academic politics

Noisy

I drafted this post a while ago, but never published it. Perhaps it’s time, as ASBMB’s publication of “A Good Little Girl” (original post here) reminded me of it. This post will likely go *poof*  in a few days. 

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We voted for the promotion of a faculty member to full professor. The colleague’s record is quite strong. He commands massive amounts of funds, mostly from DoD, has a large group, and produces a lot of papers. In that regard, he’s a model faculty member. The support for his promotion was unanimous.

The colleague is a master of self-promotion. He’s what I would call “noisy.” He’s very vocal about his awesomeness, and he does not let anyone forget it for a second. Over the past several years, through my service to the department, I have been privy to just how much internal money has been spent to show this colleague institutional love. In fact, I wrote several nomination letters and assembled nomination packages for him to get internal awards, accompanied by flexible funds. (He received the awards; but, in case you are wondering, no, I never got a “thank you” for the work I put into those successful nominations).

But, when you look at this colleague’s record in detail, there are some interesting aspects.

The colleague boasts about his high student evaluations. Then you see that he has not taught an undergraduate course — any undergraduate course, let alone a required, high-enrollment one — in many years, since before his last promotion. All his teaching has been restricted to two graduate courses with 10-15 enrollment. Not exactly the world’s toughest-to-please student audience. Actually, if his evaluations weren’t great in this scenario, that would be quite alarming.

When you look at service, there is absolutely the barest minimum of service to both the institution and the department. He serves less than most of our assistant professors, and I can assure you that we really protect the time of our young faculty. Over the past several years, I offered him to serve on what I believe are the more meaningful among the university committees, and he always said he was too busy. Basically, his only service is to the profession and always in a capacity that enhances his visibility (e.g., conference program committees).

So it really pisses me off when someone comes to tell me I cannot decide to reduce my own teaching and service with “But-but-but, what happens to the institution? What happens to the students if everyone does what you propose? How can you be so selfish?” Because, of course, by being female I have to first and foremost think of my duties to others. I guarantee that no one will say a thing to this colleague who was just promoted. Nobody will even hint to  him that he mooches off others and he should pick up the slack in teaching and service. Nobody will scold him for being selfish, as long as he brings in the funds.  And that’s why this is all so fucked up. And he’s hardly the only one of his kind.

The colleague will go on his merry selfish way, with maximal free time to pursue funds and write papers and work on his visibility, and periodically make loud noises to remind us all how well funded and well published and how much more valuable than the rest of us he is. I don’t know what goes on in his head, but I bet he thinks he really is so much better than the rest of us, and I bet he believes that the likes of me actually prefer teaching required undergrad courses with huge enrollments and serving on university committees to writing papers and grants, because if we didn’t love it so much we would just not do it, like him!

I hate that selfish people prosper the most.

I hate that it is so hard for people who are not selfish to act selfish, and thus to prosper as much as the effortlessly selfish people.

I hate that women are not allowed to show that they are even thinking about being selfish without someone coming to tell them, “Tsk, tsk, tsk, won’t you think of the children?”

I hate that I am supposed to be everybody’s goddamn mother. Or secretary. (Or quiet diversity token. But that’s a story for another day.)

Don’t Confuse Style with Intent

Riker, Picard, and Kolrami

Riker, Picard, and Kolrami

Quote from “Peak Performance,” a 1989 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

[Kolrami has criticized Riker’s inappropriate joviality and lack of seriousness for a commanding officer.]

Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Don’t confuse style with intent. Only a fool would question Commander Riker’s dedication to Starfleet and the men and women under his command. He is simply the finest officer with whom I have ever served.

Sirna Kolrami: We shall see if your faith is well founded.

Captain Jean-Luc Picard: The test is whether the crew will follow where Commander Riker leads. His… his “joviality” is the means by which he creates that loyalty. And I will match his command style with your statistics anytime.

********

A few years ago, a senior female colleague, whom I consider a friend, told me that I did not have the right personality to go into administration. I don’t think she wanted to be mean and I believe she told me her honest opinion. I also have no intention whatsoever of ever going into administration. But her remark did sting, as they always do when a person whose opinion you value confirms some of the worst fears or most negative opinions you have of yourself. What I heard was a confirmation that how I am, my entire personality, is simply wrong for being a senior member of academia.

I am much more serious in my blog writing than I am in real life. I think my family and my students would roll their eyes at how stuffy I sometimes sound on the blog, especially when I am in advice-giving mode.  I am really not serious in real life, at all. (You should hear our family’s dinner conversations.) However, it’s a real challenge in faculty meetings to not blurt out the jokes that pop into my mind while the colleagues drone on. If you ever felt the urge to laugh at a funeral, that’s  how I feel in just about every meeting ever. With age, I have gotten better at keeping my mouth shut and distracting myself so as not to disrupt the super-serious and often time-wasting proceedings.

But my personality seems to be perfect for teaching undergrads. Peppering my lectures with “good bad jokes” (this is verbatim from a student comment) works well to keep the students engaged and generally everyone in a good mood. The courses I teach are very “mathy” (again, an expression a student used) and challenging on their own; for many undergrads, every avenue that can be used to relate such material to something practical or enjoyable is not only welcome but, in fact, necessary for the students to feel a real connection with what they are learning. Goofing around with them fits the bill.

I am also myself with my graduate students and my collaborators, as I let my pun-happy freak flag fly. I hope most of them don’t mind. At least they are all used to me.

But I never forget that my personality is wrong, that being a goofball is out of the norm, yet another item in the long list of ways in which I am not how I should be for where I want to be professionally.

This year, I am chairing an important university-level committee. It was a surprise that I was chosen to chair it, considering I had been myself the whole time leading to the election. But now that I was supposed to take up my chairing duties, I had every intention of being dead serious, like my predecessor, because it’s a very important committee.

We had the first meeting the other day and I had the floor to myself for quite a while, because there was a lot of material to present to the new members. I was very nervous and I felt at times that I couldn’t find appropriately weighty words, becoming of a serious academic. But I could always find a metaphor, a light self-deprecating joke, or a slightly sarcastic remark. And within minutes, I was relaxed, and so was everyone else on the committee. To my complete surprise, I was able to run a very efficient meeting. Here are some unexpected aspects that I noticed.

  • I covered all the material that I was supposed to cover, and I believe I did it clearly, and in considerably less time than my predecessor. An incisive remark or an appropriate metaphor is often more efficient at conveying meaning than three paragraphs worth of admin-speak. I will hypothesize that actual living academics in meetings with other academics might, in fact, like to have their information conveyed clearly and succinctly, just like all other humans do in every aspect of their life. Who knew?
  • I was nervous, but I guess so was everyone else, especially the new members. I think I (inadvertently) set a lighthearted tone that helped everyone relax quickly.
  • When I compare this meeting to the ones over the past years (different chair every year), I believe I spent overall less time talking myself while other senior members of the committee chimed in more. I am not sure what the reason is; maybe I am a blithering fool who’s not worth listening to? Whatever the reason, it’s a good thing overall — everyone sharing their impressions with the new members is vastly superior to just me dispensing wisdom for an extended period of time.
  • What is interesting is that some people who were very quiet last year spoke quite freely and cheerfully this year. It might be that they are simply more relaxed as they are no longer new. Whatever the reason, it’s good to finally hear from them!

Overall, I was surprised at how well everything went, how efficient the meeting was, and how cheerful everyone seemed as they were leaving. I did not suck at chairing this meeting, despite acting like myself.

You may call me Commander Riker.

Question from Reader: Managing the First 1-2 Years As an Assistant Professor

A New Assistant Professor (NAP) has a question:

I have worked at an industrial research lab for five years and have finally received an offer from a well-known US public research school as an assistant professor in engineering.

I am so excited but at the same time I am a bit anxious about setting up a new research lab, recruiting graduate students, getting grants, and teaching.

Would you please give me some advice about how I can successfully manage the first one or two years as assistant professor? What would be my
priority in the first two years; writing papers or writing proposals, or teaching, or mentoring graduate students? Probably, all of them….

I would appreciate any of your advice in advance.

First of all, congratulations to NAP on landing a tenure-track position at a major research university! It will be quite a ride.

I responded briefly to NAP via email, and will expand on that a little bit. (All my advice is for a physical science field at a major research university in the US, so if you are reading and your field or institution type or country is different, obviously some or even all of the advice will not hold.)

1) Teaching: Try to make sure you teach grad courses in your specialty (rather than large enrollment undergrad courses) in the first 2-3 years. Teaching well takes a lot of time, especially initially. Teach the same 2 courses a few times during your fist few years, until you get your research program going. Ideally, you will have senior faculty mentors (often formally) who should be there to advise you and to also be your advocates when it comes to shielding you from some of the unnecessary burdens. Many universities have formal mentoring programs, make sure you take advantage of that.

2) Startup: You probably received a startup package that covers equipment, stipend and tuition for a couple of research assistants (RAs) for 2-3 years, and some travel and summer salary money.

2a) Summer salary: In the US it is common for physical-science faculty to have 9-month contracts, i.e., they are not paid over the summer, unless you teach the summer courses or more commonly have money from grants to cover summer salary. Indeed, at research universities it is expected that the salary will be eventually brought in from grants. However, it is typical that a startup will include funds to cover a couple of months of summer salary for a couple of years, until you land your first grant (or five).

2b) Personnel: Try to recruit 1-2 grad students who will start during your first year, or bring in a postdoc whose quality you trust, to help you build up your lab. You need people right away, but you don’t have to bring everyone you think you will ever need right away. There is a learning curve when it comes to recruiting people, so your first few may be awesome but they may be duds too. Fingers crossed.

2c) Equipment and building a lab: Lots of money, lots of time. Start shopping right away. However long you think it will take, it will be even longer.

3) Funding: Since you are in the College of Engineering, the requirements to bring money will be high for tenure. At least some of your grants should be peer reviewed (NSF or DOE or NIH, depending on what you do), others can be DoD (AFOSR, DARPA, ONR) or industry. Getting funding is probably the highest priority at the start. For DoD you need to make personal connections with program managers so you will have to travel to DC to meet them and see where their interests lie.
Map out all the early career/young investigator awards you are eligible for (some have limitation of years post PhD), see how many tries you have for each one, and what you need for each. Hit as many of them as you can, potentially staggering them, but generally hit them hard. A few are due in the summer so you have a full year of practicing with regular NSF proposals and collaborative proposals etc. before the first wave of young investigator awards.

(A bit of parenthetical info: People in the physical sciences tend to be in the College of Letters and Science or the College of Engineering (computer science and materials science, for instance, could be in either, depending on whether they are standalone or associated with an engineering department). The funding requirements in the College of Engineering are generally different as a whole than in the Letters and Science. There are fewer TA-ship available in Eng because the departments do not teach service courses, and everyone is expected to bring in lots of grants. Among the departments in the L&S, there are differences. For instance, chemistry and biochemistry will typically have high requirements on grants, similar to chemical engineering, but with often larger groups because of the supply of TAs. People in statistics and computer science and some branches of engineering and applied math have very similar requirements as to how much money should be raised and the publication pace. In the physics departments, condensed matter experimentalists will raise money and publish at a pace similar to chemists or chemical engineers or materials scientists, while theorists in general and the people in particle physics or astrophysics may not be facing very high grant raising requirements, and grants may not be an important part of the tenure review in those fields. In my math department, it is specified at tenure time that they do not expect grants or evaluate grants as a component of excellence. In general, departments that teach large service courses will have lots of TAs, and I know people in physics and chemistry who have had multiple students on TAs throughout their PhDs.

In general, in the College of Engineering, grants will be a significant component based on which you are evaluated. In you are in College of Letters and Science, depending on the field, they may or may not be considered as a metric of accomplishment.)

4) Papers: If you have data from your industry position or previous postdoc or some collaborative work that you can write up for publication, write those up during the first year. Alternatively, write a review paper or two. Backlogged, collaborative, or review papers are a good way to bridge the gap between starting a new position and having papers out from your own lab (which realistically won’t happen right away). Depending on what you do, you could have single author papers (I did during the first few years on the TT, while my first students were being trained).

5) Service: Keep institutional service minimal, and professional service in the capacity that will enhance your exposure, visibility, and/or potential for getting funds. Travel to see program managers, travel to give invited talks and lectures. Do not organize a major conference as early assistant professor, but do participate on the program committee if invited. Definitely volunteer to sit on review panels and generally review proposals for relevant agencies, it will drastically help improve your grant writing abilities.

6) The first few years are crazy, but it does get less so by the end of year 3. Try to be nice, but avoid unnecessary obligations in terms of teaching and service. Your primary duty is to get your research program up and running — which means grants and papers — and anyone who is is not helping you focus and is trying to divert your time is not your friend early on the tenure track. Once you have gotten your first couple of grants, you have papers coming out, and you have several students staggered in seniority, it’s OK to diversify your teaching (show you can teach undergrads, try novel techniques) and service (ideally something you care about, like curriculum or facilities or new faculty recruitment).

Good luck!

What say you, blogosphere? What did I miss as critical advice during the first 1-2 years on the tenure track? 

Summer Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked Profs

This weekend I finally gave myself a permission to not work, as I had worked nearly non-stop through last weekend because of a deadline and ended up quite exhausted.

Last weekend, Middle Boy had his best friend over. We love the little boy and his family, and I know the mom pretty well. She is very cool, well traveled and educated, and overall open-minded and progressive; she works for the school district. I talked with her many times about what my academic job at our big university entails, how research never stops, the quest for grants, service, all that stuff. She always said she understood, and that she also had a sibling who was a social science professor.

When she came to pick up her boy last weekend, she asked what I was doing, as I had my laptop out amidst mountains of paper associated with the large centers proposals I was reviewing for a federal agency. I told her what my weekend had been and she was really shocked by me working over the weekend during the summer (not sure if it was the weekend, the summer, or both that was surprising).

As Cage the Elephant say, “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked”

doubtless talking about university professors who don’t receive pay from the university over the summer, but work their butt off anyway. Professors might draw summer salary from grants, if they have managed to receive any given the ~10% funding rates. (By the way, CTE do a good job live, I heard them last year as the opening act to the Black Keys. They are touring, catch them if you can.)

Anyway, I was surprised and disappointed by the woman’s reaction. It’s not like I haven’t spent a lot of time already talking with her about my job, this should not have been a surprise at all. This incident leads me to believe that one of the following is true: a) I did a horrible job explaining, b) I explained just fine, but she didn’t understand, c) I explained just fine and she understood, but she didn’t believe me because of pre-existing notions as to what professors do, probably affected by whatever she perceives her sibling does.

This bothers me greatly, especially in the light of some recent conservative legislation. This woman has access to information from the horse’s mouth and she still does not understand what this job actually is. I am not saying it’s her fault, it could be my inability to convey what I do; still, she must know more than most people. If she is incredulous about me working weekends or summers  (by the way, her husband works weekends all the time), what chance do we have of people who don’t know any academics actually understanding what it is that we do? What people see are publicly available salaries, think that all we do is teach one course per semester and figure that’s 4-5 hours per week tops, and we even have tenure! That certainly sounds outrageous. Most people employed by companies work  long hours at lower salaries and with no job security. If I thought someone were getting away with a high salary, minimal work, and perfect job security, I might be livid, too. Moreover, people seem to believe their taxpayer money pays these outsize salaries of these lazy professors, whereas in reality only a small and ever-shrinking contribution comes from the state (presently 10-15% of the whole university budget is typical for state universities).

If Middle Boy’s friend’s mom doesn’t know what professors do, what chance do we have with the general populace? How are we supposed to convince people that professors are not lazy layabouts, that being a professor at a university doesn’t mean being an overpaid and largely idle version of a K-12 teacher? (No disrespect to K-12 teachers intended.) How can we get it into the heads of the public that we are not the enemy, that yes, our jobs involve teaching their kids, but on top that we conduct research, which in the sciences has many elements of running a small businesses: competing for funds, paying personnel, managing them, distributing the products (papers), but first giving between 1/3 and 1/2 of all the funds raised to the university in terms of overhead?

Americans are very hard-working people and have a great work ethic, which are some of the things that I really like about the society. But they hate intellectuals, much more than I could say for any country in Europe or Asia that I have familiarity with (I don’t have enough experience with Latin America, Africa, or Australia/Oceania). For instance, even in the rural areas in my home country, people would tell you that being a university professor is a distinguished vocation, alongside doctors and lawyers. Here in the US, doctors and lawyers are fine, as are corporate executives, but not professors. While I am sure few people actually know what it is that CEOs really do, they don’t seem to begrudge CEO salaries. But those shifty university professors? They are certainly overpaid, never mind the recent data on salaries at very-high research activity schools, or the breakdown of public versus private 4-year schools. It’s amazing that people don’t mind the outsize compensation and bonuses of certain individuals or people in certain careers, because those are somehow perceived well deserved or earned, but as soon as the public thinks it’s paying you through their taxes (no matter how small a percentage in reality), you are never considered to work enough to justify the investment. The distrust of intellectuals and of the government appear to go hand in hand, as the country gets ever more conservative.

I don’t know what it is that we can do to convince the public that we do an important job, that most of us would make considerably more in industry and that tenure is a way to attract talent, and that research at the US universities is an important economic engine [because we can’t speak of broadening people’s horizons (bad! blasphemy!) or instilling critical thinking skills]. We can’t say “Whatever, let people believe what they want,” because this public opinion is a base for squashing research funding. So we can’t stop trying to get through to the people around us about what we do and why it’s important. I just don’t know how to do it in a way that actually matters.

Crankypants

There is work to do tonight, but I can’t make myself do it. Preparing a whole new midterm for one student who was ill, writing a letter of nomination for a student for an award, getting an abstract/bio ready for an upcoming talk.

This has been a really difficult semester and I am really cranky.

I am teaching a new (to me) large undergraduate course. I have essentially no TA support to speak of (thankfully, I have a grader for homework), and the course has required a lot of time to prep the materials (homework, homework solutions, exams) and grade the exams. I teach the lectures and the discussion and I have more office hours than usual, because they are needed — there is always someone in my office during those. This past weekend I graded nearly 100 exams; it took all weekend. The weekend before, I wrote the solutions to about 50 homework problems (postings of solutions before the midterm, making up for missed postings due to work travel). If you are at a teaching-heavy institution, what I wrote might seem like nothing, but I am at a research institution, and teaching is not supposed to take up 20+ hours a week.

I have had more travel than I am comfortable with this whole academic year, and much of it was service related, which means I traveled, worked a ton, then came back to a punishing backlog of work. I have a break in travel till July, and then it’s 6 effing trips between mid-July and mid-September.

I have written too many proposals, and the new NSF fall deadline is just around the corner. I also have some schmoozing with DoD to do to see if some money could be had.

I have way too much service at the department and university level. One of the university-level committees has turned out to be drastically more work than initially promised, so it has been a huge time drain and I have constantly been pissed off about it. It does nothing for me or my career, it is just a humongous waste of time and I feel like a fool for having agreed to do any of it. The way the whole thing is run is unbelievably inefficient and just plain wrong.

Eldest’s swim practice has moved to 4:30, which means I often have to leave at 3:50 to pick him up and drive him to practice. And this also means I always have to work evenings and often weekends, to make up the lost time because the work day is now even shorter than usual, so I also get no play time.

As a result of all this, I have virtually no time to actually mentor my students and work on the group’s papers, let alone read the literature. The fact that I get to do none of it is making me very, very cranky.

I find it mind-boggling that I have to fight hard to find the time to do research, because all the other stuff — most of which does not require me to seriously turn on my brain at all — easily fills 50+ hours per week. It should not be this hard to find the time to do the work that no one but me can do.