Editorial and Professorial Nuggets

—  I am an associate editor of a specialized disciplinary journal. I try my best to include junior researchers (postdocs, young profs or nonacademic scientists, even some senior graduate students) as reviewers when I know they do good work based on what I have heard or seen them present at conferences. It turns out, a surprisingly high number of people cannot write a review to save their life. Some of them are junior, so they have the excuse of inexperience, but some should really know better.

I get these cryptic two-line reports with a recommendation to reject. WTF? That is not a report. I cannot send that on to authors, it gives me a basis for nothing. Especially if you are going to reject, you better give clear reasons for doing so.  Even if the paper is crap, it usually (although not always) presents a considerable amount of work by the authors. If the paper sucks, tell them precisely why it sucks and how much it sucks, so they would know whether to try and fix it or that there is no hope and they should drop it.

How does one learn to write referee reports? Well, when it comes to my students, I send them samples of my reports to look at (ranging from minor revisions to rejections). But, one first and foremost learns from the reports received of one’s own papers. Which is why I wonder, especially for senior folks, how unobservant and unable to generalize they are,  that they cannot figure out what is to be done based on their own experiences with being on the receiving end of reports.  These are all skills necessary for doing science, how is it possible not to apply them when learning how to write reports?

— There are career editors and then there are editors who are practicing scientists. Either way, the longest part of the review-and-publication process should be the actual peer review. It should not be the time taken by the editorial office staff to check the formatting; it should similarly not be the time the editor takes to make a decision and transmit the referee comments to the authors after the peer review has been completed. I have found myself dreading submission to certain journals, because I know a paper in a certain field will go to a certain editor, and the editor has a habit of just sitting on the paper for days or weeks on end, both when it comes to making referrals and when it comes to making a decision (the time they take doesn’t seem to correlate at all with how hand-wringing the decision-making process might be; hearing about “major revisions” appears to take just as much time as receiving “publish as is”.

For editors who are practicing scientists, why do people take on this role if they are not committed to doing a good job? I know, becoming an editor in a good journal is an honor, but it’s also a job, and an important one. And part of doing it well also means doing it fast. I know some great associate editors who handle dozens of new papers per week very efficiently. But then there are others. And I wish someone gave them a kick in the pants so they’d finally get going.

Yes, I am very impatient. But you can bet that I am very efficient as associate editor.

— In professorial news, once again, the biggest problem of my undergrads is that they don’t know the math that they should know. They don’t have the facility with basic calculus, let alone analytic geometry. While some fairly complicated concepts can be hand-waved down to the levels of calculus or geometry, it’s of little use because these concepts, which should have been internalized long ago, appear only vaguely familiar to students as opposed to being tools wielded with confidence. Part of it, at my university, is the ever-shrinking list of required math courses so students could all get as many free electives as possible (?!); that’s because students feeling warm and fuzzy upon having customized their studies to the point of senselessness  beats actually getting a solid education in the major. The worst thing is the students’ attitude that this insistence on calculating stuff, on — gasp! — using math, is somehow unnecessary and is in the way of actual real knowledge. They want to make it go away and get to the good stuff. They cannot. I am all for pictures and analogies and building one’s intuition. I draw in class more than I write equations. But this is fairly high-level stuff, and the intuition has to be already honed by both math and experience with other similar problems. Students cannot expect everything worth knowing as a senior in a physical science discipline to just be qualitative or requiring no more than arithmetic and high-school algebra. I am really tired of having to apologize for what is really not particularly high-level math that they should be proficient in anyway.

Workaholic Geeky Nonsense

The semester is about to start. Which means that the summer is over. Which means that, in order to fully get into all the fall proposal writing around all the undergrad course teaching and insane service, I have to get these last two papers done and submitted, like, yesterday.


Over the past few days, I worked  12-14 hour every day. Really focused, high-productivity, long days. I fuckin’ loved it. I love working non-stop, and if it were possible to somehow forgo sleep, at least temporarily, without loss of sanity of productivity, I would love to be able to just go-go-go.

Man, I love working.

When I don’t waste my time and energy worrying about whether or not I am appropriately recognized and admired, the bottom line is that I love reading papers, looking at data, analyzing data, coming up with mathematical models and appropriate algorithms for their numerical implementation, troubleshooting, making graphs, writing papers, and talking with graduate student about every single one of these aspects of my job.

I love doing science.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, I am actually a good role model for inspiring people to leave academia. More than one student has said that seeing me and the insane schedule that I keep has convinced them that mine is a job they don’t want.

I read all the time all around the web about there being a surplus of PhDs who all think they will be professors, who are then all surprised when that proves impossible and are also for some reason oblivious to the fact that there are other things they can do. Apparently, I do my part — without even trying! — to discourage young’uns from pursuing an academic career ; the few who were not discouraged have done very well for themselves!

I don’t know what it is that other professors do that (supposedly) makes all of their students and postdocs think they want the professor’s job and there is nothing else. I bet the professors look really cool while doing their job. Luckily, I never look cool, especially not while doing my job.

How do I achieve this elusive goal of discouraging all but a few? You can do it, too!
Look sleep-deprived and incessantly drink coffee, having mild panic  attacks when a coffee cup approaches empty. Send emails before 7 am and after 11 pm. Respond to their emails immediately no matter what time of day or week. Share with them when the deadlines are and name all the things that depend upon certain grants being renewed (their food, shelter, tuition, and health benefits). Work with them closely on every paper and proposal and let them know how much effort goes really, truly into every piece that is meant to be read and understood by others while bearing your signature. Keep track of all the details of all of their many very different projects in your head and be able to give each of their talks at a moment’s notice with no prep whatsoever. Push them to do better and lift them up and don’t let them give up on themselves or their work. Forward them emails from industrial collaborators about job openings. Encourage them to attend all manner of professional workshops to broaden their soft skill set. Sleep less than any of them and take less vacation than any of them.


In life, there are various quantifiable aspects that change over time. More often than not, it’s not the value of the function that we care about, as much as the sign of the first derivative. Sometimes a positive first derivative is good, sometimes a negative one.


If anyone tells you that calculus is stupid or useless, you can print this post, crumble it into a ball, and shove said ball into the mouth of the heretic spouting such nonsense. Calculus is an almost absolute goodness, only surpassed by complex calculus... And calculus on spheres, donuts, and other cool objects, also known as differential geometry… *geekgasmic sigh*


You know how The Oatmeal made me grumpy the other day? It’s all forgiven, as I came across an old classic — The Motherfucking Pterodactyl comic. And there is even a song (below)! It is hilarious,  but view at your own peril.


Lastly, among the comments to the last post emerged the awesomeness that is this guide to acting like a Minnesotan. It has a very Monty Python feel!


I talked with a senior colleague a couple of weeks ago and he mentioned that grade distributions have become increasingly bimodal. There are kids who have high scores and kids with very low scores, and very few students in between. The colleague said it didn’t use to be like that, that the students 20-30 years ago used to simply be better on average, and grade distributions used to be the beloved normal (Gaussian) distributions.

I don’t know how students used to be, but I can attest that the bimodal distribution is the norm rather than the exception in many of my courses. There are students who are obviously getting the material and who could probably take on even more challenge. And there are the kids who are so far behind and who have so many deficiencies from lower-level courses that it’s unclear what it is that they are actually getting from the class, if anything.

The problem with this profile is that you don’t know whom to aim your lectures at. My best-ever teacher in grad school said “20% of the students will do great no matter how poorly you teach, 20% will do poorly no matter how well you teach, but there are 60% of students where how you teach really affects what they learn and how well they do; you want to tailor your lectures towards the 60%.” The thing I see is that there are 40% who are doing well and 40% who are doing really poorly, and 20% who are doing so-so. The people who are consistently doing really poorly likely shouldn’t even be in this major, but I am not sure what to do about it. On account of them, I can’t do what I could do in class with the students who are doing really well. Rather than a near-continuum of abilities, we have a pretty big chasm, such that most of the class is either really bored or really lost. It seems that there are very few people near the average, for whom the middle-centric teaching approach of my former teacher would work.

What I do is try to assign extra homework with some brain teasers for additional credit, and I already give 2-3 extra problems per exam that require a little non-trivial thinking. But the lectures do still get dragged towards the lowest common denominator, which leaves some kids really bored. I am not sure how to teach to a class with such a wide range of skills. Ideally, the students at the very bottom of the curve would get sent back to take some remedial courses, but I can’t see that being a widely acceptable practice as college costs money and everyone is interested in funneling the students all the way through to a degree, somehow. We as teachers are discouraged from failing students, but then the value of a BS degree of good students drops with every poor students graduating despite having learned squat.

Who is the one who tells a student “Maybe this is not a major for you” or “You need to go back and learn some calculus and then re-take the class”? The thing is that what’s best for the student may not be the best for enrollment numbers on which department budgets hinge. Consequently, we go soft on the people who really should not be getting our degrees. I try to mind my own business and am no rebel, but this issue makes me wish I were. It makes me sick that everything is always only about money, and that even our core mission — educating students — has to deteriorate for this reason.


The semester started last week. I am again teaching a junior/senior elective for majors and it looks like it might be a rough semester.

The course I am teaching follows a basic, required course in the major. I find the students are poorly prepared, more poorly than the class I had last semester. The students  are quiet and look positively terrified. I know it takes a little while for people to warm up and start answering my in-class questions, so that will come with time. But I am being quite alarmed by all the things that they say they have never seen before, because, if that’s true, then I have to significantly rethink the class. Sure, I suppose they might be fibbing, but I do believe think most of them have simply never seen  the material or, if they have, then it really didn’t stick at all and they genuinely don’t remember it.

Last week and this week, we are reviewing the material from the previous course, and it’s going very slowly. I may have to take more time simply to get them up to where they would actually need to be, which means cutting out some of the new stuff.

Also, the lack of facility with math always rears its ugly head, but at least that’s not particularly surprising. Any physical science field that requires a lot of physics has to be taught math really rigorously, and the math department does a very good job. The problem is that, owing to a recent idiotic progressive change in the curriculum for our major,  which is supposed to give the students more flexibility to  freely choose easy courses outside of the major customize their program of study,  some important formerly required math courses have now become electives (e.g. how can linear algebra and differential equations not be required just fuckin’ blows my mind) and now many students elect not to take them. Also, many of the required math courses are mismatched in timing with the relevant courses in the major.

Perhaps more importantly, on top of pure math, the next  layer is often missing, and that is the layer where the students are taught physics while using the math tools. This is where they should simultaneously be taught how to build their intuition about the physics with the help of math (math is your friend, people!!!)  and how to better understand the ability of math to capture the physical world. What  we need are slower-paced calculus-based physics courses and less jam-packed syllabi  in the lower-level courses for our major. The way physics for non-physicists courses are taught right now is woefully inefficient: there is too much material in each one of these courses, everything is only touched upon, and the kids retain absolutely nothing. It’s a complete waste of time. Considering that many students haven’t had physics as a standalone subject until college, maybe I shouldn’t lament but should be in awe that the kids have as much proficiency as they do.

People say that we discourage our physical science majors by throwing so much math and physics and chemistry at them when they join the university. That it’s boring and kills their natural creativity and that we should get them more chances to design right away and whatnot. First, if you are going to be a professional scientist or engineer, you need to know that stuff. There is no way around it. You cannot do/create/design anything new and have it work without being able to recognize whether or not it violates the basic laws of nature. So there is no doubt in my mind that a solid foundation in basic math, physics, and chemistry is the core of physical science education. I don’t know how we make it less boring and more appealing — I thought all of it was fascinating to begin with. There are freshman design courses sprouting all around the country, many with a humanistic component, where kids are taught to interface with the communities and solve actual existing problems.  I think that is great and helps motivate a lot of kids, but we can’t forget that in order to be independent scientists and engineers we have to give them a lot of basic science tools — sure, it’s cool to make a product for someone in the community as a freshman, but don’t forget that there was an instructor there to catch the (often obvious) fallacies in the many iterations of the design. For most kids, we are not stifling their unique unadultarated genius with these basic courses; we are giving them the tools so they would be able to work independently to express their creative ideas once they have their diploma in hand.

But perhaps what would help more than anything is somehow magically undoing the years of programming in middle and high school that tell kids math is stupid and boring and useless, and that only hopeless nerds like science and engineering…