Archive for: August, 2015

quote of the day - frustration with the world

Aug 31 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

“History does not always repeat itself. Sometimes it just yells, 'Can't you remember anything I told you?' and lets fly with a club.”  ―John W. Campbell

From Analog Science Fiction Magazine (1965)

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quote of the day - grant writing advice

Aug 29 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

If you have an important point to make, don't try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time - a tremendous whack.

Winston Churchill

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Single Parents in College

Aug 28 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

I've been teaching for a long time. One of my jobs was at a large urban university, albeit R1, that had relatively large numbers of older women (ie in their late 20s to early 30s) going back to school. I taught classes that were good for people who wanted a health sciences career of some sort. Many times (more than 3) I had people show up to class, kid in tow, saying "I have a day care problem". My standard response was "fine, until the moment class is disrupted". That never, as far as I remember, happened.

Now comes an article titled "5 Ways Professors Can Help Single Moms Stay In School".  I must say I have lots of mixed feelings about this article. So, here are thoughts, although in a slightly different order.

3.  Help me to network with others like me. When assigning group projects, devise a way for students with children to work together. If I have to meet with these strangers for periods of time outside of the classroom, I will be much more engaged and able to learn if my colleagues are willing to put Powerpoints together at Chuck E. Cheese’s instead of the library.

First of all, I hate group projects. They either reflect the best  or worst person in the group. But that is irrelevant here. According to my Uni, I cannot ask you about your personal life. In fact, whether your age, religion, sexual preference, race, gender, etc is your business and not mine. It is illegal to ask about marital status and parental status on an interview for damn good reasons. Imagine what would happen if on the first day of class I asked "I'd like all the single parents in this room to self-identify so that I can make sure you guys are working together". I'd be censured within five minutes of the end of class.

This concern also applies to #5:

5. Reach out to me and find out who I am. I know you have hundreds of students and it’s impossible to connect personally with each and every one of us. Even so, it’s likely that I’ll never tell you I’m a single mom, because I’m afraid you will think I am less committed to my studies. I’m not. Most of us are more committed than other students. The women who have gone before me are more likely to have persisted if they had personal connections with their professors, and your recognition of me as a student facing overwhelming obstacles to be in your classroom means I will likely stay around longer—and eventually graduate.

I'm sorry, I can't just say, "hey all the single ladies...". In fact, I'd love to connect with each and every one of you. Of course I can see who is a little older and who is not. Roughly. But I cannot act on it. If you come up to me and say "I'd like to talk with you, Prof. Theron", great, I'll invite you to my office, or suggest making an appointment (right then and there). But what you say in  #5 here is true of many many sub-groups of people. It is true of people of color in a largely white university. It is true of the physically challenged, the ones who have an obvious issue that I can see (think crutches) and the ones who don't (think heart condition). It is true of Islamic women in headscarves, and people who look white and aren't and people with gender dysphoria and people who are gay and people who don't have enough money to "do college right". Which brings us to #4 on the list:

4. Consider that I’m financially strapped. I understand we need to have books in order to learn, but please don’t force me to make a choice between giving my daughter a new My Little Pony for her birthday or an expensive supplemental style guide. She is going to win. Every time. I’ll look the style guide up online or borrow it from another student.

I understand your daughter is going to win. But are you more or less cash strapped than the kid I had who was supporting his disabled father and working a 50 hr a week job while trying to stay in school? Or the first kid in the family to go to college, except that the family doesn't see the value and the kid is on their own? I am sure there are profs who do not understand what being working class means. But there are likely people with less money than you in this class. I do my best to balance the knowledge that some kids don't have enough money, that I don't want to favor the rich, with what I think is going to best for you to succeed in what I have to teach.

Let's get the next one out of the way.

2. Rethink your phone rules. When you make the rule that cell phones must be turned off in class, consider that I need to be available if my child is running a fever or gets trampled by a herd of elephants while I am listening to your lecture, and that will take precedence over your wisdom. I’ll put it on vibrate, but it’s got to stay on.

What do you think working mothers (in fact, those working class mothers) did 20 years ago before cell phones? Those single parents who had jobs that did not include having a phone on your desk, or even a phone at the head desk? What do you think parents who were teaching did? Do you think that they worried? Of course they did. Did they have access to a phone every hour of every day? No. They didn't. They managed to figure out how to do what they had to do to put food on the table (#4) without being able to be constantly reached. I'd ask that you reconsider this one. There's a reason for a no phone rule in class. You ask that I take you seriously, well, if you are going to be running out of class frequently, I am not going think you take it seriously.


1. Acknowledge I exist in your syllabus. I am making enormous efforts and sacrifices to be in your course—if I am running late or miss a homework deadline because my child was ill or needed to have a green bean extracted from his ear, I’ll find a way to make it up to you. Please put it in writing that you will make provisions for this possibility by stating explicitly that students with family responsibilities should contact you by email regarding missed or late work.

I know you exist. I can see the exhaustion in your face. I know you are working three jobs: school, parent and the one that puts money in the bank to make the first two possible. It's a tough, tough road. I want to see you succeed. My course is not a sorting mechanism for the rich and privileged. My course is trying to help you learn something, master something, so that you can go and do something more after my course.

But, family responsibilities are only one thing that gets in the way of getting stuff done. In my syllabus is a statement about getting help if you need it. If you are having trouble with deadlines, come talk to me.  You are not the only one with challenges, and as a teacher, I need to help all my students.  If you know there is a problem ahead, come tell me. But for me, I want to, I have to, treat my students equally. In my experience, everyone has a problem, a handicap and a need for special consideration.

But what about the extra benefits you get from being a parent? Or having lived a little longer than some 19 year old? There are advantages you have, and should I accommodate the people who do not have your advantages? I am not just being snide here. This is a real problem: where do we draw the line on helping and accommodating?  Someone who is blind should have someone to read the exam to them. I know single parents believe they should have more time. But what about someone who is disorganized?

In the end, this class is a little thing. A bagatelle in life. What are you going to do with a real job in the real world? There are accommodations for parents, but probably not as many as you want or think you need. Right now, you see the need for parental help because you are a parent. Only recently has the working world acknowledged that elder care can be as time consuming and far more emotionally draining than childcare (there is none of the joy of raising children, and huge enormous swathes of sadness). I'd ask that you take a step back and thing of someone else, someone with different challenges than yours. What do you want to do to help them? And go hug your child, because your challenge is not the challenges that others have.


Followup from the tweets:
Just overheard 2 UGs: "backin the day when phones didn't have internet, how did students cheat?!" <_<

— DrElizabeth Sargent (@esargent184) September 1, 2015

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Quote of the Day

Aug 28 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

From Marian Anderson, who knew a little something about being kept down.

As long as you keep a person down, some part of you has to be down there to hold the person down, so it means you cannot soar as you otherwise might.

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Landing an TT job

Aug 27 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

Sergey Kryazhimskiy has a blog post up about getting a job. First off, congrats on getting a job. Not easy, and he seems to have done so.

Yet, as I read his post, my thought was, damn, I don't want anyone I know to think that This Is The Way It Is.

He starts with data. He says that explicitly. Yet, I suspect if these were ecology data and he tried to publish them Reviewer 3 would slap him down. He presents data for the two years he applied. In 2013 he put in 20 applications, got 1 interview and no jobs. In 2014 he put in 29 applications got 11 interviews and three offers (plus one that was too late).  The difference, he says, is a Glamour Pub.

Reviewer 3 would point out that his n=2 (years) and that they are not exactly independent data points. He says its the same CV, same recommendation letters. I doubt this. When trainees I know and I care about go back for a second year of job hunting, I update and freshen up the letter and emphasize what this trainee has done in the intervening year. For postdocs this is critical, because each year needs to count for growth and development. Further, if he got a Glam paper in the extra year, I can't imagine his letter writers didn't notice this.

But most of all, there is a difference in the pool of jobs. He says that of the total applications, there were 4 departments to which he applied in both years, and got interviews at 2. He doesn't say whether it was the same job re-opened or not. But if they were different jobs, maybe he was better suited for them. In my experience (which may or may not reach statistical significance), re-opened jobs can be re-opened for a number of reasons, with very different vibes attached to them. Maybe the job was offered to someone who turned it down too late for an offer to go out to number 2 on the list. Maybe the job wasn't successful because the committee, the department, the dean, somewhere, someone had issues. Maybe the job got re-defined. Which brings us to the rest of the interviews he got. Some R1 departments put out ads for "evolutionary biology" or even "invertebrate evolutionary biology" when others put out an ad for "evolutionary endocrinology in aquatic invertebrates with an emphasis on trophic adaptations to extreme environments" although they are looking to fill the same teaching /colleague niche in a department. Sometimes "evolutionary biology" means they will consider all evolutionary biologists and sometimes not.

The bottom line on the jobs is: there is a lot of missing information. Information that he just can't know, that we just can't know. This may or may not be random. One year may be an El Nino year of jobs. One year may a bumper crop of tropical fruit.

Now, the thing I found most depressing in his post (my emphasis):

First, it appears to be very important to have a major paper from your postdoc published. Not in preparation, not on bioRxiv, not in review. Published. Preferably in Cell, Science, or Nature. I guess we all know that by now.

No, actually we all don't know that. And there have been plenty of tweets and posts from folks on R1 hiring committees that say that Glamour Pubs aren't necessary. In fact, I had two friends each of whom got hired at UCSD (where Kryazhimskiy took a position)a long time ago (yes, boomer boomer, yes a different age). Neither had glamour pubs, but both were very good, both got tenure, and each has gone somewhere else (post-tenure). But that's an aside. The committees I have sat on in the last 10 years and the ones to which I have sent trainees or others I've written letters for don't really believe that Glamour Pubs are necessary.

I do agree that pubs, a major pub, a pub demonstrating accomplishment is necessary. And if he didn't have that kind of pub (not necessarily glamour) when he first applied, no he wouldn't get an interview. What is a strong pub here? One with data, with hypotheses tested, with conclusions and an interesting discussion. One that demonstrates what the primary author is capable of doing.

I checked his pub record from his lab webpage, and it looks like he has 5 pubs in 2014, and then one in 2012 and 3 in 2011 (from an earlier postdoc). If in applying in 2014 none of the 2014 papers were out, no he wouldn't be competitive. And yes, getting a bunch out changes the story. But, what I, and most committees I am on, count as important is the science. We read at least the abstracts, and talk about the significance and innovation and potential (kinda like a grant review).

A last note about his CV is that he did two postdocs lasting over 7 years. One of the calculations I've seen done for deciding on who to bring in for an interview is publications per PD-year, not counting pubs in PhD years (although you can do it that way too). When hiring committees, departments, individual colleagues-to-be care about productivity. The whole story about Maria not getting tenure was a productivity story.

So, read the post. Its interesting and in some ways encouraging along the yes-you-can lines. But don't buy into the glamour pub scam as being the basis for getting a job.

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Quotes of the day: ostensibly about grief, but really about value

Aug 25 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

From Mark Twain

Nothing that grieves us can be called little: by the eternal laws of proportion a child's loss of a doll and a king's loss of a crown are events of the same size.

and another version of the same thing:

The dreamer's valuation of a thing lost--not another man's--is the only standard to measure it by, and his grief for it makes it large and great and fine, and is worthy of our reverence in all cases.

Grief can lay one to waste, and lost in the deep dark places of one's heart. Some find their way out of grief and others do not. For me, personally, I mourn someone I love who was lost to the grief of loss.

But the Twain quotes are about more than grief. I have tried to say this about other things, particularly the challenges of work and science. As we all battle the challenges of our every day, in science or elsewhere, there are mountains and landmines, to be climbed, to be avoided. At best, do not belittle others. Yes, they may live in flyover country. They may find the rejection of a manuscript to be the same as your denial of tenure, as ridiculous as that may seem to you.

Yet, the implications of a definitive do-not-resubmit manuscript rejection, where the potential for salvage is relatively easy in terms of hours and effort, and the loss of a job, where the potential for salvage could will likely involve massive life upheaval, are not quite the same. Even if the people feeling them have the same sense of loss.

And thus, the ultimate danger of equating all loss is sliding into solipsism, where nothing but one's own perspective and one's own grief matters. As in so much of life, balance, perspective and ability to step outside one's self is critical. Of course it is much more satisfying to see the world in black and white. It is much easier to see bad guys and good guys, cool women and jackasses. The Lord of the Rings is based on the idea that good is good and bad is bad, and good has good skin, teeth, posture and hair, and therefore is easily recognized. Learning to appreciate others grief and loss and problems and bad teeth and poor choice of home state is often worth the effort. One comes back with a renewed appreciation and a finer sense of both the pluses and minuses of one's own station. And, fuck, if you can't do that, you have no business being a mentor for anyone else.

Footnote: an interesting critique of the New Yorker cartoons along these lines can be found here.



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quote of the day

Aug 24 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

Both optimists and pessimists contribute to our society. The optimist invents the airplane and the pessimist the parachute. --  Gil Stern

and the cynic shoots 'em both down, to wit:



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The high cost of being a BSD

Aug 24 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

A true email, from a friend who bravely swims upstream (edits mine to protect the friend):

Members of the Department of Impossibly High Standards,

Professor Extra-long BSD asked that the following message be sent to the Department:

"Dr. Extra-long BSD is on medical leave this semester because of high fatigue levels. His doctors are working hard to find the reasons for this condition."

Please join me in wishing Dr. Extra-long BSD a speedy and full recovery.

I think you have to turn in your secret decoder ring, the key to the executive men's room and they change the handshake if you claim "fatigue". Needless to say, Dr. E-lBSD is in his late 70s. Fatigue may just be the FSM's way of saying its time to stop stealing grad students from younger faculty.

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Rejecting an Application

Aug 19 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

I know this is out of context. But if you search on "NIH rejections" this very depressing page comes up near the top of the list.

Steps for Rejecting an Application

  1. On the eRA Commons Status screen, click on Recent/Pending eSubmissions.
  2. Enter the requested Search Criteria and click on Search.
  3. Select “Reject eApplication” link in the Action column that corresponds to the application you would like to reject.
  4. Enter the comment to be sent with the email notification.
  5. Click Reject. The PI will receive an e-mail notification that the AOR/SO has rejected his or her application.

I will do this for my favorite competitor.

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Quote of the day and Thoughts about new ideas and being right

Aug 19 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

I couldn't decide which of these spoke the most to me this morning, so what the heck. Here are two quotes from Edward de Bono. These are things that I read and think "of course". Yet do I hold this in my head while I am writing a grant, or designing/modifying experiments or thinking about/writing a paper?

One very important aspect of motivation is the willingness to stop and to look at things that no one else has bothered to look at. This simple process of focusing on things that are normally taken for granted is a powerful source of creativity.

Yes, you can jump on the latest, sexiest, bandwagoniest methodology. Or NIH dictated Area of Importance. Many times those are promulgated by the BSD's who have a need to be right. Sometimes the breakthroughs come from BSDs with huge labs and money and people to make them go. On the other hand, some are from people who actually saw something different. In a small lab. Working and thinking by oneself or with a few other people pounding ideas around a table. One can train oneself to see different things, to think about different things. Often that gets lost in the shuffle and the urgent and the need to finish this paper, get a position, get a grant.

The need to be right all the time is the biggest bar to new ideas. [It is better to have enough ideas for some of them to be wrong than to be always right by having no ideas at all.]

 I thought about not including the 2nd sentence, the one in brackets. Of course it's an overkill. We don't have no ideas.

But, the first sentence is spot-on. It's very hard to be able to be wrong. But some of my best ideas, best projects, best science came from being wrong and being able to look hard at why the idea was wrong. We all know the stories about penicillin and the mistakes that generated other great science. I guess I never thought that those stories would be me.

Its tough to balance the urgent vs. important, and tough, when being pressed by the urgent, to admit error. This paper must go out before I can submit the grant. I must finish these data before I can defend my thesis. These two quotes are related because taking time to be creative and taking time to do things correctly, and taking time to see when one is wrong are all very very hard in the current environment. The pace is brutal, but the cost of not taking time is worse.

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