Tuesday, August 19, 2014

3G Women's Colleges

When I started this blog in 2006, my daughter was in elementary school. Now she is starting to think about college -- what type of institution in what part of the country/world and so on. So far the reality/stress of actual applications and decisions has not yet arrived and it is interesting to discuss the options.

One thing that interests me is that my daughter is very serious about applying to women's colleges.

When I was in college-search mode decades ago, I was interested in women's colleges -- for different reasons than the ones motivating my daughter. I was interested in women's colleges in large part because I felt that I would be taken seriously as a scholar in such an environment. I did not want college to be a repeat of high school, where boys were the ones 'most likely to succeed' (no matter that the top 11 students in my graduating class were female). In that sense, my motivation was somewhat negative in that I was seeking a place that was very different from what I had experienced before.

My daughter's high school takes her very seriously as an intelligent, motivated, articulate person and she has every expectation of being taken seriously in college as well. So her interest in women's colleges is more of a positive one: she thinks of women's colleges as places where she would be surrounded by many interesting and ambitious women. She knows that she could also find such communities at other types of institutions but has a particularly positive impression of this aspect of women's colleges. This impression comes from a few visits to women's colleges and also from meeting graduates of women's colleges at various times over the years.

Her interest in women's colleges is also intriguing to me because my mother went to a women's college. In my mother's case she went to a women's college because her parents made her go to one, not because she wanted to. This was in the 1950's. My mother had been a bit wild in high school -- lots of boyfriends, smoking, parties.. mediocre grades -- and her parents didn't want her to go to a big state university (as her calmer younger sisters later did). So she went to a very small, somewhat obscure and quite isolated women's college. She has always spoken fondly of her college and has remained life-long friends with some of the women she met there, so it was a good experience for her despite her lack of interest in women's colleges. [She also met my father on a train during her sophomore year, got married soon after (allowed by her parents on the condition that she finish school), and had two babies within two years of graduating.]

Three very different women from three different generations with three different reasons for attending (or possibly attending) a women's college. Three decades ago I wondered if such places would still be around and relevant in the 2010's. I am pleased that they are and I am particularly pleased that strong and confident young women such as my daughter can have such positive motivation for being interested in them.

Monday, August 11, 2014

"In Science, It Matters That Women Come Last"

Emma Pierson has written a very interesting article titled In Science, It Matters That Women Come Last. The article is filled with data and analysis (and graphs!) about gender trends in publishing in some subfields of the physical sciences and math. She examined numbers of papers and authorship order for male and female authors using 23 years of papers from arXiv.

If you read the article, I recommend that you read it all the way through, including footnotes. As I read it I had some questions such as, "What about fields in which authorship is alphabetical?". These questions are answered. You may or may not agree with the methods but these issues were anticipated and the analysis considers the effects of different authorship-order practices in different fields.

There are many fascinating aspects of this dataset and Pierson's discussion of the data. One that particularly interested me is this:
.. I found evidence that women tend to work together. If a paper has one female author, the other authors on the paper are 35 percent more likely to be female given the share of female authors in the field overall.
It is possible that this is largely the result of female PIs tending to advise/hire more female students and postdocs (Pierson mentions a study that seems to show this). I wonder also about the tendency of women scientists to collaborate as peers and how data/trends related to such collaborations will change with time.

I see changes in my peer-collaborations with time in my own career. For the first 2+ decades, my female coauthors were my students and postdocs, with a few isolated exceptions of female-peer coauthors. More recently (the last few years in particular), I have had many female-peer coauthors. It has become routine. I thought this was because there were simply more women in my field now -- in fact, I am sure that is part of the explanation -- but now I wonder if there is more to it. I guess we'd need to know more about how the authorship dataset breaks down by advisee vs. peer coauthors to understand what it means.

What do you think this particular result (that 'women tend to work together') means, either for you or in your particular sub/field?



Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Maybe Definitely Give This Person Tenure

By request, this is a follow-up post on last week's musing about being the external letter-writer for someone's tenure/promotion evaluation. Today I will compare the wording of positive letters vs. not-so-positive (but not killer negative) letters (in the US academic system) to demonstrate the differences; some differences are obvious and some are less so. Although some external letter writers evaluating candidates for tenure/promotion write unambiguously negative letters, most letters are either positive or positive-ish.

I don't think the opening sentence is necessarily very indicative, although letters that start by saying that it is a "pleasure" to write the letter (perhaps even a "strong letter of support") of course tend to be very positive. Letters that start with a basic statement and perhaps a description of how the letter-writer has interacted (or not) with the candidate could go either way.

Positive letters tend to start positive and stay that way, with any quibbles buried deep within them. In my experience, lukewarm letters tend to start positive or positive-ish and then decay in magnitude of positiveness for the rest of the letter. I am not sure that I have seen a letter start negative or lukewarm and end up highly positive, although I have seen letters that I thought were quite negative end with a statement that the candidate would get tenure at the letter-writer's (in some cases elite) institution; that can be confusing.

Unambiguous positive statements that might appear in a very positive letter:

Dr. (or Professor) X is a world leader/pioneer/internationally known and respected specialist in [research field].

Dr. X and his/her students/postdocs have published (many) excellent papers on [topic/s].


Faint-praise statements that might appear in a lukewarm letter:

Dr. X is a specialist in [research field].

Dr. X has made contributions to the field of [topic].

Dr. X's research appears to be quite solid. 

Note: To make those statements even more negative, the research field could be described as narrowly as possible.


Examples of very positive words and phrases:

strong (inter)national reputation, novel, creative, major/significant/signal/tremendous/impressive/insightful/brilliant contributions, rigorous, breadth and depth, breakthroughs, widely respected, widely sought as an invited speaker, key player, true scholar, fundamental/leadership role, taking the lead (etc.), groundbreaking, rising star, international star, exceptional, exceptionally strong case for tenure, original/originality, elegant (referring to research, not the person), high profile, swimming at the top of the talent pool, the world beats a path to X's door, having X on your faculty brings renown to your institution.

Note that the hyper-positive adjective-laden letters tend to come from US academics or those very familiar with the US system. Non-US letters tend to be more restrained (the same is true for proposal reviews) and readers of such letters need to calibrate for this. The statement "Dr. X's research is quite good" might translate into Americanish to "Dr. X is the world leader and pioneer in creative and insightful investigation of a wide range of significant research topics."

Lukewarm (US) letters are characterized by fewer adjectives and of course few/no strong-positive adjectives. They may instead have faint-praise type adjectives such as 'solid', 'good' (with or without some other mild adjectives). The mild equivalent of the very-positive description 'has been extraordinarily/very productive' might be something like, 'has apparently been quite busy'; the positive 'focused' and talk of depth/breadth could translate as a negative-ish description of someone's 'varied interests'. Other not-awesome words are 'reasonably' and 'rather'.

Positive letters may actively propose explanations for some perceived weaknesses in the file:

Dr. X's h-index is a bit low even for someone at this early career stage but [sentences about how the h-index is a meaningless indicator of anything useful].

Dr. X does not have as many publications as one might like to see for a tenure candidate but there is too much emphasis these days on number of publications. Dr X's publications are all of very high quality and are all in high-impact and very selective journals. [This may be accompanied by an anti-shingling rant or opining about how Dr. X is a true scholar who waits to publish high-quality results that will stand the test of time.]

Dr. X has worked on a wide variety of topics rather than focusing on any particular thing but this is remarkable confirmation of her/his versatility, breadth, and boundless intellectual curiosity.

Dr. X has mostly been a middle-of-the-pack coauthor on his/her papers rather than the obvious lead author but I happen to know that Dr. X's senior collaborators are very aggressive about promoting their own work and tend to do this to younger coauthors.

Any of the above can of course be turned into a criticism if the reviewer is so inclined.

Or, lukewarm letters might mention some of the same things listed above but the rebuttal would not be as strong:

Dr. X's h-index is a bit low even for someone at this early career stage but it may increase somewhat in the future. (etc.)


Strong positive letters typically end on an emphatic note:

I highly recommend with no reservations whatsoever that Dr. X be awarded tenure.

I have no doubt that Dr. X would be awarded tenure at my institution.
etc.

Lukewarm letters tend to end on an ambiguous note:

I hope that my comments on Dr. X will be helpful to your evaluation of Dr. X for tenure and promotion.


I hope that these comments on tenure and promotion letters are helpful to FSP readers who are curious/anxious about this even if they are rising stars swimming at the top of the talent pool buoyed by their towering intellects.








Thursday, July 31, 2014

CV Gap Years

Every year I get asked to write letters for the evaluation of faculty at other institutions for tenure and/or promotion. My typical thought process on being asked to write a letter for someone I don't know well is: "OK, I've heard of that person/read their papers/seen them at conferences. Sure, I'll write a letter." Then I note the due date and send off a quick e-mail agreeing to write the letter. Most often the request arrives in the summer and I write the letters in summer or early fall. [If you click on the 'tenure' label in the frame on the right -- perhaps after scrolling down a bit -- you will see my previous comments on writing tenure letters.]

When it gets to be time to study in detail the materials relevant to the evaluation -- for example: CV, selected publications -- in many recent cases I have dealt with (recent = past 5 years) -- there have been complications. Example complications: unexplained gaps in the publication record (at least, unexplained to outside reviewers), lack of advisees and lack of publications with advisees, and/or few to no grants (and no research proposals pending with the individual as PI). In a recent example, I was asked to comment specifically on publication quality and quantity, grants, and other research aspects, but I found this difficult owing to some of these complications.

I can think of 'good' explanations for all of those complications. A gap in publications could be related to a massive time commitment setting up a lab and preparing new classes; it could also be related to personal issues that would not trigger an official extension of the probationary period and that would not be explained in a cover letter to external letter writers. Lack of advisees could be caused by unsuccessful attempts at advising students who quit or failed for reasons completely unrelated to the advising ability or practices of the faculty member. And we all know that it is difficult to get grants these days (although we still have to try, so a lack of pending research proposals is troubling).

The host institution is of course aware of all these issues, knows the context, and will likely do what it wants about them -- ignore them completely and focus on the individual's potential or treat them as fatal flaws that justify denial of tenure/promotion -- no matter what my letter says. And there are other significant factors (teaching ability) that are typically not known by outside letter-writers who are asked to comment on scholarship.

Sometimes I think that these letters are just a necessary formality and there is nothing useful that I can say in my letter. It's not constructive to think about that while working on one of these letters, so I try to think about how -- as a faculty member reading other people's letters for colleagues -- I find some letters to be quite useful. These letters can be useful not so much for whether the individual thinks the candidate should or should not be tenured and/or promoted but for the perspective they provide about the person's body of work.

So I try to focus on that aspect of my letters. After (re)reading some of the candidate's publications and thinking about their ideas and work and trajectory, I try to express what I think about that person's scholarship and their impact on the field. (I have written before about how I do not like to do comparisons with others in the field and I do not like to answer the question of whether someone would get tenure at my institution.) Writing in detail about the candidate's research may or may not be of interest to faculty and administrators but I think it's the best contribution I can make to the process, more so than any detailed comments about the data in the CV.




Thursday, July 10, 2014

Room for Improvement

Student comments on my teaching of a particular course:

Great professor!
I have enjoyed this class!
I liked the readings.
This course required too much previous knowledge.
Professor very helpful with homework.
Homework very useful for class.
Well-constructed lectures.
Very organized lectures.
She speaks very clearly.
She answered my homework questions.
She provided images and charts to supplement the subject matter.
The in-class exercises were helpful.
I liked the practice exercises we did in groups during lecture.
I liked that she asked questions during class and this helped deepen my understanding of concepts.
Useful supplementary material to help us understand lecture material.
She explained the topics completely in class. Didn't use a textbook as a crutch.
It was great that lecture and lab material were well coordinated.
She was always ready to answer questions.
She was always willing to help with any questions.
She provided the subject matter very clearly.
The last project was too much work for this level of class.
Lecture presentations very clear.
I liked the in-class exercises.
You should improve your teaching methods.

Note that almost all of the comments are in the 3rd person (except for the last one), as if the students were writing to someone else about me, rather than writing to me with feedback. I don't know if it matters in terms of type and level of feedback whether the student is imaging an unknown audience or speaking directly to me (?). At evaluation time, I give a little talk to the class about the importance of this feedback and how it is used by instructors and the department/college/university, but I think there is still general confusion among students about what exactly the purpose of these evaluations is and who reads them and whether anyone cares what they think.

These are overall nice comments, and unfortunately also rather classic in that the criticisms are too vague to help me understand what the specific complaints are.

The last comment, despite being too vague to be useful in any specific way, is absolutely right. Despite being deep into my mid-career years, I don't want my teaching to fossilize. I want to improve. In recent years I have attended teaching workshops and gotten some ideas from those. When I team-teach, a faculty colleague is in the classroom with me, so I get some peer feedback. And last term, I jettisoned the too-long and too-detailed textbook and provided focused readings, including some that I wrote myself. That seems to have worked quite well (or at least no one said they missed having a textbook), so perhaps that counts as an improvement. I would also like to do some new things involving e-learning and have been to some workshops and meetings about that.

I am thinking about teaching because I was just looking at my evaluations, though mostly I am enjoying having lots of uninterrupted time for research. This week I even managed to submit a manuscript on which I am primary author. It's been about two years since I've been able to do that (and I don't mean to imply that I did it alone -- an excellent colleague was essential to the completion of this paper).

As I was finishing the paper (and a related grant proposal) recently, it occurred to me that I could create a new teaching module based on this work and incorporate it into the class for which I just received teaching evaluations (not, of course, as extra work but replacing some older material). Probably more than any major change in teaching style, a realistic way that I can improve my teaching is to find good ways to incorporate new material -- specifically, integrating New Science with Classic Science, so that students learn the fundamental stuff without which they are incomplete as scientists and people and yet are also exposed to new things that help them see where the field is at (including being exposed to unresolved questions that might inspire them).

Anyway, it's been a busy summer so far. My father recently asked me if my husband "also has the summer off" and I was actually quite calm about it this time. Have you had a similar conversation with anyone yet this summer? Parents? Neighbors? Friends? Students? Assuming that you do in fact work in the summer even if you are not teaching, did you (1) smile serenely and let them continue to exist in ignorance; (2) correct them (a) calmly, (b) not calmly; or (3) lapse into stony silence (if having a conversation) or send a glaring emoticon (if in e-contact)? (or other..).






Monday, June 23, 2014

Men are from Pluto

A colleague and I were talking about this and that recently and he said that at some point he needs to find a new research topic, as the one that he has been working on (very successfully, and in fact sort-of pioneered) is getting very crowded. It's not as much fun (says him) to be in a crowd instead of way out ahead.

So then he said that it was difficult to start working on a very-different topic because it can be difficult to get funding if you lack a track-record and expertise in that new thing. True enough. So I said, "Collaborate" (unsaid but well known: That's what I do).

He said, "No, you can't project authority if you collaborate."

Discuss.

Context: We are both full professors and therefore getting adequate credit for our work is not a career life-or-death issue as it is for early-career scientists. For the early-careerers, this can be important (depending on your particular context). Collaboration can still be a significant research component -- enjoyable and rewarding in many cases* -- as long as you also stand out from the crowd in some way for your ideas and expertise.

But other than that, who cares about projecting authority? OK, some people do. My colleague clearly does, and he is very good at it (projecting authority). I don't really care. Well, I do a bit (I don't like being overlooked), but I don't think collaborating has lessened my "authority". If anything, it has increased it.

I reject as a general philosophy the idea that collaborating de-authoritizes you (I just made that word up), although if that's what floats your boat, go ahead and enjoy your authority (alone).



* if your colleagues are not jerks, and if they don't hold up manuscripts and proposals.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Measure for Measure of Success

Something that I have been seeing more and more in grant proposal reviews (my own and those of colleagues who have shared theirs with me) is the idea that it's not enough to have a record of success advising grad students, undergrads, and postdocs in research -- you have to understand and explain your advising techniques and you have to have a plan for assessing and improving.

OK, I get that, but even when I attempt to do those things, it isn't good enough for some reviewers. They think that I (and my colleagues) are relying too much on past success and traditional measures of success (degrees, publications, conference presentations, post-graduation employment). They are not convinced that that is sufficient. They want something different. Apparently, unless you change something, you are not improving and therefore are not being transformative, or something.

Example reviews (comments condensed/reworded to remove any identifying vocabulary):

A highly qualified PhD student has already been identified for this research but the mentoring of this student and an undergraduate is largely assumed based on prior experience of the PIs. The PIs have records of successful advising but should include in the proposal a more intentional discussion of how they plan to train the next generation of scientists. The mechanism for success is not explained and there is no plan for assessing success of their mentoring. How will successful training of the graduate student be determined other than by the record of publications, presentations, and completion of the thesis? Although the research is potentially transformative and this is an excellent team of researchers, because of these shortcomings in the broader impacts I have given the proposal a lower rating.

That makes no sense to me. I am definitely not saying that we all deserve to have all of our grants awarded just because we have had past success. However, I think that if the proposed research is deemed excellent by a reviewer and the PI has a demonstrated record of success with advising, it does not make sense to downgrade a proposal rating for the reasons given in the example review above, contributing to the rejection of the proposal and therefore a lack of funding for the graduate student.

Here's another:

[From a review of a proposal that included one week of salary for a soft-money research scientist who runs a lab in which students would do some analyses for a proposed project]: Description of the mentoring of the postdoc is not well developed. There is no mention of career counseling. Mentoring in professional activities such as writing proposals and papers is confined to discussions and support for participation in conferences and workshops. There is no mention of how the postdoc will be mentored to collaborate with diverse groups of researchers and students. There is no description of the postdoc's career path in the context of developing an effective mentoring plan for him.

And this:

[From a review of a proposal that included a substantial component of support for undergraduate research]: These PIs have a long record of success in advising undergraduate students in research but no evidence is presented for how the field of research on undergraduate research will be advanced. 

These are just anecdotes, of course, plucked from reviews of different proposals by different PIs. At least one of the proposals even involved a colleague who does research on teaching and learning. It wasn't enough. Some of us PIs have attended national and local workshops on teaching and learning, read some of the relevant literature, even co-authored papers (some with education specialists) in science ed journals. It's not enough.

I think that giving attention to effective advising is an important component of research (and therefore grant proposals), but I also think these and similar reviews show that certain reviewers have run amok and are harming the very people (students, postdocs) they think they are helping.