Search Results for "letter"

Oct 31 2016

Making writing letters of recommendation easier

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A few last thoughts on writing letters of recommendation.

I keep a set of templates in my letters folder. I've got essentially three levels for students:

1) Students I don't know you but you took a class with me. The class had >40 students (often 150+). I usually ask for a CV. If I and the student have time, we meet, so at least I can remember the face, if they spoke in class, or anything else memorable. This letter tends to be one paragraph. It mentions the rank or grade of the student, and usually 1-2 facts that are specific to the student.

2) Students who took more than one class with me. You came to talk to me. I've got more than 1-2 facts I can say about you. These are usually two paragraphs. One with the facts about the class or classes and the objective facts about the grades the student got, and one with specifics that give more info on the student.

3) Students who worked with me. These are usually two-three paragraph jobbers. The first paragraph still tends to have the objective facts (Mark worked 10 hours a week for two terms, a total of 36 weeks, and received credit/or was paid). If there are two sets of interesting specifics (ie class vs work) then they are in two paragraphs.

General points that make writing easier for the more complex or lengthy letters:

I almost always ask the person for whom I am writing to give me a list of what they've done in my lab. I tell them to include any specific incidents they remember as being important. I don't ever include anything I don't explicitly remember, but often they jog my memory about something that is good for a letter that I've forgotten. I find their bullet points are very useful for me, yet in list form easy enough for me to read.

I try and tell the student what kind of letter I'm writing. So if its going to be 1-2 paragraphs, I say that I don't know them that well, and that this is all I can say about them. Sometimes they go ask someone else, sometimes they say that's fine. But I do not worry if I can't say more. In the beginning, I used to ask the students to come see me, and interviewed them, got more information took notes, and crafted tremendous letters. That strategy didn't last for very long. It just took too much time, and I found that I was not giving the most help to the students who I thought were the best, who may have deserved the help. When I taught large pre-med, undergraduate classes, I would be asked for 5-20 letters in a short period of time. I also don't worry tremendously about making each letter a work of literary art. That's not a good use of my time.

I also try to be honest about the quality of the letter to the student. "I'm happy to write this letter for you, Susie, but you only got a C in my class, and we really never spoke during the term." I don't mind showing students the letter, but they don't get to decide if I send it or not based on what I say.

Writing letters is an important job, and important to the students. However, in the panoply of things I do, and the importance to my career, its not so great. Balance, balance, balance.

3 responses so far

Oct 28 2016

Writing (difficult) Letters of Recommendation

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Here is part 1 on general writing of letters. Understanding what goes into a good letter, irrespective of the a particulars of the person you are recommending, is the first step for any letter. But what else do or can you say when there is a problem? What kind of problems? Different kinds of problems, suggest the need for different responses. Some of the problems are when the person you recommend:

  1. is trying to change jobs for a difficult, personal reason that is nobody's business.
  2. took the job that they could, which involved a 4-4 (four classes in each of two terms) load, but now wants to try and move.
  3.  is applying for a job that's not quite a match, but again, has personal reasons for wanting that location
  4. didn't quite achieve all they thought, you thought, they wanted to achieve

The first, and sometimes easiest situation is when the person still has a good to stellar record, but is moving or changing for reasons that may not be transparent to the people reading and evaluating the application. The applicant needs to at least address the issue, and sometimes you, the recommender can or might want to in your letter. This can be difficult. First off, I do not believe that anyone has to or must disclose personal information, even if its the main reason for applying for a job. Yet, still, there is a committee evaluating the application, and if the goal is to at least get invited for an interview, one needs to address problems the committee (or whoever is doing the hiring) will perceive. It's far easier for the search committee to throw an application into the "hold for later in case we don't find anyone in the first group we invite in" pile.

When you do write a letter for someone in this situation, it's really good to check with them as to what their story is going to be. In fact, its always good to check what the person is going to say before you write a letter. Nothing will reduce the impact of your letter if it is at odds with what the candidate says.

Honesty is important. You cannot say "this person is an excellent fit for your position" when you and the person applying and the search committee know damn well that it isn't true. It is possible to address this directly, if you can:

Dr. Hopping may not seem like an immediate fit for a position in your department, but her expertise in biomechanics, in particular the effects of scale on leaping and jumping, has the potential, to broaden and enhance the insect locomotion group's research interests.

That is, find something in Dr. Hopping's work that speaks to what is important to the place where she is applying for a job. Be careful not to tell them how to do their work: "you would be fools not to include the scaling of locomotion in your studies". Tell them, show them, how Dr. Hopping would be of value to them.

Dr. Hopping's work on the evolution of scaling in biomechanics of saltatory locomotion is broader than just one group of animals. She has looked at the impact of small scale (allometry) but also the major changes in design over orders of magnitude in body size.

A second situation is someone who you know is good has not quite lived up to their potential. The power of a letter is that the problem can be discussed, and strengths brought forward in ways that may be awkward for the candidate themselves.

I would like to discuss Dr. Slithering's publication record. When she was a graduate student, she published two papers (first author) that showed great promise as part of her thesis. These papers were excellent because... blah blah blah. Yet, for family reasons, she took a job at Lower-Lame-Deer State College, where she had a 4-4-2 teaching load right out of graduate school. Her work at LLDSC was excellent, including teaching reviews that demonstrate the same enthusiasm and intelligence she brought to her PhD work. During the 3 years at LLDSC, she published two papers, despite being in a job that was 80% teaching. She has continued to maintain a research career in the face of difficulty. Dr. Slithering has decided to try and return to a more research/teaching balanced position. I support this transition, as despite her publication record, she has maintained her research. Further, she will be able to walk into any teaching position without difficulty.

This is the old "turn weaknesses into strengths". Do not lie, or even bend the truth about what happened. You do not even necessarily have to justify why Dr. Slithering went to LLDSC in the first place. "Family issues" or "personal concerns", if true, are always acceptable. But, emphasize and talk about what the person is good at. If there is an objective reason, offer explanation for what happened, in this case the teaching load. Try to point out what the person will bring, given who they are and what they have done, to the new position.

Now, what about the person who just hasn't produced, despite having everything going for them? They haven't done a postdoc (in a field where almost everyone does), they have one middle-authored paper from their PhD. They TA's one class, but didn't like the teaching part. Now, they want a shiny job to which everyone and their second cousin is applying. The first question I have for you, the letter writer, is why are you writing this letter? Yes, Dr. Crawlsaround is a good friend. Maybe they saved your bacon in grad school. If you are good friends, have a chat, and ask them why they are applying. It gets harder when there is a significant back story. Maybe it includes bullying or hostility or out and out sexism/racism/genderism something that kept them from producing. If this is a person you care about, and you really believe that they aren't even going to get asked for letters for this position (but they've come to you for one "just in case"), maybe its time to talk to them about other options: A postdoc, a 2nd postdoc, things they can do to enhance their CV. Why are they applying for this job? Keep in mind that every letter you write also reflects back on you. Its often a small pond in which we swim. If you write too many letters for friends who aren't great, you will be known as someone who writes letters for friends who aren't great.

But Dr. Crawlsaround insists, and you feel obligated (this time). Ask yourself: why do you think she's so good? And put that in your letter. Don't spend lots of time justifying the weaknesses and holes. It's usually not a good idea to say "Dr. Crawlsaround's mentor, Dr. Underthearth, was a firstorder jackass who bulled her, and that's why she didn't publish". You never know if Dr. Underthearth has a good buddy on the search committee, and that you have just screwed your next grant submission. Beyond this, it doesn't make for a strong letter to be whinging about why Dr. Crawlsaround didn't achieve, when the reasons are fuzzy or political or subjective issues. Stick to what is positive, and why you think she's good for the job.

When writing these letters, its a always a good writing strategy to put yourself in the position of the search committee. You wouldn't want to hire someone who is going to come in and fail. And you're not going to hire Dr. Hopping if you are building a group of fish/aquatic ecology and locomotion types. Don't include negative stuff, it can leave a bad taste in the mouth of the search committee reading the letters. If you want to recommend someone, try to put forward why you would want to hire this person. In fact, I often include that line in my letters:

If I had a position available in my department, that required both teaching and research, I would hire Dr. Slithering in a heartbeat. She is hardworking, and shown that she can rise to the challenge and be a success even in a less than optimal situation.



2 responses so far

Oct 26 2016

Writing Letters of Recommendation

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Now that we understand what you own, and why its important, we can talk about what makes a letter a good letter. Here is something that I wrote about letters of support for a grant application. And something about supporting a junior colleague's grant proposal.

But how to write a job letter under difficult circumstances? For example, the person is trying to change jobs for a difficult, personal reason that is nobody's business. Or the person took the job that they could, which involved a 4-4 (four classes in each of two terms) load, but now wants to try and move. I think that first one must master writing a letter for someone without such issues. At that point the the changes that one needs to make become obvious.

The zero-th guideline in my view, is to determine: can you write the letter? Do you really believe in the person and their abilities? If you, yourself, are an overwhelmed junior faculty, or an overwhelmed senior faculty, it is important to make the decision about how you spend your precious time & energy. Are you writing this letter for a friend, out of friendship, yet in the end you can't say anything beyond this person was a good friend? Ask yourself the hard questions, and answer honestly. It is ok to say no to a friend.

Given that you do decide to write a letter, there are some parts that are good to have in all letters. You can't just say "this person is marvelous". I've read too many letters like that, and what they say to me is "the person writing doesn't have a clue as to who they are writing about".

A first paragraph that contains [note: the examples here are from real letters I've written, but for a number of different people, at different levels]

1. the Name of the Person, usually in bold & italic so that people know who this letter is about. They may be reading lots. They may gets sorted into the wrong place.

2. A (brief) sentence about who you are. How long you've known the person. In what capacity. You can also sneak in something good about the person here.

It is my great pleasure to recommend Dr. Bunny J. Hopping for a position in your college. I have known Dr. Hopping since 2008, when I was responsible for hiring into the Department of Animal Locomotion at the MRU School of Vet Medicine. She started there as an Assistant Professor, but has recently been promoted to Associate Professor, but without tenure as MRU does not give tenure. Despite leaving MRU two years ago, Dr. Hopping and I have maintained our professional relationship. She is someone who’s scientific and professional opinion I value greatly.

A set of paragraphs outlining the greatness of the person you are recommending. Organizing them by type (research, teaching, mentoring) is helpful to the reader. I often break research and funding into separate para's.

3. This para talks about the specifics of science. I describe the science, and mention some metrics. I try to include specifics, in this case that its both clinical and basic science. That's important for this particular job, which was described as a mix of training researchers and clinicians.

Dr. Hopping is one of the finest young/mid-career scientists in the field of locomotion research. Her research and publication record are both deep and broad. Her work spans the basic science of the biomechanics of movement,  through to the clinical implications of that work for recovery from hunting wounds. Her 16 publications are in both strong basic science journals (example) and clinical journals (another example). She has won many major awards in our field, from the X, Y, Z.

If you have room you can include specifics of the research. If its a younger person, with fewer pubs, talking about the importance of a particular pub can strengthen the letter. I worked in (this is for a first job letter) that I believe, and why I believe, she has the capacity to be a faculty person, an independent scientist.

Dr. Hopping and I worked on a joint project, and I was impressed with her independence, intellectual maturity and insight. During this project, she not only measured the films of bunny hopping, but she developed new hypotheses about vertebral structure as she explored the data beyond the original hypotheses. While working hard on data collection or extraction, she is always thinking of what the next step will be, blending hypothesis generation with the data collection to test it together. Our collaboration involved using films that I had collected over 10 years ago. She knew of these films and came up with this project on her own, because it was something in which she was interested. I did not feel I was helping a student get a publication, but that I was working with a colleague who challenged my ideas and brought new ones to the table.  In my view, this paper is strong evidence of her ability to function as an independent scientist.

4. The para on funding also includes detail. I've gone back to show that Dr Hopping's funding also covers multiple fields. I know this is a long paragraph to put in as an example, but what is important is that I say more than she has funding from X,Y,Z. I say why that funding is important, what she's done with it, what she can do with it in the future. I want my readers to see more of the real person, not what someone would get from their CV.

Dr. Hopping is also very well-funded by NIH, NSF and the DOD. She received a XX on aging and hopping funded by NINDS. I was a mentor on that grant, and followed her progress closely. She made excellent use of the support from the K23, and was very productive during that time, producing Q,R,P. Currently she holds an R01 “name of proposal”. In my view, this is ground-breaking work, with the potential to transform our treatment of individuals with movement disorders. This work is based on a thorough understanding and comprehension of the basic science of neurophysiology. In this project she continues to combine her ability to perform research the relies on basic science, that expands our understanding of the neural basis of hopping with a goal of clinical outcomes that have direct patient benefit.

If it is a new person, without funding, say something about why you think this person will be able to get funding. Any experience in helping to write grants.

5. Finally a para on teaching needs to include more than "she's doing it":

As a teacher and mentor, Bunny is one of the most generous and intelligent scientists I know. Her commitment to the larger field is reflected in her teaching work, both through online courses, personal teaching and her contributions to an award winning textbook. Her lab is filled with young trainees who, after working with her, are both ready and energized to contribute as scientists and health care providers. [And then some more examples, or quotes from students or reviews].

6. If the person has done something else, some service beyond, like setting up a school for underprivileged children on your university campus, but something that is NOT necessarily being looked for in the job ad, here is the place to put it. If it is important for the job, put it up higher in the letter.

7. I always try to close with a para about the person as a person. Why I'd want them as a colleague:

In summary, Dr. Hopping is one of the best young scientists working in locomotion disorders today. Everybody who interacts with her, comes away stronger and better for the experience. Our collaborations have challenged me, made me grow, and improved my science. Her impact on the field is large; her potential to transform this discipline  is larger. I recommend her to you without reservation.

or for a younger colleague:

I think that Bunny is already a good scientist, with the potential to become an outstanding one. She is an excellent teacher, who is committed to education. I would hire her immediately, if I had an open position. She will be an excellent addition to your department.

Now what if the person is difficult, and doesn't have such a sterling record as our Dr. Hopping? This has gotten very long and I'll put that in the next post. Stayed tuned....

5 responses so far

Oct 22 2015

Letters of Support

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DM has a good post up on What I Did at SfN This Year. In he mentions someone asking him for a letter of support. This produced some badinage about letters of support attached to grants.

The dialog:

"In case it isn't clear, these letters are of the "happy to help you with your awesome project" variety, and not of the "I would like to tell the panel that this person is awesome" type of talk that is similar to the recommendation letter." --DM

Letters along the line of "this person is awesome" are ignored. Letters of support from a collaborator along the lines of "Dear Person X: I am so glad to participate in your project and do QRP for you" are not only critical but necessary. --Potnia

Here is what I wrote about this a while ago.

Here is a letter that some(marvelous)one wrote for me, about a project for which I require his support (he can do stuff I can't do). In this example, I've done bunny hopping, but not in infant bunnies. He is a Big Dog, working on infant bunnies, but not hopping. I've added interpretation between the lines:

Dear Potnia,

The letter is from my colleague to me. Not to the NIH. This suggests and supports the idea that we have a working relationship.

This letter is to document my willingness and in fact eagerness to collaborate with you on your proposal titled "The Effect of prenatal nutritional supplements on bunny hopping in neonatal rabbits”.

First, bluntly state the purpose of the letter. Do not waste words on euphemisms or betting around the bush.  Prof. Big Dog is supporting, nay he is eager, to help me. Also, get the title of the proposal right. Getting it wrong could imply that we’re not quite so close as I would like the committee to believe.

The concepts and hypotheses you have developed are very timely because of the increasing number bunnies born that have trouble hopping and are surviving birth only to meet untimely death in the jaws of vicious foxes.

This is a statement of what the proposal is about. Again, this shows that we’ve actually talked about things. Given that Prof Big Dog is over extended and doing too much, it’s important that the study section perceive that he (Prof. Big Dog) knows what he is supporting and that it’s not just a reflexive, rote letter.

As you know, I have been using pregnant and newborn rabbits for almost 20 years and 7 of those here at Massive Agricultural and Ecological University as a model to study the consequences of preterm nutrition and to understand and improve the protocols for baby bunnies.

This is a statement about what Prof. Big Dog does, and how long he’s been doing it, and that he knows something about the field (for those unaware of his reputation as a Big Dog).

We know from our numerous studies of such bunnies often have problems with hopping, although we have not addressed that issue. By focusing on the issues of hopping, you addressing a critical issue and hole in our understanding of the survival of infant bunnies.

Prof Big Dog is tying our two programs together. What he does and what’s missing, which is what I am proposing to do.

My program works with 100 pregnant rabbits each year which has provided us with valuable experience and insights into the harvest and post-delivery care of baby bunnies. By this letter I confirm my willingness to participate in your study and provide you with assistance in performing the various things necessary to get the infants you need to study hopping. This will include providing you with our protocols and training members of your research team.

Specifics on what Prof. Big Dog does. It also contains explicit statements of what he will do for me. Make sure this matches up with the text in the proposal. If it is critical to the success of the project, make sure you mention Prof. Big Dog in the places where those particular skills/methods/interpretations are important.

From a selfish perspective, I am eager to learn more about the development of hopping. It is important to emphasize how the relevance the bunny model to understanding infant human disease, and that our results have made it possible for us to translate our findings into my practice as a pediatrician.

Prof. Big Dog uses the magic word du jour of “translation” (which, mind you, may not always be the magic word. “optogenetics” or “CRISPR” is also good here, if appropriate). It also emphasizes that Prof. Big Dog understands what is important about doing this work, from the perspective of meeting the NIH mission.

I am confident it will be possible to apply your findings about hopping to the larger concerns about baby bunnies. I look forward to welcoming you to the group of labs that use bunnies as a relevant and translational model for human infants. I wish you success with this exciting and much needed research.

More nice things from Prof. Big Dog, reiterating the important points for NIH, his confidence in the importance of my proposal, but also that I am joining a community of people doing something NIH wants done.

NOW: the money point. I didn't write a draft for Prof. Big Dog. He did this, and he knows what he is doing. BUT! This is not always true. It is always acceptable/fair to write something like this to a person who has offered to help and support your proposal:

Dear Prof Big Dog,

Thank you for your willingness to support my proposal, and for writing a letter of support, on the development of hopping in baby bunnies. Your expertise on baby bunnies will be critical to the success of my project.   I am happy to provide you with bullet points for this letter, or even draft some text if that would be useful to you. The proposal is due in my grants office on Sept 20, so if you could get me the letter by Sept 17 or 18 that would be great. I look forward to a collaboration that will improve the field of baby bunny care. Sincerely, Potnia




3 responses so far

Jun 11 2015

How to write a letter of support for a junior colleague

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This goes back to the poor sailor caught between Scylla & Charybdis.

To support another proposal, for which I need only write a letter, I have written:

I am tremendously excited about the potential for us to develop our collaboration on the neurophysiology of bunny hopping. We have discussed this project at length, and I am impressed with the design in your proposal. 

 To facilitate our collaboration, I invite you to visit my laboratory in the next year. Your proposal to collect the pilot data necessary for our collaborative project is strong.

Let me dissect a few things I think important:

 the potential for us to develop our collaboration

The point here is to make it clear this is a joint project. I see this as an "us, rather than "me help you with your project". The funding agency needs to hear that I am committed to this.

We have discussed this project at length, ....

Again, a bunch of "we"s in the opening para.

But, moving on

impressed with the design in your proposal. 

and, in the second paragraph:

Your proposal here to collect the pilot data necessary for our collaborative project is strong.

It is now time and important to show that the collaborator is doing the heavy lifting.  They are the PI, not me. I did not write this document, the colleague did. Make that clear.

Later on in the letter I wrote:

I am excited at the potential of expanding my studies in bunny hopping to include your expertise in defining more anatomically correct feet.

Actually, I didn't write this, my colleague did in a draft. But its important to say "I am getting something out of this", which emphasizes my commitment to the project.

The rest of the letter is the usual "I have all the facilities necessary to study bunny hopping in situ". All paired appendages crossed....


ps - the grant we wrote was superb and is at my grants office, and on track for an early submission to NIH. Besides that I had fun writing together. Its wonderful to be pulled up a bit by someone who is clearly gonna be better than me.

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Jan 04 2017

Advice from a Brilliant Young Colleague of Mine

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This post is my attempt to reduce my grumpiness index. I am *so* damn tired of both self-improvement and how to be a better mentor advice. So, look on the bright side, me and Monty Python. I value my colleagues. Young and old. For what I can learn. I may be beyond self-improvement, but not learning.

One untenured colleague, someone who I mentor professionally, came back from a meeting. She was joyful and charged up and filled with both science and professionalism.

She had had some time talking with a slightly older friend who gave her three good bits of advice. While this advice was intended for a someone 2-years pre-tenure, its easy to morph to fit other stages of academic life.

Thus, at a scientific meeting:

1. Are you going up to talk to the people who will likely be writing letters for you? The ones you suggest and ones you know someone else will suggest to the tenure/promotions committee?

This is also true of people on study sections, the people who will be reviewing your paper. In general, it applies to people who will be in a position to render judgment. Yeah, yeah, we are all totally fair and review everything objectively. But unconscious bias also works towards our friends. The people we know. Having a face on a name is generally a good thing.

2. Have you thought about organizing a symposium for this meeting?

I particularly recommend this for mid-career folks. One of the things that promotion to Full Prof  usually entails is demonstration of "national or international reputation" or "national leadership". Organizing a symposium at a national meeting is one way to do this. Furthermore, you get to invite some folks who might, in the future, write letters for you. Let alone there are scientific benefits from talking with people you think are really good and really smart. Who knows where your science will go.

3. Have you talked to your (other junior faculty) friends about getting invited out to give a talk?

This is also good along the lines of putting a face to your name. Other benefits? Meeting big dogs. If there is someone in the department you're going to that you would like to meet, email them in advance and say "hey, I'm coming to town, and I'd really like to meet you". I often don't feel like I have time to talk to speakers, but if someone takes the trouble to email me, of course, I am going to meet with them. Also, these talks, in judicious numbers (not too many) are good at tenure or promotion time.

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Nov 21 2016

Dementia is an Insidious Disease

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When the experts, of which my mother had been one, say a disease is insidious they mean the symptoms may not be obvious at first. Other definitions:

An insidious disease is any disease that comes on slowly and does not have obvious symptoms at first. The person is not aware of it developing.

A disease existing without marked symptoms but ready to become active upon some slight occasion; a disease not appearing to be as bad as it really is.

In my book: a disease that lets you fake it for a rather long time.

Insidious in common parlance has a very strongly negative sense: evil that lurks and only gradually emerges. That part of the definition seems just right for thinking about dementia. Dementia is an evil disease, more so than the fact that all diseases, all illnesses are evil.

Is it worse to lose your mind or your body? Let's set aside for a moment that one's mind is part of one's body. This dichotomy may or may not be particularly useful for understanding health and illness. Yet, if you talk to the elderly (and I don't mean functional bluehairs and greybeards, I mean the folks staring hard at the end of their life), they make a very clear distinction in this.

My father lived well into his 90s. He was physically slower, but could still get roused for a good argument about what my (my!) CV should look like, why this or that politician was full of it, or whatever cause-du-jour attracted his attention. But he could barely move; years of playing handball, running and lifting weights had destroyed his knees. I am pretty sure he was depressed for all sorts of reasons, including that my mother's dementia precluded their massive arguments about everything. Yet, he could set that depression aside to tell me the truth about whatever he had just read on the internet. His favorite site, btw, was Arts & Letters Daily (a good compendium of ideas, thoughts and stuff you had no idea was as interesting as it proves to be).

Physical decline is less insidious: its there and obvious and in your face each day when you wake up in pain. From his perspective, his body, gradually to be sure, failed to keep its half of the bargain with his mind. When my father died, he was tired. He went to sleep and didn't wake up. My mother never thought she'd outlive him. But she did. By many years. But she never knew this, and never will.

She was in complete and entire denial that anything was wrong, and that is part of the cruelty. My mother came from less-than-working-class family. My grandparents were illiterate, and had gone to work in factories as young children in New York City. Her mind, her brain, her personality is what carried her out of poverty to being a med school professor in the days when such women were counted in single digits at any school. I can imagine there was nothing more terrifying to her than losing that by which she defined herself. Her response differed only slightly from aging athletes who know, deep down know, that they cannot recreate the triumphs of their youth.

This is the evil part, but what about insidious? All of my immediate family had large arguments about what was happening to my mother. I saw signs before my sibs and father. One of them actually said: "you really hate Ma, don't you? You want her to be demented." My mother and I never got along. She was a marvelous mentor, and I loved her, as a daughter loves a good mother. But, we fought bitterly through my adolescence. We struggled to define a good relationship in my adulthood. But irrespective of that relationship, I was not anxious to see her ill or see her demented. We fought, but I did not, do not, wish dementia on anyone. I didn't know why this scared me so much at the time, but the caretaking I've done over the last 15 years gives me exquisite hindsight.

My mother has died. What was it, what, 3 weeks ago, already? More? It still feels like yesterday to me. I know it was time for her. But, for me, why did it have to be so soon?

18 responses so far

Nov 07 2016

Meet The Editors at SfN

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Meet the Editors at Society for Neuroscience
Attending the 2016 Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego? If so, please stop by the American Physiological Society Booth (booth 3816) to meet the Editors.  Provide your feedback about the Journal and learn more about our initiatives.  Also, register for prizes and giveaways!

Sunday, November 13 10 AM - 3 PM Bill Yates
Monday, November 14 9 AM - 10 AM Jianhua Cang
Associate Editor
10 AM - Noon Stefan Everling
Associate Editor
Noon - 2 PM Christos Constantinidis
Associate Editor
2 PM - 4 PM Patsy Dickinson
Associate Editor
Tuesday, November 15 10 AM - Noon Dan Merfeld
Associate Editor
Journal of Neurophysiology, 110 Eye and Ear Institute, Pittsburgh, PA 15232
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Oct 20 2016

Repost: What do you own?

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One of the most important things one does is write letters of recommendation. They may not get read. They might be ignored. But then again, they might not. One of my favorite old posts is "What do you own?" So, I'm putting up here, as a starting point for thinking about writing letters for others:


What do you own?

When you are a grad student you own your thesis. period. Maybe you are lucky and have an undergrad who is helping you with some of the tedious pars). And while you may care about the undergrad, you don’t own their success or failure.

When you become a postdoc you own the project. Maybe you own part of a grad student’s career – because what happens to them reflects back on you in ways that the work of an undergrad doesn’t.

When you become a TT person (or sometimes, in some very big labs, a senior postdoc fellow, who is figuring out a non-TT career), you own the lab or your part of the lab. You all of a sudden own the careers of a technician, and any trainees you’ve got. What they do reflects on you. And what’s more you own your career, in a way that wasn’t really so obvious when you were a postdoc and you just owned a project.

The transition to ass prof (as opposed to a full ass prof) is a bit more subtle. You can continue to own your lab, the classes you teach, and your family (remember them?).  Or you can do more and start owning other junior faculty.

Now obviously I mean “own” not in the slavery sense, or the apples for the grocery store sense. I mean it in the “take ownership of a problem or process” sense. It is a way of identification of things for which one takes responsibility. It is the sense in which another person’s successes or failures not just reflect on you, but are things that you truly care about, prioritize and work on. Understanding what you do and do not own is a critical ability for academic success. Not to mention personal mental health.

One way of assessing leadership (another douche term), that is now so corrupted that it can mean anything from inspiring and directing others to achieve more than they could on their own to have double digit R01’s), is to see what a person thinks they own.

When you are a junior faculty and own your lab, you can be very successful with trainees, they got lots done, they get jobs, you’ve got lots of grants that make all this possible. But their successes still have your name on it. Mature “ownership” (if you will) means that when you start working with other junior faculty, that you work towards their success, and that to you, their success matters, even if you do not get your name on their papers. Even if you are not included for 10% effort on their grant. Even if your department head will not acknowledge your activity as part of your job.

This is harder. All of the previous ownerships had some assignable outcome (papers, grants, invites to sit on study sections), most of which can show up on your CV. When you take ownership of other faculty, or even other groups of people (as the Chair of the Support for all those XX, Brown, disabled or  people we have to let in, even though we wouldn’t live next door to any of them, unless they were rich and good-looking), it may turn up as “chair of the…” or maybe not even that.

The decision to do something like that is a decision based on knowing what kind of person you want to be. You do it for you, when no one else is looking. Maybe you do it because someone else took a risk and did it for you ages ago. Maybe you do it because you have a spiritual basis for such behavior (I will admit to being hugely suspicious of this one, but acknowledge that it is possible). Maybe you just like helping. But to me, that's part of leadership or maturity or whatever  – when you recognize that as a senior person you’ve got stuff to share, and ways to help,  and acknowledgement of ownership doesn’t matter.

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Oct 04 2016

References for allies (and would be allies) of transgender people

Published by under Uncategorized

The child of a friend has come out as transgender. The letter that the parents wrote brought tears to my eyes. I do not have permission to post it here, but to paraphrase: we love our child. Our child's choice of gender does not limit or change that love.

What the letter did contain, that I can repost here, is a set of links for people who want help with accepting and supporting transgender people of all ages: Trans 101 from GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) Tips for Allies of Transgender People, also from GLAAD an article from Time Magazine explaining how to talk to and about someone who is transgender   A Guide to Gender and Identity

Finally, I again recommend Deirdre McCluskey's memoir:

The parents end the letter with a reminder that a question that would make you uncomfortable, will likely make a transgender person uncomfortable. That holds for questions you would ask of anyone.

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