Archive for: June, 2011


Jun 28 2011 Published by under career issues

A reader wonders whether to take a one-year non-tenure-track teaching position that seems like it might become a tenure-track opportunity after a year or wait and apply for the TT position, should it come into existence. In this case, the institution in question is a teaching-focused university, with some (but not major) research expectations for faculty.

The underlying question is whether being the temporary person gives you the inside track (if they like you) or whether you would spend the entire year making newbie teaching mistakes and thereby damaging your chances of being considered for the TT position. Would colleagues be likely to say "Hey, look how hard s/he has been working! Wouldn't it be great to have him/her as a colleague?" or would they be more likely to say "Hey, we know this person and they seem to have some imperfections. Let's try to hire one of these shiny new perfect people whose applications clearly demonstrate -- particularly in the letters of references -- that they have absolutely no flaws whatsoever!"

My personal experiences with this are mostly from my early days; i.e., as an applicant and visiting professor. I don't have any experience with it as a professor making decisions about hiring; for various reasons involving how my department works, we seldom have people in this position. It is also rare that postdocs become TT professors here, so I can't discuss a possibly analogy from personal experience either.

In ancient times, when I was on the job market, I interviewed at two places that already had 'visiting professors' who were candidates for the tenure-track job. The first time it happened, I figured I would just get some experience interviewing, but couldn't imagine why they would want to hire me instead of keeping someone who had been there for several years and had a lot more teaching experience than I did. I was quite relaxed during the interview because I was so sure it wasn't a 'real' interview, and was therefore shocked when I was offered the job. I didn't end up accepting that offer, but I remember feeling apologetic when I later saw the person who was passed over for the TT job. Fortunately, this person ended up with a good TT job at another institution. I think in that case, it was a situation of a department's favoring of the unknown over the known, and not necessarily for any good reason.

Then it happened again, not long after that experience. I went to an interview for a tenure-track position, again convinced that it was the 'visiting professor's' job, and this time I was right. This time, I was told directly by more than one person that this was X's job, and the interviews were pointless. One professor, scheduled to talk to me for half an hour, told me that I was wasting his time. It didn't occur to him that he and all his colleagues were wasting my time, but whatever. It was an unpleasant experience to be told directly (and often) that there was no chance I would be hired. Thanks for the free trip to Unpleasant City! So they hired X, who did not ultimately get tenure. I could gloat about that, but I happen to like X very much.

Another time, I was the visiting professor, but there was no chance of this job becoming tenure-track, so I didn't get to run the experiment with me as the known being compared with shiny new unknowns. In that case, I took the job because I wanted the teaching experience (this turned out to be very useful, even in my first TT job at a research university) and because I thought I wanted to be at a small liberal arts college (I was wrong).

So, those are my experiences. I'm not sure if they add up to anything coherent in terms of answering this question because I think they show how variable these situations can be. It's hard to predict whether your colleagues are going to appreciate your hard work or whether they are going to have a 'grass is greener' view of applicants for the tenure-track position.

Nevertheless, even if you don't end up getting the TT job, I think the experience can be very useful. If your life is such that you are mobile enough to take a short-term job (or two), you can make all sorts of newbie mistakes (ideally not so bad that your students suffer for it..) and then if you do get a TT job, you will be awesomely prepared and ready to roll, at least in terms of teaching. You can also check out a certain type of institution (as I did at a SLAC) and see if that is a good fit for you, and you can see if your colleagues are people you'd want to work with long-term or whether you want to run screaming away from that place as soon as you are able.

So, if a short-term job is at all possible for you and even somewhat appealing (relative to other options), I say go for it. Check the place out, check the people out, get some teaching experience, and get some visibility.

IMPORTANT NOTES: In my field of the physical sciences, these short-term positions do tend to lead to real jobs. They do not tend to be low-wage, low-respect, dead-end positions. Most people do not bounce around in these visiting positions for long periods of time. These positions are a respected, accepted way to get some experience that is a bit different from what you get in a postdoc. The person who wrote to me is in my field.



17 responses so far

Drinking Culture

Jun 20 2011 Published by under career issues

This week's topic isn't really a question, but I thought it would be an interesting subject for discussion:

It seems that a lot of people in my field consider drinking beer, wine, and other alcoholic beverages an essential part of being an academic. Sometimes at professional meetings during the social hour, beer and wine are the only things available to drink. Groups in my department or at meetings commonly meet in the pub for informal discussions, and so on.

I don't like to drink -- even a little bit makes me feel sick -- but I am comfortable around people who are drinking, and don't disapprove of it at all. Unfortunately, some, maybe even most, people who are drinking are not comfortable around me. When I order a soft drink at a pub, or drink nothing at a wine-only professional society event, I am almost always confronted about it and insulted. Examples, not counting the "Are you pregnant?" question (apparently the only acceptable reason for an adult female not to drink): "Grow up" (said by my department chair!!), "Are you an alcoholic or something?", "Are you too uptight to drink?", "If you don't drink, you should leave". I am a friendly person and would like to enjoy these professional/social events, but I am often made to feel unwelcome.

I should say that of course not everyone is strange and mean about my not drinking. There are some people who have given me a chance, and then tell others that although I don't drink, it's fun to go to the pub with me because I can talk and laugh and argue even without drinking beer. That's nice, but it is sad that so many people think they need alcohol to have a good conversation.

For a long time, I've worried that my not drinking will have a negative effect on my career. I have been at professional dinners where drinking wine was considered an essential part of the experience for everyone, so I have a large repertoire of excuses, from honest ("I just don't like to drink; it makes me feel ill", although that is kind of a downer) to outright lying ("I really wish I could, but I've got some important work to do after this dinner."). Sometimes I don't say anything, I signal the server to just put a bit of wine in my glass, and then I pretend to sip at it during the meal. That doesn't really fool anyone, but at least it puts off a direct conversations about my not drinking.

I feel like I spend a lot of time accommodating the drinkers so that they won't dislike me and exclude me from professional events. This is kind of pathetic, but I don't know what else to do. For example, when the cost of a dinner is split among a group, I never mention that I didn't have any wine or beer, even though this often makes my share of the cost of the meal significantly more than it would be if alcoholic beverages were figured separately.

Anyway, this isn't really a question, more just an expression of anxiety. I really don't need it explained to me why people who are drinking are uncomfortable around people who aren't, but I wish it weren't such a big deal and I wish I didn't have to worry about it negatively affecting my career.

I would go to the pub with you, and we could order a pitcher of a caffeine-laden soft drink and get a little wild and crazy arguing about Science (or whatever). It might not seem like it at times, but there are other non-drinkers in academia, and it is possible to succeed, even in a culture that values the wine-soaked social functions at conferences.

I agree that it is unfair and irrational to expect every adult to want to drink beer, wine etc. at all professional/social events like job interview dinners, professional society events etc. Aside from pregnancy, there are other health issues, religious reasons, and personal preferences for not-drinking, and this should be taken into account when planning any professional event. There should always be an alternative for the non-drinkers in a group, and no one should have to explain why they aren't drinking.

Perhaps some commenters will have suggestions for new additions to the repertoire of Why I Am Not Drinking explanations, to be hauled out when someone is inevitably confronted with questions in socio-professional settings.

It is unlikely that there will ever be an end to the annoying comments from others about those who are not drinking wine etc., but perhaps it will cheer up the non-drinkers to hear one small anecdote that happened to me at a conference years ago. I had just arrived late at a socio-professional event at the conference, and stopped to talk to a group of people, including one of the organizers of the event. I didn't know him and he didn't know me, though I recognized his name as an applicant for an open faculty position in my department; I was on the search committee. I asked him if there was anything besides beer to drink, and he said, loudly, "If you don't like beer, you should get out of here", smirk-sneered, then turned his back on me.

Not long after that conference, he was sitting in my office for a one-on-one meeting during his interview. I tried to be nice and objective and all that, but he was clearly very uncomfortable talking to me. Fortunately, I didn't have to work too hard to be objective about him because no one liked him, and, by the end of his interview, he wasn't considered a viable candidate for the job.

Of course he should have been more polite whether or not I was on the search committee, and whether or not I wanted to drink a beer at the conference event, but I hope that incident put an end to his "drink or get out" mindset.

I am hoping that there will be comments that help assuage the anxiety of the non-drinking academic, but it would also be useful to hear from those who admit to being uncomfortable around non-drinkers: why is that? what can you and the non-drinkers of the world do to get past that discomfort in professional situations?

93 responses so far

Cite Me

Jun 14 2011 Published by under publishing, reviews and reviewing

A reader wonders:

When reviewing a manuscript submitted to a journal, is there any good way to recommend to an author that they add a citation of your own work?

This issue is wrapped up with that of reviewer anonymity, so there are a couple of sub-questions here:

- If you are concerned about anonymity but you really really think your paper(s) should be cited, can you disguise your suggestion (to the author, but not the editor) as being from a disinterested and totally objective observer?

- Even if you don't care about being anonymous, how do you suggest that your paper be cited and not come off as a self-promoting citation-monger (assuming you even care what people think)?

To get the discussion rolling, I have encountered the following cite-me situations just in the past couple of months:

1. I was reviewing a paper that used what I thought was an unnecessarily convoluted approach to a particular topic. What they did was OK.. but if they had used my elegant method (the topic of a paper published in the last few years), the paper would be better.

In this case, I decided not to suggest that they use (and cite!) my work. What they did was not a major flaw of the paper, and I considered the issue in question to be more one of style and clarity. Of course, style and particularly clarity are important for papers, but the problem was not so grave in this case that I felt compelled to suggest that they cite my paper. I mentioned only that Method A was unnecessarily complex (with some brief elaboration of why), but left it to the authors (and editor) to agree or disagree with that, and find a different method if they chose (mine or someone else's).

2. In my role as editor of another journal, I was handling a manuscript on a topic on which there are very few published articles, but one of those few published articles happens to be from my research group. The manuscript under review did not cite our paper, and in fact didn't even cite any of the other recent papers on this topic, but instead cited only some 20+ year old, tangentially-related studies. Hooray for not forgetting about old papers, but why ignore highly relevant work published in the last 5 years?

Even trickier than making a cite-me comment in a review is making this comment as an editor. Reviewers suggest; editors decide, so we have to be very careful. I think if the author had cited some of the other recent studies but just not our paper, I would have let it go and merely been a bit puzzled as to why an obvious and relevant paper was not cited. As it was, I thought the lack of any citations of the most relevant literature severely undermined the paper, particularly in the introduction and discussion. Without being too heavy-handed (I think/hope), I suggested that the author consider the literature on Topic X a bit more broadly, and gave a few more specific suggestions of topics (but not particular papers) to consider. Even a brief search on a few keywords will lead to my paper and a few others.

3. Also in my role as editor, I handled two recent manuscripts in which two different reviewers took two different approaches to stating that it would be appropriate for an author to cite their papers. Both reviewers were not shy about making their identities known -- in fact, they each considered it central to having their review comments taken seriously by the authors.

One reviewer was very emphatic that the manuscript under review was fatally flawed without citation of his published work. I agreed that it was surprising that his work was not cited, and that the paper would be better for the citations (and the accompanying contextual discussion), but I think "fatal flaw" was an exaggeration. Unfortunately, "fatal flaw" did apply to the data/methods, a situation perhaps indirectly related to the incompleteness of the citations.

The other reviewer very politely and tentatively and circuitously said that although he hated to suggest that his own work be cited, the authors might want to take a look at his 2006 paper and an earlier paper, and they would then see that their statement that no one had ever before proposed Idea Z or used Method Y to do X was in fact not correct. Again, I agreed with the reviewer that a more correct and complete citation of the literature, including these specific papers by the reviewer, was appropriate.

In fact, in most cases that I have seen as editor, I have agreed with the cite-me comments of reviewers. From what I have seen, it is rare for a cite-me review comment to be frivolous and obviously craven. I am sure it happens, but I think it may be more common for there to be other citation lapses, such as:

- authors who cite their own work heavily and perhaps not very relevantly;

- mis-citation of papers (example);

- non-citation of relevant papers (another example).

So now we are back to the original question. If I think that citation of a not-yet-cited paper of mine is useful to the paper under review, I won't stress out (too much) about appearing like a jerk and will politely mention the paper(s) that seem relevant and explain my reasoning. If I care about staying anonymous in the review, I may not bother to mention the missing citation, or -- if I feel strongly about it -- I could mention it only to the editor.

Of course the whole reason why we are discussing what might seem like a trivial issue is the increasing reliance on citation numbers as a measure of scholarly "quality". Numbers like the h-index now regularly appear in tenure and promotion files and letters of recommendation. If a paper that could/should be cited (but is not) in a paper under review is one with citation numbers just below the cut-off for your h-index, it can set off an internal struggle of the sort mentioned in the original question.

If you have asked yourself this same question whilst reviewing a manuscript, what did you do?

18 responses so far

Who Talks?

A student reader wanted to present their thesis research results at a conference, but the student's advisor said no -- he would present the results, and the student couldn't even go to the conference. The student wonders why he/she couldn't give the talk or attend the conference.

The easiest way to find out would be to ask the advisor, but in the absence of this information, we can muse about some possibilities. Please add to the list if you know of other possibilities. I think it would be most useful if we confine ourselves to examples we know have occurred, but if you want to throw in some paranoid speculation, go right ahead (though it would be helpful if you noted that you are just speculating.)

Possible explanations:

1 - The advisor is on the tenure-track or otherwise needs the exposure (see point #4 in GMP's recent post). The student may need the visibility as well, but if the advisor doesn't get tenure, that isn't in the student's interest either. If this is the case, the advisor should just explain to the student: "This is really great work and I think it would be best for my tenure case and for the research group as a whole if I present it at the X Conference." Ideally, the student will get due credit for their work, will have other opportunities to 'own' the work (at conferences and in publications), and should feel some satisfaction that the advisor thinks the work is good and important.

2 - No matter what the career stage of the advisor, there may not be enough money to pay for the travel of both student and advisor. Some conferences -- particularly if they involve international travel and high registration fees -- are very expensive. If there is only enough money for some, but not all, people in a research group to go a meeting, the advisor will make decisions, some of which seem (or are) selfish. If it is important for the work to be presented (e.g., to show progress on a grant-funded project), and the advisor definitely has to go to the meeting (to chair a session, serve on a panel, attend a meeting-within-a-meeting, schmooze with funding program officers), the advisor will go and the advisee might not. Again, the advisor should just explain: "This is really great work, but I only have enough travel money for one of us to go to the X Conference, and I need to go for [these other professional reasons]". Note: As a a grad student, I paid my own way to some conferences in the US when I could afford to because otherwise I wouldn't have gone to the most important conferences in my field, so a separate question is whether the advisor would/can forbid a student to present their own work if they pay their own way.

3- If the advisor thinks the student won't do a good job with the talk, s/he may decide to give the talk to make sure it is presented well. This decision may be based on experience or speculation. If this is the reason for not wanting the student to give the talk, the advisor should be clear about the reason and proactively help the student improve for the future. (Yes, I know that advisors can and do give poor talks as well, but we are discussing here why an advisor might choose to present a student's talk instead of the student).

If the advisor is giving the talk on research primarily being conducted by a student, it may not be possible for the student to attend the conference if not giving a presentation. Depending on the source of the travel funds, their use might be contingent on active conference participation.

Mostly, I think the advisor should explain the situation and reasoning to the advisee, whatever the reason. And if that doesn't happen, it would be good if the advisee could ask for an explanation in a non-confrontational way. I know from the e-mails that I get from students that some are very reluctant to ask their advisors these types of questions, as if asking implies criticism, and perhaps fearing negative consequences of some sort.

These students may well have experience that shows this to be the case, and if so, perhaps the information could be obtained in an indirect way -- by asking more senior students, postdocs, or friendly faculty who are willing to explain some of the more mysterious aspects of professorial behavior and decision-making. In other cases, advisors might be happy to explain their decisions, and it just didn't occur to them that there were questions and confusion.

56 responses so far

Intersecting spheres

Jun 01 2011 Published by under advising, faculty, graduate school

A reader wonders:

What do you do if you and one of your advisees share outside interests that bring you into social contact off campus, and some of these interactions might affect your advisor-advisee interactions on campus?

That is, what if an advisor and an advisee (think: grad student, but could also be undergrad or postdoc) have a hobby or other outside interest in common and see each other frequently outside of work/campus? Perhaps these interactions are quite positive -- perhaps advisor and advisee become friends outside of work, owing in part to these shared interests.

Is there a problem?

There might be. I haven't been in this situation as an advisor, but here are some related questions for discussion, formulated based on additional information in e-mails I have received on this topic:

Does the beyond-campus interaction/friendship affect the advisor-advisee relationship in some ways that are unfair to other advisees?

It could, but I think there are ways to deal with any perceived inequity arising from external interactions with some (but not all) advisees, much as we advisors (should) deal with perceived issues related to the fact that it's normal to enjoy conversing with some advisees more than others. Perhaps with some students, all conversations are restricted to research and other academic topics, whereas with others, conversations may range widely to politics, movies, cats etc. As long as we are alert to the situation and are careful to be equally accessible and supportive of all advisees, this should not be a problem

As a grad student, I had some low-level anxiety that my grad advisor's shared interests with other advisees in certain outdoor activities (in which I did not participate, but they all did together) made him like them more, and that this would color his overall opinions and therefore his letters of reference.. but in the end, there was no reason to worry.

What about the dynamics of the advisor and advisee who share an outside interest? If you are sort-of friends off campus, do you switch off that aspect of your interaction when on campus?

This is where it will be useful to have reader input, as I have not encountered this myself. I can imagine that it could be awkward if you know something about your advisee's personal life -- maybe they are having a crisis, for example -- but you aren't sure whether to acknowledge this on campus, or pretend you don't (really) know because you don't necessarily have this level of knowledge about your other advisees.

A (too) simple answer would be to say that we advisors should just do our advisor-jobs the same way, whether or not we know the details of our advisee's personal lives and even whether or not we like them, and provide whatever professional support is necessary and appropriate in our role as advisor. More difficult would be deciding whether/how to use 'outside knowledge' of an advisee's emotional state when providing (or withholding) criticism of an advisee's work. If you know that an advisee is having personal problems, for example, should you hold back or behave as you would without the additional information/insight?

Speaking from inexperience, I would say to put on your advisor hat and have the professional conversations you need to have with your advisees about their work. Even though you might know that you will likely upset a fragile or sensitive student with criticism (however kindly worded), or you might suspect that you will harm your beyond-campus friendship with an advisee (by exerting your authority as an advisor), you aren't doing an advisee any favors by withholding feedback about their work. If you give a struggling student advice that is constructive -- e.g., here's what you need to do to improve, and here are some suggestions and guidelines (perhaps to be worked out more fully in discussion) -- this might help the student more than if you tread lightly around them, not wanting to upset them.

But that's easy for me to say -- I am not in that situation. So, I am interested to hear from those who are: advisors and students.

20 responses so far