Archive for: February, 2012


Feb 29 2012 Published by under advising, faculty, harassment, students

An undergraduate recently wrote to me about a difficult situation. I don't want to reprint her entire e-mail because it might have identifying details, so I will describe the general situation below (I told her that I would do this, and have her consent). I will, however, use the student's term for the professor in question; that is, she uses the term PI, indicating the professor in charge of the lab in which she does research, but not someone who closely advises her research.

This student has been doing research in a lab at a large university for several years, and her work is going well -- so well, in fact, that she recently gave a presentation on her research at a conference. The conference was far from her university, so the various members of the research group who attended the conference stayed in a hotel.  The student was pleased to get to know the PI of her research group better at this conference, as she seldom interacts with him in the course of her research in his lab. Her happiness at attending a conference, presenting her results, and having more interaction with the PI turned into anxiety when he texted her to ask if she wanted him to come to her hotel room one night. She did not text him back, and she has not talked to him or seen him since this incident.

This part is in the student's own words:

I really enjoy the research that I'm working on, and I love the group I work with, so quitting and finding another paid undergrad position seems unreasonable. I wouldn't put it past my PI to never speak of it again, but if he does, I'm afraid I might say something wrong. .. I want to go to grad school and expect to get a letter of recommendation from him in the near future when I start applying.

Have you ever been in a situation like this?  What should I do?

I know that this letter will seem very familiar to those who have experienced similar situations and/or who have read about other incidents like this in other posts. I wanted to post this anyway so that this student can get a range of responses and advice, which I expect may range from "Don't do anything" to "Report him. He's a creep and may be doing this to other students."

Although in some ways the situation is clear-cut (professors should not proposition their students), it is a difficult situation for the student. She has been doing her work, doing it well, and getting excited enough about research to want to apply to graduate school. Now she is worried and doesn't know what to do.

I hate to think about this student feeling anxious when she is doing her research, and worrying about asking this professor for a letter of recommendation for graduate school. Will this incident factor into his opinion of the student? Unless the professor proactively apologizes sincerely to the student, says he has never done anything like this before, and affirms that he thinks highly of her work, she is likely to worry about this until she graduates, and perhaps beyond.

The student worries about saying "something wrong" if the PI brings up the incident. If he does bring it up, I think that saying "That made me uncomfortable" is a perfectly reasonable thing to say, whether or not he apologizes. It tells him that he crossed a boundary he shouldn't have, and that his behavior had consequences. An undergraduate student shouldn't have to tell that to a professor, but this entire situation shouldn't have happened in the first place. If the student then turns the conversation to research issues and/or career plans (graduate school), maybe they will be back on track with their professional relationships.

Even so, I think it might be worth asking around about this professor, especially if the student feels comfortable talking to others in the research group -- a female grad student or postdoc, for example. If this professor is in a habit of propositioning his female students and creating a climate of anxiety in the research lab as a result, this information needs to get to someone in authority, if not the department chair, then an organization on campus that can provide information and advice. It would be good if the text messages are still on the phone.

But mostly I hope that readers who have dealt with similar situations can provide some ideas and support, to help this student through this anxious time.




77 responses so far

I Notice These Things Too

Feb 22 2012 Published by under sexism, talks (conference)

Consider this:

Last week I went to listen to a talk by a graduate student. I didn't know this student, as he is in a different department from me, so I don't have any way to understand a particular aspect of his talk: and that is that throughout his talk he referred to some relevant previous work by others by the author's or authors' last name/s for all male authors, but whenever there was a female author whose work he mentioned, he gave her first name as well. I noticed this but it didn't bother me until I realized that he was highly critical of the work done by the female authors he cited by name, but the work of male authors was presented as being useful, interesting or neutral. This bothered me. Should it have?

I notice these things too. Of course, there's no way to know if the speaker in this case was consciously or subconsciously bashing women or whether it was just a coincidence that he did not like the work of the women but he did like the work by male authors on these topics.

It is strange that he chose to say the women's name in full, but gave only male last names. Possible explanations:

- He thought it was disrespectful to refer to women by their last name only. I don't tend to buy this explanation; we cite authors by their last name in papers all the time, and that is not disrespectful if the first author is female, ergo it is not disrespectful to refer to these citations in a talk, using only the last name. In this way, there is a difference between talking about a citation ("Snoopy 2010", or just "Snoopy" for short) and a person ("Snoopy").

- Until we were told that the work of the women was criticized and that of the men was not, a possible explanation was that he was highlighting the work of women to show that there are women scientists, thereby providing inspiration for students in the audience. I think we have to reject that in this case, unless someone wants to make the argument that he was showing respect for the women by highlighting their gender and criticizing them rather than being chivalrous (I really had to twist my mind to come up with that one, but who knows..)

- What else, other than random coincidence with no meaning?

I wrote a post in the FSP blog about a related scenario last year. In that case, a speaker used different words for how he described the work of women and men who had opinions about a particular topic. The women did not fare well in his choice of verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.

It's fascinating how many ways we have to use word choice, tone variation and emphasis, image design/selection, and other methods to display our opinions about people and their work, even while giving a seemingly 'dry' talk on our scientific (or other) research. I think there is definitely a place for criticism in such talks, but there are respectful, professional ways to do this.

Not long ago, I saw a talk by someone who criticized the work of others -- men and women -- by name, directly and by unflattering descriptions. Based on that experience, I can tell you that the direct approach to criticism is not more appealing than the subtle approach.

It is possible to eviscerate someone's work in a classy way. I find a classy evisceration to be much more persuasive.

But back to the original scenario: If I noticed someone doing this in a talk, particularly if it were a student I knew, I would ask him/her whether they were aware of how they cited the work of others in their talk. For example, I might say "Did you realize that you were citing women by their first and last names but the men only by their last names?" Note that there is no mention of the possible woman-author-bashing in this question. Depending on the response to that first question, one could decide whether to proceed or not.

Questions for readers:

- Have you noticed anything like the phenomenon described? Did it bother you? (or do you think it would?)

- What do you think the speaker was doing, consciously or unconsciously (based only on the information provided)?

44 responses so far

Local Mom Effect

Feb 17 2012 Published by under women in science

Most weeks, I post something here and put a link on my FSP blog to it. This week, I am reversing that practice, for no particular reason, and providing a link to a question over there regarding the impact (or lack thereof) of local role models (that is, in one's immediate academic environment) vs. statistics for the professional community at large.

No responses yet

Mid-Career Mentoring

Feb 07 2012 Published by under career issues, faculty

Although perhaps no amount of information, obtained online or in person, can remove the uncertainty and anxiety associated with being a graduate student, postdoc, and/or tenure-track professor, in recent years there has been an information explosion targeted at early-career academics. There are articles, books, blogs, forums, webinars, conferences and more on how to cope with graduate school; how to apply for postdoctoral positions; how to craft a CV, cover letter, and applications when applying for a faculty position; how to interview; how to negotiate; how to maximize chances of tenure, and so on.

As part of these efforts, many of us professors are increasingly called on to improve our mentoring skills, to participate in panels and committees devoted to mentoring and career development issues, and to demonstrate in our grant proposals that we have mentoring plans for our postdoctoral researchers. I support these efforts and consider such activities an important part of my job (as long as the paperwork doesn't get any more abundant than it already it).

But what if the mentors need mentoring? Note that I am not talking about how we can learn to be good mentors (although this is an important topic). In this case, I am referring to how mid-career and senior faculty can get information about career issues that may affect us at later stages of an academic career. Do complicated career issues evaporate after tenure and/or do we all magically know how to deal with everything that academe throws at us? No, and no.

Mid-career+ career issues that some of us have to navigate without a lot of information include:

  • whether and how to pursue tenured positions at other institutions,
  • how to use an offer of a job from another institution to negotiate an improvement in our current job, and
  • whether to pursue a part-time or full-time position in administration.

(Please add to this list! I am working on a new essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education about some of these mid-career+ issues and would like to be as comprehensive as possible.)

Just as an example, for discussion today and in an effort to use a blog to help bridge the Information Gap for mid-career and senior faculty: Let's say you go out and get another job offer, or perhaps you are recruited without being active about it. You have an offer or a hint of an offer, but you are not 100% sure you want to leave your existing institution. If you did want to leave for sure, presumably you would just take your offer and leave without trying to negotiate with your current institution. But let's say you want to try to improve your situation somehow and therefore possibly stay at your current institution.

I am surprised when people write to me with questions about this and assume that they have to provide the details of their new offer(s) to their current institution. Has anyone had to do this? In the cases with which I am familiar, no one has had to explain the details of the new offer and certainly no one had to show an offer letter; the fact of the offer (or, in some cases, the rumor of an offer) was enough to start the negotiations for a retention package.

OK, so you have an offer and you want to negotiate with your current institution. The key issues are: What do you want? And: Are you going to get what you want?

So, what do you want? A raise (sometimes this is the only way to get a significant raise)? More resources for research? A position for your significant other? More respect from your institution/colleagues? All of the above? Other stuff? I have heard of places that have a standard retention package -- e.g., a certain amount of $ added to the faculty member's base salary when there is an outside offer -- but the possibilities at many institutions are more open-ended.

Here are some suggestions, for discussion, for how to pitch a request for What You Want in your retention package:

If you are leaning towards leaving, but a really awesome retention package would convince/tempt you to stay, ask for the moon if that's what you want. This is probably only likely to work if your offer is from a more awesome institution, or at least one with which your current institution feels competitive in some way. Don't be a jerk about asking for the moon; just make your request, and the administrators at your current institution can take it or leave it.

If you really aren't sure and you feel that you could stay or go, depending on how things shake out in the negotiations, then you should still ask for what you want, but perhaps don't ask for the entire moon (and perhaps consult with senior colleagues who have gone through this process, ideally in this millennium). Don't undersell yourself because you are worried about being seen as greedy or disloyal. If you know that you are underpaid relative to your peers, or if you think this is your only chance to get more space/resources from your institution, go for it: make a case for what you want and need.

Similarly, if you really don't want to leave and just got the offer because you felt you needed to play the game, you should still make a reasonable request for what you want/need and see what happens. You don't have to give any indication of how likely you are to stay or go (although people will try to guess this). If you have an offer, the opportunity exists for you to leave, so you might as well find out what your current institution is willing to do to keep you.

If you got the outside offer because you are desperately unhappy about some aspect of your current position and want to use this chance to change things for the better without actually leaving (because, for various reasons, you don't want to or can't leave your current institution), I think you should keep your expectations reasonable (i.e., low) in terms of how much positive change you can wring out of a retention package. That is, you might get a raise, perhaps even an impressive one, but if you don't like your colleagues, chances are you still won't like them even when you are being paid more to spend time with them. They might respect you more (outside offers tend to have that effect), and that can help, but the positive results of that are unlikely to be experienced in a rapid, dramatic, satisfying way (correct me if you have experienced the contrary).

And that brings me to an important point: YOU DON'T HAVE TO LEAVE. If your current institution doesn't give you what you ask for or (worst case) doesn't even try to keep you, you still do not have to leave if you don't want to.

Of course you can leave if you want, but some people who write to me seem to think that just by entering into discussions about retention, they are implicitly threatening "Give me this stuff or I'm leaving." You are not (I hope) saying this, unless of course you are definitely set on leaving. If you are not definitely intending to leave, you may be just finding out what your options are, exploring the various opportunities, considering the pros and cons, and then you making a decision about whether to stay or leave.

If you think there is a chance you want to stay, and you keep the negotiations calm, professional, and constructive (i.e., don't rant to the chair or dean about all the things you hate about your department/institution/colleagues), you are not burning any bridges by entering into these discussions and negotiations. Administrators expect to deal with these situations; they may not welcome the chance to deal with such issues, but it is a normal part of academic life, for better or worse. Everyone does it isn't the greatest justification for seeking outside offers, but you can try to do it right (don't be an egotistical jerk, don't be a drama queen, don't issue an ultimatum etc.), and don't feel guilty (unless you are a habitual accumulator of outside offers) or disloyal.

Does anyone have any advice to add to (or contradict) any of that?




12 responses so far

Taking a Chance

Feb 01 2012 Published by under applying for an academic job

Several readers have written for advice about complex situations involving making major career decisions before all possible options are known. Most of these e-mails are very long and detailed, and I am not going to include any one e-mail here, but will just present the general situation for discussion.

What do you do if you have an offer for a job (e.g., a tenure-track position) that is not your dream job (for whatever reason: location, resources, colleagues, family/life issues etc.) and you also have some indication that you might eventually have more/better offers, but nothing is certain (e.g., you have other interview invitations). You have to give an answer to the place that has offered you a job before you will know all your options. (Let's assume that you asked for more time to make a decision and maybe even got some, but it's not enough; the hiring department can't wait any longer.)

Do you accept the offer that is in-hand and withdraw from the other search(es) or do you turn down the in-hand offer and hope/gamble that you will get something better?

First let me say that I know that discussions of such topics are painful for those in fields with no/few job options, but in fields with job opportunities, including tenure-track positions, this is a common 'problem'.

You might think it is a simple decision: If you are lucky enough to get a job offer, take the job. And yet: the reason that the e-mails to me on this topic are so long and complex is because this can be a difficult decision, particularly if you (and any partners/family involved in the decision) are not thrilled about Job Offer #1 and would be thrilled if you are so fortunate as to get an offer from another place that might be an option if you wait a bit longer.

I hope everyone agrees that it is important to conduct discussions in good faith with all concerned, but beyond that generic statement, it's worth discussing some of the gray areas.

For example, what if you accept Job Offer #1 and then renege if a 'better' offer comes through a month or three later? That's not good, especially for the institution that has invested time and money in hiring you, but is it more or less bad than accepting the offer, starting the job, perhaps spending your no-doubt considerable start-up funds, and then leaving as soon as you can get something better?

Or: what if you decline Job Offer #1 and then nothing else comes through? That's not good for you, but is it more or less bad than taking a job that you know will make you (and/or your family) unhappy? (I would caution here that we can't always predict these things. I left what I thought was my 'dream job' for another place I didn't think I would like nearly as much, but the new place turned out to be even better than my first job.)

You might be wondering: Why would someone apply to Job Offer #1 University if they think they will be unhappy there and don't really want the job? This is a good question, but such situations are quite common for a variety of reasons, including (1) Some people send out applications to every possible job for which they are even somewhat qualified, not knowing how well they will fare on the job market; and (2) Some people might apply for a job that they think might be OK, but after they visit for an interview, realize that working there would not be so great. So, it happens, and as long as different institutions conduct searches at different times and rates, these situations will arise.

What to do, what to do? You can weigh all the pros and cons for your career/life, try to guess what is the 'best' place for you, and maybe flip a coin or consult an oracle, or something. Can the blogosphere help? I don't know, but I hope that readers who have been in this situation -- either as a job candidate or as an administrator trying to recruit top candidates -- will weigh in with comments and advice.

25 responses so far