Archive for: May, 2012

No Jerks Allowed, with some exceptions

A reader ponders yet another mystery of advising, in this case graduate students:

One of the prospective grad students who would likely have worked with me if he had come to my institution accepted another offer instead. That's fine but I heard later that my current students were very relieved that he didn't accept our offer because they thought the guy was a total jerk and they didn't want him in the group. The fact that I wanted to work with him therefore meant that either didn't know he was a jerk (meaning I am clueless) or that I didn't care (meaning I think that as long as someone is smart, it's OK if they are a jerk). Either way this was bad for morale in the group. Or so I am told.

I did know that the prospective student was arrogant and I do care about group morale, but I don't think we can really tell what someone is like based on a short visit on a recruiting weekend. Should I use this as a teachable moment and explain that to my group? It occurred to me that I might end up wrecking their morale even more if I explained myself because wouldn't it be like saying I actually don't care what they think? There is a grain of truth to that, but just because I don't agree with their grad recruiting opinions doesn't mean I don't respect their opinions in general. In fact, I thought some of them were jerks when they visited, but they work well in the group and we get along well, I think. So it's complicated and I'm thinking of just not saying anything and assuming this is just one of those things that grad students need to complain about but it isn't a vital issue I need to address with them. Your thoughts?

This reminds me of something. It reminds me of when I was a grad student and a prospective student visited to check the place out. He was obnoxious, even by the standards of a department that was already overpopulated by gigantic egos and extreme levels of arrogance. His visit became notorious among the grad students, and we all hoped he would accept another illustrious offer that he made sure to tell us about.

But he didn't. He came to Our University. And he turned out to be a very interesting person with a great sense of humor. He was well-liked and made a lot of friends. Reader, I married him.

So, I come down on the side of believing that you can't really tell a lot about a grad student from their behavior during a recruiting visit. I am sure that some who display jerkish behavior during such an event are in fact pervasively obnoxious people and will be forevermore, but that is not necessarily true of all who give that impression.

Anyway, the main question is whether the advisor should have a chat with the grads about their grumblings on this particular issue (assuming the source of information is reliable about such grumblings) or assume this is a nano-tempest that can be ignored while you focus instead on the 57,892,345 more important things that need to be done now, or yesterday.

I guess I'd be tempted to ignore the issue, though it might be good at some point to devote a group meeting to general issues of Doing Research/Working With Others etc. Maybe there are issues that need explanation or discussion, even if you have no  intention of justifying all your decisions about grad recruiting and advising.

That suggestion, which may or may not be helpful, is based on the assumption that the research group is overall functioning well, with most or all students progressing towards their degree with no more than the usual amount of anxiety and complaints. If, however, this bit of unhappiness is symptomatic of something more serious, then the question becomes: How do you (the advisor) know if that is the case, and what can/should you do about it, if anything?

Advisor-readers: How do you know what the general mood is of your advisees, as a group? Can you tell from a general sense of camaraderie (or lack thereof)? From the number of complaints? Do you ask directly whether some/most/all group members get along? Do you gauge the mood by getting indirect information (for example, from someone who tells you what so-and-so said at the pub)? I am not asking whether you care (although that might be interesting as well), but whether you have what you think is a reasonably accurate sense for group dynamics among your advisees and between your advisees and you, the advisor.

30 responses so far

Fuzzy COI

May 21 2012 Published by under reviews and reviewing

A reader who is/was acting as guest-editor for a special issue of a journal wrote to ask some questions about whether s/he could solicit manuscripts from certain colleagues, advisors (past/present) etc. My opinion: s/he could solicit manuscripts from colleagues etc. but not act as editor for manuscripts involving them. Another editor should handle those cases. I know some journals don't worry so much about conflicts of interest of that sort, particularly in small fields in which everyone knows everyone, but I think it is best to avoid such real and perceived conflicts of interest (COI) with advisors, close colleagues, and so on if at all possible.

The question got me thinking (again) about some of the fuzzier types of COI. Although funding agencies and journals may have detailed definitions of what constitutes a COI, there are some situations that may not be *official* conflicts, but maybe sort of are, depending on the situation/people. What are these, and what to do about them?

If you have an official, unambiguous COI, you should not do a review/edit the manuscript, review the proposal etc., but if you have a sort-of-maybe (fuzzy) COI, you can reveal it to the program directors (for example, NSF provides a little box for this very thing in its review forms) or in a confidential message to an editor. What are some examples of these?

For discussion purposes, here is a partial list of situations in which I had a 'connection' of some sort to an author or proposal PI -- perhaps not a strict COI but still a connection that in some cases maybe may need to be revealed (or not, as the case may be).

- Some of the undergrads in the classes/labs I taught as a grad student teaching assistant are now professors. I have encountered a few of them professionally over the years. I don't consider this a conflict of interest, although there are some ways in which the TA-student interaction has affected my opinion of these people. In one case, I declined to review a manuscript because the primary author had been a very obnoxious and high-maintenance undergraduate. I thought my personal dislike might interfere with my review, so I declined the review. I didn't give a reason, so in this case I managed my own COI.

- Some of the undergrads I have taught as a professor are now professors. If they just took a class from me and I didn't advise them in research or have any particular professional interaction other than as teacher and student in a class I might reveal the connection if it seemed relevant, but it wouldn't stop me from doing reviewing/editing unless (as in the case above) I had some particular unobjective opinion. That opinion isn't necessarily negative. For example, if an undergrad dove into a raging river to rescue drowning kittens, I would have a very high opinion of that person and might be unable to be objective about their scientific work.

- Some of the undergrads I advised in research are now professors. I have been sent their papers and proposals to review etc. In one case, the NSF program director, whom I consulted, said that I should do the review if I felt I could be objective and not do it if I felt I couldn't. S/he said that I should mention the possible COI in the confidential box for revealing such things, if I felt so inclined.

- Some of my husband's collaborators, former students, and postdocs show up in my particular corner of the Science universe from time to time, although we are in different subfields. For example, not long ago I was sent a proposal to review by someone with whom I had no known COI, and only once I got deep into the proposal did I realize that I did in fact have a major COI with this proposal. If the proposal was funded, my husband would benefit financially, even if indirectly. Having a Significant Other in the same field opens up COI possibilities all over the place. When one of us has served on an NSF panel, the other one has to provide a list of COIs so that the panel-spouse will not deal with his/her COI-in-laws. Some of those COIs might seem fuzzy (for example, if I have no idea my husband is working with a particular person), but in fact these can be quite unfuzzy.

- and then there are these miscellaneous ones that plot at various locations on the COI fuzziness spectrum: I have been sent manuscripts/proposals by members of my PhD committee (revenge opportunity?!!), former grad students I have helped advise (formally or informally) at other universities, someone who married a friend of mine from college (I introduced them!), former summer interns, and close science friends with whom I have never collaborated. I have declined to review/edit in each of those cases except one: that involving my former committee members, and in those cases I tried to decline but the powers-that-be were quite insistent that they wanted my reviews and would take into account my sort-of COI.

As we get older and our networks of collaborators and science friends and former students expand, opportunities for COI can increase dramatically with time. Eventually it may get so that we can only review or edit things by the 12 people we have never even heard of, in which case we might then have to fight against the unfair and unobjective thought that "If I haven't heard of them, they can't be any good." Well, I know people who think that way, but I am not there yet and hope I don't go anywhere near there.

Meanwhile, in terms of managing the plethora of COIs that I encounter in my career, I will continue to do what most of us do: make it up as I go along. OK, I will do a bit more than that: I will attend the required but useless 'ethics' training sessions, get advice from respected colleagues, and try to do the right thing, or at least what seems to be the most right thing, or the less worse thing. (And no, I don't think turning down any and all review requests and quitting as a journal editor is a reasonable option.)


10 responses so far

How Many Times

May 08 2012 Published by under career issues

How many times can a professor use outside offers to negotiate retention packages at their university?

I don't know, but a reader who is possibly in a position to get their second outside offer asked me this question. This person's first offer was early (tenure-track), but that was a while ago, so this person is not a habitual collector of outside offers. Nevertheless, they wonder if they should go through the outside-offer-ritual a second time.

I have discussed similar issues in the F/SP blogs and in The Chronicle of Higher Education, but I don't think I've ever directly asked for opinions about whether there is a maximum number of offers that is appropriate (whatever that means). Of course the only opinion that matters is that of the professor-in-question's institution, but it's still fun to speculate and opine.

I don't think 2 is excessive, especially if they are widely spaced in a career. I don't think 2 is excessive anyway, and even more would be OK (in theory). Your institution can always say no, they aren't going to negotiate and then you make your decision to stay or leave, depending on what you want to do given the various complex factors involved in these decisions.

That seems quite straightforward, but I know there are nuances, one of which is the effect of multi-offers on the opinions of your colleagues in your department and administrators in your university. If you are a cosmic superstar who brings fame and fortune to your university, maybe the administration (sort of) likes the fact that other institutions are constantly trying to poach you. Colleagues may even admire you for being so academically desirable. For most of us, however, the stakes (for the university at least) are quite a bit lower, and the threshold beyond which we would be widely perceived to be a selfish, greedy jerk (accompanied by little or no admiration) is encountered more easily.

That's why, although theoretically the sky's the limit for the number of offers you could bring to the table in your career, most mortal professors probably should consider a limit.

But what should that limit be? And should there be a particular spacing between outside offers that are sought or entertained, or should it be more random, such as whenever there is a major research accomplishment that helps attract such offers? The realistic limit likely does scale with level of fame and accomplishment, so we'd have to come up with a handy scheme (or equation) that can be consulted as needed. Something that can be used to estimate or calculate how many outside offers one can proffer in a certain number of years based on specific benchmarks, like number of papers in high-impact journals, number of highly cited papers (h-index), number of Nobel Prizes etc.

O great blog community, please opine on this issue: Do you think there is a realistic maximum number of offers that a semi-illustrious professor should entertain? How can one determine what that maximum is? Just keep hurling offers at your administrators until they hurl them back? Surely we can do better than that. If we can't come up with a more specific scheme (or equation), we will have failed to produce the deliverable with which we are tasking ourselves and there will therefore be no outcome for us to assess.


10 responses so far

Losing by Speaking Up

May 02 2012 Published by under faculty, women in science

A reader wonders, based in part on this discussion (on Bob Sutton's blog), about differences in how much men and women talk in professional settings, and how they are perceived as a result. In a nutshell, some studies have shown that talking a lot seems to benefit men but may be detrimental to women; for example, in the context of whether someone is considered to have leadership potential and/or in how seriously their ideas are considered.

A specific question is whether women who want to talk more hold back -- consciously or unconsciously -- and try to find effective "backdoor" ways to get their ideas across to a group.

Regarding that question, I can't speak much from personal experience (<-- that was an attempt at a joke) because personality does play some role in this. When in a meeting or other group, I do not hold back because I am worried that I will be less "likeable" or less respected. I am just not a talkative person, particularly in groups. If I have something I want/need to say, I say it, but (typically) no more than that. In my experience, this is an effective way to be listened to in some settings, but not in others (see the cartoon in the linked post above; I think many women will be able to relate to the experience illustrated).

In academic departments, there may also be an effect of seniority (and tenure status) on talkativeness (for both men and women), although some of the studies cited compare "powerful" men with "powerful" women (such as certain politicians), so this aspect is taken into account. Nevertheless, owing to the seniority imbalance in many STEM fields, it is quite common for, say, a conference to have many female grad students, postdocs, and untenured faculty participants but very few women at more senior levels. I think this will have an effect on who talks and how much they talk, and the results will break down on gender lines to some extent.

Questions for readers:

1. Have you ever "held back" your comments in a meeting (whether a professional conference or an institutional committee) because you were worried about being perceived as too talkative?

2. What is your gender and career stage (if you are willing to share this information)?

3. If you answered yes to #1, what made you think that being talkative would be a bad thing, other than being aware of the routine hatred that some of us have for people who prolong committee meetings?

4. Are you a naturally talkative person?





21 responses so far