Archive for: May, 2011

Responsible Conduct of Reality

May 26 2011 Published by under grants

Today's post involves discussion of a situation that arises when you collaborate with others on grants, and perhaps particularly when you are part of a large project involving many other PIs: different people have different views about grant budgets, and in particular, different people have different views about time and money and how to spend both.

I have a rather 'fluid' relationship with time and money, in research and in life in general. I know that grant budgets, no matter how meticulously constructed, are to some extent approximations. We can't predict exactly, to the dollar, how much we are going to need for particular research activities. We can guess -- and it's best if we can guess very well -- but I am never able to guess perfectly.

Things change during the course of a research project. This can be bad, but it can also be very very good. As long as what we do with the grant money is consistent with the research aims of the work proposed, there is some flexibility about how the money is spent.

It's best when a multi-year grant arrives all in one big chunk instead of as year-to-year increments because that allows the maximum flexibility for optimizing the research activities. We do have to itemize our budgets year-by-year, but again, reality and opportunity typically intrude.

I was thinking about this recently because I was trying to work without someone who takes budgets literally; i.e., if we budgeted X, we are going to do X and nothing more or less than X, and we are going to do X exactly when we said we would do X, even if it doesn't make sense to do that anymore. In my opinion, it might make more sense to do X + 7 and to do that in Year 3 instead of Year 2. That's part of the fluidity of a research project. To some people, that is chaos and unacceptable.

I don't get the impression that Literal Budget People think it is unethical to change research plans; it's just that some of them can't imagine doing so. They make a research plan, and they follow it, like a set of directions from point A to point B. I view research plans as a rough guide for where I think I want to go, and then I dive in, perhaps get a bit lost, but eventually end up somewhere interesting.

I don't mean to make the Literal Budget People (LBP) sound uncreative and entirely rigid in all respects. The ones I know are excellent scientists. Perhaps a preference for sticking to the original plan relates to some very positive characteristics in their intellectual pursuits. Strangely, I have found some LBPs to be less efficient at certain research activities, as they spend a lot of time trying to find ways to stick to the original plan and have trouble when there is no choice but to make some modifications.

I suppose these LBPs are being more responsible than I am about spending grant money, but, as long as I am not being unethical and as long as I am making decisions based on what is best for the research and its personnel, I prefer to take a more holistic, syn-optic approach to research activities (and their costs) and not view my budget plan as a rigid, untouchable object.

So the trick now is for a group of us with different views on how to do research (and spend research money) to find ways to work well together and keep open the lines of scientific communication and cooperation, even as we disagree about some of the logistics. Perhaps we can isolate the research logistics of the various research components without isolating too much of the actual science we need to do together.

How do you view (grant) time and money? Do you try to stick to your original plan as much as possible, or are you comfortable veering from the plan  and seeing where the research takes you?

11 responses so far

The Normal Advisor

May 17 2011 Published by under advising

A reader, Dr. Z, has been feeling a little sad that Z's PhD advisor didn't congratulate Z on a recent honor: Z was elected a Fellow of a professional society. Z thinks a "normal" PhD advisor would have congratulated a former student who received such an honor.

"Normal" isn't a word typically associated with PhD advisors in general, but we have to consider this situation in context. Would most PhD advisors congratulate their former advisees on attaining a rather prestigious award or other significant honor? (I know that being elected/selected Fellow varies in importance in different professional societies, but assume that the scenario involves a prestigious example).

First, the PhD advisor would have to notice. The award/honor would presumably therefore be of an academic sort or a high-profile industry/government/foundation award such that it is reasonable to expect a professor in a particular field to notice. Some people keep track of these things; some don't. My former PhD advisor, for example, does not.

Then, if the PhD advisor knows about the honor, s/he has to remember to send -- and make the effort to send -- a congratulatory message, rather than just waiting for the next conference for an in-person congratulations.

It used to bother me that my former advisor did not proactively support me (post-graduation) in the ways that some other grad advisors support their former students. As a member of various committees for professional societies and such, I commonly see grad advisors who continue to support and promote their former advisees. Mine didn't. I am of course grateful that he wrote positive enough letters that I was able to get a faculty position, but at times -- early in my career -- I felt at a bit of a disadvantage in some respects.

But: I was fortunate to have other colleagues who supported me in much the same way that some former advisors do. This completely made up for the lack of such involvement/interest by my advisor in my post-graduation career. It is important to have such supporters, and they don't have to be your former advisor.

Years later, when I'd been doing pretty well in my career for a while, my former advisor told me he was proud of my accomplishments, that I was one of his most successful advisees, and he picked me to give the citation when he received a big award recognizing his career contributions. Some advisors are more proactive about being proud of their former advisees, and some are not; in the latter case, it doesn't mean they don't care -- they just might not make it obvious that they do (until they retire).

I like to think that I am a little more aware of these things than my former advisor is, but I'd also like to think that former advisees don't sit around feeling bad about a lack of sufficient notice on my part of their post-grad school careers and lives. And if I ever overlooked something -- like an award -- I would be happy to get an e-mail from a former advisee saying "I just got elected as a Fellow of the Science Society of Scientists", and I would reply with sincere congratulations, pleased that a former advisee wanted to share this great news with me.

Grad advisors: Do you follow the exploits of your former advisees closely? Have you ever sent a congratulatory e-mail on hearing that a former advisee had received an award, promotion, or other honor? (And if so, do you consider yourself normal?)

Former advisees: If you mostly got along with your grad advisor, how would you feel if your former advisor did not congratulate you about an academic honor? Of course there is a vast array of grad-advisor interactions and personalities and so on, so this is a somewhat meaningless question, but the original question was sent by someone who was bothered by the lack of a congratulatory message from the former advisor, so I ask it anyway.

24 responses so far

Nothing to Prove

May 10 2011 Published by under advising, sexism, students, women in science

Here is an intriguing situation, with a question for discussion:

A female science professor is asked by a colleague to be on the examining committee of one of the colleague's doctoral students. The doctoral student has told the FSP to her face that he does not think that women are good scientists, and that women should not even do certain kinds of science (particularly those involving field studies).

What should the FSP do?

  • Agree to be on the committee, be as fair and objective as usual, and show by example that she is a talented scientist whose expertise and advice could be quite useful to the student. Serving on this committee would be a good use of the FSP's time if the student saw an example of a professional, smart FSP doing her job, just like the MSPs.
  • Refuse to be on the committee. Why should she have to deal with a student who has explicitly demonstrated prejudice against women and who is unlikely to appreciate her expertise and advice? Serving on the committee would be a waste of the FSP's time.

I deliberately removed information about the career stage of the FSP in order to present the most basic facts of the scenario, but it might matter whether the FSP is pre-tenure or tenured. I have experienced this exact scenario twice: once as an assistant professor, and once as an associate professor.

I hope the fact that I have not experienced it as a full professor means that there are fewer students who hold this view about FSPs (or at least who would state it openly), but it could mean that if you stick around long enough and acquire enough wrinkles, the student-skeptics will assume you must have learned something over all the years you've been a professor.

In the case when I was an assistant professor, I agreed to be on the committee. I did what was required of me as a committee member, and even went slightly above-and-beyond for one particular part of the student's research, but I never made any obvious progress in convincing the student that I was a 'real' scientist like his advisor. Every time we had a one-on-one meeting, the student made sure to tell me that he was only talking to me because his advisor made him do it. He was aggressive and confrontational ("What do you know that can help me?" A lot, actually..). I did not enjoy our interactions, but I fulfilled my responsibilities as a committee member.

In the case when I was an associate professor, I was inclined to refuse to be on the committee. Some of the student's research, however, was directly related to my expertise, so I sort of felt like I should be on the committee and said I'd do it. But then I found out that the student had scheduled his oral preliminary exam without consulting me about the day/time (he consulted the rest of his committee). I could have changed some things around to be available for the exam, but I decided not to, so I was replaced on the committee. Perhaps that was the student's intention all along, but it was a relief to me also to limit my interactions with him.

What happens to these people? In the first case, I never saw or heard of the student again after he got an MS and disappeared into the rest of his life. In the second case, the student got a PhD and eventually returned to his home country, where he has a job as a scientist.

I wish I had a happy-ending story of a miraculous change of mind. I wish I could say that I worked with these guys and we developed mutual respect and understanding, and they realized that women can be scientists, and in fact, it's not a big deal to work with one. Perhaps someone else can share a story like that? I can think of  a couple of mini-examples involving senior scientists, so I know such transformations can happen: FSP 1, FSP 2.

But back to the main question: What would you do: serve on the committee or refuse? And does your answer vary depending on your career stage?


37 responses so far

Abstract Rules

May 03 2011 Published by under advising, students

A few student-readers, both grads and undergrads, have written to me in recent months about errors that they have made -- not errors in research, but errors in following the (mostly unwritten) rules of what I will call 'research culture'. Now they fear that they have annoyed their advisors so much that they wonder if they should switch advisors, schools, fields, countries, planets.

I can't comment on any particular circumstance because of course a major factor in each case is the personality of the advisor and the specific details of each situation. But I do want to discuss this as a general issue, giving an example of one of these 'violations', and getting comments from readers on how serious you think such violations are.

One example that has cropped up a few times in my inbox and in my own experience occurs when a student submits an abstract or other type of conference paper without showing the text to the co-authors (that is, to the advisor and others involved in the research). And then the advisor and others find out and are angry, whether or not the abstract is accepted by the conference.

Years ago, when an undergraduate research student submitted an abstract with me as co-author and without showing me the abstract prior to submission or even telling me that an abstract had been written and submitted, I was mad because -- when I eventually read the abstract -- I saw that there were serious errors in content and writing. The student withdrew the submitted abstract on my request, before it was reviewed by anyone. I found it hard to believe that this student thought it was appropriate to submit this without showing it to me or the other co-authors, and I was disappointed that the abstract contained such serious errors.

When the student had asked me months before whether it would be a good idea to submit something to a particular conference, I had given a vague yes in reply. The student interpreted this as a green light to submit something without further input from me, but of course I was really only saying "This is, in theory, a good idea, but let's see what you come up with, if anything." Now I try to remember to specify to students, especially undergrads, that I want to see a draft before any submission of work in which I am involved. I am a quality control freak.

[Yes I know that unresponsive advisors who don't give feedback and delay submissions of abstract and papers can be a problem, but that's a separate issue.]

I am also a hypocrite, as I have submitted conference abstracts and papers and added names of people in my group without informing them all before I submitted the abstract. I do this if the abstract is based on a paper we've already written together, or if it is a review of several projects (e.g., for an invited talk). When presenting new material, I am more likely to consult my co-authors.

One could argue (rationalize) that it is not quite so bad for me to do this because I have written 57 million of these things and presumably know what I am doing, but it's not a good idea for an undergraduate to go rogue with their very first conference abstract. One could also mention that I am not relying on my co-authors for letters of recommendation in the future, whereas a student author may well need their co-author's high opinion and good will. That's a somewhat obnoxious justification, but is nevertheless the reality of some of these situations. Really, though, we should all show our co-authors the text prior to submission, no matter what our academic position and no matter how routine the content.

Some organizations (journal publishers etc.) make corresponding authors certify that all co-authors have read and approved a manuscript being submitted, but this may be less common for some conference submissions. Perhaps if an inexperienced student-author encountered such a question during submission of a conference abstract, it would be a signal to discuss the abstract with co-authors before clicking the "submit" button.

So, in the incident I described above, did I forgive the student or was the student's life and career ruined by my rage and the humiliation of the withdrawn abstract? I got over it, had a calm but forceful discussion with the student, and wrote decent letters to accompany graduate applications. The student has recently completed a degree in a graduate program at another university.

Here is my question of the week for readers:

If you were the advisor and a student submitted a conference abstract or paper without telling you (a co-author), would you be mad if the abstract is bad but not mad if it is good, or would you be mad no matter what? And if you were mad, would you be terminally mad, or would you get over it?


35 responses so far