Archive for: April, 2017

quote of the day: looks edition

Apr 18 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Thoughts on look-ism from J.K. Rowling:

“Fat’ is usually the first insult a girl throws at another girl when she wants to hurt her.

I mean, is ‘fat’ really the worst thing a human being can be? Is ‘fat’ worse than ‘vindictive’, ‘jealous’, ‘shallow’, ‘vain’, ‘boring’ or ‘cruel’? Not to me; but then, you might retort, what do I know about the pressure to be skinny? I’m not in the business of being judged on my looks, what with being a writer and earning my living by using my brain…


What I felt like saying was, ‘I’ve produced my third child and my sixth novel since I last saw you. Aren’t either of those things more important, more interesting, than my size?’ But no – my waist looked smaller! Forget the kid and the book: finally, something to celebrate! --J.K. Rowling

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More Difficult Chairs and Difficult Faculty

Apr 18 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I've kept talking to Molly (see here and here for background) about her situation as a junior faculty with, to her perception, a difficult chair. There has been a lot of back and forth from my faithful readers on what is good advice to Molly. Read the comments to those posts for a sense of the debate.

Molly has, for now, decided to stay in academics. I know some of you will think that's a foolish decision. But I think it is a very personal choice, in the sense that liking Peeps, one's preferred time for waking up, and having children is a very personal choice. There are different levels of difficulty and significance of said choices (see post on making decisions), but this is Molly's decision to make. My ongoing commitment to her is to work with her, and help her, and advise her. I write about this in part to elicit your, dear reader, help, but also because I value the various responses I get.

Molly's chair sent her a list of expectations. It's actually two parts: a list for the entire department and a list for Molly and one other jr faculty. If I was chair, in my current PhD/non-clinical department, I couldn't imagine sending this to a bunch of academics. On the other hand, from my time in a clinical department, I can certainly perceive that in that setting, a department of people who have not come up through a standard academic pathway, that it might be necessary. I recall discussions I have had with junior clinical faculty who wanted to stay in academics and were baffled by some parts of the culture. Context, once again, is important here.

Molly was confused by the list. She was not insulted by the list (which would be an understandable reaction), but just didn't understand what it meant. I looked at it and thought, if I gave this to any junior faculty that I am currently mentoring, any basic science jr faculty, they would shrug and say "so what, I'm doing that already".

Here are some of the points (paraphrased):

  • Follow all AMRU institutional accounting requirements

Yup. You can't spend money on alcohol. You can't buy a computer from the equipment money on your federal grant without special procedure. You gotta turn in receipts. You gotta get authorization for over a certain amount.

  • Teaching: Should be aligned with department, college, and university goals. Should be agreed upon and approved by Chair during annual review


  • Service: Should be aligned with department, college, and university goals. Should be agreed upon and approved by Chair during annual review

To me, these are just restatements of something I told Molly before. One doesn’t get hired because of some altruistic need on the part of the university to improve you, and help you, although that often comes along for the ride. One is hired because there are jobs that need to be done, jobs within the department and within the school.

Molly who worked as a consultant and a lone ranger, didn't understand why anyone else would care about these things, and why she needed to pay attention to them. Then there is the part of the list that might be a bit insulting.

  • Attend all department meetings and participate accordingly. Absences (excused and unexpected) should be communicated to the Chair.
  • Serve on departmental committees as agreed upon in consultation with the Chair
  • Participate in departmental strategic planning and implementation as agreed upon in consultation with the Chair
  • Notify the Chair or designee in advance if unable to keep a meeting
  • Follow institution guidelines regarding all human resources requirements, including timely submission of all reports (direct and indirect)
  • Follow institutional guidelines regarding all IRB requirements and expectations of compliance.

If I showed this the jr faculty in my department and asked what they thought, they'd probably say "you're kidding", in part because they trust me not to jerk them around. These are kindergarten rules. These are rules you give to teenagers who are thinking with their hormones, and have significantly screwed up something to the extent you need to lay down the law. (If you have a teenager who has never significantly screwed up, like drugs and arrest and hurting someone badly, you are very lucky. This, in my perception, is usually orthogonal to parenting, but that's another post).

But it makes me think that someone in this department screwed up pretty badly to make a chair think that these kinds of rules are necessary. I know some commentators will see this as proof that the chair is six kinds of BSD and jerk and ineffective as leader. Yet, I've seen enough evidence to the contrary and I know that he didn't institute these rules when he became chair, but in response to situations of which I do not know all the facts. These rules, er, guidelines, are a response to something, and not necessarily Molly. That doesn't make it any easier for her.

Molly's particular "expectations", which is not quite the same thing as rule, include:

  • Be familiar with and follow all tenure and promotion guidelines
  • Actively maintain a successful program of scholarship

So to whom of us are these surprising? Unexpected? Molly was adjunct in this department before this chair came on board, and moved to tenure track at the time he started. Thus he didn't have a hand in her hiring, which is when I would expect these things to be discussed. Molly wrote to me saying she didn't understand. I said these things I would tell any brand new faculty. The only problem is that the previous chair did not say these things explicitly to you when you were hired.

Part of what is most difficult for Molly, something with which I remember struggling as a new jr faculty are the expectations about research funding. Not that one should get research, but about how getting funding is overseen and regulated. Research should:

  • be aligned with strategic goals of department, college, and university
  • be limited to a manageable amount of required oversight
  • strictly adhere to institutional requirements for IRB, grants accounting, and human resources
  • be discussed with chair and approved by the Chair during annual review

Now, in my dotage, these seem reflexive to me. These guidelines are one (large) part you work for the university not yourself and one part we (the admin) need to make sure you don't screw up anything in public for us and one part I (the chair) don't want you doing more than you can reasonably do. Do not get more money than you can handle.

When I was younger, I bridled at rules like this: why can't I do whatever I want? Well, I couldn't and you can't. We live in a society with rules, and guidelines, and expectations and limitations. We work for an institution, that often reports to the State Government, and when we are so lucky to get NIH money, we are answerable to the federal government. When we use animals in our work, there is Federal Law that governs what we can and cannot do.

As I said to Molly: this is the job.  These are the guidelines and expectations.  If you cannot live with these, it's time to move on. If you want this job, then you figure out how to work and live within these limits.

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Making decisions - Part 1

Apr 17 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

In the morning, I have taken to listening to podcasts whilst I do my morning stretching. In general, I find podcasts frustrating - by and large they are too slow and I just would rather read, and absorb the information more quickly. But since I can't read and stretch at the same time, I listen.

This morning, I was listening to a TED program. Usually I can't stand the TED talks, even the abridged "radio hour" version. The people talking are way too smug and sure of themselves. It's even a bit, as my Brit friends would say, Twee.

But this one, about making decisions, had some insight that I appreciated (thank you, my dear friend. Denise for suggesting this). The woman was Ruth Chang, a philosopher, talking about: How Can Making Hard Choices Empower Us?

I took away two core messages from this excerpt of her talk. Firstly, separate the concept of "hard decisions" from "important decisions". Decisions are hard to make because the resolution is not obvious, that doesn't mean they are worthy of great swathes of your attention. It may feel that making a choice is difficult, because you don't know enough, about your desires or about the outcomes, to make it. But, it is not worth losing sleep over what to have for breakfast.

Secondly, embrace the hard decisions, the ones that are not about what to have for breakfast. They are a chance to decide, but also a chance to make yourself into who you are. The decision gives you the chance to chose who you are going to be. Agency, she calls it. It is a chance to commit (her word) to who you are going to be, a chance to determine your path.

Embrace the difficulty. Usually we who like to embrace difficulty, or embrace the concept of embracing difficulty, embrace the difficulty of doing something. We want to climb the physical or intellectual mountain. It's part of the reason we are scientists. But the difficulty of deciding is, at least for me, harder to do. It's triggered a whole range of thoughts, some of which are part of the path through the end of my life. So this is just part 1. Parts 2 through n, to follow.





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Quote of the Day: Olde Farte Survival

Apr 14 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Apropos ongoing discussions about giving time of day to evil human beings:

If you wait by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by. ― Sun Tzu

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Follow up to So Damn Tired

Apr 13 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I went to talk to a very wise someone about the problems with my department chair that I outlined here.

She gave me two insights.

The first was: rather than seeing this as you against him, it seems to me that you are both passionate about the same thing, and just see different ways of getting to things. You both want to protect, promote and support the junior faculty. He may have genuinely been trying to protect the male faculty from what he saw as an attack. [yeah, and maybe he was just uncomfortable at being called out on crap that men do, but I am trying to be open here]. But you will get further, and things will go smoother, if you look to what you share rather than how he offends you.

The second overarching insight (which *of course* we know except when we don't) is that people don't always say what they mean, and that the real message may be a layer or two down. The specific part of this insight concerned a frequent behavior from my chair that I get when I try to answer him (argue with him?). He often holds up his hands and says "I don't want back and forth on this". I interpret this to mean "here's my view, and I don't give an anything about your views". The wise person said "that could just be his way of saying to you: you're not listening to me".

Probably so.

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What is important to one's sense of self? Reflections on Star Wars and Star Trek and LOTR

Apr 12 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

When I was growing up the single most important thing was to be smart. Bright. Intelligent. There was some vague distinction between knowing things, and being able to know things. The most telling insult in my family was "you are stupid". Even now when I get angry at someone or something, that's the word I go to in my head. "Don't be so stupid" implied that one could choose to be smart or stupid.

That is part of the problem I have with much of popular science fiction. One's fate is set at the outside, by genes, by birth, by how you look. My biggest issue with LOTR, which I go to when I need encouragement (the scene where the elves show up at Helm's Deep, with the military version of the Elf Leitmotif in the background makes me love my friends all the more), is that Evil has bad hair, bad skin, bad teeth, whereas Good is damn fine looking. Star Wars: either the force is strong in you or not. Talk about hereditary leadership.

TOS Star Trek was a bit better, there was, for the time, for the time, a message of inclusiveness, and trainees who could learn, in addition to all the boobs and scanty-clad women. But for me, at the time, when I was in junior high, it was a good send: Real Live Scientists! As heroes!

It was hard, back then, in the dark ages to find inspirational Stuff For Girls. Compared to the messages that came to me through most sources ("do not have sex or your life is over") or cartoons of my childhood (boys have fun, girls care about, what? Hair & music?) (except for Moose and Squirrel. <insert heavy Russian accent> Get moose & squirrel), there was little for me to hang my hat on. But it was still Mr. Peabody and his boy Sherman.

Smart instead of pretty can be a strong message. To me, it was. Smart was something I could control. Something I could work towards, something I could cultivate, instead of the looks I got in the genetic lottery.

My views of this have changed over the years. I used to worry about being the smartest. Hahaha. Grad school will kick that stuffing out of you. No way. There is always someone smarter. And someone who works harder. And wants it more than you. I absorbed that message maybe not easily, but quickly: I wasn't ever going to be the smartest or even the hardest working. But it became ok. Underneath all of these concerns was an underlying love of the natural world and science and doing research, the things that pushed me in this direction in the first place.

Now when I worry, waking up at 2am, it's usually about the Supreme Court, my friends of color who have young sons, my married gay friends, and my transgender friends who get outed easily (when you apply for a new job, you have to usually supply all of your past legal names. Having been "Barbara" and now being "Jacob" is a pretty strong signal). It's about the young trainees who are struggling to find a job, and my friends who don't really have enough money to retire, but are too tired to keep working (think 2nd grade teachers or waitresses).

Yes, there is lots of room for me to get pissed off about popular culture, a culture that still promotes beauty over brains, that makes young people believe that they could be running the world if only they were... whatever more than they are right now. I don't have to worry about not being the smartest any more. And while the world isn't perfect, there are a lot more role models for young females, and enough people who really don't care about how you look. I can stop worrying about that, and work on something more important.

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Being statistically rational about generation

Apr 10 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Well, once again, some Gen-X-er had to say something snarky about generations on the tweets.

I've gotten tired of arguing the stereotypes. I've gotten tired of pointing out the flaws in the statistics.

This time the fight, argument, er discussion had to do with "where do you draw the lines betwixt generations?"

This fight reminded me of one of the things I used to teach when I taught data analysis to biology grad students.  Say you've got two variables, oh call them X and Y. You are interested in the relationship between X&Y, and maybe even have some hypotheses about what that is. You've measured both, and let's even say you have reason to want to call Y the response variable (or even dependent) and X the carrier or independent. X looks a little "grouped". There seem to be some "natural" breaks.

Point the first: unlikely to be natural. If this is data you set out to collect: copoopods in the river, rabbits hopping on the bank, you may have, unintentionally, not on purpose, whatever, introduced that bias. Departures from random sampling are rampant and insidious.

So you plot the data and those breaks may or may not still be there. The temptation to turn "X", a continuous variable, be it distance on your transact, size of bunny lower limb or whatever, into a categorical variable is huge. Your slope of Y on X is small and the significance is marginal (.06 or so).  The relationship is there. You know it. But it's weak as that cup of coffee you stole from the pot before it was finished brewing.

So you take X and turn it into categories. Every 10M or 100M on the transact. Reorganize the data and push it through an ANOVA. And lo! Your eyes were opened, and there is a Significant Relationship. Victory is within your grasp.

Point the second: What is bad here? You've violated many assumptions:

In an ANOVA, membership in category is not random. The difference between random and fixed predictor or categorical variables in a linear model is critical and frequently overlooked.  Understanding the difference separates out the JV from the varsity, Serena Williams from my sweetie's tennis group, the undergraduate from the postdoc. The calculations are different, the implications are different, and the conclusions you can reach are different. What are these differences? Well, if you still believe in inferential statistics, you cannot make inferences about levels in a random variable (i.e. Is group 1 different from group 2?). Further when you test, you can't just take the ratio of MSR/MSE  to arrive at an F-stat. Small technical point, but one that influences that measure of significance.

Other points: did you check within group variation? I thought not. It's supposed to be equal, and if you divvied up a continuous variable, it's not likely to be.

You can call yourself a fire hydrant, but it doesn't make you one. This *was* a continuous variable, and your groups are not "real" biologically, and if it is, the group variable will be random, not fixed.

So where does it leave our stalwart warriors of GenX?

Well, "generations" is the imposition of categories on a continuous variable. This problem is evident when people start arguing about at what year the boundary occurs. It's a continuous variable that one is trying to parse into categories. And then! Treat the categories like the belong to a fixed variable, and not a continuous one. Are people born in 1963 more "like" those born in 1968 than they are like those born in 1948? Probably in many ways. There is a continuous distribution, with many traits, response variables and over all "philosophy" or culture changing, relatively gradually over time.

The idea of a generation is a convenient trope for the glossy news machines, and the bitter folks trying to blame their problems on others. Yes, there are people who did BAD things and took alz teh grants muney. There are historical trends, there are patterns. Finding those patterns may or may not be useful to either advancing a hypothesis (somewhat likely) or effecting change (much less likely, but tremendously satisfying). Knowing history is a good thing.

There are bad people in every generation. There are BSD and Big Dogs and kindly hearts who mentor you. If you start classifying by this construct we call "generation" you are likely to make mistakes about who and what people are, because you are judging them on their age.

Things *have* changed. There is no doubt of that. There are many, many things that are much harder, right now, for young scientists. There are also some things that are easier. Some of these things were active, evil and selfish, things done by older people that have downstream impacts on younger people. It may be very satisfying to demonize a group, and blame them for all your problems. But it won't solve the problems. It won't turn members of that group into your allies to help solve the problems.







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Quote of the Day: St. Augustine edition

Apr 10 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Quoted by Graham Greene (yes, still working through that one):

How can the past and future be, when the past no longer is, and the future is not yet? As for the present, if it were always present and never moved on to become the past, it would not be time, but eternity. -- St. Augustine

Well, maybe. We can see beyond the end of our noses and look backwards and forwards.

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Difficult Chairs and Difficult Faculty

Apr 07 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Sometimes the relationship between chair and faculty goes smoothly. Great. All happy families are alike.

But sometimes the relationship doesn't. And while all unhappy families are different*, there are enough commonalities amongst the causes of unhappiness to make it worthwhile to think about what those causes are. This is the second post following up this one about difficult faculty and chairs.  I just got an email from the woman mentioned in the previous post. She's not in my department, and I'm not on her mentoring or tenure committee. Her email was long and it was bitter and it made me sad. I wrote a response, trying to help, parts of which I include here.  She started with the idea that she has "been given special rules that apply only to her". My first response to that was:

How do you know they are rules only for you? Have you discussed this with everyone else? But, indeed, part of what a chair does is try to develop a pathway for each faculty to achieve tenure. I just want to encourage you not to have a chip on your shoulder, to subtract the personal & emotional out of your interactions with your chair. Really & truly chairs want faculty to succeed.

I know this is not always true. I know that there are toxic chairs, and vindictive chairs, and just plain problematic and insecure chairs. I do not have statistics to comment on frequency. But I know this chair, and he's not toxic or vindictive, just of strong mind in a department whose historic issues predate this woman's problems by years. And despite my current struggles with my chair, I do believe that my chair is on the balance a good chair, who really has the backs of the junior faculty in this department. That he and I disagree about how to support said faculty, has come to be par for the course, for me. But it really is in the self-interest of a chair or head to see jr faculty succeed. The ability to see someone as being both good and bad is a hard won skill for me.

But in my response, I went on to ask the question: do you want this job? For lots of readers here, the answer is "of course". But this is an older woman, who has done a lot, including lots of government and NGO work setting up programs for underprivileged and undersupplied, etc etc. She could do that stuff. She's had a successful career that led her back to academics.

Again, the decision to stay, the decision to work towards tenure, is yours. But if you do, you need to ask, both yourself and your chair: What do I need to do to get tenure? It’s sometimes easier when one is 25 or 30 and an asst prof, because one tends to be in a often much more in a “teach me mode”, then when one has lived a lot of life, done a lot of things, and seen even more. But, there is a lot about academics that you, Molly, don’t know, you can’t know, because you were busy doing all those other things for years.

When you get to be 50 or 60, sometimes it's easy to know what you don't know. Maybe easier than when you are young. But sometimes, when you get lumped with the 20 and 30 year olds, it's not. I've had trainees of different ages and background who really think they know better. I've had friends with trainees who struggle with the ones who know everything. Yup, I know there is a lot that *I* don't know. And if you asked Molly, the young faculty, she'd say "of course, there's lots I don't know, but ..." and in that but lies here problems.

You need to ask yourself: what am I doing right and what could I do better? Not just about the interactions, but about the stuff you are doing professionally, towards the development of your dossier. Part of your relationship with your chair, part of making him your ally, is to have his answers to that question.  It’s hard to hear the “what could be better” part, but if you don’t, and if you can’t hear it to move forward, you won’t get tenure.

You also need to try and see this more from the chair and department and school perspective. Not *this* chair in particular, but what *a* chair in general would be saying.

In general, for any problematic relationship, understanding the other person is helpful. Not saying I'm good at it, or I always succeed. But the insights can make a difference in solving the problem.

And keep your perspective on just what the heck is going on:

One doesn’t get hired because of some altruistic need on the part of the university to improve you, and help you, although that often comes along for the ride. One is hired because there are jobs that need to be done, jobs within the department and within the school. Your job may not (although, again it can) be about what you want to do, it is about what the department needs done, and sees as its mission. If your goals and department goals align, then it works well. But if you have goals that are not part of the department’s mission, you will end up being very frustrated, and have a less than optimal relationship with the chair, who is setting the agenda of meeting the department goals (which in turn is usually in answer to what those in leadership have decided).

There are plenty of snowflakes who know better. And you know what? When they move on to something else, both they and the chair, and probably the department, are all happier.  Again, ask yourself: do I want this job? And the corollary is: am I willing to do what it takes to get it and keep it? That's the meta question here.


*Did you know that there is an Anna Karenina principle in statistics? I was looking up the quote and found this:

In statistics, the term Anna Karenina principle is used to describe significance tests: there are any number of ways in which a dataset may violate the null hypothesis and only one in which all the assumptions are satisfied.

And yes, there are some department chairs that will never be satisfied.

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meta advice for getting tenure

Apr 06 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Make your chair you ally.

It is not about love/hate relationship.

It is not about being angry with your chair or with other men.

In the end it is not at all about what you feel.

An older woman, who rejoined academia, and is now an assistant professor at the age of 50+ came to see me. I didn't even have to hear the words. I heard the tone. She is angry. She is pissed. She is an invisible older woman who is doing generally very good things.

So the first thing I asked her is: do you want to get tenure? That matters. Life is one long cost-benefit decision. If you don't want tenure, you can do whatever you want to whom ever you want and be as angry as you like. But if you want tenure, you can't. Its that simple. Yes, yes, there are marvelous brilliant fucking snowflake geniuses who can do whatever they want. We are not them. At least, I'm not, nor was the woman in my office.

Do you want tenure?

Then there is one piece of meta-advice, one meta-criterion: make your chair your ally. A bit on meta-criteria: it makes the laundry list of little things to do go away. Just ask yourself: does this advance the meta-criterion? For writing grants, its make the reviewer your ally. For getting tenure, its often (but not always) make the chair your ally. Yes, of course, you have to publish and get funded.

Fighting with your chair does not make it past the meta-criterion. It just doesn't.  When you've got something you want to do, and you chair disagrees, fighting is not going to work. Persuading your chair. Working towards understanding with your chair: these are acceptable and possibly successful, strategies.

This is the first part... because its an ongoing thing.

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