Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The 5 worst conversations I've had as a professor

All of these involve aspects of being a TT professor that I never considered until they came up. Forewarned is fore-armed!

5.     Student with boundary issues
        My second year teaching, I had a student who stalked his (female) lab TA. I was unsure what his deal was, but it turned out he had major boundary issues. We had to discuss appropriate and inappropriate behavior after he was unable to understand why finding a large and angry male student standing right outside her research lab door late at night when she was alone, was not expecting him, and the building was nearly deserted might be upsetting and fear-inducing. Apparently, he had been standing there for hours after a late afternoon appointment with the TA ended. The discussion ended the creepy behavior, but I wonder about that guy.

4.     First time failure
        My very first semester teaching, I had a student crying in my office after I returned my first midterm exam. He had never failed anything before in his life, and had no idea how to handle it. I had no idea what to do. I gave him a tissue, gave him some ideas about how to go ahead from here, and resolved to think about strategies for crying students BEFORE handing back exams next time. Since then, I've had many more students crying in my office (I get crying students of all genders--maybe I am a cruel professor?), but have coping strategies pre-planned.

3.     Personal hygiene
        This was really the most embarrassing thing I've had to do thus far as a professor. Pretty early into my time at ProdigalU, I was sharing student office space with a much more senior colleague who was traveling extensively over the summer. He had a visiting "student" (I think he may have been a professor in his home country, but had student status at ProdigalU) who had terrible body odor. It was very hot. The office had 6 people in it. My students were very upset and asked me to do something about it. So, I had to have a discussion about personal hygiene and cultural norms with a man much older than myself, who was clearly seriously annoyed at having to talk to me at all, let alone about the topic. No one ever tells you about that one before you start the job!

2.     Stalker student
        My most frightening conversation was with a student who was clearly having mental health issues, and kept screaming at me and refusing to leave my office. Luckily for me, my colleagues noticed something was amiss, and called someone to take her to student services for help.

1.     Leaving without a PhD
        The very worst conversation I've had in my office was when I had to tell a student they would not be getting a PhD with me. It was necessary, but painful on both sides. In retrospect, I let a bad situation go on too long, which was not good for me, my group, or the student. In the end, it all worked out. The student now has a job they really like, and was not cut out for PhD research anyway. It is very difficult when it feels like you are killing someone's dream, and worse when they have been working with you for a while and you really like them.

Friday, December 2, 2016

What a TT job interview looks like to the search committee

It is academic job time again, and ProdigalU is running some searches. I've written before about how the search committee selection process, interview advice (personal experiences: post 1, post 2), and the research/chalk talk specifically. I thought it might be interesting to remove the curtain on what it actually looks like when you are on a search committee on an interview day.

The first thing to remember is that interview occur DURING the academic year. In my field, the most busy period for interviews is December, January, and February, though sometimes we extend into March if we get a late start. So, even before the candidate shows up, there is a scramble to book a room for the research talk if it isn't a normal seminar day. No matter when this talk is, some people will be teaching if it isn't a normal seminar day. Depending on the timing (like is it exam period?) it may also be hard to fill all of the one-on-one slots (typically 30 min) for the candidate. All of the search committee members sign up (they get first shot at the schedule), but in a typical interview, we have 10-12 slots per day to fill up over two days, and we have 35ish faculty members (some of whom are on leaves of various kinds), which means we need to coordinate the schedules of 30-35 busy people to fit a schedule that will not run on time anyway. Worse if it is during finals, the first two weeks of the semester, or during midterms. So, as the interviewee, if it seems like your schedule is constantly being updated, this is why.

The second thing to keep in mind is that you are one of 4-5 people who will be brought into ProdigalU in rapid succession for 2 days each. If multiple searches are going on (not too unusual at ProdigalU right now, since many of the Boomer profs are going emeritus/leaving in other ways), you might be one of 10-15 people brought to the department in rapid succession.  Most people take TT searches pretty seriously, since one of the unusual features of academia is that you get to pick your future colleagues with whom you might be working for 30+ years. But even so, some interview fatigue sets in. As the interviewee, you are on an adrenaline rush, experiencing what might be one of the most important days of your life thus far. The people interviewing you are trying to cram your visit into an already busy schedule AND they might be doing interview related stuff 2-3 times a week or more for two months. Your interviewers are definitely interested in learning more about you, and want to hear about what you can bring to the department. But, they are being pulled in many directions at once, whereas you (hopefully) have a laser-beam focus on your interview. The more you can keep your interest level up and your intensity high, the better.

On top of that, almost no one in academia is actually trained in interview techniques, so most people are going to default to the same kind of talk about their science that they do when meeting seminar speakers from outside their field. This is your chance! If you want to discuss something, ask questions about it! Ask about facilities, how things work at InterviewU, their science, interactions with other departments, the students, etc. People are happy to talk about things they know you will find interesting.

So, what does a typical interview day look like for me when I am on the search committee:
  • 8:30ish     Arrive in office and caffeinate, emails, prep for lecture
  • 9:30          Teach class
  • 10:30        Office hours
  • 11:30        Email catch up
  • 12:00        Lunch with candidate
  • 1:30          Candidate seminar
  • 3:00          Meeting with one of my grad students
  • 3:30          One on one with candidate
  • 4:00          Escort candidate to next meeting, stop by main office for administrative stuff
  • 4:30          Email catch up
  • 5:00ish     Head off to pickup the ProdigalKids
On non-teaching days, the teaching slots are when I actually get research done. Sometimes I have dinner with the candidate instead of lunch, and work then too. All search committee members try to have at least one meal with each candidate. If not on the search committee, I don't (usually) have meals with the candidate, but everything else remains on the schedule. A TT interview is a massive resource sink for the department, since the whole department makes a huge time commitment to the process.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The sudden relief of no deadlines

October is a hellacious month for deadlines. It is mid-semester, so there is grading to do, plus there are many proposal deadlines to hit. Early November is spent catching up on all the things that slid in October. Mid-November, it is the hectic end of class period, plus Thanksgiving planning (for those in the US). The beginning of December is bliss--classes end, so no more lectures. The final exams are written. There are no more proposals due (at least in my field), and service obligations are ending for the year.

My favorite time of the academic year is in early December. This is the time I can actually have great discussions with my grad students, catch up with the manuscripts on my desk, and actually spend some long stretches of time on research. It is like a mini-summer, but feels all the sweeter after the huge Fall proposal rush. Alas, the feeling of relief is all too short before the wind up to start the next semester!

Thursday, November 10, 2016


I am not really sure what I want to say. The US has elected someone who is uniquely unqualified, has made a mess of every job he has attempted (except for reality TV), made no attempts to hide his hatred and disdain for anyone who is not white, straight, cis-gendered, Christian, male, and able bodied, and whose economic plans are likely to lead the country into ruin. There are no brakes on him, since his party also controls both House and Senate.

I take some relief from the fact that he didn't win the popular vote, so at least half the voting population was not interested in this package, but I am also depressed that 45% of eligible voters would rather just sit at home than pick the next president, even in an election that was as pervasive (and high stakes) as this one. I am also bummed by the fact that the GOP controlled Senate was rewarded for refusing to do their job for 10 months and at least hold hearings for Merrick Garland. This does not bode well for future administrations with split control of the executive and legislative branches, and is a terrible precedent to set.

Keeping the focus on the usual subject of this blog--science and academia, I think the Trump administration will be terrible for basic science research. This is a man who is an anti-vaxxer and climate change denier, regardless of the heaps of evidence to the contrary. He has threatened retribution against his enemies, which might include all the scientists that supported Clinton. The GOP thinks academia is a hotbed of radical progressives bent on brainwashing American youth, which does not bode well for increasing support for Universities in general. Both Trump (who ran Trump University!) and the GOP are all in for unregulated privatization of education, which won't help students OR universities either.

I don't see the funding climate getting better. I hope it doesn't get worse. Depending on how things go, the best and brightest students from abroad may consider opportunities outside the US, as other countries provide more research support, possibly more opportunities for immigrants (depending on how that plays out) and a better social climate for their families. It certainly isn't the apocalypse, and I do think there is a lot of overreaction in terms of predictions of future consequences, but there is no denying that it feels like a kick in the teeth from the country to those groups attacked by Trump and his alt-right friends. It is also a full on reminder (like I needed one) that sexism is not only alive and well, but will not be solved one funeral at a time.

Friday, October 28, 2016

The agony and the ecstacy of being an examiner for a PhD

I don't think I know any active researchers at ProdigalU who shirk this bit of service. After all, if someone attempts to blow it off, their own students will have problems finding examiners.  When the science is good, the writing is at least adequate, and the student shows up prepared at the defense, it is an awesome (if time-consuming) experience, particularly if I knew the student throughout their progress in the program. When the science is boring (or bad) and/or the student shows up unprepared, it is unbelievably awful.

It takes me a minimum of 2-3 hours to read a thesis that is well within my research specialty, longer if it is outside my areas of expertise. And longer still if I am one of the report writers. I take this responsibility seriously--after all, this is a key part of my job as a professor. It does a student no favors to grant them a PhD they can't back up with PhD level work when they go job hunting. Also, when ProdigalU hands a student a PhD, it has the same meaning whether it represents the quality work of a well-trained researcher, or the minimum acceptable work of someone pushed out after time served. Students (rightfully) get upset when they perceive that someone is granted a "pity PhD", since they want the PhD they are working so hard for to be a credential of quality when they move on to their next stage.

It makes me really annoyed at the PhD supervisor when someone shows up unprepared at a defense. It wastes my time doing the evaluation. It suggests that the supervisor doesn't care much about the quality of a PhD (or of their own trainees, for that matter). Most painfully, it makes the evaluation really difficult and take a long time. ProdigalU has public PhD defenses, so it is painful to watch a student struggle at a defense in front of colleagues, friends, and family.

As for the evaluation committee, it is always hard to know where to draw the line--should we pass a student with an acceptable thesis if the defense was a disaster (I think no)? Should we pass a student whose talk was fine, but couldn't answer questions adequately (I think no)? Should we pass a student whose talk was awful, but did a good job with the questions and the thesis (I think yes). We all have different lines, and many of us feel pretty strongly about those lines. It can get very contentious in the committee, especially if they supervisor really wants the student out and graduated.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Inviting speakers

Not talking about conferences here--there are a whole other set of considerations when organizing sessions for a conference. I am talking about invited seminars. The sort of thing that has a limited budget with many slots to fill, including slots at times that are very unpopular for travel. How do you decide who to recommend as a speaker? Do you suggest friends? Big name speakers? People who you want to hear? People who you want to meet?

In my department, there is a seminar coordinator (a service position usually given to newer folks to help them network) who organizes the seminar schedule. This person solicits suggestions from the department for speakers, but has discretion over who to invite. The person who makes the initial suggestion acts as host, though the seminar coordinator takes care of the invitation, scheduling, and travel details. The host organizes the visit schedule, introduces the speaker, and arranges for dinner. So the host gets a lot of contact with their suggested invitee. Thus, I tend to suggest people who I want to meet and people whose research I want to hear more about after seeing a short conference talk.

My suggestions tend towards the early- and mid- career side, as there are many other mechanisms (and prestigious named lectures with actual budgets) that bring in well established big names. I figure that I am more likely to make a possibly useful connection with someone earlier in their career, especially since the seminar coordinator gets to do all the inviting and off campus interacting. Plus invitations are a whole lot more meaningful to less established people. I am sure the big name folks could probably travel every day of the year if they wanted to. Even better, newbies tend to have fewer schedule constraints and are often happy to take slots at less desirable (like January in a place with winter) travel times, since they do less travel overall. Lately, I have also tried to include people I've seen give great talks at meetings who are also visible members of underrepresented groups, even if I don't have a huge amount of research overlap, because I think it is really important to put a diverse slate of speakers in front of our students. I think I saw this idea a few years ago on Drugmonkey's blog (I'll admit that I am too lazy and too much in the middle of F*cktober to go looking, but I think it was there).

I guess I put a lot of thought into something that nets me an average of one hosting opportunity per year. One of my colleagues thinks I am nuts, and only suggests people who are either mega-big names or people directly in his research area. But how hard is it to start a list at a meeting, and just keep adding to it as you see people who might make good seminar speakers in the future?

Friday, October 14, 2016

Locker room talk

Of the many horrifying things that have happened during this presidential campaign, the "locker room talk" thing is really the only one I want to talk about. Namely, I want to talk about what bystanders should do if they don't want to look like enablers or worse, co-travelers when various bigotries as used a humor or bonding mechanisms.

First of all, "locker room talk" is rarely confined to locker rooms. I certainly hear sexist "locker room talk" in my day to day life, and I don't go into male locker rooms. I've been in meetings where someone has said some horrifying sexist thing, and everyone just lets it go, probably because no one knows what to say. The thing is, if a woman says something, she highlights her position as an outsider at best, and more likely gets dismissed as an overly sensitive complainer. Ditto for people of color and racism, LGBT people and homophobia, religious people and Islamophobia/anti-semitism/anti-whatever (the first two are far more common in Prodigal city, but YMMV) or whatever. Calling someone out on their bigotry is much more effective when it is someone in the "in" group, because then it becomes clear that these comments are unacceptable period, and not just to the outsider.

It is really difficult to be the one who says something, particularly when there is a power imbalance. When I was a student, one of the professors I interacted with was fond of racist jokes. It took me a week or so to work up the gumption to say something, and I spent a while thinking about what exactly I would say. After I decided to say something (and what that something would be), the next time he told a racist joke in front of me, I told him that I did not like that type of humor, and would prefer if he didn't speak that way in front of me. To my surprise, he apologized (though he really should also have apologized to the non-white people he told these jokes in front of) and never repeated that kind of humor in front of me again. Our working relationship did not change, even after this discussion, which was a huge relief to me, but it certainly could have, which would have changed the course of my career (and probably for the worse). I lucked out there.

The truth is, I think most people don't see themselves as bigoted. They may say these things unthinkingly, out of habit, or out of a desire to fit in (if they think most people would appreciate their comments). Calling someone out gently may get them to reconsider these kinds of remarks. And even if a bigot remains a bigot (but stops doing so in public), at least the local environment is improved for their targets.

Given that Trump's "locker room" comments were about women, what I want to say to my male colleagues is that they should think about what they would say to someone making similar remarks now, BEFORE it comes up so they are prepared. One of my male colleagues, after a meeting where there were horrifyingly sexist remarks, said that he was really shocked and unhappy about the comment, but didn't know what to say or do, and that now he regrets it. I told him that it isn't too late--he can still speak to our colleague in private, or at least he can think about what he wants to do the next time.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Seminars, guest speakers, and departmental culture

In my department at ProdigalU, we have weekly seminars covering the full range of subjects across our department, and we also have topical guest speakers less regularly. Attendance for first year grad students to the weekly seminar is mandatory, but after that, attendance is optional. Attendance at topical seminars is always optional. At first, I was surprised by how few students actually took advantage of the opportunity to see some outstanding speakers at the top of their respective fields, even if they are outside the students' immediate area of research. But then, I realized how few faculty actually attend when the topic is not research relevant, and it all became clear. The students are taking their cues from the professors.

At PhDU, it was in the departmental culture for all faculty to attend the weekly seminar. For more topical seminars, all faculty in that area would attend. As a result, it was the norm for students to attend weekly seminar, and also to attend topical seminars in their areas. I think this is a much better departmental norm for students and for the speakers (who have a large, diverse audience).

A good seminar is organized such that non-experts can follow and find interest in at least the first section of the talk. As a result, I find that I often get ideas when attending seminars outside my immediate area. I also find that such information becomes useful and/or interesting at some point in the future as my research evolves, and then I have a starting point to start out. Furthermore, I find this so helpful, that I sign up to meet seminar speakers as often as I can (though I wait until a day or so before the schedule is set for people outside my area so that my colleagues who have a more direct interest have a chance). Meeting with the seminar speaker is a way to find overlap, meet people in my broad field, and network all without ever leaving ProdigalU.

I do my bit to work on the departmental culture--I come to weekly seminar when I am on campus, and I encourage my students to attend as well. However, my observations of new faculty arriving after me suggest that it is more likely that departmental newbies will adopt the norm (of not attending without direct personal benefit). Maybe I am the only one who sees seminars in my broad field but outside my area as something useful?

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Cell Press, scientific fraud, replication, and retractions

As per Retraction Watch, Cell Press will not be retracting two papers that were flagged as problematic after one author claimed to have manipulated his data to fit the desired conclusion. That author, Dr. Yao-Yun Liang, is conveniently unavailable. The first author (Xia Lin) and the corresponding author (Dr. Xin-Hua Feng) already have a retraction under their belt for "inappropriate data manipulation" found in an earlier paper, but Baylor College of Medicine (where the work was carried out) conducted an investigation, and found no evidence supporting claims of fraud in this case. So far, so good.

Now for the weird part: Cell Press had Dr. Feng get some of his friends to attempt validate the results, which they did for the Cell paper in question, and now claims that means no fraud was committed (as does Baylor College of Medicine, which uses this result to bolster their claims from their investigation). There was an interesting discussion of this over at DrugMonkey's blog a couple of weeks ago, just after the first editorial note was issued by Cell (September 8) regarding this paper. Even weirder, apparently the validation results of the Molecular Cell paper in question were inconclusive, but Cell Press won't be doing anything anyway!

This is beyond bizarre. First of all, whether the results replicate has no bearing on whether fraud was committed. We all like to think we have good scientific intuition, and sometimes that is actually true. It doesn't mean we get to publish papers with data manipulated to support our good intuition. If there was fraud, the paper should be retracted, even if the conclusions end up being sound.

Second of all, if Cell Press is going to use the "if the data replicates, it isn't fraudulent" argument, they should at least be consistent! From my understanding this is what happened:

     1) Dr. Liang says he manipulated his data in these two papers.
     2) Dr. Feng denies the allegation, and says Dr. Liang is trying to to hurt his career with these lies.
     3) Baylor College of Medicine investigates, and finds that it is a "he said-he said" problem, and says there is no evidence of fraud.
     4) Cell Press decides that Dr. Feng should get some people to replicate the result to "prove" they were not fraudulent (WHAT!).
     5) It all works out in the end for Cell, so they say that since the results replicate, it doesn't matter.
     6) It all doesn't work out in the end for Molecular Cell, but they say it doesn't matter anyway.

Huh? Something is so off with this scenario. Setting aside the fact that manipulated data does not have to be inconsistent with actual experiments (it just has to be falsified), if replication is supposed to settle the issue, then why is Cell Press ignoring the "inconclusive results" for the data in question in the Molecular Cell paper?

To my mind, Cell Press had four options:
  • They could say they will use the results of the Baylor College of Medicine investigation, and not retract. 
  • The could say the Baylor College of Medicine investigation was not thorough enough, and do their own investigation, then make a decision.
  • They could believe Dr. Liang and retract.
  • They could not know who to believe, and retain the "Expression of Concern", keeping it attached to the papers, and putting in all the information about the confession, the denial, and the Baylor College of Medicine investigation.
Any of those things would have been reasonable (if possibly controversial) responses to the allegations of fraud. Instead we got false logic about how "if it replicates, it must have been real" which was ignored when that became inconvenient for Cell Press. And people wonder why Retraction Watch is so busy?

Sunday, September 25, 2016

If in doubt, just apply

I don't know what people are telling their students/postdocs these days, but our department has a TT search ongoing right now, and I am getting a surprising number of inquiries about whether someone should apply for the position or not, especially since I am not a contact person for the position, nor am I the search chair. And these are all from people who seemingly have a fairly decent overlap with the listed areas of interest in the ad.

I suppose these may be veiled requests for more details on what we are looking for, but still, if in doubt just apply. The worst that will happen is that you will not get the job, which is the default without submitting an application. This is good advice for anything, really. If you overlap with the selection criteria, just apply and let them reject you if you aren't what they are looking for.