Archive for: January, 2011

Half Time

Jan 31 2011 Published by under career issues, postdocs

An early-career reader wonders whether faculty would be receptive to the idea of a half-time postdoc.

For some research projects, I think that a half-time arrangement would work just fine. In fact, I have had part-time (including half-time) postdocs cost-shared with a research facility or with another colleague at a different university. Although these postdocs were full-time researchers, the fact that they didn't spend 100% of their time on research that involved me has not been a problem.

I have not had a half-time postdoc who spent the other half doing something else entirely (e.g., being a half-time so-called stay-at-home-mom or -dad), but I would certainly be willing to work with someone in this type of arrangement. Certain projects would not be suitable for a part-time postdoc of this sort, but many would be.

So, faculty readers who supervise postdocs: What do you think?

Do you, have you, or would you work with a half-time postdoc, even if the other half was not spent on research or other discipline-related work?

19 responses so far

Moving Students

Jan 24 2011 Published by under advising, graduate school

Last week's post discussed the issue of faculty who may or may not be considering moving to another job. Following on this, a reader asks:

What about graduate students who move from one program to another?

My first response to that question is: Well, what about it? This happens all the time. Perhaps the first program was not a good fit for the student. Perhaps the advisor was a jerk. Perhaps there was a family reason for needing to move to another place.

I have had grad students leave after 1-2 years because their significant other took a job in a distant place and they didn't want to be apart. I have had students leave because they wanted to work with a different/saner/easier advisor in another place. Some gave me warning, some did not.

I have also advised students who moved "mid-stream" from another institution. You win some, you lose some.

To those who think that faculty should always tell their advisees that they might possibly consider moving at some point in the future, even if this is just a remote possibility: Should grad students give the same information to their advisors, or does the power differential make the situations different?

In fact, the situations are not analogous for this very reason, but I also know that if an advisor supports a grad student on a grant for a couple of years (or more) and then the student drops the project entirely, even for a good reason (e.g., to move somewhere else to be with their spouse), this can be a big problem for a research group. It would be better if that RA money had gone to someone who would actually complete the project.

Even so, that's the way it goes. These things happen, and we all have to deal with it.

The specific question of the reader who wrote is more complex than the basic question above. In this case, a grad student moved to a different institution, and now finds that it is necessary to interact with faculty at the institution that was left behind. In this case, it sounds like the student communicated well with the advisor and the graduate program advisor, and the move was made not-too-far into the graduate program. If you find yourself in a program that is not a good fit and you have an opportunity to move somewhere better, this is the way to do it.

Unless the people at the left-behind institution are not sane, there should be no issue of "burning bridges". You should be able to have professional interactions with faculty at your old institution.

If, however, before leaving your old institution, you set your desk on fire, defaced your (ex)advisor's office door with a chainsaw, and glued all the cabinets shut in the lab, the people at your former institution may not be so happy to hear from you again.

In the end, I feel the same way about moving grads as I do about moving faculty. Grad students have a right to move, just as faculty have a right to move. It's important to be professional and to communicate the relevant information when a move is definite, but ultimately everyone has a right to make these decisions about what is best for their life and career, even if it is (very) inconvenient for others.

17 responses so far

Faculty Movers

Jan 19 2011 Published by under career issues, faculty

A swarm of recent questions relates to the topic of moving from one faculty position to another. 'Tis the season for offers and decisions for faculty moves?

As I have described in the FSP blog at various times, I moved from University 1 to University 2 after several years as an Assistant Professor. Before University 1, I taught at a small liberal arts college, but I was there very briefly, so my main move was between universities. The reason for my move was because of my so-called "two body" situation, not owing to any unhappiness with University 1 (in fact, I was very happy there) or because I wanted to move to a higher ranked program (although that's what I did).

The specific reasons for my move may or may not be applicable to others contemplating a faculty move, but a general question is:

When and how do you tell colleagues, administrators, and students at University 1 that you are (contemplating) leaving?

There is no one "right" answer because there are so many variables, but I can describe what I did, and perhaps other readers can share their own stories.

When I was at University 1, I was very dedicated to my institution, department, and students. I had great colleagues, some of whom became (and still are) my friends. I was open with colleagues and administrators about being on the job market and my reasons for doing so. I did not talk about it constantly, but neither was I secretive about it.

I didn't have to tell them, of course, but news travels, and I figured it was better that I tell my colleagues what was going on than that they hear rumors. I felt that this was the right thing to do for me, but I think it would be perfectly fine if someone did not inform their colleagues of any efforts to move. They might hear about it anyway, and some might ask about it. I think that, if asked, it is best to be honest, but you can be vague in your response if you want.

When I was at University 1 but keeping an eye out for jobs where my husband and I could live and work near each other, my graduate students were generally aware of the situation, but I did not inform them of the details (applications, interviews). I think they knew that I would not abandon them -- i.e., that if I did move, we would discuss it then and make a plan for each -- but I saw no reason to go into the gory details until it was relevant to do so.

When the offer from University 2 came, I immediately told my chair and a sympathetic associate dean, who leaped into action and came up with a retention package that included a tenure-track position for my husband (who, by the way, was more than qualified for a faculty position there). That was nice, but it also made the decision about staying vs. leaving a wrenching one. I understand why they couldn't create a position for my husband until pushed to do so, but even so, one reason we left was so that we could both start fresh in a new place.

I ended up staying at University 1 for an extra year, for various reasons, and this allowed my graduate students to finish before I left.

Since then, I have had a few occasions to contemplate leaving University 2 for another university. As a more senior faculty member without a "benign" reason (like a two-body problem) for leaving, I have told only my very closest colleagues about these moving opportunities. I see no reason why anyone else (including students) should know until there is something substantive to tell. There is no point in everyone's being on alert or making alternative plans until there is a real reason to do so.

When I discussed this in the FSP blog before, it was controversial. Some think that students have a right to know everything, even if moving is just the faintest glimmer in their advisor's eye. I can understand that, but I don't agree with it. The process of possibly luring a professor to a new institution can be a very long and indirect courtship, and can involve offers and counter-offers. Unless someone is 100% determined to leave, which I am not, I don't see the point of keeping a research group on alert for possible major disruption when there may not actually be any disruption.

There is a well-known advantage of possibly-moving in that this is how you demonstrate your worth at some universities (unfortunately) and this may be the only way to get some big-ticket items (a major raise, a job for your significant other); it can also be a route to early tenure and promotion. To my surprise, I have found that the rumor of having outside offers from excellent schools can have an energizing effect on some administrators; in some cases, it is not necessary to have an actual offer in hand.

Supposedly, men are better at negotiating retention packages as a result of outside offers, whereas women worry about being seen as disloyal, or they may fear that they won't get an offer of a retention. I don't know, but I don't think it is disloyal and I wouldn't worry about not getting a retention offer. Even if you get an outside offer, you don't have to take it. You can present it, see what happens, and then decide what is best for you and your family.

My advice, in summary: If you want to move or have to move, and you have the opportunity: just do it. Do it well, though, taking care of your graduate students and postdocs, if you have them, and dealing with all the bureaucratic fun of moving grants and other research-related stuff and figuring out a new university system and moving your cats.

29 responses so far

Women's League

Jan 13 2011 Published by under letter of reference, sexism

Sent by a reader, from a recent letter of recommendation for a candidate for a faculty position:

[the applicant] is in the same league as other top female graduates [from this department]

But how does she compare to people with the same hair color? eye color? height? weight? religion? race? Surely these are as relevant as classifying by gender in a letter of recommendation for a faculty position.

The reader who sent the excerpt notes that the writer of the letter is male and in his early-mid 40's. That puts him in the same league as other top sexist letter-writers of older generations.

The letter-writer may have been trying to compliment the woman in question, or he may have been trying to signal that she isn't actually as good as the top male graduates from that department. If the latter, he probably could have found a better way to do that.

My question is:

Is someone who would write the above statement in a reference letter -- no matter what their motivation -- capable of making a fair evaluation of a female doctoral recipient, or does the very act of writing something like that in a letter of reference indicate bias?

52 responses so far

Research Group Feedback

Jan 05 2011 Published by under advising, graduate school

A reader wonders how to get feedback from research group members; that is, to find out from one's grad students and postdocs how things are going for the group or for specific group members. Is there a good, systematic way to do this?: Have a group discussion? Ask each person for comments in individual meetings? Get written, anonymous comments? Set up a suggestion box?

Do any readers who are advisers/mentors have a particular approach they find constructive?

My own opinion is that the group dynamics as a whole should be open and friendly enough to encourage discussion  in a group or in an individual meeting of any problems that arise, but I have no system for acquiring feedback.

The types of information that would be useful can be divided into two categories: everyday kinds of issues and serious issues. Ideally, the research group is functioning well enough that the everyday issues can be openly discussed, or one or more group members could bring such issues to the attention of the faculty.

Serious issues are of course more complicated to discuss and to deal with. Serious issues may be ones that affect the entire group or might be specific to an individual. Even in the latter case, the entire group might be affected.

At various times over the years, I have learned, typically indirectly, that someone in the group is unhappy. For example, years ago, I kept hearing that one advisee was complaining all the time about me, about the research, about everything. I therefore asked this student in our individual weekly meeting, without saying anything about having heard rumors that s/he was unhappy: "Do you want to talk about how things are going? Do you want to change anything? Are there things that I can do to help you more?" The answer to everything was no, no, no.

The first time this happened, I assumed that the rumors were untrue and that this student was actually fine and had been misunderstood; perhaps routine venting was interpreted as deep distress. But the reports kept coming: so-and-so is really unhappy, s/he blames you for not providing enough help etc. Nothing I could said or did elicited any direct indication from the student that anything was wrong; s/he continued to maintain (to me) that everything was fine, nothing needed to change. Yet the unhappy student continued to complain (to others) right up to the unhappy end.

If I had had an anonymous system by which advisees could complain, suggest, or criticize, would this have helped? I don't think so, in part because my group is not so huge that someone could be really anonymous. In being specific enough to complain or criticize in any useful way, the person's identity would become obvious.

This particular situation bothered me a lot at the time, but ultimately I decided that some people are determined to be unhappy, at least in certain circumstances. Some adviser-student relationships just aren't going to work out, even if the adviser is well-meaning. Perhaps the student will do well with another adviser and another research project or perhaps the problem is graduate school (or life) in general.

One thing that can be difficult for an adviser is to know how much to tell the group as a whole about attempts to solve a problem involving a particular group member. This relates to my point above that even issues that are related to one particular individual can affect the entire group.

In the situation described above, for example, I didn't want the rest of the group to think I didn't care or wasn't doing anything to help the unhappy student, so I told some of my other students about my efforts to discuss any problems with the unhappy student, but that all my efforts had failed. Perhaps some of these students (reasonably) concluded that I was ineffectual and, if I were a better adviser, I could have found some way to get through to the unhappy student and make things right, but it was important to me to show that I cared and had tried.

Over the years, I have at times marveled at the fact that some of the most successful research groups in my field are led by professor who really don't care whether their advisees are *happy* or not. These advisers somehow consistently produce successful students who go on to do well with their subsequent scientific careers. Other groups headed by professors who devote much time to devising individualized advising strategies for each student end up mired in complexity, drama, and woe.

At times, some colleagues and I have wondered whether the "factory" approach is somehow more effective because the focus is on the work, whereas the more "sensitive" approach encourages a focus on problems. According to this totally unsupported hypothesis, the range of personalities, backgrounds, learning approaches, life issues, interests, priorities, and sanity level of graduate students is so great that trying to adjust advising style for each advisee is impossible and causes more problems than it solves. (Discuss)

I prefer to think that it is possible to have a high-functioning research group somewhere between those extremes; that is, a group in which the adviser is not an unfeeling person who only cares about the "product" (data, papers, grants) and has a sink-or-swim advising philosophy, but instead is one who encourages independence, self-reliance, problem-solving, and a healthy amount of communication among group members.

Whether that goal can be realized depends in part on the advising abilities of the professor(s) leading the group, but also is affected by the other members of the research group. Research groups change with time, and therefore so do research group dynamics. Perhaps this variability is why having a system for obtaining feedback is a good idea, and I hope readers will share information about how they approach this in their own research groups: as advisers, students, postdocs, or other group members.

27 responses so far