TGI December and Reader Questions

‘Tis December!!! Phew. I must admit, posting every day in November has been tough, which was probably obvious from some of the less-than-inspired posts. When you start photographing produce, you know you are scraping the bottom of the blog-fodder barrel.

I think last year’s November blogging was easier, I am not sure why. I don’t remember having quite this many moments like “It’s roughly 11:30 PM, I am completely pooped and I finally got a few minutes to sit down. I want to go sleep, but I haven’t posted today. What the heck am I going to write about?” (Enter squash.) I had more travel but I think I was overall less busy. Or at least I felt less busy. Or I repressed traumatic memories of excessive busyness and insufficient inspiration. Or I just had a higher tolerance for my own vacuous posts. (I was kind of aiming for some serious academic blogging here. I guess that ship has sailed!)

Thanks everyone for reading!


OK, that’s enough meta self-flagellation.  EarthSciProf posted some interesting questions after the 15-Min Improv Blogging post.

1) How long does it usually take you to do a review? I take much less time than I did when I first started but am wondering about how long it takes you since you’re farther along.

It depends a lot on the length of the paper. In my field, there are letters, of 4-page double-column size (like Physical Review Letters) and there are comprehensive articles (like in Physical Review B, for instance), which can be anywhere from 4-5 to 20 pages long. I would say most papers are 6-10 pages of main text, anything over 10 generally means long appendices.

For a well-written letter in PRL, it takes 1-2 focused hours to read and write a good report It may be longer if there’s supplementary material or I have to look at a lot of references. These letter papers also tend to be reviewed for hotness rather than just interest and correctness; a common complaint is “This  is fine technically, but of too narrow a focus, and should be expanded and submitted to a specialized journal instead.”

A comprehensive paper takes longer to go through and write a report. Between 2 and 4 hours, depending on length.  Flying on planes is my favorite time to review papers, as there are no distractions. (Crappy papers take longer to review, because I start reading, get irritated, drop the paper before finishing, then have to still do it later, but then I procrastinate because I have already experienced the pain.)

A few months ago I was a referee for a good review paper, it was probably 60 pages (double column) and it took me all day. It was written by people I respect, so I ended up writing a lot of comments in the margins and scanning the marked-up document into a PDF which became part of the report. There should be some karmic brownie points in it, I hope.

What about you, blogosphere? How long does it take you to review papers? 

2) You posted something about a few months ago here

about only a small percentage of collaborations working out long-term. Any advice/guidelines/rules of thumb that you use to cut things off when a collaboration doesn’t seem to be going anywhere?

Ugh. This is a tough one, but I will give it a shot. All collaborations of mine that have dissolved owing to nonfunctionality were simply abandoned to die by all (dis)interested parties; at some point, no one attempted resuscitation any more. The parties stopped communicating and went on with their lives, never discussing the collaboration. The upside is that technically there was no confrontation, so everyone is still formally on good terms. This is not a bad thing in the long run.

I also have several collaborations that are generally healthy, but are on-again off-again, depending on funding and interests. We work together, then go our separate ways when the grant ends, then rejoin a few years later to do something else. I like this type of collaboration. It’s with people I enjoy working with, who have the same zeal, similar attitude to advising students and publishing, but we don’t have to be joined at the hip. In contrast, I have a colleague who does everything collaboratively, with several long-term collaborators. I find it stifling.

Are you on a grant together? If not, then just cut your losses and part ways. If you are on a grant together, then you need to produce something one way or another for your own sake, even if the collaboration is not working out. Proceed as best you can alone. If you feel appropriate, offer to include the collaborator on papers on your own terms; if they don’t agree or are being difficult, that’s your answer. I have found even very demanding people, when you do all the work and offer to have them as a coauthor on a polished paper, will swallow the pride/whatever other bug they have up their butt and say “Sure, go ahead and submit. Looks good!” I take myself off of papers to which I didn’t contribute enough, but most people don’t.

EartSciProf, if you have a specific situation, I am sure the readers would be happy to offer their insights.

Here are also some thoughts on collaboration from the depths of the Academic Jungle.

Wise academic blogosphere, please help EarthSciProf with the collaboration dissolution tips! 

The Life and Times of TT Academics: A Stream-of-Consciousness Post

Psycgirl had a couple of posts on mentoring that made me think about my own experiences.

A while ago, I wrote a book review of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In”. There are several things I still remember about the book, and one is her view of mentorship: Mentors are problem solvers, give them a problem to solve. Don’t use them to vent your frustration, use their time wisely. People mentor those in whom they see something; unfortunately, the last one, more often than not, translates into people mentoring the likes of themselves; we all know how well that works out for underrepresented minorities.

There are many people who do very good, solid work. However, most of them don’t get much recognition; instead, only a select few get all the recognition. You could argue that it’s because they are the best of the best, but in my opinion that’s not true. I have met a number of people who are young superstars in their fields, and for the most part they are not all that better than many others who are not equally recognized. However, while people are comparable at 30 or 40, by 60 or 70 that means the select few are National Academy members, while most others are not. What really makes a difference is being networked with the people who have the willingness and ability to champion you, who recognize the importance of having junior colleagues nominated for stuff early and often, and who will do it for you either on their own or without much prodding. Getting recognition early is a prerequisite for getting it often, because awards beget awards.

The point is that you have to be meritorious, but you also have to have someone who will be happy to nominate you, proactive about doing it, and who knows how these nominations are written. And it needs to start early, as early as possible. Before the PhD, actually (so yes, foreigners are a bit screwed right there.)

I work with a woman who is considered a superstar, so I am closely familiar with how she does things. I can tell you that she most definitely keeps an eye on her CV and makes sure that she gets nominated for something every year, and has a great network of intra- and extra-departmental supporters who are very happy to write these nominations for her.

I work with a young  male superstar with very high energy. Recently, I watched his PhD advisor give a plenary talk. The man showed the pictures of all his students, and specifically highlighted my collaborator and a couple of others who are professors, mentioned their recent achievements, and for my collaborator used the words “high-impact assistant professor”. You cannot buy type of promotion. The collaborator’s PhD advisor is a really big name, and gives many talks, everywhere, which means that my collaborator gets this type of lip service in a lot of places, including at federal funding agencies.

I got my TT position straight out of grad school, so my PhD advisor remains someone who I presume is the person most invested in my success. Unfortunately, he is of the mind that going after awards is in poor taste, and that you do good work and the recognition will come (this is a man who really should have been in the National Academies, but is not because of personal conflicts). So when I ask him to nominate me for stuff, he does it, but he never thinks about doing it on his own. (Cue: Feel free to think I don’t deserve it; I think that all the time.)

I have various colleagues and collaborators who are happy to contribute letters of evaluation for me, but they are not invested in my career. People are too busy taking care of their own careers, and hopefully the careers of their own academic progeny, to worry about mine. Another aspect is that my immediate scientific community is truly international, with more than 50% of people in Europe. The importance of a steady trickle of recognition is probably less important, or differently important, outside of the United States.

I am now at a  position in my career where I am no longer junior, which is fine. But, I feel like I am entirely alone, that I really don’t have a community or a support network in my field.  I can see how people turn into the jackasses we know from conferences, who seem to be in your shit because you didn’t cite their paper from 30 years ago and who put down your work. It comes from realizing that they are isolated, that nobody cares about them or their work, and their options are to either get demoralized and quit working (hence deadwoodification) or they realize that the only way to keep going is to emotionally distance themselves from everything and everyone about their work, rely on their own devices, put their head down, and plow. The deadwood/jackass are two possible outcomes for smart, passionate people, who invest a lot of energy into their work but who keep getting overlooked. Sometimes they quit or retire early.

According to my unscientific observation, most men on the tenure track seem confident about what they do, most but not all women seem fraught with doubts about every aspect of their work.  For instance the first few years on my TT were really stressful for me, probably because I started out right of grad school and quickly realized the job was very different than what I had envisioned. I have no idea what I had envisioned, really, perhaps what astonished me was the sheer amount of work, the unrelenting demands on faculty time. It was a very steep learning curve, but one of my redeeming qualities is that I generally know when I am in over my head and I seek advice. In other words, I have never had the problem of being overconfident about something, and I always look for ways to improve, and then I do.  (In contrast, a supremely confident guy who started the same time as me didn’t get his contract renewed after 3 years. Some men don’t ask for help or take advice even when they really, really should. )

Unless I have a great track record doing something, I generally assume I don’t know squat, then I ask and I learn. But, a side effect is that the people I asked for help now think I don’t know squat and they will take it into account when evaluating me in the future. And this is the double-bind (or is it triple?) of asking for help, especially while female, where the default assumption is “incompetent until proven otherwise”: if you need help and ask for it, you will get it but be held in low regard for asking, which will then lead to reduced support, and could result in failure due to this second-order effect. If you need help but don’t ask for it, you will either figure it out on your own, which will generally take more time and energy than necessary but then you will succeed, or you won’t figure it out and you will fail due to incompetence.  When you objectively don’t know what you are doing, there is a small chance you will do fine by persevering on your own, but a high chance that you will either ask for help and be resented for it, or that you will downright fail.

Many young women in academia lament the lack of support (emotional and practical) for the struggles they are facing. Here is my attitude. Your department colleagues, those who evaluate you, are not your friends. They are your colleagues. They should not know your innermost dark secrets and doubts. THEY WILL EVALUATE YOU. So be prudent about what you discuss with them. I am not saying that there are no exceptions, that you can’t have real friends in the department, but it’s probably safest to do it after you are both tenured.

Who do you vent to? People who really love you, even if they don’t understand what you are going through. Then, people who really care about your success, even for selfish reasons [e.g. your former advisor(s) or non-departmental collaborators]. Then, a peer, ideally from another department or discipline, or another university; someone who is in the same boat, but with whom you are not in direct competition.

I think the key to a good peer relationship in which you can vent is that there is no power differential and that you both need each other for venting, at least at times. For instance, there is a relationship I have with a so-called peer mentor (a person a few years ahead of me career-wise), and the person never wanted to break the facade of infallibility with me, I think because it was important to them to remain superior (or just because it’s WASP thing, who knows). Since I have a deep belief that we are all human, and that we all have flaws and fears and doubts, and that everyone’s $hit stinks, I decided I wasn’t going to keep pursuing an honest relationship with someone who insisted on keeping their guard up. End of story. We now have a nice arms-length relationship, where my shell communicates with their shell, exchanging content-free sugary pleasantries. The relationship is so warm, there are icicles on my sleeves after every interaction.

I have a good mentoring relationship with a couple of senior faculty, who are so senior and so well-established that there is no way in hell they would ever consider me as an equal. But that’s fine, as I get good honest advice from them as they would give to a daughter. One is my PhD advisor, another a very senior collaborator. They are the only ones with whom I don’t mind sharing doubts and insecurities; they enjoy dispensing wisdom, and I take what makes sense and discard the rest. With everyone else, I assume they would judge or dismiss me for showing weakness, or I had already made the mistake of oversharing, which resulted in uncomfortable squirming, followed by them indeed judging and dismissing me.

(Of course, I am talking about colleagues. My DH is very supportive and listens to 100% of my whiny $hit, on repeat. He is as clued in about the life of women in academia as any man on Earth. Thank you for putting up with me, DH!)

So what’s my advice on getting mentored and championed? Based on my own experiences, this is what would say:

Get as much help and advice and learn as much as you can about being a TT professor before becoming one. Afterwards, seek help at your own risk — past the first year or two on the TT,  people will take it against you if you ask for advice about doing your job. Your colleagues will take your insecurities to mean that  you don’t have what it takes. Separate asking for specific problem-solving advice  from asking for moral support. I have found that the long-term acceptable questions have to do with personnel or university politics, because everyone assumes all scientists and engineers are clueless about dealing with other people.

Go for advice only to people you trust to really have your back or be invested in your success. For instance, your grant got trashed in review. I know how disheartening and disorienting it may be; my heart still sinks every time I get a rejection even though you’d think I’d be used to it by now. And I am, on an intellectual level, but not emotionally. So I bitch and whine and moan to my husband, but to absolutely nobody else any more. Whining about grant rejection is, as one of my colleagues says, ‘loser talk.’  Most people think the same thing, they just don’t say it. Just like most people think men are the default in STEM and women are not “real” candidates, but can be considered if exceptional, they just no longer say it. (Yes, I am disillusioned  after spending too much time serving on the recruitment committee.) So whine about grant rejection to department colleagues at your own risk; I assure you most will think it’s your fault.

What if you crave external validation, someone to give you thumbs up that you are doing a good job? I certainly do. Here’s the deal — it’s just not coming, definitely not with the frequency or the intensity that you need. People are too busy worrying about themselves, and it is assumed that, as a grownup scientist, you are confident (hahahaha). Unless you have the right network of accolade-nominating champions around you, pretty much all you have to go on are published papers, invited talks, awarded grants. They do mean that you are doing well, or at least not doing poorly. (This is me taking myself up as much as spewing advice into the ether.)

As for me, I find that focusing on my academic kids is really fulfilling. I make a point of supporting the people who are mine to support  — my students and postdocs — in the strongest possible terms, in the way I wish I had been supported by my elders, making sure they get the recognition and opportunities they deserve. So at least my scientific progeny will be able to say there is  someone out there who looks out for their careers.



One of the things that annoy me most about collaborating are collaborators who operate on the timescales much different from mine, usually because our priorities aren’t well aligned. I have already written about this particular issue before, but as it periodically resurfaces, I periodically get re-irritated and thus have to periodically re-vent, and reposting old rants just doesn’t seem to have the same therapeutic effect.

I have a  collaborator who doesn’t seem to be encumbered by urgency when it comes to paper submissions. In the past, after a disastrous few papers, where we drove the co-advised (and since graduated) student crazy, I came up with a strategy: the student and I work on each paper until it’s done and ready for submission, I schedule a time with the collaborator in advance for them to look at the essentially polished paper, they suggest touch-ups (which they expect accommodated), I enter those and we submit. Sure, the student and I do all the heavy lifting, but at least the papers get written and edited fast.

This week I have been driven crazy again, and I can tell you it’s a remarkable feat of self-restraint that I didn’t already write about all this days ago.
Early this week, I  emailed the collaborator to tell them that I would be done with the paper later in the week, and then would be off to a conference starting next week, and I asked it they could perhaps look at the paper during my absence. The collaborator wrote back to tell me that they too were leaving town,  but not until around the time when I was to return from my trip. The problem is that they decided they had absolutely no time to look at the paper in the time preceding their departure  (which was almost three weeks from the point at which we were emailing and nearly two weeks after the point at which the final paper was eventually sent to them), but said they they would look at it soon after they came back.

I am really pissed, because, as far as the current student and I are concerned, the paper can be submitted today. It is not a rough draft that requires massive edits, I already took care of all of that. Still, the colleague supposedly does not have the time to look at it in next two weeks, they supposedly have weeks of their time in town fully obligated in the middle of summer (no, they are not writing a proposal), so we now have to wait additional 3+ weeks from the point of completion for the colleague to put on the trivial finishing touches.

This happens every time, with every paper. I do not buy that the colleague is busier than I am, because I am pretty darn busy and their group is not bigger than mine. These joint papers are simply not a priority for the colleague, which is OK, but they *are* a priority for me and the student, and if they cannot help they should at least not hinder!

If submitting a paper were equal to having sex, then the colleague would now be cock-blocking me. I think it’s safe to call the colleague a pub-blocker.

I have been in situations where I was the middle author, cared little and didn’t have the time to go through the paper in detail; in such cases, I either took myself off the paper or found the time to at least quickly skim the paper and said it’s OK to go as is. You either care and find the time to look at the manuscript, or you don’t care and consequently don’t find the time, but then at least you trust your collaborator that they can submit a coherent manuscript. The worst scenario is that you don’t care and don’t find the time, but also want to hold the reigns on submission. That is really, really douchey controlling behavior.

No, I don’t want to wait three weeks or more to submit what is essentially a finished paper. As a courtesy, you have two weeks. The last three days of those two weeks you are away, well boo hoo. There are the other 11 that you are here, find the freakin’ time.

Here’s the deal: papers are important. Papers are VERY important. Papers and graduated students are our products. There is possibly no aspect of our job (our job = professor in a STEM field at a major research university) that is more important than getting papers out. Published papers enable everything else: students graduating and getting jobs, new grants being funded, knowledge advancing.

I have no idea what the collaborator has in the pipeline for nearly two weeks prior to their departure that would prevent them from sitting to read the paper for an hour or two. But whatever it is, unless it’s editing of a whole $hitload of their other papers (and I know for sure that it isn’t) , IT’S NOT AS IMPORTANT!!! Stop pub-blocking. Move stuff around, read the goddamn paper, so we can send it to review ASAP. Then you can get back to whatever leadership or other service BS is so pressing in the middle of the summer. And you are very welcome.

A Plea

Dear colleague:

Once you are a grown-ass scientist with several years of experience past your PhD — which means that among other things you are not a graduate student of mine, for whose technical writing practices I am responsible and after whom I (grudgingly) accept that it is my job to clean up prior to manuscript submission lest we all be embarrassed — then pretty please with a cherry on top: 

— Don’t send me a manuscript draft in a state where it’s impossible to comprehend what a figure actually represents. What is the quantity you are plotting, for which system/sample?

— Be cognizant that someone is supposed to at least approximately be able to read stuff off your graphs, which means that a total of three ticks with numbers (with no ticks or numbers in between) on the whole goddamn axis is simply not enough.

— Read the goddamn draft before you send it to me. Go over it as you would when you review other people’s papers; notice that there are multiple places where you make pretty strong claims of “common knowledge” that’s not really common and where you don’t actually provide a citation. It pisses me off when there are 10-15 places where I felt a citation was really necessary but it’s missing.

— Read the goddamn draft before you send it to me. Pretty please decide on  the notation and don’t change it 5 times throughout the paper (because you cut and pasted from 5 different papers) and clean up the equations.  It’s not really all that hard. Really.

— Read the goddamn draft before you send it to me. You have to read it in order to realize that, in the part that you wrote, the flow is terrible. It is hypertension-inducing even in the under-caffeinated among us, and in my case a vein might pop. Edit the draft, for goodness sake, I know you can. You are not my student, I should not have to clean up so much after you. More importantly, I don’t want to. You are a grown-ass scientist.



Automatic Reply

Dear colleague on sabbatical,

I hope you are enjoying the time with some relief from teaching. For many of us with small kids or working spouses, traveling for extended periods of time is not an option. But even an at-home sabbatical is more than welcome, as it helps us catch up on all the papers that have long been awaiting submission, and maybe we even try to learn something new. So with all my heart I wish that you make the best of your sabbatical.

What I don’t understand is the need for your automatic reply email message. Every time I send you a  new email, I get the autoreply that your response may be delayed because you are on sabbatical. Then of course I get the actual response from you pretty soon thereafter. We have some projects together so we email each other a lot, which means I have received this automatic “on sabbatical” message hundreds of times since September. It’s really  REALLY getting old. I don’t understand the need for this message in the first place — it’s not like you are somewhere without electricity or *gasp!* broadband internet — you are down the hall, doing work pretty much the same as always, responding to email as promptly as ever. The only difference is that you do a little less teaching and perhaps a teensy bit more travel.

So please, for the love of IMAP, don’t contribute to the endless stream of spam that clutters our mailboxes 24/7 and turn off the completely unnecessary goddamn autoreply. Otherwise, I will have to resort to walking to your office every time I need to talk to you, and we’ll see how you like that.