Thursday, August 28, 2008

Professor Chaos receives weird angel-thingy

After spending the morning dealing with Dr. Crapweasel, I decided that I needed a little break before being let loose in the lab this afternoon. While responding to some comments on my blog, I realized that I had not "opened" a missive from DrDrA. Imagine my surprise when I found that I had won this:


I am not sure, but allow me now to express my...gratitude.

I would like to thank all 12 of my readers (who else can brag that 8.3% of their readers nominated them for an award? Huh, that didn't sound nearly as impressive as it did in my head).  Thank you for allowing me to express my inner feelings about the sometimes bizarre things that I experience in this crazy thing we call academia. I especially thank you all for your comments, advice, tough love (yes, I'm looking at you PhysioProf), support (I got a real kick out of seeing me quoted on DrugMonkey...I was so excited I wanted to call my mom, but that would require me to tell her I have a blog and after my comment about the existence of Chuckie Cheese preventing her from drowning me as a child, I don't know how I feel about her reading this) and discussion (one of my highlights was seeing that my post on snowflakes, waifs, and calculators had inspired DamnGoodTechnician and Janeb to write their own posts on the topic). Without all of you, none of this would be possible, or at least I would just be talking to myself, which is more boring and I do all the time anyway!

I would nominate someone, but I think all my usual haunts have already received this...illustrious...award. Oh, wait apparently Nat hasn't accepted his award yet and since he's ignoring all the other memes I've sent his way (okay, so there was only 1 other, but poetically the plural sounded better), I'll add this one to the pile!

What is WRONG with this week?

Holy crap, batman, academic bullies are just flying out of the woodwork. Makes me wonder if I've been mistakenly putting on my academic bully attractant instead of my deodorant in the mornings! First there was the student trying to bully me into scheduling his comps for a time I repeatedly told him I couldn't do. Now, this morning I awoke to a series of emails that made me both laugh and cry at the same time.

The story goes as follows: A certain individual, let's call him Dr. Crapweasel, has been trying for over a year to insert himself into a collaboration that I am a leader on. He has emailed several times asking to be involved and - since he doesn't have any expertise or skills we require for this project - he is told no everytime. I seriously don't understand what is going on with this guy. It's like someone threatened to shoot him in the head if he didn't get on the project. (I did actually wonder at one point if we had some weird state secret in our research that another government would desperately want and therefore threatened to kill this guy's wife and children if he didn't infiltrate our group and obtain said secret....but this is generally unlikely in ecology and particularly so for any research I am involved in!)

Well, Dr. Crapweasel upped the ante today in a classic academic bully kind of way. He finally decided if he didn't like the answer he was getting, he would go over my head and find someone who would. This is, of course, is interesting since there is no one over my head! So, what did Dr. Crapweasel do? He found the most senior male on the project (who is incidentally not a leader of this project) and asked him if it was okay if he participated. So I get an email from Dr. GrandPuumba saying he thinks having Dr. Crapweasel join the project is a great idea. Somehow the justification is based on a project Dr. Crapweasel has started working on with Dr. GrandPuumba that has nothing to do with the project I am a leader on, but I'll let that slide for the moment.

You are now understanding the crying part of the morning. I am just so frustrated by people who think they can make me do what they want by getting a more senior male to back them up. I cannot tell you the number of times I have had this happen. It's like it's printed in some playbook for Academic Bullies - want to be a co-author on a project you've done nothing for and have nothing to contribute? Lead author on the project telling you to take a hike? No problem! Here's a fail proof method for you! Head directly to the most senior and powerful person on the author line that you can find - get the powerful person with no authority to tell the more junior person who actually is in charge that they want you to be a co-author and viola, you're a co-author with very little work! Just like magic! In my situation, Dr. GrandPuumba is a very major and enormous deal in my field, so it is a very good gamble on Dr. Crapweasel's part that I might feel it behooved my career to do whatever Dr. GrandPuumba wanted. I'm sure he's sitting there smugly thinking he check-mated me.

I hate this shit and I think it's really starting to mess with my mental well-being.

Since it appears that our heroine is stuck between acquiescing to an Academic Bully and pissing off a GrandPuumba by overruling him, you may be wondering right about now where the laughing part comes in? Well, here it is: Dr. Crapweasel misjudged two critically important thing. First, while I am still having problems with students who are academic bullies, I am well versed in how to handle peers who are academic bullies. Second, while Dr. GrandPuumba is Dr. GrandPuumba to Dr. Crapweasel, Dr. GrandPuumba is just Fred to me. Not only are Fred GrandPuumba and I really tight, we've actually dealt with this exact situation before on another project. As long as I explain the situation to Fred, Fred will back me up. Furthermore, Fred will be very unhappy that Dr. Crapweasel was using him. I'm practically giddy with anticipation for the letter I'm going to write....

Dear Dr. Crapweasel:

It is my pleasure to inform you that you fucked with the wrong person.


Dr. Tam

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

General Disarray and the mighty wave of moles

Last year, General Disarray read "Getting things done", subscribed to 43 folders and decided he would organize his professional life. He bought a label maker, in-and-out boxes, file holders, and lots of paraphernalia I did not understand but he swore the book told him to buy. He created elaborate to-do lists with color coding and converted emails to tasks so that his inbox was no longer his to-do list (I don't understand what your inbox is for if it's not your to-do list, but okay. To each their own).

I watched in amazement, because this level of organization boggles my mind. I have to admit that I am a chaos vortex. I don't know how it happens, but I turn around and there is a path of destruction behind me. I learned early on that the amount of time I had to put into restoring order to my universe vastly overwhelmed how quickly I could destroy that order - which meant that I could either spend my life ordering my life or I could live my life. (This decision was much to my mother's dismay who decided that the only way she could retain sanity in the face of my bedroom was to keep the door shut). So, my low-tech organization has consisted of important to-do things written on my whiteboard and less important things scrolling off the bottom of my email (I understand that this is a no-no in 'getting things done'). In contrast to my embodiment of the Second Law of Thermodynamics (I like to think of myself as more of a Second Law of Thermodynamics Superhero, actually), General Disarray has the ability to order things and things seem to stay...ordered. I obviously find this skill incomprehensible, so I watched his ordering of his life with files and labels with a mix of skepticism (how can anyone spend so much time ordering their lives and still get stuff done) and envy (man, I wish my office looked that nice).

Fast forward to last week...I walked into General Disarray's office and stopped short. He was slumped in his chair with his head thrown back staring at the ceiling, with a look of utter aghast dismay. "What is wrong with you?" I asked. The answer was immediately clear - he had been mobbed by moles, a vast unending tidal wave of moles. One of those waves of moles that no flood levy in the world is going to contain. As most of us would instinctively do, he started whacking moles as fast as humanly possible, wore himself out, and was beginning to realize that he had gotten nothing done on any of his research projects when I had walked through the door.

I had a nice heart-to-heart with General Disarray about moles (which I formalized in my blog post the other day). He seemed to respond positively to the analogy and went back to work with renewed vigor. Later that day, I went back to check on him. He was slumped in his chair with his head thrown back staring at the ceiling, with a look of utter aghast dismay. And this my dear readers, is the second part of the mole analogy that I have decided to share. Sometimes moles pop up at a continuous background rate, and sometimes they pop up all at effect creating a mighty wave. When this happens, it can be hard to know where to even start whacking...and since you are about to be smothered in moles, some people respond by just throwing themselves on all the moles. Which is what General Disarray had done. As he discovered, all this does is wound and terrify the moles, it does not smack them back in their holes. Not only do you not get points for this, they end up scurrying around your office with even more vigor, which makes you feel really bad that you haven't finished them off, which makes you flail around more (trust me, I've done this. It's a vicious cycle and it is not pretty). So I imparted one last piece of advice to General Disarray, when you feel overwhelmed and don't know what to do first, just remember: One mallet, one mole. Even in a mighty wave of moles, the goal is to smack the most important moles, not all the moles (why? because, silly, there are always more moles and trying to smack all the moles is like chasing the white whale, it only ends in insanity and self-destruction)

I am happy to report that General Disarray is recovering nicely from his unfortunate encounter with the moles. And to head off those who might think that I am belittling  "Getting Things Done" , the moral of this story is not that "Getting Things Done" is useless. (I actually think that General Disarray was able to emerge faster than I do from the wave of moles thanks to his organization). I just think that sometimes we can get so focused on accomplishing lists that we forget that the lists are meant to help us focus our decision making and that checking everything off on the list is not actually the goal. For some really odd reason I have yet to fathom, the River Tam Philosophy of Mole Whacking seems to help some people (okay N=2, me and General Disarray, but who knows, maybe this will make me rich some day!) to focus on the fact that you actually can never check everything off of the list. I think this simple fact puts the list back in perspective.

And, as a side note, after spending so much time in General Disarray's office, I have decided to try to implement some of those organizational tools because who knew how useful it could be to actually be able to find things? I mean damn, it really is a nice office.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Dear Annoying Student

I understand that scheduling one's comprehensive exam is a stressful and important matter, which is why I was happy to discuss with you several months ago any constraints on when I could be present for the oral exam in the fall. In this meeting, I was crystal clear that the only month that would cause me problems was November as I will be gone for a large chunk of that month. This was no problem, because you thought September would be quite lovely. I agreed.

Then, this summer, you sent me an email explaining you had changed your mind and wanted me schedule you for November....the one month this fall I had said I could not do. You begged, you pleaded, you bullied, but I do not understand how you think that changes anything...did you really think I would cancel a trip (to work with collaborators, no less) that has been planned for months so you could have your oral exam at some specific time and day? I finally suggested that you remove me from your committee if you were determined to conduct your exam in November. When you did not respond, I assumed the matter was closed.

Imagine my surprise when you popped up this week to ask if I had found a date in November that worked. We had to have another 20 minute conversation (while I was desperately trying to get something submitted) where I once again explained why that month still will not work.

So, I am writing this letter (which you will never read) so I can express myself (in as nice and supportive a manner as is possible)that you are an annoying little shit who is really pissing me off. I do not know what you think is going on, but I promise I am not making stuff up to keep you from taking your exam during some magical alignment of stars that will brainwash me into passing even the most gibbering of idiots. The fact that you ignore me every time I say something you do not want to hear (a pattern that has occurred more than once during our interactions) does not make me more pliable, it aggravates me. And while on this subject, I have noticed that you have not been badgering the male professor on your committee whose schedule prevents us from doing this in the later part of November. Perhaps you think my travel must be less important than his, or that I'm more likely to be bullied into doing what you want, but I have news for you - you are sadly, fucking mistaken. I do not understand what part of "out of town" you do not understand, but it frankly does not bode well for you passing your exam. In fact, the more aggravated I become, the more likely I am to rough you up during your exam - not because I am a bad person, but because I am only human and I really don't like you very much right now.

So, when you come back again (and I know you will) to see if I have changed my mind on November, please forgive me when I contact your supervisor and tell them that I will no longer be able to participate on your committee. I am a busy woman and I really do not have time to waste on annoying little twots.

With love,

Dr. Tam

Monday, August 25, 2008


One of the things my post-doc and graduate student training did not prepare me for is the sheer amount of stuff that a professor needs to do on a daily basis. For example, on my board today (which is mostly left over from last week plus things I really should do today): inquire about a university vehicle, email someone I met at ESA, talk to one of my students about a specific project, email a collaborator about two different manuscripts, update my webpage, order my new laptop, review a proposal, finish reorganizing my reprint collection (it's been sitting in mid-organization for months), set up my lab meeting time for the semester, figure out what we're going to do in lab meetings this semester, set up my meeting time with my students, email my reading group, figure out what we're going to do in reading group this semester, deal with the stacks of papers on my desk (that one's been on the list for years), schedule my travel for this semester, hire an  undergrad, etc, etc, etc. As a professor, there always seems to be more miniscule administrative stuff that someone really wants you to do.

My first year as an assistant professor, I tried naively to do everything as soon as it popped up. This lead to me behaving as if the skills that make someone a good whac-a-mole player translated into being a good assistant professor. For those of you who have never played whac-a-mole at Chuckie Cheese or some other equivalent pizza serving venue designed solely for parents to have someplace to eat where they can pretend they are on an adult date while their child runs wild in a safe atmosphere (I think these types of venues are the only reason my parents didn't drown me as a child), I have included a picture for you:


My assumption as a young assistant professor was that if I whacked all the moles fast enough, I would run out of moles and have time to do research. I have since learned the error of my ways and I will let you in on the secret they will never, ever tell you at faculty orientation: there are always more moles. In fact, I am convinced that there are an infinite number of moles. You could spend every waking hour whacking moles and still never run out of moles. Honestly.

It took me a while, but I have realized that either I constrain my mole whacking to certain regimented hours or I lose all ability to conduct research...and don't let anyone fool you, they do not grant tenure for mole whacking (unless, of course, your research actually is on mole whacking, but I imagine that is a very small group of people). As an older and wiser assistant professor, I have learned to let the moles run around my office and I studiously ignore them until mole whacking time arrives. When it does, then and only then do I pick up my mallet and whack the noisiest moles causing the most chaos. When mole whacking time is over, I put down my mallet and go back to work. This was hard to learn for me because I'm really prone to feeling of guilt when I have things sitting around undone, but man have I been productive since I implemented those rules.

Well, look at the time! I gotta go grab my mallet, Monday is prime mole whacking time.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Quantity vs. Quality: the never-ending debate

An anonymous commenter yesterday brought up an incredibly important point to remember when we discuss what kinds of publication records make our institutions (and tenure committees) happy.

"My point is that impact factors and so-called "top tier" journals are supposed to give some indication of quality and "toughness" in publishing. But there will always be someone who looks at numbers of papers (crap crap crap = 3) and others who only look for CNS and IFs. Keep track of your IFs, mark your CV with student "stars" and invited papers, and be on your toes constantly to defend why you chose the journal you submitted to."

I've now reached that stage in my career where a number of my friends are at a variety of institutions and nothing is clearer to me right now than every institution seems to have it's own crazy "rules" on this matter ("rules" are in quotes because these are not always officially sanctioned rules). I know some high quality programs where it seems to be all about numbers (i.e., 3 papers in low-tier journals are better than 2 papers in high-tier journals). I know some places have a formula combining number and journal "quality". And I know one place that apparently has a rule about where you are on the author line because I know a variety of their young faculty will throw people under the bus (including their own students) to get that particular slot. One of the messages that comes through loud and clear from my anonymous commenter is that there is no standard rule of 'success' and people can run into issues if the rules they are operating under are different from the ones their institution values (I would encourage everyone to read the comment in its entirety).

General Disarray and I have spent hours and hours discussing tenure criteria from various universities and what to do if you realize that your university does not value what you value in terms of the quality x quantity interaction (the teaching/research trade-off is beyond my abilities to deal with, so I will leave that for others). We decided that there are essentially two strategies: 1) to follow your institution's tenure criteria like they are commandments from on high or 2) focus on being as competitive as possible for the job market. We have been taking the latter path (I'll let you know how that works out for me as I get closer to the big tenure decision). Our decision was based on one core concept: if we are good enough to leave for a university of similar or better quality, we are good enough to stay. Now, there are risks with this approach, no doubt. We could potentially screw ourselves if our institution doesn't like our CVs and we actually cannot get a job somewhere else. But I would also argue that there are inherent risks to clinging to your institution's criteria - especially if in chasing those ideals you leave behind the science you love. I have friends who chased their institutions mantra of numbers above all else. To meet those criteria they  traded science they were passionate about for science that was easier to publish to large quantities in low-tiered journals. They have tenure now, but have drifted so far from the cutting edge that they can't figure out how to get back to what they loved. In part, I have to admit that I focus on option 2 for chasing tenure because it fits better with the type of science I want to do and the type of scientist I want to be...and an inherent realization that if I can't chance the questions I'm passionate about then my entire reason for doing all this in the first place is gone.

And this leads me to what I think is the most important lesson I learned from my advisor - do the science you love, publish it the best place you can, and never stop looking for the institution that is excited by that. There are so many ways to make a "successful" (and by successful I mean one that makes you happy) career in ecology that I honestly see no point in chasing someone else's ideal of "success" if it doesn't make you happy. So, if you're the woman referred to by the anonymous commenter, taking heat for only having 2 papers last year in the most prestigious journals in our field instead of 5 in some lower-tier journal, take heart, I'd hire you in a heartbeat. And to the guy who took heat for all his papers with undergrads in lower-tier journals, take heart there too, I think my university would probably over-rule me and hire you instead!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Journal Choice

There is an intensely fascinating discussion occurring over at DrugMonkey right now on the importance of journal choice strategy for manuscript submission. Instead of polluting their nice discussion, I thought I would use my own blog to provide an ecologist's commentary. Let me start this discussion with a quote from PhysioProf's original entry:

"If your papers are being routinely accepted with only minor revisions, you are almost certainly not aiming high enough with the journals you are submitting to. If you want to publish in high-end journals, the sweet spot to aim for is that only about 1/3 of your papers should end up accepted at the journal you originally submit them to, and the rest should have to filter down."

When I read this, I actually wondered if PhysioProf had bugged my home. This summer, General Disarray and I debated this point with regards to two paper I was an author on. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that both papers would fly into one of my standard haunts and wanted to shoot higher. Afterall, if I was sure they were sure things at one tier, wasn't that the best indication that it might be worth trying a little higher? A co-author (the same one in both cases) thought it a waste of time and wanted to dump them lower. I was swayed by the arguments because the co-author was someone I highly respected. General Disarray finally convinced me that this strategy only ensured that I would not get either manuscript into a higher tiered journal. (Hmmm, maybe PhysioProf didn't bug my house, but surely I would know if General Disarray and PhysioProf were the same person....right?). There are many assurances that make me happy in life (the love of my husband, medical insurance, 100% on-time arrival for a flight), but a guarantee for not getting a paper into a better journal is not one of them. So I currently have two manuscripts trickling through the system. (And yes, PhysioProf, most of my papers have been getting into the journals I first submit them to, which was also part of my reasoning for shooting higher...but surely you already know this since you have apparently bugged my home).

Part of what I wanted to emphasize for my more ecological friends is not to get distracted by the comments over at DrugMonkey that predominately focus on what they call C/N/S or GlamourMags, (Cell, Nature, Science; obviously Cell is completely meaningless to us and I am endlessly fascinated by Cell being on that list because to an ecologist it's like hearing Gold, Diamonds, and...Seashells? Really, you rank seashells with Gold and Diamonds? But that's for another discussion about the differences among fields and was mainly put in here as a friendly poke at my medical/molecular/cellular blogging friends.) Obviously, getting papers into Nature, Science, PNAS, and PLoS Biology are great career boosts for us but the argument is not that this is only relevant to that top tier. I think that CC said it most clearly: if you routinely get papers accepted on the first submission, you're obviously leaving impact factor points on the table. If you try to aim higher across the board (submitting what you think is a B paper to A and what you think is an E paper to D) you'll reap rewards more thoroughly. Conversely, if your first submission acceptance rate is zero or close to it, you're being too aggressive and annoying everyone. I have reviewed a number of papers in low-tiered taxon-specific journals that when asked on the review form about alternative journals I wanted to say: Yes, rewrite and send to Ecology! (For my friends outside the field, that is one of the top ecology journals).

While the approach of shooting a little higher than one might intuitively reach for is a good one for maximizing the "payoffs" for each paper, it should be noted that this strategy is not necessary to have a career as a scientist, especially an ecologist. How important it is to follow this approach all depends on whether or not you want a career at a high wattage R1, a less brilliantly lit R1, or a more laid-back R2 (which may sometimes experience brownouts). At my current locale, which is an R2, I could make a handy career for myself without ever stretching myself to more stellar journal heights. However, at one of the top R1 programs I might need to stretch more. The fact that I am currently stretching is not because I need to, but because I want to. Given the type of science and career I want for myself, PhysioProf has the right advice. Now, if only I could find that damn bug he put in my house.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Snowflakes, Waifs, and Calculators

I found the discussion to yesterday's entry so interesting that I decided that instead of leaving my own comment I would just write a whole 'nother entry!

A majority of my commenters seem to believe that there exists a class of people who believe (consciously or not) that bad things that happen to others will not happen to them. (I have a sneaking suspicion that this is a maladaptive trait that would have been heavily selected against in the days when people getting eaten by predators was a more common occurrence. Then again maybe they were the ones who kept the clan from starving because they ignored that Bob, Billy, Mary, Susie, Fred, Mike, Claire, and Bertha were all eaten when they went out foraging, but 'surely this won't happen to me'...but this is a digression). Since I am partial to PhysioProf's terminology, I'm going to term this type of person the 'snowflake'. But two other possibilities were also offered for people who did not heed the warnings of others.

Yolio suggested that perhaps it was not due to a belief of specialness but a true lack of appreciation for how horrible something can truly be until you've experienced it yourself. I can see this. Afterall, perhaps these kids had a bad boss when they worked for Starbucks one summer and thought it would be comparable - not realizing that it is actually very very different. What's your Starbuck's manager going to do? Run you out of the coffee business? Seems unlikely. A bad advisor really does have the potential to ruin your career, and once you realize that important difference, the psychological stress makes the whole thing exponentially worse than that snotty Starbuck's manager. I'll call this person the 'naive waif', unless someone comes up with something better.

Finally, Mad Hatter suggested that these may not be deluded souls at all, but people who make a calculated decision to work for Dr. Jackass because Dr. Jackass is internationally regarded and it will be good for the student's career. General Disarray, incidentally, agrees whole-heartedly with the Mad Hatter on this one - that the gold at the end of the rainbow is just too difficult to resist. Anyway, I'll call this one "the calculator".  While I can intuitively understand the "naive waif" and even to some extent the "snowflake" (I have succumbed to the female cardinal sin of knowing that a guy has treated all this other girlfriends like crap but surely I'm different. It was not a high point in my life).  However, I have admit that the calculator is so foreign to me. Don't get me wrong, I understand that they exist. I'm even pretty sure I've seen it in operation. But I simply cannot conceive of deciding to subjugate myself to an jackass on purpose. But then, I also know myself well enough to know that the more unhappy I am, the less productive I become so I already know that being in a jackass' lab would be the equivalent of flushing my career down the toilet (and if I really wanted to flush my career down the toilet, there are much more fun ways of doing it!).

Regardless of the cause, I think there was one unified message that came from my readers: nothing can be done for these people. They will walk straight into the lion's jaws regardless of what we do. Either they have consciously made the decision or they simply will not be able to comprehend what you are saying until it is way too late. I have to admit that the consensus of the group caught me by surprise, but I suppose this is the idealist in me. I will say that I am beginning to understand why my time spent trying to stop people from running off cliffs may be better invested elsewhere. Thanks to everyone for their comments yesterday!

Oh, and if you haven't seen this, Acmegirl has a truly fantastic post from June on related issues. I have to admit I read it after every conversation I have with a disillusioned snowflake/waif/calculator because it makes me feel like I'm less insane.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Do you understand the words coming out of my mouth?

When I was at the Ecology Meeting a couple of weeks ago, I actually spent great deal of time talking to graduate students and post-docs. One interaction in particular really hit home for me. A graduate student was seriously depressed about their advisor. Not necessarily shocking in and of itself, but the stories that began emanating from this student were eye-popping. I mean stories that would make the hair on your toes curl in horror. You might be wondering right now if this graduate student had interviewed with the advisor before accepting the position - and the answer is yes. In this student's defense, the advisor in question is very charming and there were no glowing eyes, cloven hooves, or even the subtle but disturbing smell of sulphuric smoke to indicate that this might be an advisor to avoid. So, next question - did the student talk to other students in the lab? Yes. And this is where the title of this piece comes to play - they all told the prospective student to not come under any circumstances period. They explained why and they all gave a consistent message (as the depressed student ruefully admitted). Apparently, this has been going on for a while in that lab - current students tell prospective students that the lab is hell, not to come; that they themselves would have chosen differently if they had to do over again. Still the students come. And they all seem shocked to find out that every word was true.

I honestly don't understand this as the words coming out of the current students mouths seemed to be brutally clear. But this direct and brutal communication about a potential advisor is not always the case.

Fast-forward to another conversation witnessed at the meeting - a young scientist receives a post-doc opportunity with a well-known person who is also a gigantic ass. While the individual's science is known broadly, that he is also a gigantic asshat is less broadly advertised. Young post-doc mentions the prospective post-doc position to someone in passing - obviously oblivious to this person's personal reputation - and receives this advice: "I think you would really find it helpful to talk to FormerPostdocX." This advice is reiterated several times during the conversation. There is no mention of the myriad of problems that absolutely everyone who has ever worked with this individual has experienced, but it is clear to those in the know that the individual is pointing the young post-doc to a person who will spill their guts. This indirect passage of information is frankly more common than one might think because science is such a small world. Besides let's face it, I might never see a certain prospective student/post-doc ever again, but not only will I see Dr. Jackass at least once a year, he may be reviewing my manuscripts/grants or sitting on committees with me for the next 30 years, so life is more pleasant if there is at least not open warfare.

Even if you are open-minded and truly listening to what people are saying, this subtle form of "feedback" is the most difficult to detect and process. I have one simple piece of advice that can help: ask the same question over and over and over again of as many people as can reasonably be expected to answer (I learned this one while interviewing for faculty positions). You can learn some interesting things by what people consistently say, what they consistently don't say, or by the mixed messages that you receive (do equals or superiors speak highly of the individual yet underlings burn him in effigy every morning before starting work?). And here's my best piece of advice: if all the answers come back loud and negatively clear then, frankly, it is likely that something is wrong with that advisor and not that there's a wonderful advisor waiting to be discovered who just needs the right student to come along. It doesn't work with boyfriends (trust me, I've tried) and it doesn't work with advisors either!

Monday, August 18, 2008

A dirge for summer

Coming to work this morning, there was an energy in the air that has been missing for months. The groundskeepers were busy mowing, pruning, and primping plants. The parking lot was filled by 8am. The vending machine which had sat empty since May was suddenly full. With all these omens of doom and gloom in the air, I finally had to confront is about to start.

After hiding under my desk weeping uncontrollably this morning for the demise of my beloved summer, I decided to focus my post today on the good things about the school year..... ..... .... ..... ......

Alright, maybe I need to try this again.

Perhaps I should start slow and focus on why I dread the school year. Unquestionably, I dread the school year because my time is not my own. During the summer, I refuse to schedule meetings with anyone. Even General Disarray cannot get me to commit to scheduling anything work-related (I don't know if he has noticed this, but I guess he will now). This is not to say that I am unproductive during the summer - in fact I was insanely productive this summer (a thought that still gives me a little glow). However my brain (and we've already discussed how my brain is a capricious despot who rules my life with an iron fist) sometimes requires long periods of time to mull things over or long periods of time to focus on a topic. There is nothing worse than feeling the brain revving up to finally tackle that tricky discussion paragraph of a complicated concept and at that exact moment have to go off to some boring ass meeting on something I really don't care about where my sole contribution is that they needed a woman breathing in the room and so there I am.

And there it is, in a nutshell, the reason I hate the school year...all the boring ass meetings which shackle me to someone else's work schedule. They cut up my work day. They are completely pointless to my career, or frankly the working of the university, 98% of the time. They contain at least 1 royal gasbag who loves to talk about issues not related to the committee and thus extends the meeting to twice its necessary length. I resent them (both the meetings and the gasbags) with a deep-seated hatred I normally reserve for people who write boring-ass scientific papers on really cool topics (I will never understand how someone can treat their own results so poorly by refusing to buy them a nice set of clothes before sending them out into the cruel cruel world). No wonder I view the students with such dread. Their return marks the beginning of the "university-sanctioned faculty hunting season", when the Department Head wandering the hallways is someone to be avoided with all due haste because the fact that he's out of his office undoubtedly means he's on the prowl for another victim for a committee. (I actually really like my Department Head, but I have to admit I like him a lot more during the summer when I don't have to eye him with fear)

The good thing, which I have realized in using you all as a cheap therapist, is that my dread for the coming school year has nothing to do with the teaching components of my job. I love interacting with my graduate students, I get a real kick out of them as I expose to them to new concepts and see them run with the ideas in ways I never thought of. I love teaching graduate classes - they keep me on my toes and challenge me to think about things I wouldn't have thought about on my own. I really enjoy the undergraduates who work in my lab because they continually remind me of that excitement I felt when I realized that science was about finally being allowed to let my curiosity off its tight leash. This is a good thing because it will make me feel less like an ogre when the first student of the school year enters my office and I start crying. Now I know I'll actually be crying in relief that it wasn't my department head!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Good God, where do these things come from?

BikeMonkey thinks I'm worrying too much. Looking back at my past week of posts, perhaps I can concede that I have been a bit....somber and irascible. However, his prescription for me is another meme. I suspect that being tagged has nothing to do with improving my mental health and everything to do with trying to find someone who will play, but I'm willing to give anything a try at this point.

Usual meme ground rules, bold those you’ve eaten, italics those you’ve tried and couldn’t gag down, strike anything you would never, ever, ever consider eating.

1. Venison (had a boyfriend who hunted, I've had venison steaks, venison chile,....)
2. Nettle tea
3. Huevos rancheros
4. Steak tartare (have you people never had a food bourne diseases class?)
5. Crocodile

6. Black pudding (honestly, I think the English have some weird psychological problem with food)
7. Cheese fondue
8. Carp -

9. Borscht (not as bad as I thought it would be)
10. Baba ghanoush
11. Calamari

12. Pho
13. PB&J sandwich
14. Aloo gobi

15. Hot dog from a street cart
16. Epoisses
17. Black truffle (just the tiniest little shavings in a risotto in a foreign country but damn it was pretty good) 
18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes (not proud, but yes)
19. Steamed pork buns
20. Pistachio ice cream
21. Heirloom tomatoes
22. Fresh wild berries
(do I get extra points if they're in my backyard?)

23. Foie gras (when in France....)
24. Rice and beans
25. Brawn, or head cheese (no, I mean really. What is wrong with the English?)
26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper-

27. Dulce de leche
28. Oysters
29. Baklava

30. Bagna cauda (no, but damn that sounds good. I have got to go to Italy!)
31. Wasabi peas
32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl
33. Salted lassi (I've had almost every other type of lassi, maybe I'll have to order this one just to say I have)
34. Sauerkraut
35. Root beer float

36. Cognac with a fat cigar (Cognac yes, fat cigar no)
37. Clotted cream tea (all right, so there is one non-disgusting thing the British have done to a food-type object, but it is a shockingly short list)
38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O
39. Gumbo
40. Oxtail (I found it hysterical that ProfinTraining is a 'picky' eater and has all sorts of comments about other foods but this one she ate and it passed without comment on her list....having said this there is a possibility I have eaten  oxtail. I once visited a land far far away where the people giggled at me in a pub for eating something that obviously Americans would shudder at and locals thought was great...In retrospect, it might explain the weird bones....)
41. Curried goat (goat yes, curried no)
42. Whole insects- (so, is this list about things we've eaten by choice? Because I have definitely swallowed a few insects but I don't know who was more surprised, me or it.)
43. Phaal (good god, hotter than vindaloo? Do you have to have proof of health insurance before they serve it?)
44. Goat’s milk
45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$120 or more
46. Fugu (I prefer to not eat anything where I have to trust someone else to have done it right or it'll kill me)
47. Chicken tikka masala
48. Eel
49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut- (BikeMonkey is clinically insane if he thinks Dunkin’ Donuts are better.)

50. Sea urchin
51. Prickly pear
52. Umeboshi
53. Abalone
54. Paneer-

55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal
57. Dirty gin martini (Gin is the most disgusting alcohol....ever)
58. Beer above 8% ABV (love that Belgian beer)
59. Poutine
60. Carob chips (my parents were health nuts...try explaining carob chips to other 6th graders)
61. S’mores
62. Sweetbreads (Dude, it's a gland)
63. Kaolin (again, is this by choice? Because I took a pottery class once and it wasn't pretty)
64. Currywurst
65. Durian
66. Frogs’ legs
67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake- (honestly funnel cakes are the best part of childhood).
68. Haggis (Dude....did Freud ever analyze the psychology of the culinary practices of the British Isles? I mean a deep seated hate of food)
69. Fried plantain- BikeMonkey may be clinically insane, but I agree with him here. In my mind, the plantain is the best evidence available for some sort of superior being running the universe

70. Chitterlings, or andouillette
71. Gazpacho - (soups should be hot)
72. Caviar and blini
73. Louche absinthe
74. Gjetost, or brunost
75. Roadkill-  (I refuse to elaborate) 
76. Baijiu
77. Hostess Fruit Pie (shudder)
78. Snail
79. Lapsang souchong
80. Bellini
81. Tom yum
82. Eggs Benedict
83. Pocky
84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant
85. Kobe beef
86. Hare (it's even better when you have to spit out the buckshot)
87. Goulash
88. Flowers (I assume they put them on the plate at restaurants because they're edible...though I have never eaten one where I thought "Holy Crap where can I get more of that?")
89. Horse
90. Criollo chocolate
91. Spam  (yes, I have eaten it, no I will never eat it again)
92. Soft shell crab
93. Rose harissa
94. Catfish (not too digusting if it's fried....heavily fried)
95. Mole poblano (ummmm, mole)
96. Bagel and lox
97. Lobster Thermidor
98. Polenta
99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee
100. Snake- the rattlin’ variety (me too)

Maybe I do feel a little better....

Now what do I do with this? I owe PhysioProf, but see that BikeMonkey got there first. Well, since Nat is busy constructing his own meme, I'll get him before he gets me, and let's about some regular commenters at Professor Chaos that BikeMonkey hasn't already gotten to: DamnGoodTechnician and Academic!

Friday, August 15, 2008

When is it time to leave your university?

You know the school year is about to start when all the retreats begin. There are the college retreats, the departmental retreats, the retreats for those apparently too criminally insane (or masochistic) to not have made up a reason to be out of the state.... I have spent the most craptastic week going to retreats. I don't have balls, but I feel right now like I've always imagined it feels like to have been kicked in them. These were not only awful soul-sucking experiences, they were down-right demoralizing and demotivating.

When I came to my job at Wonderland University, I was told that were were an R1 institution. But you see, with the new Carnegie rankings we dropped to the second tier of institutions (now called 'high research'. This differs from the top tier of research institutions which is now called 'very high research' or the bottom tier which has no special designation but must be equivalent to 'no research pulse detectable'). It has become clear to me that the focus has been drifting while I have been here from a research emphasis and that everything from paper publications to research dollars has been declining over the past decade. While my department has also experienced this general research decline, it has been less pronounced and is still highly supportive of research. In other departments, things have been more grim. If their research programs were patients at hospitals the doctors would have called time of death a long time ago because there really is no sign of life. In fact, some of them should have had their Ph.D programs buried a while ago because they're beginning to reek. We have watched at least one other highly productive department implode. There has been no discussion at the university-level about whether or how to change this trajectory.

There is nothing wrong with being at an R2 institution if it fits with your career aspirations. What I have been weighing for a while is what career do I want and can this place support it? There are huge benefits here on the personal side - a family friendly, collegial atmosphere where my natural research productivity makes me a rock star. The down-sides are: many of students I am trying to recruit have competing offers from bigger universities that I cannot compete with, even if they come I'm almost embarrassed by the training and financial opportunities available to them, institutional regulations make having post-docs an almost impossible task, and general research infrastructure is frayed.

So this brings me back to this week's retreats. What I desperately wanted was a feeling about where the university was going. Did we have a plan? What were our priorities? The answer is that Wonderland University has no plan. In fact, the responses to pointed questions made it clear that many people would prefer to pretend that the university was still an R1 than deal with the reality that it wasn't. Some even made up ridiculous arguments involving ranking categories that do not exist and clearly we wouldn't be in anyway. Just because I say I'm as rich as Bill Gates doesn't make it true (though I desperately wish it did!) Even more awfully, it was clear that as an assistant professor I knew more about how the research and graduate programs actually worked at this university than any of the higher administration and definitely more about how they should work at an R1. Honestly, I wasn't asking about detailed trivial things either. It was the equivalent of your car mechanic not knowing where the brakes were. I may be young and naive but that seems a little fucked up. The sad thing is that my department is desperately trying to fix things but I am unconvinced that a single department can create an island in a university that doesn't seem to care.

The problem is that while I have been at other universities, this is the only university I have ever been a faculty member. What if everyplace is like this and I leave and the only thing that changes is that I have crappier colleagues?

So, my question to my wise readers is this: how do you know if it is time to leave?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Top 10 signs your reviewer suffers from bitchassness

Update: I've been away for the past couple of days, but I have recompiled the list with the fantastic comments that have been shared (I have given credit to the appropriate person as being the source but have interpreted their comments through my own crankiness!)

I've been cranky and unhappy this week and felt like I needed a little cathartic humor (apparently delving into what is wrong with math scores and whinging about my university really haven't been doing it for me). So I have started a top 10 list, but thought this might be more fun as a communal effort. Please share your top reviewer pet peeves to finish the list below. Here are my favorites.

10. Makes grandiose statements about how the research has already been done, sometimes providing strings of big name scientists but never actually providing citations. After reading all the papers by said big names you never do find any evidence that anyone, living or dead, has published a paper even remotely similar....ever.

9. A passage of the following spirit in a review has left you thinking you might actually be insane: "The authors clearly do not understand concept X, as evidenced by a series of statements I am about to make that actually have nothing to do with concept X but I will say authoritatively as if I actually understand concept X, which by definition means that the authors do not understand concept X."

8. Refers to unpublished papers as evidence that you have not adequately read the literature making you realize that you apparently failed your graduate class in clairvoyance.

7. (Isis) Suggests a really huge and elaborate addition to your experiment that not only would end up being a completely new paper but you both know there is no way in hell you'd actually conduct that experiment anyway!

6. (anon) When the reviewer uses "conventional wisdom" as evidence against you, when there has never been a paper showing that the conventional wisdom is actually true.

- note from River Tam to reviewers who do this: I HATE that shit. Legend, lore, and mythology is NOT science and often what we assume to be true actually is NOT! So, stop giving legitimate science the kiss of death just because you think you've run the experiment in your head.

5. (Anon and DamnGoodTechnician) If a reviewer has told you that you need to run additional experiments/analyses to bolster your claims and those experiments/analyses are not only in the paper already but constitute 3 out of your 5 figures!

4. (DamnedGoodTechnician) The reviewer claims that he has already proven your findings wrong in print but the paper is only vaguely related to your paper at all and could be interpreted as actually supporting your findings

- I would also like to add the variant where the reviewer's papers is totally a piece of flawed and steaming crap which you ignored because it was so truely awful that you were actually doing the reviewer a favor by ignoring its existence.

3. (Candid Engineer) When the reviewer's summary of your paper is so totally different from what you actually did that you have to wonder if the reviewer a) sent the wrong review to the editor or b) you should be contacting the editor to have medical help sent said reviewer because you are pretty sure they must have had a stroke.

Still room!!! Anyone have 1 or 2 last doozies?

Why the focus on standardized math scores are a disservice to science

FSP's post this morning on an article last week in the Chronicle of Higher Education ("How our culture keeps students out of science" by Peter Wood) gave General Disarray and me a great deal to talk about this morning on our way to work. If you have not read either her post or the original article, I suggest you check them out. In short, there are a couple of paragraphs that re-raise the specter of gender differences in scientific abilities. One of the pieces of evidence that is generally brought up in this context (though not in that article) is this underlying assumption that standardized math scores are the hallmark of someone's ability to succeed at science. I know that not all the arguments about why the gender disparity exists in the scientific ranks are focused on the standardized test results but it does seem to keep rearing its ugly head.

Now, I'm no expert on any of this, but I have been a practicing female scientist for a number of years, so I like to think I may have something relevant to say on this topic. I will admit that my SAT and GRE math scores were not, shall we say, stellar. I can't remember what exactly they were, but I was always happy if I landed in the 80th percentile somewhere.  I struggled in math classes and got A's in college - though not in high school.  And I only did that through hard work and sheer stubborn determination. (I always felt like doing math was like writing with the wrong hand - if I focused really hard I could do it but it wasn't necessarily pretty). However, here I am: a female scientist with a good scientific reputation for a young assistant professor. And, I would like to add, with a little glee, more successful (in terms of number of pubs in high quality journals and in terms of citations of said publications) than a not small fraction of my male grad student cohort who undoubtedly scored much, much higher than I did on the math GREs. How can this be?

What I think we miss in this debate is that science is more than math and scientific ability is not quantified by how well one does regurgitating facts on some GRE subject test. Science is about synthesizing facts and ideas, formulating a concept of how the world works, and using logic to make testable predictions of what should be happening if that concept is correct. The scientific process requires creativity, knowledge, and logic.

When I was a graduate student I tried to be more like my male colleagues who had great quantitative math scores. I was bad at what they were good at and we all knew it. One day, I decided that I needed to stop being them and try being me and I knew I was really good at two things: creativity and logic. By logic, I don't mean math. Math is a codified form of logic, but it is not all logic. Much of the logic I employ on a daily basis has nothing to do with math and everything to do with a more verbal type of logic and afterall, isn't that  the core of science? If I think this is happening then I would predict that this other thing must be occurring because of X, Y, and Z. Once I embraced my strengths, my science fell into place.

I'm not saying that math doesn't have an important role in science. What I am saying is that there are many ways to be a great scientist. Insane math skills are only one route. In my short career I have met outstanding scientists who were mathematical geniuses, writing geniuses, conceptual geniuses, experimental geniuses, etc, but lacked strengths on some other axis. And, frankly, while being a genius might make you famous, you don't have to be a genius to have a great career as a scientist (and trust me, I know quite a few people who fall in that category).

The focus on math scores on some standardized test as a symbol of who can be scientists does a disservice to science, education, and our students. In my opinion, the diversity of ways we approach science and the tools that we use to address questions are essential to the scientific endeavor. This focus on mathematical scores is a selective force that focuses on only one type of "intelligence", to the detriment of all the others. It is also a huge disservice to our students who grow up thinking a) that they need to be in the 90th+ percentile on math scores to go into the sciences and b) that if they don't like math then they won't like or be able to do science.  No wonder we have a problem recruiting bright, motivated students. Once I focused on my strengths, I have never found that the fact that was not 99th percentile in math to be a hindrance to my career. Instead, as a scientist, I draw everyday on my abilities to write well, reason clearly, and look at disjointed pieces of the puzzle of life through a creative lens.  And with that, I will leave you with one last thought - we remember Einstein, not because of his sick math skills and 99th percentile score on the SAT, but because of his creativity. And isn't that great.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Uh, Welcome Back?

Well, I did it. I survived my week of forced socialization with my peers (it was even kinda fun). Those of you who have read previous posts, you'll be glad to know that I did not (only) hide in my hotel room, but did some good networking. I have a tentative invite to give a talk at a major university, students are already contacting me to join my lab, and I feel like I have a solid feel on the research pulse of my field for the next year. Oh, and I ate some fantastic Ethiopian cuisine! What more can a girl want from a meeting?

The meeting was the smallest I have seen in almost a decade - only 3000 people. It felt small....and comparison to other meetings. I suspect the small was a combination of people not being excited about Milwaukee (though I really enjoyed it as a conference location) and the higher travel costs. The subdued part....I'm not sure, but I suspect it may be correlated with the fact that there was a lot of worry about NSF funding rates which apparently hit a new low of ~7% this past cycle. I talked to a former NSF program officer who talked about how exceedingly depressing it was to be making funding decisions under those doubt! As I have mentioned before, it isn't a job I would want!

I also got some good fodder for future blog postings, so in the not so distant future look for such gems as: "When you ask current students of a lab that you want to join what it's like to be in that lab, actually listen to what they say", "When the peer-review system breaks (and I think it will), then what?", and "The Young and the Restless: why are so many assistant professors jumping to new universities?".

Finally, for those of you who enjoyed the academic bully posts, I caught up with a number of my former academic bullies. Only in one case was this because I couldn't find a lamp-post to hide behind in time. Strangely they have mostly mellowed with time (or perhaps my miracle academic bully serum has resulted in permanent 'remission' in my presence). My favorite moment occurred when one of the bullies who tried to force his way on to a project of mine and "permanently borrowed" one he was collaborating on with General Disarray complained about people doing that to him. Made me believe in Karma all over again!

So, hyper-stimulated by our time in Milwaukee and antsy to get back to work on our research, General Disarray and I came in early this morning only to have our extra morning time (and motivation) eaten by a bewildering array of university-level clusterfucks that should never have happened, are not our fault,  we have no control over, but take substantial time from us to fix. Sigh, welcome back. I'm sure my love-hate relationship with my university is something I will spend more time on in the not so distant future. For now, I will simply say that Professor Chaos is exhausted but back on-line. Thanks to everyone who left comments while I was away, I'll make my way through them shortly and start making the rounds to my favorite blogging haunts! I'm sure I've missed some great stuff while I've been away!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Off to see the wizard, the wonderful wizard of Milwaukee

I'm off to the big ecology meeting in Milwaukee so things should be quiet here at Professor Chaos for the next week. I may try to blog from the meeting, but I'm not making any promises. Afterall, writing blogs ain't meeting people...well, actually I seem to meet a lot of people writing blogs, so that's not technically true...anyway, you know what I mean.

See you all on the flip side!

Friday, August 1, 2008

Role Models

A few days ago Isis mentioned that like many young, female academics, she worshiped at the alter of FemaleScienceProfessor. Something about her statement brought to mind a phenomenon I often experience when at scientific meetings, which General Disarray swears happens at every time. One minute he will see me walking across a room towards him and the next I'll have disappeared behind a wall of women who have taken the opportunity of finding me alone to come ask a bewildering array of questions regarding being a woman in science. General Disarray says this is a sign that I am doing something right as they wouldn't be coming to ask a complete loser for advice, but I have always felt a little sadness about it because surely these women can find a better source of information - someone further in their career who has actually figured somethings out and isn't blundering around in the dark just like them.

Until Isis's comment, that is as far as my thought process had gone on this topic. Something about her statement made me realize that with respect to FemaleScienceProfessor, I was like the women at those meetings...except instead of rushing towards her at a meeting, I rush to my google reader every morning. And then I realized that she was filling a role model void that I have had for a long time - the happy, female, scientist, tenured professor, with children. This realization made me think a little more about the importance of role models.

I do not have a role model, I have lots of role models....kinda like the Catholics have patron saints for all sorts of different things, I have role models for different occasions. For example, I have Saint Professor Mentor who is my role model for being a scientist. I have Saint Female-Scientist-with-Kids-but-no-permanent-position, who I go to when I want to know more on balancing kids and science career demands like frequent traveling. However, in my pantheon of saints, I have been missing a Saint Happy-Full-Professor-Female Scientist...someone who walked the path I am walking, dealt with the issues I am dealing with, and still loves what they do. Too many of the senior female professors in my field seem to have lost that joy somewhere along the way...or they have become tough in a way that is simply not me. I feel like FemaleScienceProfessor fills that niche for me and my guess is I'm not alone in that.

While some may prefer to take a more monotheistic approach to their role models, I have always felt like what are odds that one person will incapsulate everything I want to be? (And even if they did, would that be a little creepy?) And this, to me, is an important reason why we need diversity in science. Afterall, we all need role models, people we look up to that help us calibrate our internal compasses when times get hard and confusing. Finding the right role models for you becomes a lot easier if there's a diversity of people to choose from. Which is what's so great about the blogosphere. I've been exposed to a diversity of people that I have not found in my own world...who knew some of my role models would end up being a female scientist in the physical sciences (St. FSP), an NIH-funded biomedical research scientist (St. DrugMonkey), and a slightly profane basic science faculty member at a private medical school (uh...St PhysioProf?) ? How cool.