Archive for the 'colleagues' category

Works Not Well With Others

Apr 24 2012 Published by under colleagues, graduate school

A reader wonders about

the boundary between immersion and self-centered approach in research.

Is it possible to be too focused on your research in a way that is seen as "self-centered" rather than collaborative and collegial? Yes, of course, but context matters.

In this particular case, I think the individual (a research scientist) needs to clarify things with the head of the research group, perhaps discussing specific examples of possible problems and clearing up any misunderstandings. It can be a good thing for a research scientist to be totally immersed in their work (if that is their inclination), but perhaps there are some expectations (at present unspecified) about ways in which cooperation and collaboration is expected.

The question (from a research scientist) started me thinking about this boundary for other cases, such as those involving students and professors.

Professors who advise students and/or postdocs are supposed to be unselfish, sort of by definition (although I know it is not always so, and I am going to ignore the extreme/evil cases for this discussion). We give our best ideas to our students and postdocs and help them in many ways with their research, particularly in the first couple of years.

Some professors who do research work in large(ish) collaborative groups with other scientists, at least for some projects, whereas others work primarily with their own students and maybe a small group of other colleagues. My impression is that the "lone wolf" professor still exists, but is endangered (Does anyone think that is a good thing?).

But what about students? How self-centered vs. unselfish should students be?

Again, context matters, but I think in general, students need to find a good balance between immersion (self-centered focus) and learning how to collaborate with others (beyond the advisor), particularly if their career goal will involve work situations involving collaboration and cooperation. Working collaboratively does not work well for all people -- I am not a real doctor and am not going to opine about the prevalence of Aspergers/autism spectrum people in the sciences -- but, at least in my corner of academia, working well with other scientists is essential.

It is very common to see a brief works-well-with-others paragraph in letters of reference for academic jobs. These paragraphs typically give examples of how a student, postdoc, or other early-career person was a "good department/research group" citizen. Of course we don't expect students and most postdocs to do a lot of service work, so most of these examples involve ways in which someone was generous with their time and knowledge in helping others. This is seen as a good sign that someone will be a good colleague and mentor.

That doesn't mean you have to get along with everyone -- there are some people with whom I cannot and will not work -- but it's fine if it is a minor issue of some (but not many) specific personality/priority clashes and not a general trait of being unable and unwilling to work with others. It is also important that problems working with others not follow general patterns related to gender, ethnicity, religion etc.

It is also important that a student (or postdoc) not spend too much time helping others, to the detriment of their own work. What is too much vs. enough depends on the research, research group dynamics etc., but if anyone (student, postdoc, advisor) feels there is an imbalance, it's important to discuss it and work something out.

Questions for readers: How do/did you, as a current or former grad student/postdoc, feel about working with others, either in a collaborative role or in a sharing-your-expertise with other students/postdocs role? Do/did you feel that you spent too much time helping others and would have liked to focus more on your work? If so, did this problem ever get resolved (and how)?

16 responses so far

Mentoring Madness

In my recent column in The Chronicle of Higher Education, on the topic of Mid-Career Mentoring, one of the comments cast aspersions on mentors and mentoring. I wanted to follow up on this point here and probe the opinions of blog-readers.

The specific comment includes this statement:

"Mentoring," I learned, is an intense form of the summer camp buddy-system premised on the bizarre assumption that presumably adult persons who freely choose to go into a profession are under no obligation to find out for themselves how things work."


I must admit that there have been times in my life when I have said the word "mentor" (as a verb or noun) in a somewhat disparaging way. It is one of the words that certain colleagues and I use when we are making fun of some aspects of modern academic jargon, of the type we get in memos from administrators; for example, "We are tasked with mentoring the stake-holders to empower them to create deliverables."

And yet, I think mentoring is overall a good thing. I think certain academic citizens have always been mentored, even if we didn't call it that back in days of yore. In particular, those who were part of the system -- the so-called 'good ol' boys' network -- were mentored, whereas those who were not as plugged into this network were not. In the past, and to some extent even today, the unmentored were typically women and minorities in most of the STEM fields.

Academia can be mysterious, even if you try to find out for yourself how things work, and there's nothing wrong with creating a system that tries to demystify this. It may be fine in the abstract to have a sink-or-swim attitude about tenure-track professors, but, aside from the human issues involved, institutions invest a lot in new faculty, particularly in the STEM fields, and it makes sense for us to help our tenure-track colleagues succeed.

I think even those of us who had to walk 7 miles to school in the snow and cold with only old newspapers for shoes and a raw turnip for lunch can appreciate that there were things about the "good old days" that were unnecessarily harsh. Academic careers are still quite challenging, even with all the mentoring going around.

That said, I can still relate a bit to the sentiment that inspired the anti-mentoring comment, especially if it is rephrased as an anti-whining comment, rather than specifically being against mentoring. I think that mentoring has its limits -- both from the point of view of the mentor, however well meaning and engaged in mentoring they may be, and the mentee, some of whom tend to ignore the wise advise of their mentor -- and I have little patience with those who say "but no one told me that I'd have to spend so much time [insert major time-consuming activity]", whether or not they had an official mentor.

For the sake of discussion, perhaps it would help to give some concrete examples of advice a mentor might give a mentee, and then you can see if this constitutes some form of coddling of presumably adult persons who should figure this stuff out for on their own, or something more constructive. In the comments, you can leave other examples to illustrate the use or disuse of mentoring.

Real example 1: Years ago, a tenure-track colleague asked me if they should submit an NSF CAREER proposal that year or the following year. I gave my opinion, but mostly we discussed the pros and cons of each scenario. Back in the last millennium, no one ever told me when (or if) to submit a CAREER proposal; I just did it. That worked out fine for me, but does that mean my "mentoring" conversation with my younger colleague was a "summer camp buddy-system" kind of thing? I think not.

Real example #2: A common question asked by people putting together their lists of potential letter-writers for the tenure evaluation is whether to include their advisor or other people with whom they have worked closely (explanatory note for those who need it: the candidate typically lists some names, and the chair can pick some of those names, but then also asks for letters from people not on the list; in the end, there may be a few letters from colleagues/advisors, but the majority are from "unrelated" people). This is a good question to ask of a more senior colleague or administrator because the answer may vary considerably from place to place, and even within different units of one institution. In some places, there is always a letter from the former PhD advisor and it would look strange if this were missing; in other places, the former advisor is considered too unobjective and is not asked to write a letter. How do you know which is the case? Does the distinction between being mentored and being a rugged individual lie in whether you know to ask about this or whether you are simply told?

So: it's time to confess your true feelings about mentoring and being mentored -- do the 'm' words indicate weakness and lack of personal responsibility, or do they signify progress in humanizing the academic system?


21 responses so far

Should She Do It?

Nov 04 2011 Published by under colleagues, tenure

A request from a reader for advice (original e-mail excerpted and slightly altered to preserve the anonymity of the writer):

I'm a tenure-track scientist, nearing the time of tenure evaluation (a year or two to go). Recently, a senior male colleague and I have developed mutal feelings for each other (we are both single), and are considering whether to pursue a relationship.  He is not much older than I am (about 10 years), but is a full professor and the chair of the department P&T committee.   Given our university's policies, romantic relationships are permissable but he'd have to be removed from any supervisory role (i.e., not allowed to vote on my tenure case or annual evaluations).  He has substantial concerns about what our potential dating might do to my career; I feel like we could manage these issues, but worry that I am perhaps being naive.

I'm curious whether dating a colleague ever works (particularly in the junior woman-senior man configuration), whether it always casts shadows over a young FSP's career to be involved with an older man in the field, whether there are things that can be done to mitigate the possibility of damage (e.g., not disclosing it at work beyond our department chair, as mandated by policy-- though obviously, if things work out, at SOME point we'd have to do so, and "we've been dating for 3 years and are getting married!!" may not be the way to do it; not publishing together; something else I'm not thinking about?)  Precisely how bad of an idea is this, exactly?

Other information: He has dated in our field before, so has a bit of a reputation (and met his ex-wife when she was a graduate student in a closely related discipline; she moved to another instution when they divorced.)

So far my pretenure evaluations have been positive but not home runs (my teaching and service are great, I should try to publish more than I do, though [description of recent improvements in publication record].

In general, I don't think it is a good idea to give relationship advice to someone you don't know. Yes, we out here in the blogosphere are, in theory, more 'objective' than this woman's friends in real life, but maybe in such cases objectivity is not a good thing -- we don't know these people and can only evaluate the situation from incomplete information.

But let's do it anyway.

Actually, I think that all we can really do that might be helpful is to say how we might view such a situation if we were in this woman's department or in her field.

I don't think I would really care one way or the other, or, at least, not in any way that would affect this woman's career. If I were in her department, I wouldn't vote against her for tenure, for example, just because she decided to date a senior colleague, even one with "a bit of a reputation".

That's not to say that there wouldn't be some consequences, especially within the department if the relationship doesn't go well, but I will leave it to others to go negative with their advice on this issue.

Beyond this specific situation, though, I was thinking about whether (and how much) it matters how successful the woman is in terms of how much freedom she has to pursue whatever relationships she wants, with no/fewer consequences.

For example, does it matter in this case that the woman in question, although apparently doing OK, wasn't hitting "home runs" in the early years of her tenure-track position? Does that change how we view people (in general, or women in particular) in terms of their professional and personal lives, or can we separate these? I think I view them separately, but am not sure that is true in general.

41 responses so far

Token Help?

Apr 08 2011 Published by under colleagues, women in science

This week in the FSP blog, I described a couple of incidents involving Women As Tokens in science: something I overheard, and something I experienced. In the latter post, a male commenter wondered what he and like-minded colleagues could do to help in situations such as the one I described (in short: during a meeting of a small working group in which I am the only woman, a senior professor mentioned twice, apropos of nothing, that the only reason I had been invited to join the group ~6 years ago was because I am female).

When I find myself in these situations, I may or may not confront the person making the offensive statement, depending on the situation and my mood. If I decide to speak up, I typically employ gentle but not subtle sarcasm. In the situation I described recently, I did not say anything.

None of the men in this particular meeting said anything either. Did I want them to? In this case, it didn't matter to me. I am a senior professor, I don't need allies in this particular working group, I have just as much "power" in this group as the person who explicitly noted that I am a token, and I have confidence that my work in this group is useful. In fact, I do have an ally in the group, but he wasn't at this meeting.

Would I have minded if one of the men had stepped in and told Professor Not-A-Token that his comments were inappropriate? No, I would not have minded. In fact, there are many situations in which it is very helpful for men to speak up in these situations. It can turn the tide of a discussion from being an unconstructive one in which women are isolated and insulted into a more inclusive one. And it can show the apparently biased person that their views are not widely held, perhaps inspiring them to refrain from making obnoxious comments in the future.

Perhaps some sympathetic men stay silent because they don't know what to say. Even if they have no fear of angering the person making the obnoxious comments, these other men may not want to sound patronizing to the woman being insulted, or make it appear that a woman needs a man to rescue her.

Every situation is different, but just to take the example of my recent experience, I would not have minded if one of my senior colleagues had said something to Professor Not-A-Token, such as "That's irrelevant. I'm not sure why you are even bringing that up." Or this hypothetical ally could have alluded to the fact that our working group strives for geographic diversity by noting which group member is the token person from a particular continent.

During an incident such as this, I certainly wouldn't want us all to dwell on the issue, unless it was clearly a major problem interfering with the functioning of the group. Just a brief "You are alone in your obnoxious opinions" kind of comment or two from the rest of the group would be sufficient to get us all back on track and perhaps convince the jerk that further comments about token women were not welcome by anyone.

But that's just one example. Perhaps readers can contribute other examples of when allies stepped in with an appreciated comment or could explain what they wish someone had said during a situation of this general type.


31 responses so far

What Are You Saying?

Dec 15 2010 Published by under colleagues, teaching

One of the great things about academia is its global scope in terms of research and people. At my US university, I work with colleagues, graduate students, postdocs, and undergrads from many different parts of the world, and my work involves travel to international sites for conferences, visits, and research. I value and enjoy this aspect of my job.

As a native English speaker, I have the advantage of being fluent in the language that is used in most international journals and at international conferences. Even for native English-speakers, however, the global scope of research and education makes it very useful to know languages other than English.

In addition to the languages I studied during my school years, I have recently been taking classes and working with a tutor to learn another language, and this has been very helpful in my research and travels. One of my goals is to be able to give a research talk in this language, and, although I am far from being able to give such a talk fluently or well, I have made some progress. These efforts have given me greater sympathy for those who struggle to give talks in English at international conferences.

In the research sphere, I think many of us make an effort to understand each other somehow, even if there are some language barriers. The intersection of people with different speaking and comprehension abilities in different languages is, however, more complex in the teaching sphere, where students and instructors need to understand each other in a very different context.

A well known and much-discussed academic/language issue involves the difficulty some students have with professors and teaching assistants who are not fluent in English or who have such strong accents that they are difficult to understand. This is one important element of this general topic, but today I want to consider a slightly different (but related) issue and a second issue that flips the situation around. That is:

The related issue: Without minimizing some very real problems that do exist when instructors are not easy to understand owing to their language skills or accents, some of my foreign-born colleagues who teach at US universities are frustrated by the inability or unwillingness of some American students when it comes to listening to an instructor with an accent. Even a very fluent English speaker with an accent that does not impede comprehension for most people may be difficult to understand for some students.

Alternatively, some students are inflexible or irascible and refuse to listen to anyone who sounds different from what they are used to. I have some colleagues whose accents I don't even notice (perhaps in part because I am used to talking to them) who get student evaluation comments about their "thick" accents that are difficult to understand.

I don't think this phenomenon is entirely confined to the US. I once listened to a very understandable and interesting talk by a Scottish scientist, only to have some English people in the audience complain that they couldn't understand him. Similarly, I have heard comments from colleagues in various European countries who complain when a compatriot has an accent (in their native language) that is different from their own. And even within the US, there can be impatience by northerners with those who speak with a "thick" Southern accent (for example).

I was once on a committee that looked at the teaching evaluations of faculty in various parts of the university. I was struck by one case in particular in which a professor from another country had very good teaching evaluations, well above the averages for his department, and many positive comments in the written portion of the evaluations. On one of many pages of student comments, I saw that a student had written "Learn English" as a criticism of the professor. I searched through all the other pages, representing >5 years of teaching evaluations, including peer evaluations and student evaluations, and there was not a single other mention of any problem with this professor's English-speaking or listening abilities. This one student, who was clearly unhappy for unknown reasons, took a cheap shot at a foreign-born professor.

Perhaps this student was just being mean or perhaps this student really did have a comprehension problem of some sort. Some students eventually learn to "listen", but others don't.

This leads me to the second issue, brought to my attention by a reader who wonders what he, as a native speaker of English, can do to help his non-native English speaking students who complain that he speaks too fast or speaks in other ways that are difficult to understand. From other information supplied by this reader, who is teaching a rather large Science class, it is clear that the student made no effort to get help and waited until the end of the course to complain, when it was too late to devise strategies to help him.

Of course it's best to know early-on if a student is having such a problem, but lacking such input, are there things we as professors can do? Here are a few suggestions, although I hope that others will chime in with additional ones:

- Announce early in the term that anyone with any problem with comprehension, whether it be related to language, hearing, seeing, or whatever, should contact you, the instructor. You can do some general things to make yourself heard by as many students as possible as well as possible, even in a large class, but you can't help particular students with particular problems unless they communicate with you. Let them know you are open to such communication, but put some of the responsibility on them.

- If you have many students who are not fluent in English, avoid idioms and unusual slang as much as possible.

- Don't talk too fast. This will be helpful for everyone.

- Consider doing a mid-term (or earlier) evaluation. Maybe some students having problems will identify these problems early enough for there to be a solution. There is also the possibility that you will get such a wide range of comments that you can't possibly please everyone, but at least you could discuss the issues with the class and let them know that you are fixing issues that are fixable and have (good?) reasons for not changing other aspects of your teaching.

- Use some form of online teaching system that allows students to help each other via discussion boards, chats, or something like that. Perhaps study groups or other supportive subgroups will develop on their own, especially if the course has a lab, but you might also be able to do some direct or indirect organizing to encourage interaction among students, particularly among diverse groups of students (e.g., those not fluent in English working with those who are).

Maybe technology will solve all of these problems one day.. but in the meantime, we can take some steps to make in-person classroom experiences as comprehensible and interesting for as many students as possible. Even so, there are always going to be some complainers, especially in a large class, and we just have to do what we can: care about the class and its content, but not go insane dealing with the unreasonable.

40 responses so far

Emeritus Issues

Nov 23 2010 Published by under colleagues

A reader who is a department chair at a small liberal arts college (SLAC) wonders what to do with professors emeriti who are well-meaning but who have not found productive ways to spend their days without distracting the more-busy and without wreaking minor havoc on various parts of the department infrastructure. This reader's specific questions are:

...would you (and how would you) involve emeriti faculty in hiring interviews?
...would you invite them to faculty-student events?
...would you give them specific roles in the dept so they'd have something productive to do instead of distracting those of us with actual work to do?

Escaping meandering conversations from emeriti requires some skill. My husband has such skills; I do not. When faced with this situation, my husband will say "I don't have time to talk to you" and either walk away or turn back to what he is doing, and his visiting emeritus will leave. In the same situation, I will say, gently "Actually, I really need to get back to doing X now", but somehow a new topic of conversation will be found. So I am not a good person to be giving advice about this.

Advice from other department chairs and/or SLAC faculty would probably be more useful than anything I can suggest, but I can describe some of my experiences and opinions, just to get things started.

My experiences have included the entire range from being fortunate to interact as an undergraduate student with an extraordinarily kind and helpful emeritus to having being abused as a graduate student by an insane and bitter emeritus who used his retirement years to seek revenge on those he hated, molest a few more women while he could, and try to ensure that his famous name would forever be slapped on publications, even after his death. In between have been some emeriti of the mostly benign sort, except for a tendency to start seemingly endless conversations at inopportune times. There was also an emeritus professor who would go into my lab without asking and use/trash stuff, and I did not like that.

In terms of the questions posed, I think that the answers are going to vary widely depending on the specific cases involved. There are certainly situations in which the involvement of emeriti in many aspects of a department is beneficial for all concerned. In terms of interviews, emeriti have no decision-making role, but I can recall various circumstances (as an interviewee and interviewer) when it was very helpful to have emeriti-interviewee meetings. Some departments go into deep mourning when their Nobel laureate(s) or their National Academy members retire, and continue to put these illustrious people on display for visitors. And when the inevitable happens, some have probably considered taxidermy, or wax statues, for their famous deceased faculty.

I digress. The above assumes an emeritus professor is sane, interesting, has a useful perspective on something, or is, at the very least, famous. If none of those are the case and if an interviewee-emeritus interaction is likely to be strange or boring for the interviewee, then by all means avoid arranging such an appointment. Even when I am just a visiting speaker at a university and I find myself sitting in some remote office-closet spending a half hour talking to an isolated emeritus who sighs and mutters amidst the towering stacks of reprints he can't bear to throw out, I wonder whether my hosts were really so desperate to fill every slot on my schedule that they think this would be better than just letting me walk around or sit in a corner with my laptop for a while.

So, I think whether/how to involve emeriti in the academic life of a department must be considered on a case-by-case basis. Emeritus professors are a varied group, just as they were before retirement.

But what about the specific case of a loquacious emeritus who putters around a department being something of a nuisance? Without being patronizing about it, maybe there is some constructive way to engage the emeritus in an academic activity, such as helping students or helping write a newsletter. Maybe the busy, active faculty can be blunt-but-polite about not having time for long conversations and then suggesting something that would be a big help to do (somewhere else). Maybe, but I know that it's not so easy for some of us to do this effectively.

Do others have any useful advice?

12 responses so far