Friday, May 30, 2008

Department Heads: Friends or Foes?

As part of an academic couple, I have invested a lot of time gathering stories and advice on how to solve the "two-body" problem (i.e. how to get two tenure-track jobs at the same institution - or at least the same metropolitan area). The stories are almost always the same: if one spouse has a job and the other does not, the university will not come up with a second job unless an offer from another university is obtained. It is almost like it's written in stone on some University Tablet of Commandments: Thou shalt not make a spousal accommodation unless another institution makes an offer first. I know of only two exceptions to the golden rule: 1) a second job may be thrown into initial job negotiations, 2) a university knows they cannot afford to match offers from richer schools and acts proactively. I have heard of multiple incidences of exception number one. I have only heard of one incidence of exception number 2.

I have a friend, let's call her Prof X. Prof X has a tenure-track position and is married to Dr. Y. Dr. Y does not have a tenure track position and is coming to the end of his postdoctoral funding. For the past couple of years I have been telling Prof X that if she wanted to shake loose a second job, she needed to hit the market ASAP, but she has been reluctant to do so. I never delved into why, but I think part of our difference in perspective results from her landing her job on her first application and interview, whereas I went through a 3-year grueling ordeal that still causes me to break out in dry heaves when I think about applying for jobs. Hence, we have very different perspectives on the job market. Whatever the cause, she and her husband put off applying for jobs until this past fall. They did well on the job market, getting several interviews and one job offer.

Here's the part that links with my question today regarding department heads. Her department head, as per the secret University Commandments referenced above, suddenly came up with the money to offer him a tenure-track position. Dr Y would have to undergo an in-house "interview" process, but this was primarily to be a formality. Prof X turned down the job offer from the other university before the position for Dr. Y was finalized. For whatever reason, (I do not know the details), it now looks like the department head is waffling on his decision and it appears the position for Dr. Y is in some jeopardy. The reason could be innocent, (i.e., budget problems, which are plaguing many states, may make coming up with the money harder), but I have some reason to suspect something more nefarious (though I do admit I have a penchant for conspiracy theories). I suspect that Dr.Y may have some enemies in the department, resulting in some loud voices arguing against his pending position. Furthermore, that a department head might rescind an offer once a competing offer is no longer looming is not out of line with the various horror stories I have heard.

Since I am sure others have had Department Heads go back on their word, let's assume for a moment that Prof X's department head is supremely Machiavellian. This leads me to my current question: should a department head be considered a friend or a foe? I have always felt like a faculty member should be able to count on their department head to be their advocate with the higher administration. I have benefited from mine helping me to deal with a variety of issues that were interfering with my teaching and/or research (though only if it wasn't something he needed me to do for political reasons). However, the story of Prof X, and others like it, suggest that a Department Head should be viewed as a chess opponent not an advocate. As long as you have options on the board, everything is good but beware the Department Head checkmate. It can really suck.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

An Astrophysicist, I am not

My first exposure to a blog was El Gentraso, by John Whitfield, which I found after reading his excellent book In the Beat of a Heart. I love this blog. It's smart, witty, and often deals with ecological issues. Unfortunately, El Gentraso has been completely silent since February. My withdrawls from El Gentraso prompted me to find a replacement. So for the past few days I have been poking around the blogosphere, avoiding my various deadlines, looking for a smart, witty, ecologically relevant blog. While I am currently "dating" a variety of blogs to see if they can replace El Gentraso , I found numerous other sites that frankly disturbed me. Many of the blogs that came up in my search for "ecology" were not ecology at all. They were, by my definition, environmentalism.

Now, I know I'm a bit of a fuddy-duddy about definitions sometimes, but I really feel like the increasing use of the term "ecology" as a synonym for "environmentalism" to be disturbing. One is a science and the other is a belief. The very words tell you this. An "ism" is "a distinctive system of beliefs, myth, doctrine or theory that guides a social movement, institution, class or group" (from Wikipedia). An "ology" is "a field of study or academic discipline" (also from Wikipedia). While a good definition of ecology is sometimes lacking, it is most often defined as the study of how organisms interact with their environment. Wanting to recycle to save the environment does not make someone an ecologist (though many ecologists do want to recycle to save the environment). The distinction is difficult for people for some reason, but perhaps these examples may help:

I make someone sign a legal contract when they buy my house - does this mean I am a lawyer?

I drive a car, does this make me a NASCAR driver?

I appreciate the beauty of a clear, starry night, does this make me an astrophysicist?

The distinction between ecology as a science and environmentalism is important to more than just my sense of academic snobbishness. The most awful stereotype I run into is not the female in science issues, but the ecologist as left-wing radical. Every time I introduce myself as an ecologist to a right-wing member of the public, they stop listening to me because they assume that my statements on the environment are politically driven, not scientifically grounded. I fight this stereotype in my non-majors class when I teach students about endangered species and global warming. I fight this stereotype with the driver of the airport shuttle. As a graduate student, I would introduce myself at bars as anything but an ecologist because I couldn't take being asked how it was possible to get an advanced degree in tree-hugging.

I appreciate that people strongly believe that the environment is important to protect. I believe that there is increasing evidence to suggest that it may be to the benefit of humanity in the long-run to preserve the services that nature provides (fact sheet on pollination services). However, I also believe that bad things result when science is conflated with agenda and belief. Of course, given the arguments on just this issue that I have had with some of my colleagues, perhaps I am wrong on this point. In which case, I am a NASCAR-driving astrophysicist.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The cost of travel

Every summer I attend two conferences. One of them is almost always the big Ecological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting. The other depends on my whims. I have a love/hate relationship with conferences that revolves around my love of seeing people I know and hearing about their research and my hate of meeting new people and being forced to figure out what I should be saying to someone I don't know.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, my husband and I were booking our travel for these meetings. We were feeling quite virtuous about this because the first meeting is not until July (we are not always this organized). With all the scares about fuel prices, we felt it wise to start early booking our travel. What started as a morning of excited virtuosity, ended with us angry, exasperated, frustrated and very very poor. We were shocked at the cost of air travel. Last year, we flew to Europe. For the same cost this year we can fly to....Milwaukee.

The goal of this piece is not to just complain about the cost of airfare (though venting about it does make me feel a little better). The cost of these meetings overall had also gone up: registration was higher, hotels were higher. At one point, we were so concerned at the costs that my husband (who has requested that I refer to him as General Disarray - a subject perhaps for another entry) and I briefly contemplated not going to at least one meeting. We didn't cancel, but we did start wondering what effect the cost of travel might have on the attendance at scientific meetings. We decided that there was a good chance that meetings might be smaller this year. If we didn't have pressing reasons to go this year, I think we would have forgone one of the two meetings. More importantly, we thought there might particularly be a strong impact on students.

When I was a student, I could go to the annual ESA meeting for about $200-400. This year, I am sending one of my students to ESA and just getting her to ESA (minus registration and housing) is going to cost that much (a fact I didn't realize when I made the offer). I am a strong believer that students should attend national meetings. It's a critical part of their education as a scientist. Not only does it allow them to hear what the latest research questions and results are, but allows them to meet and talk ideas with people they would never meet otherwise. However, what happens when sending a student to a meeting starts to cost 500-1000 dollars? Where does that money come from?

Now, part of the increase in cost is because students fly to meetings now. When I was a student, we'd often pile into a car, split gas money (also not an insignificant cost these days, but cheaper than flying), and pile 5-6 people into a hotel room. I have seen no sign that students at this institution or my previous institution do that. They seem to either fly, or they don't go. In some ways I am very nostalgic about the days of the long road trips to get to conferences. There was always this air of adventure and sacrifice for something important. I suspect, if prices continue to climb, that many of today's graduate students are going to be able to share in my nostalgia.

Friday, May 16, 2008

My First Blog

I just finished a semester of editing more Ph.D. dissertations than I ever care to do again in a two week period. In thinking about this experience, I found that there was a common theme to my comments to these students: the context in which they put their results was incredibly important. The context can completely change how a reader thinks about what they are reading. Since one of my biggest worries is that I will become one of those people who does not realize that they are what they complain about (we all know these people), I thought my first posting should give context for my blog.

I am an assistant professor at a second-tier research institution. I was trained in a fantastic lab by a world-class scientist to be a top-tier researcher and the mismatch between my training and my reality often results in me wondering if I am insane.

I am also part of an academic couple. My husband is in the same field as I am and we currently have tenure-track jobs in the same department at the same institution. We are not only husband- and-wife but also each other's primary collaborator. We only notice balancing these roles when other people make a big deal out of it (e.g., the Voting Block issue, the "who's research is it anyway" issue, etc).

Finally, I am an active scientist. I have published a fair number of papers in the top journals in my field and - when I am not being neurotic - I am (generally) happy with the trajectory my career is on. Because my science is a big part of my life and how I view myself, I will go ahead and fess up that I am an ecologist. It will undoubtedly slip out anyway.

I never thought of writing a blog until I became addicted to FemaleScienceProfessor's blog and realized that reading her balanced and often funny take on things that I was also dealing with made me feel less like I was Alice in Wonderland. My hope is that my blog will do the same for someone else. I choose to write my blog anonymously (anyone who saw the movie Serenity will know that River Tam is not my name) because I wanted to be candid about events and issues without causing problems for my friends, students or (frankly) myself; I see no point in doing this if I can't be candid.

So, here we go....