Monday, January 9, 2017

Common mistakes at the on campus interview

In honor of academic interview season, I thought I'd discuss a few common pitfalls I see candidates fall into on campus. Way back when I was interviewing, I made some of these mistakes myself, so I know how common a trap it can be. For those job hunting, xykademiqz has a great post on advice for Skype interviews, some of which carries over to on campus interviews as well.

The research talk: A good research talk will engage both experts and non-experts for at least a portion of the talk. It will also demonstrate your technical and research skills to the experts. Thus, it must have both breadth and depth. This is where I fell down in my first year interviewing. The most common mistake is to focus too much on depth (I did this), but it is equally problematic to focus too much on breadth (I've seen this) and not come across as an expert in anything.

The chalk talk: The chalk talk is hard, because it is unlike anything else most people have done in the past. One major issue is in presenting a bunch of projects that look like just a bunch of projects. From years of experience, most postdocs are used to thinking about their research in a project by project way. However, in the chalk talk, we want to see an outline of what the candidate's research program will look like over time. Pretty much all of the candidates invited to campus had some long term research plans in their research statements, but this needs to come out in the chalk talk as well. Our department wants to hire someone who will have a successful career, and that means making sure that the planned research leads somewhere beyond the immediate 3-5 year project horizon. What will your lab specialize in? When we discuss our new hire, what is the one sentence summary about your work that we will lead with?

Related to this issue is candidates who position themselves in competition with their previous groups. It is great that you love your current (or previous work). It is great that you can take it with you. HOWEVER, unless you can clearly articulate the differences between your approach and your supervisor's approach to non-experts, some in the audience will wonder if you will be successful in funding your work. Towards that end, a really common question is "why would a funding agency give you this money instead of your more established adviser?".  You need to have an answer.

The opposite problem (moving to a brand new area) can also be problematic. Without a track record, some will be reluctant to take a risk on a candidate. Also, proposals into a new area can come across as naive or not fully formed. Realistically, at ProdigalU we do consider the experience level of our applicants, so if one of three proposed projects in a new area comes across as naive or unrealistic for an inexperienced candidate, we are usually pretty forgiving if the other proposed projects are well done. This is particularly an issue for candidates trying to force their research to fit into a targeted job search, and it becomes obvious in the chalk talk unless the candidate is really interested in moving in that direction for the research's sake rather than just to get a job.

A final chalk talk issue is particularly common with those from large and well-funded groups. Really innovative research is a great attention grabber, but as a PI, you will have real students who really want a degree and therefore need to have some research success. You need to be able to articulate not just Plan A, but also Plans B and C for your projects, and also discuss what important (i.e. publishable) work will come out of your planned research directions even if the project is ultimately unsuccessful. There are no great rewards without risk, but you need to show some awareness of the other requirements of your research program (like that you will be training students, not just doing cutting edge research).

Personal interactions: Do not make flip or ironic remarks that could be misinterpreted (I did that when answering questions after my research talk my first year interviewing, and it was a mistake). Personal experience aside, every aspect of the visit is part of the interview, including the meals, the walks between offices, the interactions with non-academics, and the transportation to/from different locations! Be polite to everyone (including all staff members and students). Do not drink more than you can handle and remain in good control of yourself, regardless of how much your meal companions indulge. Do not make disparaging comments about pretty much any person, group, or place. Do not bring up politics as a topic of meal time conversation. I have seen candidates do all of these things, and it did not make a favorable impression.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Happy new year!

Happy new year to my readers! My science resolutions this year:

1.  Set aside regular time to just browse through the literature and read what is interesting, rather than directly useful.

2.  Spend more time with my undergraduate researchers. 

3.  Try to blog regularly.

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?