Science Professor Just another Scientopia site Fri, 25 Jul 2014 19:12:55 +0000 en-US hourly 1 No Jerks Allowed, with some exceptions Mon, 28 May 2012 04:41:09 +0000 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.

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Fuzzy COI Mon, 21 May 2012 04:41:39 +0000 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.)


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How Many Times Tue, 08 May 2012 04:28:06 +0000

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.


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Losing by Speaking Up Wed, 02 May 2012 06:47:13 +0000 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?





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Works Not Well With Others Tue, 24 Apr 2012 04:31:10 +0000 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)?

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Token Award Tue, 17 Apr 2012 04:42:44 +0000 This week, let's talk about the rewards of diversity:

Some departments, schools, professional organizations, and so on have awards that are specifically for women, such as an award by one of the societies in my field for an outstanding female PhD student. As far as I can tell, these are not very prestigious awards and don't come with a lot of money. I guess there are some awards for women at the national level that are better in these terms but most are not. My university also has awards for outstanding minority students (anyone not white or Asian-American). These also are not prestigious and they come with less money than some other awards that are for anyone. I am offended by all these token awards but at the same time I am glad they are there, if that makes any sense. I am considering nominating one of my students for one of these awards but I can't get over the feeling that I may be setting her up for a humiliating experience, not if she doesn't get the award but if she does. Should I go ahead with the nomination anyway?

I have very mixed feelings about these awards too. I think they were set up with the best of intentions, but they do have the effect of relegating women and underrepresented minorities to a category of awards that are lower in value ($) and lower in prestige than other awards because these awards are not based on "merit". In some cases, the existence of these awards seem to free an organization (or whatever) from having to make an effort to consider women for other (merit-based) awards. I have written about this before and am not going to repeat the main philosophical arguments for and against these awards, but will focus today only on the practical aspect: should you nominate your students for such awards?

I would, and I do. However conflicted I feel about these awards, I take the practical approach in cases involving students. If there is a fellowship or award for which one of my students is eligible for whatever reason, I nominate them. Fellowships funds for students are scarce, and if such things exist, I want all of my students to have as much chance for success as possible, and these fellowships can help a lot.

If, however, I were in a position in which I could influence the existence and purpose of some of these awards -- the ones that really are "token" in all respects -- I would try to get the award changed or eliminated. (I have only done this in one case so far). In some cases, this can mean getting rid of the special designation of certain awards as only for women, such as in a department or subfield in which there is a strong (in number and/or achievement level) contingent of women who will receive awards based on merit as a natural outcome of the awards evaluation process. Maybe those situations are still rare, but they exist. In those case, there is no need for these 'special' awards.

For now, though, some of these awards are necessary and I nominate female students and colleagues for them. Of course, that doesn't mean I don't also nominate them for other awards -- the ones that are not specifically for women or underrepresented minorities -- but if there is an additional opportunity, I go for it. It would be a mistake to assume that because an award has a special designation that seems to involve an irrelevant factor (gender, ethnicity) that the recipients aren't truly outstanding in terms of intellectual merit, or whatever would be considered a "relevant" criterion.

Is there anyone reading this who would not nominate a student (for example) for a fellowship or award that was specifically for an underrepresented group for the reason of being offended by these awards? (and if so, are you a member of this underrepresented group yourself, or not?)


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I Used to Be Nicer Mon, 09 Apr 2012 04:53:31 +0000 Does anyone share this advisor-angst?:

When I was an assistant professor and establishing my research group, it was difficult for me to recruit excellent PhD students. I define "excellent student" as someone both willing and able to do PhD-level research, although I know there is a lot of subjectivity in that. I understood that many students didn't want to work with someone who didn't have tenure, but I had grants with funding for students and I had to show that I could advise students, so I accepted to work with almost any student who seemed interested. Some of these students turned out to be great, as great as any of the ones who worked with my more famous colleagues. Quite a few were not even very good but I dragged them along as best I could to their degrees. It was a lot of work and very stressful.

So time passed, I got tenure and got more established. I can now compete with some of the more senior professors for the "best" students. Of course there is variability in the research aptitude and work habits of even the "best" students, but I can now much more easily have a research group that mostly consists of smart and motivated students.

So what is the problem with that? Maybe nothing but sometimes I advise (or start to advise) a student who lags behind the others in some way, like motivation or research skill. In the old days (pre-tenure), I would have taken the time and made the effort to drag them to a degree, and now I don't, or can't. No time, mostly. I don't have the time to give them the amount of help they need although sometimes I try if I think I see something that gives me hope that a bit more time and help might get them over their slow start. If I don't see that, I tend to give up on them after about 1.5 years. Otherwise, 2-2.5 years and I give up.

My colleagues say that there are so many excellent students, don't fret about the ones who don't have the ability or maturity to succeed in grad school. I know they are at least partly right but something about it still bothers me.

When I was an assistant professor, I thought that later in my career, when I had advising successes under my belt, this would get easier and it would be more obvious that these situations didn't happen because I am a bad advisor. I thought that students would blame themselves more if grad school didn't work out for them. It's not like that though. Students who fail do not think it their own fault that they are failing. It's not like I want them to think they are losers and I do understand that it can be humiliating for students who have so far succeeded academically (but in classes, not in research), but I'd like them to be able to have more perspective and realize that getting a PhD just doesn't work out for everyone and it isn't always the fault of the advisor when things don't work out. I think I still have a lot of learn about being an advisor, or maybe students are all so different there is never going to be a time when I feel like I have it all figured out.

I guess I don't have any particular questions and am just wondering if this happens to others and if anyone else worries about it.

Yes on one, and yes on two. I think it is very common for tenure-track professors who are just getting established to attract a different type of grad advisee than more established (more famous) professors. I am sure that many advisors do a lot more to help students succeed when it's a matter of career life-and-death, but, as you describe, don't have the time to do this later, especially if your research group gets larger.

Should you worry about it? No, not really, unless you become a monster-advisor who chews up and spits out students at an alarming rate (it doesn't sound like that is the case). If you give students a fair chance (~2 years sounds fair) and then it doesn't work out, maybe you are helping them in the long run to find something that is a better fit for their interests and skills. This could be another advisor/project or something outside academia. It's almost always difficult, but it would be worse to drag them along for 4-6+ years and then decide they aren't going to get a PhD.

But I know that these situations are seldom clear-cut. You wonder if a little more time would make a difference, or if there is something different you could have done, and so on, but ultimately you come up against the reality of what is possible and even reasonable in terms of time and effort for students who don't seem to be making any progress in their research. I think a key point is the one about students all being so different, you may never "have it all figured out".

Some professors who have a "cookie cutter" style of advising, or a "sink or swim" philosophy, also seem to experience less angst when students don't make the cut and sink. That's not true in all cases, of course, but there are some apparently angst-free research groups that seem to run very smoothly, occasionally spitting out a student who doesn't work out, but otherwise producing a steady stream of PhDs. Or, at least, that's the view from outside. It's probably always more complicated than that. In any case, I don't think I could ever be like that, but the angst-free mode of advising does have its appeal.

No matter how many advising successes you have, no matter how "good" you are at advising some/many/most students, the advising experience in general is never going to be perfect, and it may never even be easy. There are just too many personality issues involved and situations we can't predict in advance, not to mention the difficulty/impossibility of predicting which students with perfect transcripts, amazing letters, and even undergrad research experience will do well in grad school.

So, my advice is to stay angsty enough about it so that you don't go too far the other way of not caring, and yet not so angsty that you lose confidence or the ability to enjoy your advising successes. I think that you are going to have to give up on the hope that more of your problematic students will realize it isn't (entirely) your fault.

But now I have a question. In terms of the general issue of whether we make "extreme" efforts to help struggling grad students, I wonder how much it matters:

(1) what the funding situation is for PI: that is, how much/little grant money you have, including funding for students; and

(2) what the employment situation is for a particular field -- I don't mean just in terms of tenure-track faculty positions, but speaking more broadly for other graduate degree-relevant employment opportunities.

If grant money and/or job opportunities are abundant vs. exceedingly scarce, does this affect your advising philosophy? Do issues related to grants affect how long you are willing to work with a struggling student? -- for example, if you have supported a PhD student for a couple of years and there's no way you could start over with a new student in that project, but the current student is really not working out, what do you do?  Drag them along or cut your losses? And getting back to the e-mail that started this post: Does it matter what your career stage is?




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Promote Yourself Mon, 02 Apr 2012 04:46:58 +0000 An interesting question/topic from a reader; touched on before in previous posts, but worth a revisit:

I would love if you posted on active self-promotion in the sciences... that is, the idea of specifically and intentionally promoting yourself and your work to others in your field.  In my field, this is almost a faux pas because "the science speaks for itself" and so its hard to get straight answers from people.  The people I've seen who are successful are active and effective promoters of themselves and their own work, even if that's not what they say they are doing.  (e.g. I have a colleague who regularly contacts strangers in other fields that he doesn't know to make them aware of his work because, "they need to know about this research, its so important"... it's really not, but the practice and his confidence have contributed to his success, I think)

I guess my question is, in your experience, what are (socially) acceptable and nonacceptable forms of self-promotion?

Does this vary from field to field? I don't know. My impression is that it varies from person to person, with maybe some departmental/institutional variation, and perhaps also variation by culture/country.

I think a key question is: What is the purpose of the self-promotion? Is it essential to your progression in your career; for example, making you more visible (as an early-career scientist) to those who might eventually write letters as part of your tenure evaluation? Is it important for your tenure evaluation that you give invited talks? Is it a way to develop new collaborations and recruit excellent grad students and postdocs (important for any career stage)? Or do you just generally want to be more famous in your obscure field?

In my discussion, I will focus on strategies for self-promotion as an essential element of career development, not for hunger-for-fame purposes. I am also writing from my point of view as a non-extrovert. You do not have to be loud, talkative, sociable, aggressive, or even supremely self-confident to self-promote in the interest of career development.

So, what can you do? What about the example given in the e-mail above? In a situation similar to that example, I have a colleague in my same general field who has long sent copies of pre-prints to others in the field, even to people he doesn't know well and even in the days of paper-and-slowmail, just to help spread the news of his work and results. I consider this a completely acceptable means of self-promotion (and beyond the self, also promotion of the work of a research group, including students, postdocs etc.). The pre-prints are accompanied by a simple statement that this work might be of interest. Does anyone think that is obnoxious?

There is clearly disagreement, even within fields, about what is a 'good' form of self-promotion.  For example, a young scientist recently suggested himself to join a professional service group of which I am part. My reaction was "Great, this might be a good person to join us in the future", but some of my colleagues in this group said (privately, to the rest of us), "What a jerk." They thought the young scientist was obnoxious for making the suggestion instead of waiting for us, in our collective wisdom, to think of him when we needed a new member.

If this young scientist had said something like "I am so awesome, I know that you will want to benefit from my awesomeness and you are fortunate that I happen to be willing to help you", then OK, that would be obnoxious, but the communication was more like "I just wanted to let you know that I am interested in joining your group if you have need of a new member at some point. I have the following qualifications [list] and am looking for opportunities to be more involved in the professional community." I consider that entirely appropriate and even very welcome.

If there is a professional service opportunity that is of interest and would be useful for career advancement and valued by your department/community, I think it is good to look into ways to pursue this opportunity, perhaps in an (initially) indirect way, scouting out nice and knowledgeable colleagues who might have some advice or assistance to offer for each circumstance/field. If you ask around to learn more about the culture in your field and whether a proactive approach would be welcomed or rejected, you might get some clues as to how to proceed. Or, quite likely, you will get a range of opinions and just have to guess anyway.

I noted above that culture/country might play a role: that is, in whether we are likely to self-promote and in how such actions are perceived. For example, in the "self-promotion" scenario I described, my colleagues who thought the young scientist was obnoxious are not American. I -- the only American involved in this incident -- thought the self-promotion was appropriate and inoffensive. Did I feel that way because I am more used to a culture of self-promotion? Maybe. [I should note that the self-promoting young scientist in this anecdote is not American.]

Anyway, what are other possible forms of self-promotion in academia? One way to become more visible in one's field is to give talks at other institutions. Ideally, you will get inviations, typically because someone read an interesting paper of yours or saw you give an excellent talk at a conference. If you have been publishing and speaking at conferences but the invitations to visit other universities are slow to come, you could try to be more active in inviting people to visit your department (this might make them more likely to reciprocate with an invitation), or you could express your interest to a senior colleague, who might be able to help spread the word that you give interesting talks and would be a good person to invite.

A nice way to self-promote, in fields in which this is possible, is to organize or co-organize a session at a conference. This is seen as professional service, but it also gets you out there in front of an audience of people in your sub-field and gives you a chance to interact with co-organizers and speakers. If you pick a broad and interesting topic that involves more than just your close friends and associates, session-organizing can be an effective and non-obnoxious way to self-promote.

You could also let program officers know that you are interested in serving on a proposal review panel. I think this would generally be seen as less obnoxious than inviting yourself to do some other time-consuming service activity. Some panels have a habit of inviting early-career scientists to serve for a round or two, in part to give them a glimpse of how things work. If you serve on a panel, you will likely spend an intense few days working closely with a group of scientists you might not otherwise encounter, even if they are in your general field. I am only familiar with some NSF programs in this respect, so you'd need to ask around about other funding agencies that are relevant to your field; and, within NSF, whether this is how 'your' programs work.

Another service-oriented way to self-promote (sort of) is to be a diligent reviewer. I am not objective about this (speaking as an editor always seeking good reviewers), but my positive impression of thoughtful, thorough, and prompt reviewers can certainly affect my overall impression of these people and their research. It doesn't make me more likely to accept their manuscripts (if there are problems with the manuscripts), but it would make me more likely to invite them to give a talk in my department or in a conference session, read their papers, be interested in working with their students/postdocs, and to just be generally more aware of (in a positive sense) them and their work.

I suppose some forms of self-promotion also relate to where we send manuscripts for review (that is, the impact/prestige of the journal), but this involves a complicated equation involving many factors that I will not discuss here.

Are there other forms of professional self-promotion that most people would agree are acceptable, and even welcomed, or necessary? Do you welcome self-promotion in others, at least in some form, or do you think this is obnoxious ('the science will speak for itself' etc. etc.)?

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Mentoring Madness Wed, 21 Mar 2012 04:52:39 +0000 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?


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Academic Fish Ponds Wed, 14 Mar 2012 04:34:59 +0000 This is a recent e-mail from a reader, but it's a topic I was thinking about in a related context, so this is timely (for me):

I'm a grad student in a respectable PhD program in the physical sciences here in the U.S. (ranked by U.S. News as either in the low teens to mid-20s, depending on the particular year of the ranking).  I didn't realize until I was knee-deep in grad school just how tough the academic job market is (like, I think I know more PhDs without permanent jobs than I know with jobs!).  I'm starting to get very nervous about my job prospects.

While mulling over my options--Take the Master's and run? Switch to a different field?--it occurred to me that I could always apply to higher-ranked grad programs (you know, Harvard, MIT, Caltech, Stanford, Berkeley, and their ilk).  Graduating from a Top 5 school would surely increase my prospects of getting an academic job, right? Provided, of course, I could get admitted to one of those programs...

I haven't asked too many people for advice (I don't want my professors or advisor to know that I'm considering leaving), but the one person I asked said it was better to be a big fish in a small pond (translation: stay where I am and try to stand out among my cohorts).

As an aside, if you look at the most recent faculty hires for my department, you'll see that they're all Harvard/MIT/Berkeley/Caltech/Stanford grads; there's not a single graduate from a 20-ish rank school in the bunch. We're good enough to be their grad students, but not good enough to be their eventual colleagues???

This e-mail raises many interesting issues, in addition to the usual ones involving stress about (potentially) seeking a faculty position in a field that seems to have an oversupply of PhDs. [insert required mention that academia isn't the only option for PhDs, there are many excellent careers in industry/business/government etc.].

I am going to ignore the issue of whether rankings have any merit and whether the Prestige Universities deserve their high level of prestige etc. Let's just take these numbers (Top-5, Top-20 etc.) at face value for now.

An important question for the person who wrote the e-mail is: In the context of thinking about possible future jobs in academia, do you think you would only be happy in one that is a research-ranking peer of your current university (or one more highly ranked)? I know it can be hard to predict (as a grad student, I was completely wrong about what kind of job/place would be best for me), but it's worth thinking about other options within academia: teaching-focused schools (small colleges, universities that are focused on undergraduate education, community colleges) or research universities other than the top-ranked ones. These jobs are difficult to get as well, but overall you may have more opportunities than you would if you only consider major research universities of a certain rank as job prospects. Perhaps you know some people who work at these types of institutions and could talk to them about their jobs, or you could do some investigating/mingling at conferences to interact with a broader group of academics and others.

But let's say that you are quite sure that you want to be at a major research university, a peer to your current university or better (in rankings), and jobs are extremely scarce in your field. I don't know about your particular institution/field, but from what I've seen over years of serving on various committees and panels and such, top graduates of top-20ish schools can compete with those from top-5-10 schools for academic positions. If you do interesting research, give conference presentations, publish, and put together an impressive application, you could be competitive with the top-5 people.

The person you talked to was right to mention the 'big fish' scenario; if your department/advisor are respected in your field and your advisor writes reference letters saying you are the best student s/he has ever had, that can count for a lot. You may have to work harder to be perceived -- on first impression -- as just as good as the top-5 people, but it's doable.

Important considerations in whether you stay or try to move could include:

  • the nature of your research project (is it exciting? significant? can you play an important role in it?),
  • the reputation of your advisor as a scientist and mentor (will s/he write you awesome letters if you do well?), and
  • your assessment of your abilities (difficult to do..).

When you consider those (and other) factors, maybe you will decide that the best place for you for research and career development is a top-5 department, maybe it's another place, or maybe it's where you are right now.

Another question: Have you been around for any of the searches that resulted in the recent top-5 hires in your department? It would be interesting and instructive to look at the applicant pools (were all the interviewees from top-5 departments, or just the person who got/accepted the offer?). If you attended the interview talks and/or met the candidates, what were your impressions? If there are any upcoming searches, it would be good to take a close look at the process and the people involved.

And if you look at departments in your field at peer institutions of your current one, do you see a similar preponderance of top-5s on the faculty? That is, is your department typical in this respect? If so, and you want to try to stay in your field, perhaps you should send out some applications..

If you have the time, it's worth doing a bit of 'career field work' before making a big decision. There may be more options than you know about now, or you may find you are in the best place for you already.

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