is on a particular piece of work and its suitability for a journal or a funding agency, not on the authors’ ability to do science — but I have also been on the receiving end of such bad news, and it’s often hard to decouple the two (the rejection and the sense of self-worth). It’s easy to read too much into a rejection, and it’s perhaps not always misguided to do so, because people also hold grudges and gatekeep, so the noes aren’t always as impersonal as they ideally should be. For me, having to dispense negative opinions and decisions always takes a little something away from me, makes me a little colder, as little more closed off.

Which is also why it’s so nice to do stuff on my own, without anyone to teach. I don’t have to witness other people’s hardship and failure. My own is fine; usually I take it as a sign that the reward is worth the sweat, and I always love a good challenge! Not that I never get demoralized, but when it’s just me, I am usually OK. In contrast, seeing my students (or my kids, for that matter) have setbacks can be really hard.


An undergrad came to talk to me about grad school, and we chatted about where he would want to go. I suggested a bunch of places and people, but the field he wants to go into isn’t really mine, so my information is limited. Then he said he’d asked a person it the field, but couldn’t get an appointment with them, after which I contacted the same person on behalf of the student, and the person got back to me quickly, with off-the-top-of-their-head information that probably took them no time at all to type up, so now the student had all the info he could need. This little (barely) anecdote got me thinking how we who are specialists in our fields are really such vast repositories of knowledge, knowledge that is very hard to get in other ways but that we possess and can effortlessly dispense, but only to those who have the ability to get a hold of us. This can be a metaphor for a whole bunch of stuff, but one thing is certainly true: like with so much of everything in life, access is everything, yet it is also the thing that most will never have.