Sunday Smorgasbord

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

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

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

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

Easy bread pudding

A cat trying to pet a bird

Brilliant Student

Emily asked:

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

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

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

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

Anyway, help?

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

There are several aspects here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blogosphere, what do you say? 



Thoughts on Moving on the Tenure Track

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

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

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

Here are some of my thoughts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Random Links As I Have to Grade

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

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

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

Also,go read a random flash from Ellipsis Zine:

After the Pause latest issue:


And a reminder to us all:



On Moving in Academia

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

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

Are these things different pre- and post-tenure?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Blogosphere, what do you say?