academic politics

Research University, Now With Words

I am at a major public research university. Sure, this is a university and teaching is important, for some definitions of important; anyone who says that research does not beat teaching to a pulp is a liar.

Bringing in extramural funding is the most important metric in most STEM fields. It translates into overhead dollars for the university. It also generally translates into high-profile work, for money means you are doing work that is “hot” and also money can pay for a lot of smart students and postdocs who actually do the work in many fields (with the exception of math and some fields like theoretical physics and computer science). The most highly paid and most coveted members of the faculty are those who do flashy, news-worthy, high-profile work. [Between research productivity and  funds raised is an implication (–>) rather than equivalence (<–>), i.e. money is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for high productivity or flashy papers; there is such a thing as having too much money to efficiently handle. But I digress.]

We are professors, yes, but our peers and our administration care about research almost exclusively. So, where do teaching and service come to play?

Teaching has to be good. If it is bad, you will not get tenure. It has to be decent. But, anything better than decent, unless it is at the level of prestigious national teaching awards, is not rewarded. Being better than a decent teacher is all on you, and feel free to do it if it makes you feel good. But, if you are doing a better-than-passable job, people may (as I know from experience) ask what it is that you are not doing instead when you are wasting time on this silly teaching business. Not all colleagues are like that; in fact I have several in the department who really value and do an excellent job of teaching while also having some political gravitas. However, for the most part, spending considerable time on teaching is looked down upon by the most-research-productive colleagues, who sometimes consider teaching a nuisance that should be minimized or avoided to the extent possible.


For example, when I told a colleague that I give 3 midterms, hour-long and in-class, over the standard 2 longer evening exams (more frequent exams are less nerve-wrecking for the students because their grade does not hinge on any one exam so much, and it’s also less daunting for me to grade so I do it faster and they get the results sooner), the colleague told me that I must have too much time on my hands; he, who apparently must be the yardstick by which all workload is to be measured, has only one midterm (this is way too few for undergrads, in my opinion). So it’s not “you do this, I do that,” it’s an explicit statement that me doing something that I feel benefits the students is indicative of an unforgivable professional deficiency (not being busy enough). The same colleague told me “That’s loser talk” a few years ago when I complained that a grant was unjustly slaughtered in review (likely by this guy); needless to say, I am not discussing grants with that colleague again.

People who run very large groups and raise a lot of money generally have very hectic travel schedules and are overall very busy. I know from what students tell me that it translates into many cancelled and rescheduled classes, which is probably not a big deal for graduate students, but it is for undergrads, whose days are usually packed to bursting with classes, labs, project group meetings, and often part-time work. The extremely busy colleagues would often love to have the absolute minimal teaching load, and perhaps they should, for everyone’s benefit.

What about service? There are some important service assignments, and I understand and endorse that they have to be done. Many of them have to be done by faculty (e.g. serving on PhD dissertation committees, or tenure and promotion committees). My beef with service is threefold. First, there are people who really do the fewest and the lightest assignments; they tend to be either among the very high performers or, unsurprisingly, among the very poor performers (deadwood) who have mentally checked out. My second beef is that there are many committees that are pointless because what is needed is money, but the money is not forthcoming; while meeting to brainstorm and bloviate may appease whomever because it seems like something is happening, nothing really is, so the whole thing is a time-wasting charade. Third, service doesn’t do anything for an individual’s career unless it is a formal administrative position (e.g. you serve as department chair), and even so the gains appear… dubious.

The most aggravating part of life at an R1 university is that, during the semester, teaching and service can easily eat up your entire work week. I have several student papers to edit, I haven’t been able to get to them in way longer than I would like. We are dealing with a completely nuts situation, in which much of the core university mission work (teaching, service) takes up so much time that, if you are at all conscientious, your research — the only part that can potentially advance your career — suffers terribly; if you don’t want to neglect your research (or your career in general), you shaft the core mission or your personal life, usually both.

I don’t think faculty are at fault here. People do what is expected of them, and smart people read expectations very well.

Do Not Send

Recently, I did something I had never done before: I asked a program manager at a funding agency to not send a proposal to a certain individual.

To be honest, I had always thought that excluding people from lists of potential reviewers for papers or proposals reveals a lack of conviction in the merit of the document or a lack of belief in the review process — surely, all scientists are objective! But I finally got over my naivete and did what I probably should have started doing a long time ago, because a couple of proposals and probably more than a couple of papers were likely mishandled by this individual in the past.

When you do work in computer simulation, the system does not exist until you code it up. Your understanding of the physical reality affects what your computer simulation will look like. It can look and act very much like the real system, in many aspects or in a few. It may behave entirely unlike the real system, which means that either you don’t understand the physics well enough, you are having issues coding up the physics, or possibly both. But at no point does it stop being important whether or not you understand the system; at no point does it become solely about having more computational resources. You cannot cure faulty physical assumptions by throwing CPU cycles at the problem.

I don’t think I am being a revolutionary when I say that all numerical techniques are approximate. They all have limits of applicability and accuracy; some of the limits are fundamental, some are computational. We as scientists have to understand the limits and work within the constraints. Throwing enormous resources at a problem is sometimes necessary, but often it is not — the question is what you are after, what question you want to ask of your simulated system. Sometimes, a slingshot is just enough to kill the sparrow. Other times, you do need a cannon, for the problem is a pirate ship… Or a whale.

The individual is a subscriber to the One True Technical Path for all problems in my area. That’s silly, there is no such thing as the one true technique, in principle or practice. Unfortunately, this individual has single-handedly managed to damage the prospects of a number of people who do not subscribe to The Path and is hurting the community because of his strong connections to the funding agencies. I actually feel bad on some level, because I don’t think he’s aware how many people he has managed to piss off and alienate; there are stories circulating about his abuse of the peer review process; I am not the only one who has him listed as someone not to send proposals to; many very smart people don’t want to discuss science with him because they don’t want the hassle.

I am probably crazy to even feel bad for him, because I know he feels underappreciated. But being an a$$hole to everyone around you is not going to win you friends or recognition. Only the unusually creative and original are allowed some eccentricity; mere mortals need to rely on working hard, doing a good and rigorous job, and not becoming someone everyone loves to hate.

Do you have someone on your “Do Not Send To” list?

The CHE: Retire Already!

By way of Undine, who blogs at”Not of General Interest,” I found this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The article addresses academics retiring,  or, more precisely, not retiring early enough to make room for deserving up-and-comers. The whole piece is fairly obnoxious (“The Forever Professors: Academics who don’t retire are greedy, selfish, and bad for students”), but it brings up a couple of discussion-worthy points about teaching amidst the steady “kill the elderly” drumbeat.

The main premise of the article, which the author — herself a newly minted emerita — seems to espouse with suspiciously high enthusiasm, is that older academics owe it to others to retire: to the younglings waiting for tenure-track positions; to the poor departments whose budgets are drained by the high salaries of the oldies; to the apparently zombie-like students who crave exposure to the brains of young, fresh, energetic faculty.

No. No, older faculty do not owe their retirement to anyone. Why? First of all, if there’s one thing I learned in the US, it is that everyone looks out for themselves, and those who are concerned with societal benefits get called the s-word; older faculty should make their professional plans however it suits them, within the law. Secondly, for the most part those faculty who don’t want to retire are really energetic, sharp, and well-funded. I know a top-notch female scientist in her 80’s who would put me and any of my readers to shame with her globe-trotting schedule, the size and funding of her group, the number and variability of collaborations, and the publication output. I know a professor in his early 70’s whose recent graduate said that the professor was not just a very active septuagenarian, he was in fact the most active and energetic person of any age that the student had ever met. My PhD advisor is in his mid-70’s; he teaches, advises, travels, and publishes with enviable zeal, which I can only hope to have at his age.

Professors are blind to the incontrovertible fact that in the scheme of things, they are replaceable cogs who are forgotten the moment they are gone.” I don’t think this is true at all — the blindness — for anyone who has ever paid attention to what happens after people retire. Indeed, the second you are gone, nobody cares any more. Which is perhaps as it should be, and all to more reason not to choose to retire out of the goodness of your heart. Because no one will pat you on the back after you are gone.

“But ‘commitment to higher education’ covers some selfish pleasures. First, teaching is fun. It offers a sanctioned ‘low-level narcissism,’ as one friend put it, that’s hard to find anywhere else in life other than in show business.”

True, teaching is improv. Why exactly is it bad to find teaching, or improv, personally rewarding? There are plenty of narcissistic big mouths who enjoy the sound of their voice in corporate America and nobody begrudges them for bloviating. Why are academics supposed to teach for 100% altruistic reasons? Why would it be wrong to enjoy putting on a show? It sounds like great fun for everyone involved.

“Second, the continual replenishment, each autumn, of fresh-faced 18-year-olds causes the bulk of the professoriate to feel as if we are hardly aging at all.”

This is stupid and plainly incorrect. The fact that the kids in our classes are really young actually puts it clearly into perspective how old we are becoming. Parents of young kids everywhere will tell you the same thing. If anyone can delude themselves into thinking they’re beyond aging, it’s NOT the people constantly exposed to young humans. Or at least those among us with access to a mirror or the tiniest bit of self-awareness.

“Third, because teaching is part of a life of the mind, by teaching to 70 and beyond, professors feel they provide living proof, to anyone who might question them, that their minds remain sharp as tacks.”

And this is somehow supposed to be a reason to prevent them from teaching? It’s bad that they are not getting dementia, because we just can’t have sharp old people? For goodness sake.

“Finally, remaining within the confines of academe past 70 not only protects professors from the economic and professional uncertainties of life, but also substantially pumps up their wealth at the end of their careers.”

Seriously, the wealth of professors is the problem? Anyone in my field in industry will out-earn me within a couple of years of getting a PhD. Academics are middle class, and usually comfortably so, but it’s complete bull$hit to say that they are wealthy. And why is it that no one begrudges the wealth of dentists or physicians or lawyers, who all have graduate degrees and are all better paid than academics? Oh, yes, it’s the academics not doing anything useful again and, of course, tenure: nobody should be sheltered from the economic and professional uncertainties of life!!! How hypocritical that all this was written by a newly retired and presumably previously long-tenured professor .

The problem with teaching is that it offers an ongoing sense of redemption. In the real world, which you have now re-entered, if you muck up, there are consequences. In the university, you get a new semester to pretend nothing bad ever happened.”

Whoever wrote this appears to be staggeringly naive about university politics. Maybe you get a fresh crop of students to profess to each semester, but all your colleagues remain alongside you for several decades. If you think elephants have great memories, try tenured academics — they forget nothing. In these multidecade-long  professional relationships, the consequences of screwing up are real and serious. Sure, you may not get fired because of tenure, but you can get squeezed out of lab space, passed up for raises, ignored and disrespected in group meetings, so you will elect to leave or be miserable.

In my place of employment, plenty of people retire as soon as they can, move away from the cold, just go do something else. Those who don’t are generally very active in research, teaching, and service. We should leave them alone and let them do their jobs.

Riff-raffin’ It

A lot has been written around the scientific blogosphere about some prominent gentleman of science lamenting the fact that science today is populated by riff-raff as opposed to the intellectual giants among whom he undoubtedly counts himself. I am not in the mood to retell what was already covered elsewhere, so if you are interested go ahead and check out these links (here here here and here)

I have a somewhat related riff-raff story of my own.

Some time ago, I was nominated for a university award, which is very competitive and several letters of reference are required. I suggested the names of several colleagues, all senior to me but not dramatically (perhaps 5-10 years). I suggested them because I know a) they are serious scientists who do good work on topics close to mine, b) they follow my work and would be able to write about it in detail, and c) they would be willing to write these letters for me because they think I am a serious scientist who does good work, too. These colleagues are from all over the world.

It was brought to my attention that some of them may not be not high-profile enough to write letters for me for this internal ward.

I felt a little offended on my colleagues’ behalf. First, they are excellent people and some of the top people in our relatively small field (not small for a physical science, small when compared to most biomedical fields, for instance). Many of them are in Europe, where getting a full professorship is much harder than in the US (basically, a chair has to become vacant). Many of them don’t care about the accolades the way we do in the US —  for instance, even some very prominent people never bothered to become fellows of the appropriate professional societies, even though I am sure they would be shoo-ins. Lastly, most of them, being outside of the US, don’t maintain meticulous professional pages with awards and honors; for all I know, they could be drowning in awards, I wouldn’t be able to know without point-blank asking.

First of all, this was a competitive but ultimately university-level award. I wanted to ask people for whom it would not be too much of a stretch or effort to write about my work and whom I would be comfortable asking because I believe they wouldn’t mind doing it for me. I must be riff-raff myself, as I don’t rub elbows with MIT or Stanford folks; I do know people in these places (and god knows I send them enough grad students with REU experience and awarded NSF fellowships; where are my brownie points?!) and I will bother them when the time comes to write letters for my inevitable second Nobel prize. But for an internal award? Not so much.

Why is it that whom you know and who vouches for you are  the most important proxy to scientific quality? And why is it that a select few get to have an opinion about everybody’s work ? Surely the opinion of someone who doesn’t follow your contributions at all because they do barely related things cannot be more valuable than that of someone who does follow it? Why does being at Elite U endow someone with superpowers to judge everyone everywhere for everything?  If only a handful of universities are worth anything, why not close all the other ones and be done with pretending that there is important science elsewhere? We who are not at Elite U give them that power.

There are kick-ass riff-raff people everywhere. They are smart, curious, respectful to colleagues, and they they make doing science fun. They are my riff-raff.  Don’t anyone dare say anything bad about them.

To wrap up on a cheery note, here is good cheap wine that DH and I have been enjoying lately. Apothic Red — it’s great, and about $8 per bottle at Costco. (I do not recommend Apothic Dark.)


I think I might have never been this busy in my life.

Today I was at the Eldest’s swim meet (didn’t need to volunteer, yey!) While all the other parents were sitting around, chatting, playing with their phones and iPads, I had a legal pad, a pen, and a freaking textbook , and was doing undergrad homework problems (i.e. writing up solutions) on my lap, so I can post said solutions before the midterm. Normal people are able to chill over the weekend. Your humble host, not so much. The fact that I was able to find a Starbucks within a 2-min drive greatly  improved the whole experience.

This weekend, I have had three sets of homework solutions to write up (almost done!), and I have to create the midterm exam problems for next week. I also have to finish a brief internal proposal with a colleague and review a proposal for a federal agency. (I still have to go grocery shopping and cook for the week tomorrow. And there are also these kids who seem to expect love, care, and nourishment from me; what’s up with that?)

And this is all so I would have as much prime work time as humanly possible to finish my two proposals by Halloween. Why? Because I just found out yesterday that the  NSF program to which I had been planning to submit one of the proposals, with explicit (written!) encouragement of the program director obtained this summer, has in the meantime changed the program director; the new one is very, very far removed in his interests from the previous guy, so this program is now a no-go. I quickly found a new home for the proposal, but their deadline is 5 days earlier. In all, the proposal which is less done (because its deadline for the original program was later) is, as of yesterday, due sooner than the proposal that’s nearly done.

Of course, when it rains, it pours. There has been so much academic politics drama in the department… So draining. So pointless. So much time wasted by so many people. So much disappointment in colleagues whom I naively used to consider rational and humane, but have since grown to recognize as selfish, vindictive, and manipulative. Egomania, fueled by success in receiving grants and enabled by the money-hungry administration, appears boundless.

Now back to work.

(Ms. Mentor dubbs October the exploding-head-syndrome month.)

The Curse of ATTTS

>>   Dear undergrad: You come to class irregularly and don’t come to discussion because you have team meetings for another class seemingly non-stop. You submit homework intermittently. After you had come to inform me how much more important that other class is to you than mine, you asked me to move the time and day when the homework is usually due so that I can even better accommodate your schedule for this other class. My response?



>> I have lost another colleague to the curse of ATTTS (Administrators Taking Themselves Too Seriously).

We are having way too many faculty meetings, one every week. They run for 2 hours each and it’s a waste of time, especially in the midst of the proposal-writing season for most of us. My class somewhat overlaps with the meetings, so I am always late. The other day, I was on my way to the meeting at about 30 min past, when I ran into a colleague who was already leaving the meeting; the colleague informed me the meeting was still in full swing, but that they had to leave. I jokingly pleaded “Take me with you!!!” to which the colleague responded “Oh, it’s not that bad.” The colleague had recently taken up a college-level admin position and the Koolaid has apparently been overflowing their glass. I remember a time not that long ago when the colleague  would have smiled or laughed at the joke, or even commiserated at the thought of yet another meeting. The colleague has since been fully assimilated and, I fear, can never go back to being a real professor. (By the way, the meeting was deathly boring, with the same old characters droning; even though I was late, I left early because I had way too much work to do, and  nothing was getting done. Life is too short anyway to spend listening to people’s verbal onania).

I really hate meetings. That’s probably because too many meetings are poorly run, don’t stay on target, go overtime, and don’t accomplish anything. So I avoid them like a plague. When I am in charge of a committee, I do as much as humanly possible via email and only meet occasionally when the amount of material or the way it needs to be handled is such that it’s more efficient to meet once and knock it all off the list at once. Enjoying daily meetings, which admins do, is completely alien to me. I am now confident that I will NEVER be an administrator, because I would be a really bad one, unable to keep any of the Koolaid down.

There are two types of time I devote to work:

1. Prime time, the large blocks of time when I am at work and fully alert, during the day or early evening. This is the time when I read papers, write manuscripts and proposals, meet individually with my students, essentially do my science. I also prep for classes and teach during this time, create exams, and review other people’s papers and proposals. I am extremely protective of my limited prime time.

2. Not-exactly-prime time, which would be the time when I am tired in the evening, or small amounts of time on the weekend or during the work week, which are insufficient to do a large amount of work that requires creativity or deep focus. This is the time when I grade exams, prepare homework or write solutions, organize upcoming travel, file for travel reimbursement, do the budget or boilerplate for proposal submissions. I might also write letters of recommendation or sometimes finalize reports for manuscript review. If at all possible, I try to schedule most meetings during not-exactly-prime time, since prime time is sacred.

Now that I think of it, my ATTTS-afflicted colleague has always displayed just a little too much tolerance for meetings, while  writing papers or proposals together was just not a very high priority; it seems that a lot of stupid non-research stuff has always cluttered the colleague’s schedule. Perhaps the colleague had been running out of research breath for a while and this might be a natural consequence. I, however, find that I am in better scientific shape than ever, have more and better ideas, am writing better papers and proposals and doing it faster than before, and am feeling bold and confident.

I am not saying admin work is not important. It is, and someone has to do it.
I just don’t understand a scientist who prefers this work to actual science. And who so readily morphs into  a full-fledged Koolaid abuser.

Question from Reader: Dishonesty in Fellowship Application

Reader Sameir had a question:

… I just found out that a student has copied my NSF proposal for his GRFP * and got awarded the fellowship. What should I do? On one side I think it is only a student and I should let it go, on the other hand this level of dishonesty is unacceptable.


Sameir, is it your grad student or an undergrad working with you and currently applying to grad school (presumably to go elsewhere)? Could you tell us a little bit about how the student got the proposal, and how you found out about him/her using the proposal for the fellowship? (I am just  asking for completeness.)

Blogosphere, what say you? What is the proper course of action for Sameir? Should the student be penalized and, if yes, how? Should NSF be notified?


* GRFP: NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program

Professorial Bits, the Somewhat Goofy and Girly Edition

— Blogging has been slow as I am busy beyond all reason. Not that I am complaining, though. Busy is good. Not busy makes me bored and restless, and I become a giant pain in the butt. Time-consuming are professorial duties such as teaching and, this semester, being my own TA (Why? Because reasons, as my kids would say; we don’t get TAs for electives, but students want and need discussions); I have two really meaty service assignments, one of which kicked in the minute the semester started.

What’t most important is that I am working on two NSF proposals simultaneously (note how much coffee that means I drink per day; for some reason, the coffee post seems to have resonated with a number of Twitter folks); worry not, the two proposals are on very different topics and will be submitted to two different directorates, so I am perfectly NSF-compliant. However, the bifurcation is kicking my butt a little (okay, a lot).

I feel good about past summer, it was very productive as I have managed to submit all the papers I had planned to before the proposal writing crunch (I didn’t really get to rest and relax, though, but perhaps it’s for the best). Grad students have their marching orders; they know we will be meeting less frequently than usual until the proposals are done. They also know what the paper writing timeline is and we have a first-draft schedule for a number of manuscripts starting early November, as I emerge from the proposal-writing hole. I usually do the “Here are the papers I plan on us submitting in the next six months” talks in group meetings about twice a year, and then the list also goes out via email, so everyone knows where they are in terms of priority, when I would have time to look at their stuff, and how much time they have to produce the first draft. Once a student’s up, I turn the manuscript around quickly; my rule is three drafts by the student (i.e. two rounds of my detailed comments which the student incorporates)  and then I take over and edit/rewrite/finalize with the student’s input. This way the student gets feedback and can revise in response, so they get a chance to write and edit and learn, but I don’t wait forever and papers get out in a timely fashion. This practice generally means that I spend a lot of time writing and editing papers, and the final edits by me can sometimes take a while to complete if they are still extensive or if we are going for a really high-profile journal, where things have to be written ‘just so’. We sometimes end up needing to get more data to illustrate a specific point that didn’t emerge until after the student and I had both been thinking about the text for a while, which delays things a little bit, but such is life. I go on to the next student draft in the pipeline whenever I am waiting for the first one to get more data or incorporate the edits.

— For one of the proposals, I have a title that’s a rhyme. Obviously I am not going to tell you the title, but its rhythm is similar to the following:

An awesome haircutting technique to make you look so stylish and chic

I kind of really, really want to leave the rhyming title, even though people might think it frivolous, that I am not a serious scientist. I want to get funding, and having a boring title is easy enough, but I wonder… I am really compelled to leave the goofy title, against my own better judgement.

What say you, blogosphere? Should I leave a seriously technical but rhyming proposal title?

— Which brings me to why I love teaching undergrads. I am not a cool person. A lot of people think I am stern, reserved, unpleasant, scary, or simply boring, all of which are probably true if I am not relaxed around you. But when I am relaxed, I am nerdy and goofy and I looove puns. Word play makes me giddy with delight, in any language I understand; the stupider, the better. Undergrads seem to be quite responsive to my general goofiness and puns, perhaps because they are so young and also because the silliness adds some levity to all the math that I routinely shove down their throats.

The goofiness doesn’t play quite as well with grad students, partly because they are older and more serious, and partly because so few of them are Americans. They expect respectable serious instruction from the luminaries in the field, and there I am, the anti-prof. It doesn’t help that the puns and culture-specific jokes are lost on many non-native speakers of English (as I am sure they were on me when I was in grad school and new to the US) who make up most of the graduate student cohort, in contrast to the largely domestic undergrads.

I often teach undergrads because I seem to be very effective at it — students like me and they get well-prepared for the follow-on courses, the department is aware of it, and I don’t mind.

Ironically, teaching undergrads so much means that this is now really my MO, and if you think graduate students are unamused by goofiness, you should see the grown-up bespectacled dudes who are my colleagues. I feel I am considerably more goofy when giving talks than the average talk-giving scientist in my area or related ones. This worries me somewhat, because I am a non-bespectacled, non-ancient, long-haired woman (see Figure), so I am sure I am,  at baseline, not considered as competent as a similarly-experienced dude. But I can’t turn it off now! I see a crowd and I put on a show! Everyone is engaged and smiling, because I presume people love clowns, or perhaps they feel sorry for me. Nobody is asleep. But I wonder how much it’s hurting my chances of getting elected a fellow of a professional society or getting into the National Academies.


(The poor lady on the left of the picture is probably still too young and pretty to be taken 100% seriously, despite the impeccable appearance exuding scientific respectability. My avatar is younger and prettier than me, so to counter the hair and the shunning of blazers, I have the ever diminishing attractiveness going for me professionally.)

Sometimes, it gets to me, being among dudes all the time and being so visibly different, in appearance and demeanor, both from them and from the occasional woman scientist who looks and acts as expected. I actually totally understand this post by PhDinindustry. And this one by Alyssa.

I love doing science and teaching. But being a female scientist and a female professor can sure be exhausting.