Monday, December 24, 2012

Happy Birthday Merry Christmas

No, this is not another reflection on the perils and pleasures of having a birthday at this time of year; at least, not exactly. The topic did, however, come up recently in an unusual setting and somehow this led to another topic that is a rather common theme around here at the FSP blog, and I was kind of fascinated by that.

Below you will find a transcript (heavily edited for brevity, but faithfully recording the content) of a conversation I recently had as part of being "interviewed" by an official person at an airport re. the Security of the Homeland. I hope it doesn't shock anyone, but you will see below that I admit to lying (once) to this official person in this interview.

Man In Uniform (MIU): Your birthday is very close to the end of the year. That must have made your father happy, for tax purposes.

FSP: Yes. (That was my one lie: In fact, it was my mother who was happy about this; she handled all the family finances, did the taxes, and had labor induced a few days early, for tax purposes. I doubt if my father knew or cared about any of this, but I didn't see a reason to correct the MIU's assumption about my parents.)

MIU: Have we met before?

FSP: Not to my knowledge.

MIU: I think we might have met. A few weeks ago I met another female professor from your university. She works on [name of a research topic that a non-scientist might think is similar to what I do even though it's not].

FSP: No, that wasn't me. I work on X, and that's different from what that other professor works on.

MIU: Are you sure? Two lady professors from the same university, both scientists?

FSP (calmly): That wasn't me. There are more than two female science professors at my university.

MIU: I used to jump out of airplanes.


MIU: Have you ever changed your name?

FSP: No.

MIU: [long anecdote about a woman in his family who recently changed her name]. Have you ever plotted to overthrow the US government?

FSP: No.

The rest was kind of boring. Why had I traveled to Countries X, Y, and Z? What did I bring back? Who paid for my business travel? etc.

That's my Christmastime-birthday-gender-directed-weirdness anecdote. Happy Birthday Merry Christmas, and don't forget to send in your fake CV for the Academic Writing Contest of 2012.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Annual End-of-Year Academic Writing Contest: 2012

For me, this winter break would not be festive without an End-of-Year Attempt-At-Humor Academic Writing Contest Of Some Sort. Oh sure, I can get in the holiday mood by walking into any store, cafe, or gas station and being subjected to a bewildering variety of renditions of the most appalling Christmas songs possible, I can (try to) put reindeer antlers on my most docile cat, and I can even decorate cookies in vile colors (Fig. 1),

but it just wouldn't be the same without an End-of-Year Attempt-At-Humor Academic Writing Contest of Some Sort.

To recap the last 4 contests:

What now? Announcing: the CV (curriculum vitae/resume).

I know what you are (possibly) thinking: the CV? That is not writing.

And so I reply, if you are (possibly) thinking that: au contraire. I have learned in the past few months that even the smallest, shortest, fragmentary attempt to convey information in a visual way is "writing". I learned this in some "meetings".

But that's not why I have selected the CV as this year's writing theme. I selected the CV because I have been continually amazed over the years by the fact that it is possible to go so far astray with what is seemingly a simple document in which some biographical and other facts are arranged to describe a person's qualifications for a position. Even more amazing to me is the realization that it is possible for someone to create (what seems to me to be) an obnoxious CV; not in the nature of the facts but in how they are presented.

Readers who wish to participate: Your challenge is to create an entirely fictitious or at least heavily disguised CV that fulfills one or more of the following outcomes,
  • entertainment;
  • horror;
  • mentoring;
  • all of the above.
whilst not veering (too far) from the norms of the academic CV. In addition, it would be great if the fabricated CV is not too long.

I hasten to emphasize that submitted CVs should not humiliate any actual persons other than yourself. The purpose of this contest is to have fun, relieve end-of-term stress, and perhaps make a dramatic and useful point or three about potential CV pitfalls.

As always, parody -- subtle or savage -- is encouraged, although I realize (from e-mails I have received over the years) that these writing contests may generate some anxiety in those who are in the process of creating the very document that is being featured. I have therefore added "mentoring" as a possible outcome, even if the mentoring is done in an ungentle way.

Entries can be sent to (do not send attachments) and will be reviewed by the FSP Editorial Board. I will be traveling in an unusual place throughout most of late December - early January, but I will post selected entries as internet access permits.

Entries will be accepted until the position is filled. Review of entries will begin on or soon after I start receiving them in the next week or two. Eventually there may be a vote on the Most Entertaining, Most Horrifying, and/or Most Useful Fake CV.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Mentor Bully

Not long ago, I attended a workshop that included a presentation on mentoring. The presentation was given by someone who had a lot of experience with mentoring students, postdocs, and other faculty, in training faculty to be mentors, and in training faculty to train other faculty to be mentors (etc.). You get the picture: this person was immersed in the theory and practice of mentoring and had been asked to share their experience with 'best practices' and advice about mentoring.

In particular, I was curious to learn whether and how peer institutions organize mentoring systems for assistant professors, and to share ideas with colleagues about postdoc mentoring plans (such as we submit with NSF proposals that include requests for postdoc salary). In fact, I got a lot out of talking to the other workshop participants about mentoring issues, even though we were not the "experts" on mentoring. It turns out many of us had similar questions and concerns.

What did we get from the "mentoring expert"? We got abrupt and patronizing comments, including responses like "no kidding", "that's obvious", and "that's wrong" (with no explanation for why it was wrong, just that it was not what the Mentor Expert does).

I wondered: perhaps this is yet another cautionary tale about what can happen when you become too expert in a topic, even a supposedly warm-and-fuzzy topic like mentoring. And this is what can happen when you try to convey your knowledge and experience in a text-laden Powerpoint presentation, and are not happy when questions and comments from the audience attempt to make you veer from your prepared (bullet) points.

Memo to me: try not to be like that if at all possible

Did I learn anything new about mentoring at this workshop? Not exactly, but it was still good to see what the range of possibilities are, for example, for mentoring systems for assistant professors:
  • Should mentors be assigned or should they volunteer? There were surprisingly strong feelings about this.
  • How many should each person have (1? 2? the entire department? different mentors for research and teaching?) 
  • Should mentor and mentee meet a certain minimum number of times per term or per year or just leave it open and hope that conversations happen naturally? 
  • What are the most essential roles of mentors? To answer questions or to be proactive about asking questions and giving advice? To read grant proposals and manuscripts before they are submitted?
  • Should anything 'extra' be done for members of underrepresented groups, or would that be 'singling them out' in an unfair and possibly humiliating way?
If I had to guess in an unscientific way, I would say that most of the participants I talked to and whose departments have some sort of mentoring system would answer:

assigned, 1, once/term, all of the above, no on doing 'extra' mentoring for underrepresented groups

... and the mentoring expert would answer:

volunteer, entire department, conversations should happen naturally, whatever everyone has time for, yes on doing 'extra' mentoring for underrepresented groups

Monday, November 26, 2012


Not long ago, I sat in a room for many hours as various Teams of People tried to convince a committee that they were the best people for the (unspecified here) job. It was kind of interesting. These people were not academics, and it was fascinating to see how they made their presentations -- how they spoke, what they put in their presentation slides, and how the various members of the teams interacted with each other and with the committee.

During one of the transitions between teams, I was chatting with someone and didn't really notice the new team until they had all assembled, and then when I looked up, I was a bit stunned. The other teams were diverse in terms of gender, and, although I hadn't paid close attention, seemed to consist of approximately equal numbers of men and women. This new team, however, was a Team of Men (in Suits). Their presentation was, in fact, overall quite excellent, although it was notable (to me) that when they referred to a hypothetical professor, that professor was always a 'he'. The other teams used 'they' or alternated between 'he' and 'she'.

In the end, the Team of Men (ToM) and one other team were deemed to be the top two contenders for the job. Although I don't have a lot of say in the matter, one of these teams is going to have to work very closely with me in the future. I feel that I can work with either one, but I wonder why this one team is so un-diverse.

There seem be many women in the fields relevant to these teams, as indicated by the other teams (and, incidentally, the fact that my father is in one of these fields and has quite a few female colleagues), so what explains the ToM? I don't know, but even if the explanation is that these men just happen to prefer to work together without any women on their team -- isn't that bad for business in some circumstances?

If I were the Decider (I am not), and had to decide which team I would rather work with --  all other things being equal in terms of team qualifications -- I would choose the other team; that is, not the ToM. The other team seemed to be more open to cooperation and discussion with the faculty, and that is a rather critical factor to me in this situation.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Spot On

By request, I contributed a post to the Science Online/Spot On event that took place in London recently. The formatting turned out a bit strange, but there it is.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Feminist in all but name

It never fails to take me aback when people say "I'm not a feminist but.." and then follow the "but" with an opinion that indicates that the person is quite likely to agree with the basic principles of feminism, in the sense of believing in political, economic, and social rights for women.
OK, so there are worse things than this; it is not difficult to think of many worse things than people who are feminists-in-all-but-name.

Even so, I was surprised the other day at an Administrative Meeting, when a female administrator whom I had not previously met came up to me and said:

 "The Vice-Person for Stuff told me that you are the first woman [position that I now hold in my university]. I'm not a feminist, but I think that's great. It's about time. We need more women [in that job] in the university."

She went on to say that the lack of women leaders in her unit of the university was a serious, longstanding problem. Most of the students and researchers are women, but few of the leaders are women. Every once in a while, a woman is allowed to be an interim head of something, but only until a man can be found to take over the job. She was frustrated by this, and more than a little cynical that it would change any time soon. She herself was an interim director and was certain that she would not be given the permanent position. She was sure they would replace her with a man, although she is highly qualified to keep doing this job.

Well, good thing she isn't a feminist because..

.. because why? I am having trouble finishing that sentence with anything that makes sense.

I don't even know why she chose to preface her sentence with "I'm not a feminist, but..". Why add that? If she had just said "I heard you're the first woman etc. and I think that's great", without the qualifier, what did she fear I would think? That she was a raving man-hating angry woman? That she is not automatically in favor of a woman being appointed to a position with some authority?

I did not ask her. I would very much like to help stamp out these twisted negative views of feminism/feminists, but after that strange little comment, our brief conversation focused on practical things that needed discussing in the short amount of time available.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Why Me?

This has been happening to me a lot lately:

I meet someone for the first time in my new capacity as an Administrator and one of the first questions they ask me is "Why (or how) were you selected?" I italicized you because in 87.3% of the cases, there is an emphasis on you, not necessarily in an impolite way, but to emphasize the you-and-not-someone-else focus of the question.

There are unambiguous 100% neutral examples of these questions -- that is, when I meet someone who has a similar position at another university and we compare notes about our jobs.

But then there are some situations in which the motivation is less clear.

Possible explanations for why someone would ask this question:

Some people (academics or not) may be curious about how things work in the intriguing world of academia in general and/or in particular at my institution.

Some people are surprised, at least at first, at finding someone like me in this position (the first woman ever to hold this particular position at my university). Which leads to these further possibilities:

- They think it is cool and wonder what excellent change has happened at this institution so that finally a woman was selected for this position.

- They wonder if I am qualified for the job, or at least, was I really the most qualified? Perhaps I was selected because I am a woman?

Do men get asked this question so frequently? I don't know, but in a recent poll of n=2 male peers, I realized that, although I had been asked this question nearly weekly for months, these guys had not yet been asked it once.

I don't actually spend a lot of time obsessing about the motivation of these questions. I think that these issues will fade with time.

I will mention, though, that a few days ago when I was asked this question, for the first time there was a witness to it, and it was a different experience altogether. I didn't realize until then that all the other conversations had been one-on-one. This time, a colleague (another administrator) was present and disagreed with the apparently disrespectful way in which the question was asked and did not stay silent. I can fight my own battles when I want, but sometimes it is very nice to have allies.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Off Topic

A reader writes about her frustration with the prevalence of Women In Science (WIS) events that turn out to be about how to get out of science or, at least, academic science (research), and frustration with the number of workshops and other WIS events that focus on babies babies babies (primarily anxiety about the possibility that babies lead to "career suicide").

"There are very few events about how to do good research at the top competitive levels, the psychological travails of an academic lifestyle" ... "even something about common sexist gaffes (e.g. asking about your husband's job at your job interview) would be helpful ... I went to one .. event early on in my position here, as I work on an area .. with very few women and I like the XX companionship, but it turned out to be a networking event for women looking to get out of research. I still haven't been back."

"Is this problem [having babies and a career as a scientist at a university] just so big that it eclipses the other ones we could be having?"

This reader provided a very long list of workshop titles to prove her point about the workshop obsession with work-life balance (= having a career and children) and leaving academia.

Has anyone else had this experience of being overwhelmed by an emphasis on opting-out or baby-anxiety topics?

I would hope that there could be workshop theme balance, such that topics included how to find non-academic careers in science as well as how to succeed in a research career in science. Women-in-science events at the university where I had my first tenure-track job were extremely important to me when I was getting started, and definitely included discussion of the topics the reader mentions as being of interest to someone pursuing a research career at a university. If there had been a major emphasis on getting out of research/academic, I would have felt even more isolated than I already did.
The topic of babies is clearly a critical one for many women, but it's too bad if this overshadows (or eclipses) everything else. I don't just mean that for women who don't have children (now), but for all women in science. The baby issue should be part of the discussion, but there are many important topics.

I don't mean to minimize the challenges of having children and a career as a professor at a research university, but I hope that in most fields it is easy to encounter -- in real life and in blogs -- examples of happy, successful professor-moms, so that early-career scientists can see that babies ≠ career suicide.

Another hope of mine, perhaps an even less realistic one, is that it wouldn't always be women talking about careers-and-babies, but that more men would be involved in these discussions. It is still common for FSPs who are invited speakers at other institutions to be asked to have a "pizza lunch" or whatever with female students and postdocs, typically to talk about work-life issues.* Are any of you in departments that routinely invite men to do the same?

For those who share the experience of my reader in not finding WIS workshops that focus on topics relevant to women who want to stay in (academic/research) science, blogs can help fill the gap to some extent, but there's no substitute for talking with others -- sharing stories and experiences, getting and giving advice and support, laughing and expressing anxiety. If you can't find that in workshops sponsored by a particular group, perhaps you can create your own mini-workshop or social-professional event, somehow getting the word out and seeing if there are others interested in discussion of similar topics. Alternatively (or in addition to this), see if you (and like-minded women) can get word to the relevant organizations for WIS and let them know what topics would be of interest to you.

* Not long ago, something rather cool came out of one of these women-lunch discussion things that I did years ago at another university. One of the women who attended my discussion later became a high school science teacher in the region where I live, so, when one of her students became interested in my general field of research, this teacher got in touch with me and we arranged that I would meet the student and introduce her to some undergraduates and professors involved in advising the undergrad program in my department and I thought this was a great, albeit unexpected, outcome of having what I remember as rather bad pizza while being quizzed about the usual work-life issues by anxious young women.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Think Different?

Not long ago, I spent some time with a very diverse group of academics: professors and administrators from the sciences, engineering, humanities, and the social sciences. It can be interesting to experience academically diverse committees and workshops like this one. Even if the overall experience is boring (that is, the doing of the thing that we are tasked to do and have outcomes and deliverables for the stakeholders etc.), but I like the people (well, most of them) and I am fascinated by glimpses of how other departments and disciplines operate.

Anyway, at this particular event, a group of us were sitting around drinking hot or cold caffeine and discussing what our priorities are in our daily work life. We were not talking about work-life balance (with or without cats); we were talking about work-work balance. That is, when faced with several (many) competing work tasks, all of which, in theory, need to be done now, which ones do we realistically do now and which ones do we do later?

This is what blew me away: when discussing two very specific examples that I will vaguely describe below, the physical scientists and engineers prioritized one thing and the humanities and social science faculty prioritized the other.

These particular examples involved whether we would deal first with a possible crisis involving undergraduate students or whether we would respond first to an urgent request from an unnamed upper-level administrator. The scientists and engineers opted to (hypothetically) wade into the student crisis and try to sort it out, but the others (hypothetically) opted to respond to the administrator first.

I hasten to point out that those who prioritized the administrative issue emphasized that they nevertheless were concerned about the students. We all agreed that both these issues were important and should be dealt with as soon as possible, we just disagreed about what should be done right now and what should be done immediately-after-right-now.

Why the difference, I wondered?

A couple of weeks after the incident, I told a colleague of mine -- a former upper-level administrator -- about it, and his explanation was that it was not so much cultural differences among disciplines (and definitely not degree of concern for students) but rather a function of the specific personalities of the administrators involved. That is, the humanities and social sciences faculty have long had very demanding and aggressive administrators, whereas the scientists and engineers have had more "flexible" administrators in our part of the university. We STEM people may therefore feel less pressure to give an immediate response to an administrator if we have another urgent situation to deal with at the same time.

I had never thought of it that way before, but it makes some sense. And, if my colleagues is right, it is a rather dramatic micro-illustration of the effect of administrative personalities on the operation of the units for which they are responsible. I suppose that can be good or bad, depending on the situation.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

There's a Dean For That

Deans Deans every where
nor any .. (something something something)

As I traipse through my academic existence, I keep finding new Deans I didn't know existed. Over the years, in my routine professorial existence, I have encountered the Usual Deans -- deans of collegiate units within the university and the various deans who have responsibilities for students, money etc. These Deans are typically "familiar" people, in the sense of having been long-serving faculty members; many of them were former department heads. I don't mean "familiar" in the sense that I (or most faculty) know them well, but they are familiar in the sense of having followed a similar career path as many of us faculty (before they veered into administration). They are typically well respected (and well paid) for the important jobs that they do. I have been fortunate to work with excellent deans and associate/assistant deans over the years.

However, many of the Unusual Deans that I have been encountering recently are a bit less "familiar" in this way. Some of them veered into administration very early in their careers, and some are deans of "unfamiliar" (to me) things, like programs I didn't even know existed. Many (most?) are in the humanities or social sciences, so are exotic to me for other reasons.

This familiar/unfamiliar, usual/unusual designation is of course highly subjective (FSPcentric), relative to my own existence, and in no way implies criticism or a negative opinion of these exotic (to me) deans. I do, however, find myself wondering, from time to time: why does that position require a Dean? The more deans I encounter, the less sure I am what the title even means anymore. According to Wikipedia:

In academic administrations such as universities or colleges, a dean is the person with significant authority over a specific academic unit, or over a specific area of concern, or both.

I suppose one could spend a bit of time pondering what, exactly, "significant" means, but this definition is, ultimately, a bit unsatisfying in that "specific area of concern" is vague, although I can see that this is the part of the definition that refers to Deans of Students, Research Things, and so on.

Anyway, it doesn't really matter, I suppose, whether someone who has significant authority over a specific area of concern is a dean or something else, except that, at my institution, Deans of Whatever tend to have higher salaries than professors. I think that can be a source of unhappiness among the hard-working professoriate, especially if there seem to be a lot of these rather exotic dean-people, deaning in highly specialized areas of concern.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Tenure Times

A mid-career reader wants advice about writing a letter as part of the tenure evaluation of a candidate at another institution. In particular:

.. I don't know what the usual length, format, etc. is, and if/how tenure committees "read between lines" for certain cues, i.e. what do I need to do so that I send the intended message without inadvertently compromising it?

I have touched on this topic before, but I don't think I have ever discussed the specific information of length, format etc. My earlier posts on this topic started in 2007, then skipped a few years, then picked up again in 2010 with not one, not two, not three, but four posts on this general topic, then decreased to one in 2011.

Here are my answers to the reader's questions, although of course I hope that others will provide alternative information and suggestions from other disciplines:

Length: One page is too short, but how far you go beyond one page depends on how much substantive information you can provide -- this may or may not be a function of how well you know the candidate and/or the candidate's work. I think it may also be discipline-dependent. In several of the physical science and engineering fields with which I am familiar (and for which I have read external letters as part of the tenure evaluation), 2-3 pages (single spaced, on letterhead, 11-12 point font) is pretty standard, unless someone has really detailed knowledge of a candidate, in which case the letters may be slightly longer (but not by much). In a few other fields, however, very long letters seem to be the norm. For example, I have seen some astoundingly long letters for candidates in the math department. In these letters, the evaluators provided detailed descriptions of every article or other type of work produced by the candidate, in some cases taking us through proofs step by step. Some of these letters have lots of equations and read like lectures. I am not sure that happens in m/any other discipline (?).

Format/content: The request-for-letter cover-letter might provide some clues as to the desired format. Do they want you to address specific questions or topics? If so, you can do this if you want, using the questions as your framework for the letter. Or you can ignore the specific requests and write what you want. One thing that is good to address up-front, even if you are going to be a loose cannon with the rest of the letter/format, is how well and in what capacity you know the candidate. This sets the context for you letter, and is important information for people who will be reading the letter. If you don't have any other specific guides about format and are wondering what to write next, you could pick out a few publications (articles, conference proceedings, or whatever is most relevant) and explain why these are interesting and/or significant.

Something I do look for in the cover letter is whether those requesting the letter want me to comment only on research or also on other things. I may not feel that I have sufficient knowledge of the candidate's teaching and service (the typical 'other things' besides research), so I may not provide an opinion about this, even if asked, but at least I will know what the expectations are. This can be important, for example, if the request is strictly for comments on research/scholarship, in which case you may want to avoid mention of how great this person was on the organizing committee for the Science Conference Workshop Panel Thing. 

I wouldn't worry too much about the reading-between-the-lines issue. Some people do this no matter how you write the letter, and there's no point in getting psyched out about something you can't predict. I have seen letters that I thought were an unambiguous endorsement of a candidate -- letters packed with strong positive statements and substantive examples -- only to have a fellow committee member say But if they really thought X should get tenure, they would have put the word "very" in front of "spectacularly outstanding pioneering genius superstar".

So, don't worry about it. If you want to send a mixed message with both positives and negatives, just be clear about this and about your final opinion (Do you endorse this person for tenure or not?). If you want to be entirely positive, use lots of awesomely positive adjectives. And if you think the candidate does appallingly bad and pointless work, I am sure you can find some equally awesome adjectives to convey that. If you think they are mediocre, say so.

Probably the biggest pitfall -- in terms of sending a message you don't intend -- is if you compare the candidate to so-called peers. You may be asked to do this, or you may want to do this even if not asked. I refuse to do this because I think it is nearly impossible to do it in a fair way, and I have seen a few examples in which a letter-writer wrote X is a spectacularly outstanding pioneering genius superstar just like Z at Other Great University and I therefore support X 100% for tenure at Your University, only to have a committee member say But I think Z is an idiot..

If X is greater than or equal to Z, and Z is an idiot, then X must be.. some answer that depends on who is doing the math. Yes, I realize that this is contradicting my previous suggestion to forget about predicting what letter-readers might do, but I think this particular issue -- that of comparing people -- is a real mine-field.

Is anyone freaking out? Please don't. These are outlier examples that occur and are typically stomped on by the sane faculty members, who, believe it or not, have outnumbered the others in every case with which I have personally been involved in STEM disciplines. That is, I have not seen the outcome veer negative because of irrational read-between-the-liners.

My main advice is: just write a sincere ~2-page letter that has substance to it (examples, incidents) and an unambiguous statement of your opinion at the end and/or beginning of the letter.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

What They Don't Tell You in the Non-Existent Training for this Job

File this under: I had no idea students did this.

In my so-called normal professorial existence, students considering applying to my department for graduate school and possibly wanting to work with me send me an email with various bits of information and assorted questions. I have written about this fascinating topic at length before.

But did you know that some students do this?: They go straight to the person they perceive as the 'top' (for example, a head/chair or other administrative leader of a unit/department/etc.) and explain their interest in graduate studies. They may or may not be interested in that person's particular field of research (most of us are, after all, still professors who teach and advise), but they seem to want to make contact with the "head" -- not the director of the graduate program, not the administrative assistant responsible for the graduate program, not the potential advisor/s (although some may write to these individuals as well) -- to announce their existence, their intentions, and to Ask For Things (advice, confirmation of their self-stated outstanding qualifications for graduate studies, etc.).

This surprised me, although maybe it shouldn't have. Does it surprise you? Is this normal behavior in your program or field?

My usual approach to these things is to be as non-judgmental for as long as possible. Some of the student email I get in my normal professorial existence can be classified as "clueless" (I am somewhat sympathetic to these, as I consider myself to have been among the clueless at the applying-to-grad-school stage of my life). But never in 57 million years would it have occurred to me to write to an administrator (other than the graduate director of a department) to introduce myself and lobby for admission.

Yes, I know it is best not to psychoanalyze a student's motivations in sending one of these emails, but that's what we do in blogs.. sometimes. Also, it doesn't really matter what I think about these students because I don't make the admissions decisions, even if some students seem to think that I do.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Pecking Order

While perusing some books and articles on academic administration, I tried to set myself a little challenge that would help me keep reading and not either fall into a boredom-induced stupor or fling the book/e-reader across the room because the author makes so many unjustified and insulting assumptions. And that challenge was to see how far in the book/article it took for me to find something, anything, that was interesting or useful to me.

For some of these books/articles, the challenge is never met and I wonder if this is more a reflection of my administrative inadequacies than the apparent boringness of the reading material, but in one book (by C.K. Gunsalus), I found one thing that perked me up for few moments, a few chapters into the book. And that was a statement that every member of the faculty and all of the "secretaries", as well as most of the grad students and other staff members in academic departments knows exactly what the "pecking order" of faculty is; that is, a hierarchy of sorts, based on I-don't-know-what, but indicated by various "intangible" things.

The intangible items that are listed are a bit bizarre and (along with the mention of "secretaries") made me check when the book was published: the Dean's sherry party? getting your own name on letterhead? etc. But let's ignore that and focus on the "pecking order" concept.

Without defining it or its basis any more than I already have(n't):

Do you think your department has a "pecking order" (and are you faculty, staff, or a student)? If so, what do you think the basis for it is? Research awesomeness? Personality? Other?

And what are the consequences? (salary, office/lab space, invitations to sherry parties)

Is this a bad thing, a neutral thing, a good thing?

I suspect that your comments will make for more interesting reading than any of these guides to academic administrating.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new*


How come you are so fixated upon your gender.A female professor in science is nothing new.Should I state that I am a male professor and include that in every e-mail really?
Sent from my iPad

Yes, please do that.

* Samuel Beckett, male writer

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

I May Have Mail

Upon achieving semi-galactic status in a particular academic unit, my mailbox was moved from its traditional spot amidst the throngs of regular faculty and researcher mailboxes up to an exalted location at the very top of the mailbox warren.

My staff said to me "If you want, we can get your mail for you and bring it to your Awesome Office and put it in a special mail-place like we did for your Distinguished Predecessors".

I thought, "That's silly, I'll just pick up my mail on one of my 57 daily trips through the office with the mailboxes."

But. I soon realized the flaw in my plan: I am too short to see into my new majestically elevated mailbox. This was not a problem for my predecessors, all of whom are men, going back into the 19th century.

Would it somehow detract from my attempt to cultivate an aura of gravitas if I placed a little step-stool by the mailboxes?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Now Stand in the Place Where You Work

When I used to blog 5 days/week, it was easy to come up with topics. No topic was too trivial, it seemed. Since I haven't been blogging every weekday, suddenly each potential post comes with extra baggage: is this topic important enough for a rare post? I ask myself. How can I write about mundane issues when I haven't even commented on the fact that some female Olympic athletes from certain countries (Japan, Australia) flew to London in coach class while the male athletes were in business class? Also, there has recently been an amazing outpouring of letters on behalf of FSP-as-mentor (thank you everyone for this); shouldn't I write something mentor-y? etc.

Maybe I should, but today I am not. Because it's summer? My blog muscles are flaccid? All this is to warn you that the infrequency of my blogging does not correlate with the importance of my blog-topics when a rare post appears.

What I was obsessing about recently (and not for the first time) is how we arrange our faculty offices so that people (students, colleagues) can visit us and have an obvious and convenient place to sit. I think about this particular topic:

- when I visit some other faculty offices*; and
- when people visit my office;

(* but not in my own department!; my colleagues mostly have the visitor-chair situation figured out very well. I cannot, however, say that I have this figured out for my own office.)

Despite the fact that many of us have visitors in our offices multiple times every day, it is amazing to me how many times I go to someone else's faculty office for an extended chat and it is not clear where I should sit. In some cases, there is no available chair, or no chair in an obvious place for conversing with the person whose office it is, and so on. Oh sure, there may be one or many chairs scattered about the office, but some or none of them seem safe/convenient/possible for sitting and conversing. It doesn't matter what type of institution it is -- giant university, small college: many of us are furniture-challenged when it comes to receiving visitors in our academic offices.

This is amazing to me, but in a hypocritical kind of way, as my office seems to confuse many people who stop by to chat. They seem perplexed: should they sit in the more comfortable place further from my desk or the less comfortable place closer to my desk? I contribute to the confusion when I occupy the more comfortable seating option rather than sitting at my desk (I do this because I no longer have a desktop computer so why not sit wherever I want? And also I find that sitting in a comfy seat rather than in my desk chair reduces this effect.) Many people choose to stand.

As it turns out, I actually have two offices, and I recently started reorganizing one to be more visitor-friendly. I don't really want to talk to people across a big wooden desk (well, sometimes I do, but most of the time I don't), and I don't want people to stand because they aren't sure where to sit. I also don't want to get up and walk across the room to sit in some other chairs every time someone stops by for a brief chat, etc.

So, how is your office arranged? (Fig. 1).  Do you talk to visitors across your desk? (That is, you are seated behind your desk, visitors are sitting or standing on the other side.) Or do your visitors typically sit in a chair at or near the end of your desk (or desk-like thing)? When you have visitors, do you move to a seating area away from your desk? Or something else?

Figure 1. Some possible office configurations.

And: Is your office arranged in a particular way for visitors because you have thought about how you want to interact with visitors, or because you don't really have a choice given size/furniture constraints?

And most important question: Do you have always/commonly/sometimes/never have to move piles of papers and other stuff off a chair so that a visitor can have a seat?

No, actually this is the most important question: Do you think it matters how your office is arranged with respect to where visitors sit? For example, does it affect how you interact with students and others? Can a well-arranged office make you a better mentor? Or not?

Monday, July 02, 2012

Apparently, There Is a Me in Mentor

Some very kind FSP readers contacted me about nominating me for an AAAS Mentoring Award, and even contacted AAAS to see if they would consider a blogger, and an anonymous one at that. They apparently would, although they want a lot of irrelevant (in my case) information: a list of my real-life mentees etc. I didn't see the point of that and the process seemed like a lot of work for the nominators, so my first reaction was Thanks (very much, really), but no thanks.

But then, on a long flight, when I was experiencing some blog-writing withdrawal and/or the effects of dramamine, I thought "But wouldn't it be kind of interesting to do a test-case, to see how bloggers-as-mentors are perceived?"

I still wasn't sure, and I had to think about it for a while longer. How did writing posts and indirectly helping some people along the way compare to the in-the-trenches real-life mentoring of the face-to-face variety? With blog posts, readers can take them or leave them, use them or not, be interested or not, like me or hate me. There is great potential to be helpful, and little risk of doing harm (other than annoying some people). With a real-life mentor (which I use here as synonymous with advisor), there are many complicated issues involving personalities, money, time, success and failure, and so on. Blogging is easy; mentoring people in real life is much harder.

But I was still intrigued about the idea of comparing bloggers-as-mentors with traditional mentors. For example, how does quantity of mentees enter into the equation? Clearly it is easier to mentor (or at least attempt to entertain) large numbers of people via the blogosphere in just a few years than it is over the course of a career in real life; is that important or not? And are there things that blog-mentors do that real-life ones don't (or, more likely, don't tend to)?

This shouldn't just be about me. If you know of an academic blogger who has been very helpful, I strongly encourage you to consider nominating them for an AAAS Mentor Award. I think it would be excellent if there were a pile of blogger-nominations.

And if you are still reading, please see below for information that two FSP readers have put together for the particular case of possibly considering FSP-the blogger-as-mentor:

A mentor indeed

Every year the AAAS gives two Mentor Awards to "honor individuals who during their careers demonstrate extraordinary leadership to increase the participation of underrepresented groups in science and engineering fields and careers. These groups include: women of all racial or ethnic groups; African American, Native American, and Hispanic men; and people with disabilities.*"

Good mentoring is crucial to a successful academic career (and it is especially difficult for women to find mentors), and we think the impact of good mentoring should be more often recognized and rewarded. Based on our own experience, and the many comments on FSP's most recent post (and over the years), we feel that this blog, and FSP, have provided a valuable mentoring resource to hundreds of people, female and male, academics and not, who needed and used the mentoring advice herein.

So we are nominating FSP for a mentor award Mentor Award, and to do this we need your help.

This collective mentoring (comments from other readers are an integral part of it all) is obviously not what one would traditionally think of as mentoring. But the proof is in the pudding. For us, it worked. The challenge will be to convince the AAAS that this _is_ mentoring. If we succeed, we will have not only thanked FSP for the amazing thing she has done for us all, laboring over this blog five days a week for 6 whole years, but also perhaps encourage others to adopt this model as well and encourage institutions to view mentoring more broadly.

The AAAS's guidelines are perplexingly traditional. They want tables of students (US citizens or permanent residents) that were mentored and completed a doctoral degree. How bizarre -- no mention of postdocs... of junior faculty... Because these don't need mentors? Is it not that the leaky pipeline is most perforated at the higher rungs of the academic ladder? Given that our nomination is already untraditional, we would like to go beyond what the AAAS requests, and provide the _real_ proof for why FSP's mentoring is exceptional. We feel that the proof is the many many mentees, from countries across the globe, spanning different stages of scientific careers. Lets give them the real picture, not the "only US citizen" version of it.

Readers, as mentioned above, we need your help. YOU are the real picture that we are talking about. If you feel that you have gained career mentoring from FSP, please go to and fill in your details, to be used as part of the nomination. Please make it easy for us by putting in as much information as you can, and submitting only one entry. Oh, and the clock is ticking. We have less than one month until the deadline, and we have no way of contacting you to nag about this later, so please fill in the form now. We did it and it took the whole of 1 minute.

Thank you,

Yael ( & John (


* The rest of the description from the AAAS website is: "Both awards recognize an individual who has mentored and guided significant numbers of students from underrepresented groups to the completion of doctoral studies or who has impacted the climate of a department, college, or institution to significantly increase the diversity of students pursuing and completing doctoral studies. It is important to indicate in the nomination materials how the nominee’s work resulted in departmental and/or institutional change in terms of the granting of PhDs to underrepresented students. This can be documented not only with quantitative data, but may also be demonstrated through the student and colleague letters of support.

Such commitment and extraordinary effort may be demonstrated by:

        • the number and diversity of students mentored;
        • assisting students to present and publish their work, to find financial aid, and to provide career guidance;
        • providing psychological support, encouragement, and essential strategies for life in the scholarly community;
        • continued interest in the individual's professional advancement."

Thursday, May 31, 2012

So Long and Thanks for All the Wombats

When I was young, I hated saying goodbye. For example, when it was time for friends or relatives to leave, I would hide if I could. It wasn't that I was all broken up about their leaving, I just hated the ritual of saying goodbye -- the stupid things you always have to say, the hugs etc., even if you were going to see that person again in the very near future. And when I was the one doing the leaving, I would sometimes pretend I wasn't actually leaving in a final way. My hope was that the goodbye ritual could be put off, and then I would really leave, avoiding the goodbyes. It was strange, I know, and the feeling has sort of persisted in a mild but mostly controllable form into my adult years.

So, I have been writing this FSP blog for 6 years now and have decided that it should change, and perhaps end, but I am too cowardly to do this in a dramatic, sudden way. Why am I considering departing from the blogosphere, decreasing my presence, or at very least changing my blog-focus or format? I am certainly not bored with blogging (or with you, commenters and even lurkers) and I have not run out of things to say (or cat photos to share), but there comes a point in the life of semi-anonymous bloggers -- or, at least, this one -- when it isn't really right or fair to the people in my immediate vicinity for me to continue this type of blog.

Although I don't think any one particular blog is essential, I do think it is important that certain blog-niches be well represented. I am therefore happy that there are some excellent blogs that share the same blog-niche as this one (senior women physical science professors) -- not many, but they exist, just like FSPs in real life. And maybe there are some incipient bloggers out there who have been considering starting a blog but have hesitated. I would very much like to read some new blogs by F/SPs.

The options I am considering for the future: I could confine my blogging to the format I use over at Scientopia for the Science Professor blog; that is, mostly answering questions that people send me by email and encouraging discussion from readers about these questions and issues (I seldom have what I consider to be a real or sufficient answer myself, but I am happy to facilitate discussion). I could do that over there, or over here. And/or I could just continue with my contributions to The Chronicle of Higher Education for as long as they'll have me (comments can be made on these, although the discussion isn't typically as lively as it is over here).

In terms of writing a blog, six years is kind of a long time. Over the years of blogging, and in particular at various blog anniversaries, I have described things that have changed in my career and in my field of Science since 2006, so I will not summarize those here. I will just say for now that some things have changed dramatically and some things have not. Over the years, I have had a lot to talk about, apparently, and I have appreciated having this platform to discuss incidents and ideas. Perhaps at some point, when my thoughts are more organized, I will do a better job with summing things up.

Mostly, of course, I have appreciated the comments and the quiet readers who kept reading. I have learned a lot, and it has been a great pleasure for me.

Did I mention that I have been blogging for six (6) years? Aside from various changes in my professorial existence, these 6 years also mean that I am rather older than I was when I started blogging: When I started, I was in my early 40s and my daughter was in elementary school. I am still in my 40s, but no matter how you do the math, 50 is looming. My daughter is in high school. One thing that has not changed is that she is an amazing, interesting, and happy person. And we still have huge cats whose mission in life is to destroy the stereotype of the aloof feline.

Anyway, I will continue to contemplate my blog future as I do some intense, job-related traveling in the next few weeks, and I will go off the air during that time. But before I go, I don't want to forget that at least once/year at about this time, I like to say Thanks for reading, so here it is: Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

What You Don't Know

It came to my attention yet again recently that many grad students don't know that professors at many universities in the US are not paid by the university in the summer; we have 9-month base salaries. I have written about this before (I know, I say that a lot in this blog, but the blog is ~6 years old). I don't think it matters a lot if students know or don't know the details of how professors are paid except that it might help them understand the behavior of some professors in the summer.

Most of us don't take the summer "off", and most of us don't like being asked to do department service in the summer. Of course advising is a 12-month/year responsibility, but I know some professors who think nothing of spending lots of time working with their own grad students in the summer but balk at having to participate in a large number of prelim exams or defenses for our colleagues' students in the summer (a few here and there might be OK as long as the student is diligent about scheduling well in advance). etc. etc.

What I want to know is: if you are or have been a grad student in the US, do/did you know whether the professors have a 9-month or 12-month base salary? Does/Did it affect how you view/ed the types and amount of work that professors (including your advisor) do/did in the summer? Did you, or are you likely to, take a prelim or final exam in the summer and therefore need your committee to assemble?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Making Change

The topic for today is whether/how much some of us academics change our research focus over the years. Some of you are too young to have sufficient data to answer this question for yourself, but even you youngsters can look around at more senior researchers and see whether and how much people change research focus over the years, from very dramatic changes to a small but perceptible shift.

Some possibilities are:

(1) dramatic: this could be very dramatic, like a change from chemistry to classical languages, or it could be within the same general field but with a change to a totally different subfield.

(2) semi-dramatic: this could involve a shift motivated by interdisciplinary research -- for example, a physical scientist who increasingly became involved in a major way in the life sciences or engineering such that they develop a new field of expertise. In this case, they still have their feet in their original field and subfield, but they also have a new research identity. This type of change is not so rare, or even surprising in some fields, but it still does involve a rather major shift.

(3) perceptible but not very remarkable: this type of change could involve a change in the types of research problems addressed, but the researcher would still be mostly identified with their original subfield; maybe someone develops new research methods that can be applied to different types of problems and this motivates a bit of branching out in research questions and subfields, probably with lots of help from colleagues in these other subfields. Or maybe interests shifts, new collaborations lead to new interests, and so on. There are lots of ways that this type of change can (and probably should) happen during a career.

And then there's:

(4) no change worthy of note.

Although I certainly know some in the first two categories, I think many of us are in the third category, which describes what I think is a rather normal sort of change in the course of a career. I am trying to think of examples of category 4, and I can think of a few people who have done the exact same thing for many many years (some with great success), but I still think various shades of category 3 are more common.

Do any of you consider yourself a category (1) or (2) or (4), or are most of us (3)s? You could answer about your advisor or other academics you have observed if this question isn't relevant to you (yet).

Monday, May 28, 2012

No Jerks Allowed*

* with some exceptions

At, in, on, under, and through Scientopia today, I meander from pseudo-answering a question about whether to explain grad-recruiting decisions to current students to a question (for discussion) of how we advisors get a sense for group dynamics among our advisees.

Friday, May 25, 2012


This post is a continuation/follow-up on a post from last September.

Before I rip into what I consider the incompetent and corrupt practices of those who build and renovate university facilities such as, say, a Science lab, let's first spend a moment being grateful for the skilled, efficient, and polite people involved in this important work. I have not met any recently, but I believe they must exist and I am glad to think that they exist somewhere and wish that some of them had been involved in my recent project.

Now please join me in a collective scream of anger at the other ones. What boggles my naive little professorial mind is that these people work at a university and, in theory, know how a university works and know that we professors don't have endless sources of money for any particular project. Consider my situation in which I

(1) got an estimate for some work,
(2) put that estimate in a grant proposal (with a bit of a cushion to account for likely unanticipated price increases of other expenses),
(3) got the grant,
(4) got a visit from the same people who gave me the original estimate, but this time, with the project a reality, they came up with an estimate that was nearly ten (10) times the original estimate.
(5) So I begged, pleaded, sold part of my soul, and got the additional funds to pay for the new estimate, and then
(6) put in the order for the work, and then
(7) watched in horror as the actual amount was way beyond the amount of even the second estimate.

In the end, the total cost was many many many times the original estimate and significantly more than the second estimate. The work was done by the university, with one subcontract. Where does the university think I am going to get the money to pay these extra costs to the university? Why am I responsible for these inaccurate low estimates? The 'extra' costs did not involve anything unusual or unexpected. There is no reason the estimates couldn't have been more accurate, and then I could have used real numbers in my grant budget.

In fact, some of the costs were for things that were not even done, or for time that was not even spent: one item on an invoice says that something took a week but in fact it took one day, as originally planned in the quote. Somehow these imaginary costs add up to many thousands of dollars. Why should I pay these?

I have asked around about what recourse I have if I want to dispute some of these costs. I get lots of shrugs and the typical response, "Oh yes, those guys are out of control. We can't do anything about it."

Maybe I just won't pay the deficit and the university can sue itself?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

What To Reject When You're Rejecting

The title really should be: How to reject when you're rejecting. Lately there has been a deluge of email in my inbox with questions about rejection: not just how to deal with it, but also how to do it to someone else. The academic-rejection season is mostly over for undergrads and grads, and applicants for faculty positions, but it is more of a year-round event for postdocs, researchers submitting grant proposals, and a few other academic citizens, so the issue never really goes away.

It is important to note that rejection doesn't only involve those higher on the academic food chain rejecting those below; of course applicants for various academic things can have multiple offers and reject some of those who are offering them.

Anyway, it is clearly a year-round topic, and maybe I need to subdivide my "criticism or rejection or failure" blog-label (20 posts so far; for example: Writing the Perfect Rejection Letter, 2007), but here goes: as usual, the answer to the how to reject question is.. it depends, but it seems to me that an all-purpose approach is the obvious one:
  • just do it (don't leave people hanging longer than necessary even if you have what might be unwelcome news), 
  • don't go overboard with verbose explanations of why it is painful for you to send this rejection letter -- be professional and respectful, and 
  • provide additional information if relevant (number of applicants for number of positions etc.), and (mostly) sincere; I know that it is tempting to give a rejectee an inkling of how close they came to being not rejected (assuming that they did come close); for example, "You were a close second." Does/would that make you feel better, not better, worse?
I certainly don't pretend to know what is appropriate in all situations, so as usual I am just writing from my own experience (as a rejecter and a rejectee) and creating a forum for comments and discussion.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

What To Expect

Yesterday I described two different views of an undergraduate student I mostly only know from classroom interactions. Here is another (evolving) view of a different student I also mostly only know from classroom interactions:

A few years ago, I taught a particular student in a Science class. It was a class mostly for Science majors, but it was not a very high level class. For the first half of the course, I wasn't sure about this student's abilities; he worked hard, but, at least at first, his questions tended to be of the "Is this what you want?" and "Can you tell me if this is right before I turn in my homework?" sort. By the end of the class, he was over that and he did well in the class because he worked hard and understood most of the essential course material. I thought he had a lot of potential, but didn't have enough information to predict how the rest of his undergraduate Science experience would turn out.

Fast forward a few years to a fairly high-level talk in my department -- the sort of talk attended mostly by faculty, postdocs, and grad students, but a few motivated undergrads attend as well. In the questions-from-the-audience time after the talk, this undergraduate student asked the speaker an EXCELLENT question. This question showed that he understood the talk very well and could apply what he had learned in classes to ask a perceptive question involving application of the speaker's results to an interesting and relevant concept not mentioned by the speaker. This made my day.

Particularly when our interaction with certain students is largely confined to one or more classes taken early in a Science major, we may form an impression of them as not knowing much. Of course there are always some students who understand everything easily, and there are students who don't seem to understand anything, and those impressions may turn out to be applicable beyond the initial impressions. Many students, however, are somewhere in between, at least when they start taking courses in their major. Those in-between students can change a lot during their undergraduate years, as they progress toward their degree.

If we see them in other classes over the years, the progression may not seem dramatic. If we see them at the beginning and then not again in any substantive way until their final year, the difference can be startling, not because we don't have faith in the ability of students to learn and grow, but just because we didn't see those intermediate stages.

I feel like attempting an analogy with the Stages of Life: If you don't see a student much between their scientific "infancy" and their scientific "youth", is it like seeing a baby and then seeing that "baby" years later, walking and talking? I suppose it is sort of similar, at least in the sense that it can be startling to see a dramatic change from helpless non-verbal baby to a mobile talking creature, but it is also different because we expect this of babies. I think we also expect it of students, but maybe not quite with the same degree of certainty. (Discuss.)

And in the anecdote described here, it wasn't so much that the former "baby" was walking and talking, but was also doing elegant cartwheels while demonstrating fluency in a new language. It was awesome.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Goes Without Saying

The other day, less than hour after I had provided a recommendation for an undergraduate, saying in the recommendation (essentially) that the student was mature and thoughtful, showed good judgment, and was smart, I stood on a busy street corner near campus and watched this particular student ride through the intersection on their bicycle: no helmet, no hands, ear buds in ears, ignoring traffic signals, trusting that the cars, buses, and trucks would somehow not be in the way.

Ah well, this student is young and immortal, that goes without saying. And the things I did say in the letter are still (mostly) true, when considered in the relevant context.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Fuzzy COI

In Scientopia, I use a reader's question about whether to serve as guest-editor of their advisor's and other close colleagues' manuscripts (short answer: no) to discuss more ambiguous examples of possible conflicts of interest (COI).

Friday, May 18, 2012

Let's Ask The Cats: Work-Life Balance

The result of Wednesday's poll was a big surprise to me: nearly 40% of those who voted went for the new-agey balanced-rock image as a symbol of Work-Life Balance. However, I sensed a bit of dissatisfaction with the options, and, although it may not have been clear from what I wrote in that post, I share this feeling.

 The Winner

So I leaped into action. After participating in some intense meetings involving likely-pointless but nevertheless Crucial Things, talking to students, and then working feverishly on a manuscript that never seems to end, breaking only for an infusion of caffeine-and-sugar, I went home and had a serious talk with one of my cats. The topic: Work-Life Balance Symbols, of course.

I told him about the flattish polished rocks as powerful symbols of work-life balance, and he was skeptical. Because this cat happens to be an experimentalist who likes to develop theoretical models to explain complex interrelated systems and because I happened to have a bunch of these rocks handy, we decided to to make our own symbolic work-life balance rock-tower. But because these things are rather unstable (no kidding, that's probably the point), we decided to make our rock-tower an extraorindarily powerful and versatile symbol by gluing the rocks together with superglue.

Once we had stabilized our work-life balance rock-tower, we knew what we had to do: take a nap. Actually, no! There was no time for that! It was photo time!! My cat and I conspired to create our own images to symbolize not simply work-life balance (because we don't even really know what that means), but instead to try to show the real-life consequences of seeking a work-life balance symbol. That's when our project became a bit circular, but here are the results:

Here we use a tilted work-life balance tower to symbolize the imbalance that can afflict those who do not nap sufficiently during the day because they have to spend all this time stacking rocks into towers, or whatever.

Here my cat was saying: work-life-work-life-work-life-work-life-phooey

The search for work-life balance can be overwhelming at times, and probably isn't really worth it.

In this photo, my cat cleverly adopted a blank stare to emphasize the dire and perhaps damaging effects on the psyche resulting from a too-rigid definition of work-life balance, undermining attempts to create a symbol that isn't bizarre.

The ultimate image: the real-life consequences of the search for the mythical work-life balance symbol.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Long-Long Name

One of my most-read posts of all time is a rather ancient one, from 2006, on a non-academic topic: my husband's and my decision to hyphenate our daughter's last name. She has my last name and my husband's last name, with a hyphen in between. Our decision about name order was based on which order we thought sounded better.

In 2006, I wrote about how having a hyphenated child was a good decision for us. That was six (6) years ago, when our daughter was in elementary school and shorter than I am. What about now? Is our tall teenager happy with her rather unwieldy last name? Are we all still happy with our decision?

As it turns out, yes and yes, emphatically so.

The occasional inconvenience of dealing with a name that is "too long" has thus far been more than offset by our family's unanimous happiness with our name choice lo these many years ago. I think some parents worry that giving their kid a "different" last name (even if it has elements of each parent's name) will somehow make them all feel more apart -- less cohesive -- as a family, but in fact the result can be the opposite. Since my husband and I have different last names, our daughter's hyphenated name is our family name-glue.

She knows that if she ever doesn't like her hyphenated name, she can change it and we will not be upset. It's her name and she should have a name that she likes. For a while when she was very young, when asked her name, she would give her first name, middle name, first part of her last name, and then an animal name instead of the second part of her last name; her two favorites: "kitty cat" and "hippo". It was very cute, but she outgrew that phase about 12 years ago.

So far, she really does like her long-long name. In fact, she commonly also uses her middle name along with her first and last-last names, even though this makes it all even longer, just because she likes her entire name and how it sounds. And she likes the fact that her name directly connects her to her father and her mother. She has friends who share a last name with their father but not their mother (because the mom didn't change her name on marrying), including some friends who have their mother's last name (or some other family name) as a middle name, but she prefers her hyphenated name to those options.

Also, she is the only person on the entire planet with this name, and she likes being unique in that way (and appreciates how useful that can be, for online purposes that involve one's real name). She knows it may complicate her life later in ways that it doesn't now, but that's an issue for later.

I am most definitely not writing this update to say that hyphenating is the best thing to do for all families, but it has worked for us (so far).

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Picture It: Work-Life Balance

On occasion, I seek out images of Work-Life Balance (WLB), and today I decided that it was time to share some of my image-research results, inspired by assorted posts on WLB on other blogs this week (for example, here and here).

Here's how it started, this image-research: Every once in a while, I encounter an image that attempts to depict the challenges of Work-Life Balance. I find most of these disturbing, disappointing, and/or bizarre. Some don't even illustrate what the accompanying text is attempting to say. For example, if your message is that Work-Life Balance Is Possible, why show something impossible in the illustration? If you are writing about the particular difficulty of WLB for mothers with young children, why have an illustration of a frazzled man in a suit? etc. There may be a disconnect between the people doing the writing and the people providing the graphics. This is obvious from even a cursory search of WLB images.

Nevertheless, I started actively searching for WLB images, for no real reason, and I have even tried to create one of my own, with less than satisfactory results. It's difficult. Clearly.

I am sure you can easily guess some of the major elements in typical WLB images. The Big Three are:
  • scales, balances, see-saws (I hate these); non-rigorously-tested observation: about equal numbers of these either show "work" and "life" as balanced or show "work" tipping the scale. Rare ones show "life" tipping the scale;
  • people (typically women) apparently juggling lots of different fake objects (I hate these too);
  • road signs (at 90° or 180° to each other) (more hate);
with a not-insignificant number of:
  • Venn diagrams (snore).
Slightly more interesting, though not necessarily better, are:
  • people (typically men in suits) on bicycles;
  • people (typically women) doing more than one thing at once, in some cases with more than 2 arms;
  • rounded beach pebbles in piles or other precarious configurations.
In my non-extensive, non-systematic search, I found no images with cats. I think that is worth noting.

There are, however, a lot of clocks, of the old fashioned tick-tock kind, many with alarm bells.

Does anyone actually like WLB images involving scales?: for example, with the word "work" on one side and "life" on the other. Let's find out! A poll for choosing which of the following images you think is the best, most evocative, accurate, and/or compelling WLB image is below a series of images that I found online. The heading of each image is a link to the source of that image, and biased editorial comments are in the captions.

Here is a slightly-more-interesting-than-usual example of the balance/see-saw type of WLB image. Is that a man-figure balanced between a child-clinging-to-woman-who-is-turning-away-slightly and a clock that seems to represent work? Why is the man-figure falling backwards? I personally hate this image, but don't let that influence you. Do you think this shows 11 AM or 11 PM?


This one shows up in more than one place, and I'm not sure what the original source is. Again, I don't want to influence your vote or anything, but I am not fond of this one because the guy in the suit seems to be balancing a briefcase with nothing. What does that even mean? Also, the terrain is a bit flat, so I am unimpressed overall with this image.


zzzzzzzz. These things almost always have a laptop and a baby. The other stuff varies: briefcases, cell phones, hobby items blah blah blah.


An example of a road sign image. One bizarre thing about this one is that it is associated with the headline "Work Life Balance - Yes!". And yet, the image screams "Work or Life: You Choose, or Go In A Totally Different Direction for Balance". Or something.


Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! This may be the one I hate the most! This one tempted me to change the contest from voting on the best image to voting on the most appalling, but I decided not to 'go negative' with the contest. I hope at the very least that she is ironing her own shirt.


This one isn't as bad as the typical "scale/balance" image, mostly because it asks the cosmic question: which rock = work and which rock = life? It doesn't seem to matter! This is a very positive image, even if I don't believe it is "real".


More rocks! There are quite a few of these beach-pebble images, with rocks in towers, cairns, apparently precarious but structurally sound arches etc. Why?? Is it because roundish flattish pebbles such as can be found on some beaches can be balanced up to a point and that is a powerful, gender-neutral image?


Whoa. The woman is balancing the kids and the man in the suit is.. what? Walking towards them to help? Is he insane? He should walk the other way or the whole thing will tip over?!


This might as well be a photo of me at work when my daughter was an infant, except that computer monitors were not as flat and cell phones weren't as common and also my daughter took her work as my research assistant much more seriously than this frivolous baby and my daughter was much much cuter. Other than that, this is an inspiring photo for all professional women.

WLB 10

The railroad track imagery is a bit disturbing. Is there a train coming? Is this person suicidal? A dare-devil? Where is that right foot about to land? Is there a "third rail"? Is this person wearing clothes or did they forget to put them on owing to problems with work-life balance?

There are of course many more image and types of images, but I think is time for reflection and voting now. You will have to decide how you define "favorite", but if the poll settings work as they should, you can vote for more than one "favorite".

Vote for your favorite WLB image free polls 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Nobody'd take me seriously anyway

The title of this post is also from song lyrics; in fact, by the same artistes who provided the title of yesterday's post. Their lyrics are a treasure-trove of wisdom about life, and very applicable in many cases to academic life. It is quite incredible, actually.

I was thinking about this as I walked across campus recently: how many of this obscure band's lyrics can I use as post titles without getting too bizarre? Realizing I am not a good judge of that, I nevertheless think I could get quite far, but that doesn't mean I should or will. Instead, I will scatter some lyrics-references at various places in this one post.

Anyway, what I was wondering was whether you

have ever decided against doing something in your professional life because you were fairly certain that you wouldn't be taken seriously.

And if so, was this self-doubt or reality-based cynicism?

If self-doubt, it is likely related to the notorious "imposter syndrome" (also sensitively illuminated by this brilliant band, which was my favorite for at least a weekend circa early 1980's: "Step in my shoes, you'll see that I don't fit.").

If reality-based cynicism, there were probably incidents in which you weren't taken seriously, and then you wondered "Why put myself out there again just to be eaten by sharks?" (as addressed in the song "Shark Attack" by the lyrics, "Please don't mess around with me, I'm a shark fatality, in the sea, I'm the one with the bleeding heart.")

The "something" vaguely referred to in the question above doesn't have to be something major; it could be something as simple as making a decision about whether to speak up in a particular setting (such as a meeting, or even in a conversation). Or it could be something big like making a decision about applying (or not) for a certain position or volunteering (or not) for a leadership role.

Ideally, such decisions, whatever the motivation, will not be setbacks but instead overall constructive moves. For example, you might decide not to waste your time and energy on one thing, but devote yourself to something else that is a better use of your time and talents. Although it's too bad if you turn down a good opportunity owing to misplaced lack of confidence, you don't have to hurl yourself at every opportunity.

Or, if that optimistic scenario doesn't apply, maybe a decision based on a prediction of being disrespected is a feature of one stage in your life/career, but not of later stages (but, again ideally, not too much later).

I was also reminded of the general issue of being brave (in your career) by some of President Obama's words in a recent graduation speech at Barnard College. Speaking to the women of Barnard, he said, "Fight for your seat at the table. Better yet, fight for a seat at the head of the table."

Do you find that inspiring, exhausting, or both? (I am ignoring the option of 'none of the above'.)

I say: OK, let's do that, but while we are doing that, let's keep in mind that there are many ways to "fight" for what is fair and right. The fight is a complex one, involving some guerrilla warfare, some tactical retreats, some heavy artillery, some diplomacy, and every once in a while an assist from the cavalry. I think it is also important to keep in mind that the "fight" is not a solitary one, as implied by the quotation in its most simple interpretation.

I think what Obama was really trying to say was that you shouldn't just accept oppression and wallow in defeatist self-pity, as eloquently expressed by the ex-band with the tragically awful name of Split Enz,

If war broke out I'd be the last one to know
If there was a fire they'd just leave me to burn
I got just as much to say as any [wo]man
But I never seem to get my turn.

Instead, be aware, leave the burning house, speak up when you want to, and take your turn.