Wednesday, July 26, 2017


There are deadlines, and there are deadlines. While I try to meet all deadlines I have agreed to, when push comes to shove, there are things that can slip and there are things that cannot.

Things that can't slip: proposal deadlines, fellowship applications, many grad school submission deadlines, recommendation letters, most conference abstracts

Things that can be turned in late (though I really try hard not to): reviews (though I try not to miss by more than a day or two so as not to put the editor/program officer in a difficult spot), invited manuscripts (they seem to build in some extra time here in my experience, but be careful!)

This is something I almost always end up discussing with students. My students seem to think all deadlines can slip, or none of them can (I guess based on their prior experiences with extensions in University?).

Methods I use to try not to slip deadlines (or panic last minute):
  • Put deadlines on my calendar right away, often with a reminder a week ahead of time.
  • Do reviews right away (ideally, the same week I agree to them), but this is not always possible
  • When students are attempting to meet a school submission deadline, I meet with them to set up a schedule for milestones. At the end, I can return thesis chapters with 24 hour turn around time, but that means clearing a lot of other things off in preparation and not agreeing to do any other reviewing in that period.
  • Abstracts for me are pretty fast--I have loads of experience with this. For my students, I have them plan to be submission ready a week before the deadline.
  • Do reference letters for undergrads the day I am asked. I am very fast writing for undergrads at this point--I can do one from scratch in an hour or less, especially for students not in my group. Letters for my grad students take a lot longer, and I have to plan in the time. I do reuse existing letters as a template for undergrads--I always use "find" to make sure all pronouns are appropriate!
I have not yet found a way to not be working like a maniac until the last minute on proposals, but I have gotten better about submitting at least several hours before the deadline, rather than frantically logging in at 4pm for a 5pm deadline.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Learning how to be a good reviewer

Considering how important reviewing is to research science, I am really surprised by how little thought goes in to teaching students how to do a good job as a referee. I got literally no training--I started getting review requests as a postdoc, and learned on the fly. I am sure I was unreasonably harsh the first few times, and I am truly grateful to the journals that send on all the comments so I could scale my comments with those of other reviewers.

Students are notoriously harsh when it comes to reviewing the work of others. I see it in class, when students give absurdly low marks when asked to score each others' presentations, in journal club when students harsh on the work of other groups, and sometimes in reviews, when I have senior students review papers with me so they can see how I do it. At the same time, students are very sensitive to harsh remarks sent on their own work, but don't have the experience to put either their own reports or the reports they receive in context.

Writing a good referee report is a skill that can/must be learned like any other. Even considering how to phrase something is important if you care about how the comment will be received. "There are a number of typos and grammatical errors that should be double checked before final publication" and "The writer is obviously not a native English speaker and should get someone to edit their horrible writing" both comment on the same thing, but one is more likely to be received constructively than the other.

When I am going over reviewing with a student, I go through how I approach a manuscript with them, then have them write a "review", then go through the review with them before editing into the final report. I never send a student report without doing a review myself, just to make sure I agree with the comments (which will have my name on them). So how do I go about reviewing a manuscript?

1. I have a new file open to type my comments as I go. I don't like to have to try to remember what I was thinking, particularly for long manuscripts.

2. I start with a summary of the manuscript (which I add to as I read). This tells the authors what I think the manuscript is about after reading it. If my summary does not match what they thought they wrote, they will know there is a miscommunication that should be cleaned up. This has actually happened to me once when I was a postdoc--the summary did not reflect what I thought the paper was about. I've also received some great insights into my own work this way, particularly for my first first author paper.

3. I point out glaring typos/grammatical issues until I get past 5 or 6, and then I just add "There are a number of typos and grammatical errors that should be double checked before final publication". I really dislike editing via referee report. If the writing is of a quality that I cannot understand what the authors did (this happened once), I stop reviewing and send it back with a comment to that effect.

4. If the paper is in my area, I sometimes have some suggestions of papers to add to the background (I only sometimes suggest papers from my group. More often, it is something else I think they may have overlooked). If the paper is not exactly in my area, I take more time with the introduction/background, and make suggestions if there is anything I need to look up myself in order to understand the manuscript.

5. I go through each reported experimental result, look at the figure(s) or table, and think about how I would interpret that data. If I conclude something different from the authors, I mention it. If I think the authors are overinterpreting, underinterpreting, or missing a control, I mention that too. I also mention if I agree/if the discussion is appropriate. If any questions come up, I write them down. If the questions are just for interest and are likely beyond the scope of the paper, I preface the question with  "This may be beyond the scope of the paper, but..." to make sure the question is taken in the spirit offered (and doesn't block publication of an otherwise fine manuscript because the editor insists that everything be addressed).

6. I go through the methods section and try to imagine replicating the work from just the methods section.  I often have questions about details here that I think should be reported.

7. I read through the concluding remarks and make sure they make sense and place the work in the perspective of the field.

When I am done, I look through the paper again quickly to see if I missed anything. My final report is usually 1-2 pages long. I've never recommended acceptance without revision, though I rarely reject manuscripts outright (in my opinion, suggesting major revisions and/or a different journal is not outright rejection). It takes me a while to do a good review, but I really appreciate thorough reviews of my own work, so it is worth it to me. I'd say I take a good 1-3 hours to do a typical review (depends on length and my familiarity with the area).

When I am reviewing with a student, usually their first draft is way too harsh, asks for a huge number of additional control or scope experiments, does not differentiate between simple experiments one can expect anyone in the field to be able to do and super-heroic experiments that very few groups can even attempt let alone get usable data from, and is either way too brief or super long. Student reviews are often about showing off a students' knowledge or protecting against looking stupid rather than an attempt to improve the work that was submitted. It is a big mental shift for a student to start thinking of themselves as a knowledgeable scientist rather than as someone who will be graded on their review. Through it takes longer to do a review with a student, I'd rather have my students learn how to do this with guidance then get thrown into the deep end right away.

Monday, July 10, 2017

TT and children

Xykademiqz recently put up an excellent post on the spacing of her kids' ages and her career trajectory, growing out of a question after a post about enjoying her kids. This is an issue that comes up again and again--family, life decisions, and academia. I am linking back to her, and posting this, because I think this is such an important issue. When I was a student, I was convinced that having a family was incompatible with the TT, especially for a woman. This is one of the reasons I didn't even consider an academic position when I finished my PhD. Part of the reason I felt so strongly about this was that up until that point, I had NEVER had a female professor for any of my STEM courses. My undergrad department had one female faculty member (not in my area), untenured with no family. My graduate department had one female faculty member (not in my area), who got tenure while I was a student and then immediately got pregnant, leading to snickering all around by the (mostly) male students and some of the faculty members in the department. There were no counter examples to help me make an informed decision about family and academia--all was rumor and guesswork.

Fast forward to now, and I have both tenure and a family. I had both of my kids pre-tenure. I am a living example that it is possible to get tenure AND have young kids at the same time. In fact, I had one child inside academic (at ProdigalU) and one child outside of academia (at National Lab). From this perspective, I can say that it is much, much easier to have young kids at ProdigalU even pre-tenure than it was at National Lab. Academia is just so much more flexible than most other jobs, and with balancing anything, flexibility is key.

At National Lab, I was required to be at work for set hours. If I needed to be somewhere during those hours, I had to take time off. Since I also got only 12 weeks unpaid maternity leave (the standard FMLA is what Feds get), I burned ALL of my sick leave and vacation time after giving birth, leaving me with practically no wiggle room when LittleProdigal got sick. From observing my colleagues, even after a few years, it is really hard to build up enough vacation time to both have reasonable vacations and be available for kids school and other activities that take place during the workday.

In contrast, as an academic, your schedule is your own. It is long hours, but you set them. Other than scheduled classes and meetings, I can leave work whenever I want to or need to without worry. I don't really ever worry about missing an activity with my kids. Unless I am traveling, it is no problem. This is as true for fun things like concerts as it is for emergencies like sick kids or closed daycares.

On top of keeping track of hours, face time was a thing at National Lab. It was really important to look visibly busy all the time and have the appearance of working in your office or lab for at least 8 or 9 hours a day every day. Asking for time off during the day was frowned upon--better to just take a whole day off then look not serious about your work. Some of my friends in non-academic jobs worry about being mommy- or daddy- tracked, and are reluctant to ask to go to a soccer game or school concert.

There isn't really face time in academia in the same way. As far as I know, no one cares whether I am in my office, or even worries about where I might be when I am not there. I certainly don't keep track of the people in my hallway. There is still a culture of looking busy/complaining about how busy we all are, but there is little or no checking up. Everyone teaches and travels at all different times anyway, so you'd need quite a lot of free time to really track this stuff anyway. 

It wasn't super easy to have 2 preschool aged kids while working towards tenure. I worked at home many nights, but at the same time, I was able to reserve the time from 5 pm until 8 pm for family almost every night. I can't imagine that any demanding career is easy to balance with the needs of kids (who can't really wait for many things). In fact, I'd say medicine is way worse (at least until training is done, which can be 7 or more years post-med school), and oddly, medicine is considered a somewhat family friendly career (I certainly was told that a lot when I was a student).

There's never really a good time to have kids, so you may as well have them when you are ready and let the chips fall where they may--you can figure it out in the middle of things without preplanning every second! Not everyone can balance career and family in a way that makes them happy, but don't let people tell you that you can't have kids on the TT, or that serious academics can't have more than one, or that academia is uniquely incompatible with family life, because it just isn't true.