Tuesday, September 30, 2008

When Leadership Died

When exactly the concept of leadership died in our country, I do not know. But the events of the past 24 hours focused a pretty strong spotlight on Congress and the White House. Of all the muddled, confusing, and frightening things that came out of the bail out debacle, one message was shockingly clear: there are no leaders in Washington.

It seems clear to me that we are experiencing severe effects of a long-term vacuum in true leadership due to a lack of people capable of both vision for their country's future and service to their country above service to their party or themselves. I am not talking about Republican leaders or Democratic leaders. I am talking about American Leaders. People with the ability to see good ideas, regardless of whether it comes from a Republican or a Democrat, the foresight to implement them, and the courage to explain themselves clearly to the American people. Instead, we have politicians who would rather be re-elected than make courageous choices in the face of party or constituent disapproval.  We have politicians who rather smear blame than bring people together when difficult choices need to be made. In a time of crisis, a house divided against itself cannot stand. Thank you, President Lincoln, I think I now understand your point.

I will leave it to more informed people than myself to assess how we got into this mess. I am an Independent, and I think both sides have brought us to this point. And this point is not good. We are at a point where there is no trust - there is no respect - within government or between the government and many of its people. Our government is obviously paralyzed by distrust between Democrats and Republicans. But it is also paralyzed now by a distrust between politicians and the American people. We have reached a point where politicians of both parties speak in convoluted phrases and out right lies, as if we are not smart enough to realize we are being lied to. The spectacular greed which has brought our country to this economic state has caused mistrust between ordinary people and our financial institutions. And special interest money coursing through Congress has caused the American people to suspect that our government is no longer Lincoln's "government of the people, by the people, for the people", but a government of the lobbyists, by the lobbyists, for the lobbyists. With all this distrust, yesterday's outcome was not a surprise. It was inevitable.

No good comes to any country at such an impasse. Especially one in the midst of two wars and potential economic collapse. While I privately hope that a real leader will emerge from this catastrophe, the truth of the matter is that right now we all need to be leaders for our country. Our politicians will not put our country above partisan politics until we demand exactly that. And by putting our country first, I do not mean 'my way or the highway'. I mean true intellectual discourse on the problems facing us, discussion of our differences on how to fix them, and real compromises across party lines. Until we ourselves say enough with partisanship and vote out of office those who insist on conducting themselves as if there can be only one political party, ... well, we get what we pay for. And I for one am not sure I like what we've bought.

The Job Packet - How much I hate thee

It's been a few years since I last constructed a job packet. In my memory, it was such a simple thing to put together. A short letter detailing why I was interested in/fit their job and selling the highlights of my credentials. A page on my teaching philosophy - which, for the jobs I was applying to, I figured would probably not even be read. A research statement, lovingly crafted with my current and future research plans. And, of course, my CV. My memory says I wrote these easily and quickly and birds sang in the background while the refreshing scent of flowers wafted over me.

After last night, I suspect that my memory was artificially constructed by my brain to protect me from a stressful experience....kinda like the hormone that supposedly wipes women's memories after childbirth so they forget the hours and hours of pain and actually want to have sex again.

Seriously, though, I really thought the packet would be easier to construct this time around. Afterall, I've now been on two job search committees. I've seen more job packets than I care to think about. I know exactly how much emphasis gets put on the CV versus everything else. I need a cover letter that explains why I fit their job and highlights my productivity in case they happen to start with the cover letter before the CV. It just has to not suck. I know this. But I spent three agonizing hours on the damn cover letter last night.

After a sleepless night, I know that the struggle actually had little to do with the cover letter itself. Part of it did....I had built up in my head that now that I was an assistant professor, I really needed a letter that sounded like one and I had no idea how to do that. But most of the struggle had to do with self-doubt. Was I really good enough to apply to some of these schools? Should I just be happy with having a job? Was I doing the right thing by hitting the market now in this time of economic crisis? Was I insane not to try and make a move right now, because only God knows if there will even be open jobs next year. What if I moved and that university collapsed under economic strains? (I imagine a lot of schools are watching horrible things happen to their endowments right about now). What if I don't get any interviews? What does that say about my quality as a scientist?

I'm better now....mostly. It can be so easy to get trapped in your own brain running frantically in circles after questions with no answers. The truth of the matter is, nothing is lost by hitting the market and potentially so much is gained. It may be a gamble, but when the worst case scenario for a gamble is that nothing changes, you only lose by not trying. And for those of you who are wondering about my cover letter...it's all good. It doesn't suck, but my CV rocks.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Oh yeah baby!

Challenged by the fact that PhysioProf could mobile blog and I couldn't, I perservered in my quest for remote blogging. My efforts have been rewarded. Yeah!

-- Post From My iPhone

Saturday, September 27, 2008

To admit or ignore: the conundrum of an academic couple on the market

For those of you following my little blog, you know that General Disarray and I have been contemplating hitting the market this fall. We're pretty picky about where we would go (afterall, no point jumping to an equivalent or worse situation) and finally a couple of jobs have opened up which have caught our attention. Two of these are of the generic "looking for anyone in the fields of ecology and evolution" type. So we're both applying for some of the same jobs. (Having served on two search committees of the 'someone who works on pink spotted (but not red spotted) people-eaters who only eat tall people (but not short people) coming out of Wendy's on Sundays' searches, I cannot imagine how one evaluates that many job packets from so many sub-disciplines. General Disarray and I have joked that they must just weigh each CV for their first cut through the applicant pool...but of course nowadays it's all electronic so maybe it's a byte count...anyway I seriously digress).

So, we dutifully emailed our letter writers, pinky swearing them to secrecy (seems funny to swear them to secrecy and then blog about it, but I guess that's why I'm (hopefully) anonymous). More than one of my letter writers asked if it was okay to mention General Disarray in their letter. I have to admit I was more than a little bafoozled by the question. The argument coming from my letter writers was that they thought it would not hurt, but would help our applications and since we would not leave our current university without jobs for both of us, there was no reason not to be upfront about this. I had to admit that the logic seemed reasonable. Afterall, no point wasting everybody's time and effort if there is no way a department can come up with a second job, right? And, letting them know at the outset would give them maximum time to secure a second job if they wanted, right? Except....have you all seen the Incredibles? There's a scene where Mr Incredible wants a cape for his new superhero suit and Edna (the eccentric superhero fashion designer) says "No cape!" and begins listing all the superheros done in by their cape.


Figure 1. Mr Incredible, Edna, and the 'Hobo Suit'

Well, like Edna, I can list very good academic couples that appeared to suffer on the job market from honesty. Some of these people were frankly superstars, who if on the market independently would have secured interviews at a majority of schools, yet surprisingly received 1 or no interview requests when the fact that they would need a job for their spouse was either in their cover letter or in their letters of recommendation. I suspect that when deciding who to interview, there is overt or subconscious bias against people who have admitted openly they need a second job for their spouse. To really test this, General Disarray and I would randomly choose half of our applications to be sent with cover letters admitting we were an academic couple and half where we did not and see if there was a statistical difference in interview rates....but I strongly suspect that we will not have a large enough sample size to make it meaningful.

On the flip side, I also suspect that General Disarray and I may be outted anyway since we will be opposite gendered people applying from the same university. Furthermore, we know people at these universities, and we know that they know about us. I have no clue how a committee would respond if they knew we were married but we hadn't brought it up. Would the search committee wonder if we thought they were stupid or assume we were getting a divorce?

Anyway, I am opening this question to you, dear readers. I'm working on my job packet this week, so there's plenty of time to incorporate your suggestions! Do we admit up front in our job applications that we're looking for two positions or deal with it if we manage to get an interview/offer?

Why mobile blogging with Blogger blows

This week I was away from my desk (yeah!) for an extended period of time (yeah!) in a scenario where I did not have computer access to the internet, but I did have phone access. I had some time on my hands, and missed my blogosphere peeps, so I thought I would figure out how to do some mobile blogging. Afterall, having advanced internet capabilities was one of the reasons I got that fancyass iPhone in the first place! (BTW, the iPhone is coolest technological gadget I have ever experienced. If you are like me and feel intense need for and satisfaction at instantly Google-ing for a piece of information you were wondering about, this thing is as good as it gets until they figure out how to implant direct connections to the internet into our brains).

So, first I tried it directly from my phone through the web browser, but apparently my phone did not recognize the giant-ass text box. Then I searched for an app...afterall WordPress apparently has a nifty app for blogging on your phone. Nope. So, then I scoured Blogger for info on how to mobile blog. By this time, I almost peed myself when I found the link "Learn how to start mobile blogging". Obviously, I was missing something important and could use a few lessons.

Here's how it "works". You email or MMS go@blogger.com from your phone and it sets up a separate blog for you.  It sends you an email with a code that allows you to activate and link that blog with your real blog. Then, whenever you send an email to go@blogger.com from your phone it posts that email to your blog. Simple, right? Well, actually I thought it sounded weirdly convoluted and slightly esoteric, but  was pretty desperate at this point.

So, in my few minutes of spare time I trudged through the various steps outlined above. I received weird messages that indicated something had gone wrong followed by the email with my code indicating everything was hunky dory. I linked my mobile blog with Professor Chaos successfully. Excited, I quickly spun off a test email, explaining to you all what I was doing so you wouldn't be confused by just some post saying "test" popping up and send in the cavalry assuming that it was an SOS message and PhysioProf had hijacked me because I had promised to vote for Isis every hour on the hour if she posted a recipe I could freeze...which she did! Anyway, I pressed 'send' and then started checking my blog. Nothing ever showed up. Later, when I had a few more minutes, I checked my email:

Your carrier is not supported by Blogger Mobile. Please try using Mail-to-Blogger or visit http://www.blogger.com/mobile-request for more information.

What? My carrier is AT&freakingT! You kidding me? It's not like I'm on some pay as you go network or something! The link takes you to a form with this information:

"Request a mobile carrier

Thanks for your interest in Blogger Mobile. Please complete this form in order to submit your carrier for review. We will not respond to to these submissions, but will take it into consideration as we work to expand Blogger Mobile to more carriers."

Well it would have been nice before I started that whole mess to know what carriers exactly they did support.

Stupid... freaking... Blogger.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The 10 on and 5 off experiment

This morning was one of those mornings when it seems almost impossible to make yourself do things you desperately need to do. When the brain is just not inspired and stabbing yourself in the eye (repeatedly) seems like more fun than typing one more word. The bummer is I'm not talking trivial mole whacking things being due. I talking revisions due to journals and reviews due to NSF. General Disarray was in the same boat - important things needed to be done, and we were hopeless. We were so hopeless in fact that at one point General Disarray looked at me and asked "So which one us is going to have the medical emergency?" As in, "Dear Important Person, I am terribly sorry my [insert name of important item due today] will be late. [insert professor's version of my grandmother ate my homework and died excuse here]. I promise to have your [terribly important item inserted here] to you by Monday at 5pm".

The plight of your hero and heroine looked grim. Every time we checked in with each other there was serious, serious web surfing going on. Finally, General Disarray suggested something he read over at 43 folders (I don't know why 43 folders and not 44 folders or even 100 folders, which frankly sounds more reflective of the chaos of most people's work lives). The suggestion was this: When you just can't get things done, focus on getting something done for just 10 minutes and then take 2 minutes off. I was skeptical since (I like to tell myself) I'm just too much of a free creative spirit to be constrained by that organizational/productivity crap.(As an aside, I eventually did give up on the color coding and trying not to use my inbox as a to-do list...who was I kidding anyway, I am really just not meant to live that way). But the web entries list of who this would help was like it said "River Tam, this is for you": procrastinators, the easily distracted, compulsive web-surfers, people with a long list of very short tasks (a/k/a “mosquitos”), people having trouble chipping away at very large tasks.  And I was definitely 3 out of the 4 this morning.

The problem was, I was totally not agreeing to only 2 minutes off (there was no way I could complete a round of the video game I was busy playing in 2 minutes!). I tried to negotiate with General Disarray for 10 on and 10 off - afterall even if we could get 30 minutes of good work done per hour it would be a vast improvement over what we were currently accomplishing! (Unfortunately, he knows me too well and understood I had shot for the moon in an attempt to negotiate more favorable terms). We finally settled on 10 on, 5 off . So, General Disarray set the timer and off we went. And what do you know, it actually worked!! I managed to finish writing my review this morning and General Disarray got most of a detailed response to reviewers written for a manuscript he's resubmitting.

And the 43 folders dude was totally right, it did totally save my ass.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Disappearing women - Pt 2

(I tried initially to do this is a comment, but as you will see, my commenters gave me so much to think about that it quickly ballooned - I strongly recommend that anyone reading this entry, read the comments to "The Case of the Disappearing Women" first.)

First, I want to say thank you to all of you for your comments. I've been disturbed by the conversation I had last week about the disappearing women for days and hearing what you had to say meant  lot to me. I've spent all weekend reading and thinking about all your feedback. I found great comfort in the fact that the younger scientists aren't going through training with a sense of dread and hopelessness. I honestly believe that things are turning in ecology for women and turning for the better. The ranks of the young female assistant professors are increasing by the year and many of us are not okay with waiting to have a "tenure baby".

Having said that, just because things are improving does NOT mean that we don't still have a lot of work to do. I think the anonymous commenters highlight that very clearly. Before I go further I want to specifically tell anon #1 that your story breaks my heart. I wish I could say that your story was unique, but I would be lying. It is easy for those of us who make it through the system to get complacent ("well, I'm doing well, the system must be working), and I really appreciate you sharing your story. It reminded me that things are not "fixed" by any stretch of the imagination and that I and others who make it through the gauntlet still have work to do. I still feel optimistic about my ecology sub-field, but I have collaborated widely enough to know that this is not the case in many other ecology sub-disciplines.

I also think that anon #1 and anon #2 both have hit upon something important. One of the big battles now is for the "souls" of women who want both work and families. I don't think that the current "fix" of being able to pause the tenure clock is really working, at least psychologically. So, the question remains, what will?

Fia and anon #1 hit upon something I've been thinking a lot about this weekend - the importance of having a supportive significant other. Female Science Professor also hit upon this theme a few times in her blog (can't figure out which entries those were, but they're all a good read) and I couldn't agree more. If you have a supportive spouse who values you having a successful career and who splits domestic responsibilities equally, this is a much easier path to walk. If you have one that values your career, but doesn't split domestic duties, this is a harder but not impossible path. If you have a spouse that doesn't value you having a successful career, I think you're pretty much fucked. It was clear from my conversation last week, that many of those women had husbands who did not value them having a career - or thought it was okay as long as they didn't have to sacrifice anything for it. I feel very fortunate to have married someone who wanted a truly equal partnership as much as I did. If I had married some of my other (less equal partnership minded) boyfriends, I am very certain I would be divorced by now.

And finally, Fia - unfortunately the blogs are not here to motivate the next generation of female scientists but to openly share issues we're all dealing with. I can totally understand that sometimes this is less than motivational and is sometimes downright scary. But take heart that we (female assistant professors) exist, that we're struggling to make things better for ourselves and those who follow, and I, for one, would still not choose any other career path.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Case of the Disappearing Women

Despite the discussion this week about ogling and more posts on breasts than I can fathom (in fairness, we really should have penis week to bring cosmic balance back to the blogosphere! And it looks like Isis has gotten Penis Week off to a rousing start), I've been feeling really good about the outlook for female scientists in my field.   Graduate programs in ecology are now pretty much 50-50 male/female....sometimes actually skewed towards female. When I left my post-doctoral institution to take this job, that graduate program had a huge group of gung-ho female grad students who were clearly on the fast-track to success. (They had an intense passion for science and the pubs to prove it.) Not only has our graduate representation increased, but it also feels like our faculty representation has increased. There are a large number of totally kick-ass young female ecologists that have been hired over the past couple of years. I mean, people who have wide-spread recognition as rock-stars. While I have run into some sexism in the older ranks, my male contemporaries (or at least the one's I'm lucky enough to hang out with) evaluate their male and female counterparts based on ideas and productivity, not body parts. So, I've been blissfully sitting here, watching the discussions occurring in the blogosphere, thinking 'thank god I'm an ecologist'.

Then reality struck on Friday night. I had a long conversation with an old friend from said post-doctoral institution. During this conversation, I did the standard "what's so-and-so doing", and I asked about all the young female graduate students who had looked to be destined for successful careers in academia. Each answer was grimmer than the last. Every single one of them has either left science, or it is difficult to see how they will remain in the game for much longer. Every single one of them apparently decided that it was impossible to have children and a successful career in science. Since having both is "impossible", they have made decisions for having the child that often preclude the science.  Every single one of them has a husband with a  job he could do in any city in the U.S., but she doesn't want to uproot him and the family when it "seems likely" they won't make it in academia anyway. Unless you're in one of the cities with multiple universities in close proximity, it's hard to get a permanent position in ecology when you're anchored to one location (we don't have the same industry options as the medical folks) and the funding situation at NSF makes the soft-money route even harder than it has been. While I hope that things will work out in the science arena for these women, I am not optimistic.

Obviously, for each of those women, the details of their situation is more complex than I've portrayed, but in complexity there is often still generality. A clear message I heard  was that these women felt they had no role-model of having a family and being a tenure-track professor. They didn't like the choices other women had made and assumed it was impossible to make different choices and still succeed.

And so, despite that fact that my post-doctoral institution had a 50-50 ratio in its grad population, it looks like from that group the number of women who will make it through the post-doc phase will be much much less. As an advisor, currently training a lab full of women, this revelation has me very, very worried. So, to all those rock-star young female assistant professors out there, keep doing what you're doing, sisters, because I think we desperately need you in more ways than one.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

On the current battle for godhood

I have remained silent as I have watched the culinary battle between PhysioProf and Isis unfold. It is all very entertaining and I will admit that I have been voting. But at the risk of some serious swearwords and smiting (I honestly prefer Drugmonkey to be the next person blown out of the sky by the goddess as opposed to my humble self), I must finally say my peace: this competition is crap.

There, I've done it. Let the chaos ensue.

Why is it crap? Isis is the domestic and laboratory goddess (it says so on her blog). I think the 'and' is a critical (and apparently neglected) word. If I had all day to work on my home, I too could be a domestic goddess. My house would be neat (maybe,...there is my inherent problem of being a chaos vortex....I might have to clean my home and then lock myself out of it) and my long-suffering husband would come home with a gourmet meal awaiting him (I will never be a chef, but I'm mighty fine at following complicated recipes...which is surprising in retrospect since my TA for organic chemistry lab passed me on the condition I never step foot in another chemistry lab). I could also be a domestic goddess if I was a full professor and could afford to hire a sous chef to make my duck confit for me. Anyway, my point is that what makes Isis a domestic goddess worth praying to is that her advice allows mere mortal women to immulate BOTH a domestic and work goddess. Those handy pieces of advice that help you balance those competing demands. I mean, the pesto recipe was fantastic, and it has saved my ass on more than one occasion when General Disarray and I came home too exhausted to cook.

Now, I understand that sometimes true gods have to fling lightning bolts at each other to establish pre-eminence. However, I would like to point out that when gods forget the little people, they tend to stop being worshipped.


Figure 1. Not familiar with the gods Tiamat and Assur? That's exactly my point.

So, Isis and PhysioProf, in your competition to one-up each other, please remember that many of us are struggling young scientists without much time to cook extravagant gourmet meals (or the money to hire someone else to do it). Please attempt to demonstrate to your humble worshipers not only your might, but also your benevolence and usefulness.

Hugs and Kisses,


The Random Clicker

When I opened my word processor this morning to work on reformatting a manuscript to submit to a new journal, I realized that I am a very blessed individual. What made me appreciate my blessed-ness? Well, MS Word has starting displaying some...interesting features. First, it...scrolls. Don't know how to explain it any better, but the MSWord window no longer fits on my screen, but if I move my mouse to the top or bottom of the screen,... it scrolls. Second, I have magically lost my vertical scroll bar. This is different from what I described before. The scroll bar is what we use to page up or down through a manuscript. The other thing I described is an actual scrolling of the whole screen.

You might be wondering why I call these things signs of my blessed nature and not signs of the demonic nature of Microsoft. The answer is because these are just symptoms of one of my very special gifts: the ability to make things happen on computers that no one else thought possible. General Disarray is a very savvy computer dude. When something surprising happens on my computer, I assume he already knows about it and how to fix it. Turns out that most of what I am able to do is quite surprising even to him. How do I get my computer to perform magical and obscure acts? Turns out, I am a random clicker.

Random clicking occurs when one is either a) frustrated when the computer is slow or b) oblivious to the fact that you have opened some tab, folder, important setting, and continue to type in an oblivious fashion. These are not mutually exclusive. The end result is a rather random setting of various important control parameters on one's computer. The trick, of course, if for these random clickings to result in something new and unusual and not just crash your computer.

Some of you may be thinking right now that my special ability of random clicking in creative and bizarre ways is related to my other super-hero ability: the ability to instantaneously convert any room to its maximum entropy value. You would be wrong. How do I know you are wrong? Because I have genetic proof that these are separate gifts. My father is a chaos vortex such as myself, my mother most definitely is not. However, my mother is a random clicker and manages to make their computer do all sorts of fascinating things not previously known to man, which my father cannot undo. (They now have separate computers - supposedly this is for 'convenience', but I suspect that my father couldn't take it any more. Interestingly, I have just realized that General Disarray and I also have separate computers at home, and I just realized I don't know a valid reason why...). Thus I support my assertion that I actually have inherited two completely unrelated superpowers.

I don't mind my superpowers. (For instance, if anyone wanted to pick up research secrets from my office: good luck!) They have been a part of me for as long as I can remember. But some mornings, when I really need to scroll back and forth through that 30 page manuscript to work on references, I really wish I could get that vertical scroll bar back!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

How River Tam ended up where she is

Candid Engineer asked me a while back to expand on how a nice R1 girl like myself ended up at a confused R2 like this. I've been struggling with exactly how to answer that question for a couple of weeks now. Like most things in life, it is rarely simple how one got to where one is - but I will do my best to sidestep the philosophical issues on this one and stick to the facts.

The ultimate reality in academia is that you take a job where you can get a job. I remember clearly my first realization of this as a grad student. I had just discovered the Science Jobs website, which gives you all those neat options like narrowing your search to type of job and state. So I put in assistant professor, ecology, and my favorite state. When that big fat 0 results came up, I very quickly learned that this was not a search algorithim that was likely to end with me in a tenure track position. When I got my Ph.D., I applied to every R1 position that I was remotely qualified for. The job market for ecologists has exploded the past couple of years, but when I was on the market the number of positions had just begun to increase from the grim 90s and I was putting in around 10 apps/year (last year, if I had been on the market, I could have put in almost 30). When my post-doc funding ran out, this was the only job offer I had in hand. That's the simple version of the story.

Simple, except that if you were reading carefully, I said I applied for every position at an R1 university, yet here I am at an R2. Well, my friends, this is the more complex version of the story....

So, here's the story for any of my young readers who are currently on the market. I studiously avoided R2s when I was on the market because I knew that they tended to have higher teaching loads and lower research emphasis.  That was just not the gig I was looking for and a good friend (and also a variety of anti-role models) had warned me that once you get into those positions, the high teaching loads can make it hard to get out. What I was unaware of when I was on the market was that the Carnegie Foundation, which developed the tier system for research universities, has been in the process of refining its system. The R1/R2 terminology we all use (which referred to the classifications for doctoral granting institutions: R1, R2, D1, D2) became defunct in 2000. At that time, Carnegie started overhauling its classification system and put up an interim system. At that time, they basically divided the doctoral institutions into research and less-research universities (in effect Rs in one group and Ds in another). Apparently, nobody really liked this, so everyone kept using the old R1/R2 designations. In 2005, a new system - based on more extensive criteria - was released and doctoral institutions were once again broken down more finely. The new categories are: Research University - Very High Research Activity, Research University - High research activity, and Doctoral Research University. The names are less catchy, but the tune is generally the same. There is a top tier of research universities, a second tier of research universities, and then a bottom tier with limited research activity. The job ad for the university I am currently at said it was R1 (a classification which did not exist at that time, but then everyone was doing the same thing). If I had been paying attention on my interview, I might have realized that there was something suspect about the R1 classification, but I didn't understand what I was seeing. It is only after I got here - and was confused about some of the big differences between this university and the R1s I had been at in the past - that I realized that we had been...reclassified. Before anyone gets all up on me about how the rankings are no longer exactly analogous to the old R1/R2 system, I would like to say that my first response was that there had to be some mistake. But when I look at my university objectively and then look at who else is in the High Research category, I honestly think Carnegie got it right. Those are our peer institutions.

I share, perhaps an overabundance of information on the topic of Carnegie rankings, because I think it is important for young people to realize that the information is out there for them to check on themselves (as is information about average salaries for assistant professors, cost of living, and a variety of other tools that can help with everything from negotiations to decision making if you are lucky enough to have more than one offer). You can look up any institution at the Carnegie Foundation website. And, just in case you think checking up on that information isn't important: I have seen job ads from my university go out claiming that we are still an R1.

So that's it, kids. That's the story of how a R1 girl takes a wrong turn and ends up in a part of the academic town she didn't expect to be in. I won't lie to you, there are some nice things about being in this part of town, but there are some real frustrations too. It's all about the tradeoffs and whether they are acceptable given where you want to go in life. Still figuring that out for myself, but I'll keep you posted as I work it through!

Monday, September 8, 2008

Anti-role models

When Isis wrote her post using the Despair.com de-inspirational posters, I was totally excited. Back in my more dark-humor post-doc days, when the randomness of the job market obsessed me, I adored the Despair.com posters. So, I followed her link and perused my favorites once again.


Figure 1. Example from the River Tam list of favorites: "Mediocrity: It takes a lot less time and most people won't notice the difference until it is too late."

However, one of the Despair.com posters has always had an important ring of truth to me:


Figure 2: "It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others"

I don't know about the rest of you, but I have some of these people who serve as reminders that "here be monsters" that will sink my own ship if I am not careful. People who do not understand how they got where they are and are not happy about it. There was the woman who published plenty of papers but not really any first authored papers who makes everyone flinchy about her ability to take a scientific lead on projects. There were the various graduate students who focused on lots of easy, first-authored publications in undistinguished journals of ill-repute and now don't understand why major research universities are not interested in giving them a job. There is my friend who chased the easy money and not the ideas and is realizing that they have ended up doing research that bores both them and their colleagues. I used to dismiss these people as the inevitable end of someone who was not cut out for the career path I wanted. In some cases, this is true. I've known a few analogs of the drunken captain of the Exxon Valdez who not only ran their ship ashore but did a lot of damage along the way. But many of these were talented friends who only years later did I understand the lesson they had taught me as I found myself in similar waters.  They remind me how easy it is to take one's eye off the direction you really want to go and make expedient or expected choices that actually take you away from your preferred path.

In some ways these anti-role models have been as important to me as my role models.  Right now they seem more so, as I try to figure out what to do about my confused university and if I am at my own critical juncture and about to become my own warning to others. While role models provide me with guiding examples of who I want to be and how I want to live my life, anti-role models serve a more basic function of warning me of specific things to make sure I don't do along the way.

I haven't been as funny lately as I have wished to be, so I'll leave you with one last poster from Despair.com


Figure 3. "None of us is as dumb as all of us." River Tam's opinion of committees and faculty meetings.

Update: General Disarray distracted me and I posted without the relevant links to the Isis post and Despair.com (Sorry, Isis! I beg of  you, no smiting!)

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Joy of a Clean Whiteboard

I block out time every week that is dedicated to research. During that time, I do not answer the phone, I do not answer my door, I do not respond to emails. I work on whatever research project needs my attention. This is my survival strategy which insures that I actually have something to show my tenure committee every year when I am evaluated (especially important since my university refuses to allow postdocs to be included in start-up packages and all my students are still too new to have projects rolling out).

For the past few months, these precious research moments - islands of time when I pretend I'm still a postdoc - have been dedicated to desperately trying to write, edit, and revise a vast array of projects that all seemed to reach fruition at exactly the same moment of time...and that moment in time was this summer. Part of that timing was self-imposed because I wanted to have a lot of projects out the door to make my CV look good  in case I saw some jobs I wanted to apply for this fall. But part of it was externally imposed by collaborators who, I think, also wanted to have papers out the door and possibly accepted in case they too saw jobs they wanted to apply for.  I have been a single-minded writing machine.

Yesterday, I pushed the last of these puppies off my desk (including submitting one to a journal higher than I would normally try for). And last night, it suddenly hit me - there was nothing on my docket that had to be done during my research time the next day. No papers that needed to be revised, no grants that needed to be written. No analyses that needed to be done to support some last minute statement inserted into a discussion. My mad paper writing dash had come to a pause.....and it was like the angels sang. I went to sleep with a deep sense of contentment.

Why? Because today, my friends, I get to sit in front of a fresh white board and design my next research projects. There's something really liberating about the moment of realization that I direct my own research (or perhaps it's just the realization that it's harder for people to find me when I'm not in my office). That moment when I pick up  that dry erase marker and start writing out the questions I want to address and what I will need to do that will be the moment that makes up for the politics of science - all the academic bullies, the high service load, the irritating student who still hasn't  set a date for his comprehensive exam. Today, my friends, is going to be pure fun. The fun of letting my curiosity run rampant and the intellectual challenge of figuring out a way to test my ideas - that is why I got into this biz. So, my friends, off I go to visit my whiteboard. If you don't hear from me for a few days, it probably means I ended up barricading myself in and refused to come out.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

What does the authorline of a paper represent?

As I seem to do at least once a week, I would like to point my readers over to a great discussion occurring at DrugMonkey. This time the topic is on paper authorship in the Biological/Biomedical Sciences. The main points of discussion circulate around PhysioProf's 5 authorship scenarios/issues: 1) collaboration between labs, 2) authorship for trainees, 3) to credit or not credit people who ran potentially influential but failed experiments, 4) should lab heads be given authorship for creating and maintaining the environment in which the research was conducted, 5) should someone who provides materials for the research be included as an author. As evidenced by the discussion at DrugMonkey, many of these are less than clear-cut issues.

I thought about discussing these issues from an ecological point of view where important differences in scientific culture and student funding could lead us to make different authorship decisions. I still think that would be interesting, but in preparing that I realized there was a fundamental question that had to be answered before I could meaningfully discuss more detailed scenarios. It is a shockingly basic question: what exactly is authorship of a paper meant to represent? We throw around phrases that sound like they define something (e.g., "meaningful contributions", "vouch for the validity of the research"), but the more I get into this crazy game the more unclear I become on just what those phrases mean.

Over the past coupe of decades, ecology has become immensely more collaborative and we frankly have been struggling with the concept of authorship as a result. In a very short period of time (I would guess 25 years at most) we have gone from primarily 1-2 authors per paper to these gargantuan authorlines generated by massive collaborative endeavors (for example, NCEAS working groups, LTER projects). It is easy to know who "should" be on an authorline when only two people are doing all the work, but when there are 20+ people, where does the line get drawn? Sometimes it seems that we've decided that anyone who breathes oxygen in the room while the research is being discussed deserves "credit". In addition to problems with trying to decide who should be on the authorline, how do you attribute credit to individuals? When it's just two blokes, (justly or not) you can feel pretty confident that those two people were intimately involved in most aspects of the research, but what does a 20+ authorline really signify?

In ecology, the large authorline is a reality that is more than just an artifact of NCEAS or the LTER network. Our science has been pushing across traditional boundaries with amazing boldness and speed.  This results in research questions that may require skills in physiology and ecosystem ecology, or combining theoretical ecology with field ecology. The training required to master one of these areas is immense and in my experience people are very very rarely able to master more than one area. But what happens if you want to understand whether the presence and abundance of the Cane Toad, which is an invasive species, impacts ecosystem biogeochemical cycling and whether this has anything to do with the physiological phosphorus and nitrogen requirements of the toad? For one person to do this project well without collaboration would require someone with the knowledge and ability to conduct: field sampling and experimental manipulation of the focal organism, physiological knowledge of and perhaps lab experiments on the focal organism, sampling of nutrients in the field, and the lab analyses of those samples to actually get measurements of different forms of nitrogen or phosphorus, and the ability to interpret said results in the context of both the species' biology and the ecosystem biogeochemical cycles. A lab that is set up for the species or ecosystem end of the question is often not set up for the other. Odds are you are looking for someone to collaborate with, if only to get it all done in a reasonable amount of time. Once you get past one author, the question automatically becomes how many people "deserve" to also be an author.

I keep putting the word "deserve" in quotes because it is a word we all use but I honestly am not sure what it means. "Deserve" implies that there is some level of contribution to the research that automatically gives someone authorship rights, but you only have to look at the discussion occurring over at DrugMonkey to realize that none of us has any objective idea what that that level of contribution might be. In ecology, the changes in our science have been occurring so rapidly, that I feel like we've just grabbed authorship "solutions" from other disciplines, assuming that they've already thought this through. However, what I would like to see is some discussion regarding what the authorline is supposed to represent. What information do we want conveyed by the presence and ordering of the list of authors? Obviously, we use the authorline (for good or ill) to make some judgments about the research and the contributions of the people involved. But what information exactly are we trying to extract or convey with that? I feel that until there is a serious discussion about what exactly the authorline means in this collaborative age, we have little philosophical foundation for these discussions of authorship rules and etiquette.

So, what do what want to know from our authorlines? I'm hoping others will weigh in as I'm very curious about what other people think, but I'll get us started with a couple of my thoughts:

1) I want to know who the main point person on the project is. This is the person with the best grasp on the overall project and the research conducted within it. This is the person who is most likely to be able to answer a question about the research or to know exactly who did that component and why that technique was chosen (even if they did not do that analysis/experiment themselves and or even begin to explain how to do that technique).

2) If different people are responsible for different components of the research, I want to know who did what. Who's "credibility" is on the line if that component is wrong?

3) Did different people do different amounts of work for this project? If so, who conducted most of the work (this includes both the research and writing aspects)?

Most of what I want to know from an authorline is how to apportion credit and (frankly) gain a sense of how much I trust the results of the paper. Was this predominately the work of the known moron on the authorline or the brilliant scientist? (I know this last point is a little...something, but I'm really busy and I just don't have time to read all the papers I should be reading).

What about the rest of you? What information are you looking for from authorlines?